Few people would choose to farm in southern Peru's bleak Puno district. Lying between 3,800 and 5,000 m. above sea level, Puno is prone to frequent droughts, floods and frosts, and its shallow soils have been degraded by centuries of wind and water erosion, and - more recently - by overgrazing of livestock and overuse of chemical inputs. Yields of the area's staple crop, potato, are as low as one tonne per hectare and farmers' incomes average less than US$2.50 a day.
Yet Puno has become the site of an exciting experiment in agricultural rehabilitation -- over the past decade, development workers and farmers there have revived a 3,000-year-old indigenous farming system that was abandoned in Incan times and rediscovered by archaeologists. Called waru-waru, the system (above right) employs raised platforms of soil surrounded by ditches to collect and conserve water, leach out salts and create a warm microclimate favourable to crops. Today, farmers have converted more than 7,000 ha of land to waru-waru for production of potato, quinoa, barley, oats and potato. Their per hectare potato yields range up to 10 tonnes, and per capita incomes have more than doubled.
Dynamic adaptation. Waru-waru is an example of what FAO calls Globally-important Ingenious Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS, for short) - sustainable land use systems and landscapes that have evolved through the dynamic adaptation of farming communities to their environment. Now, under a new project financed by the Global Environment Facility, FAO aims to promote international recognition, conservation and sustainable management of GIAHS and their associated biodiversity and knowledge systems throughout the world.
"GIAHS and associated landscapes have been created, maintained and passed on by generations of farmers, herders, forest-dwellers and fisherfolk," says Parviz Koohafkan, chief of the FAO Land and Plant Nutrition Management Service, which is executing the project. "They range from traditional high-altitude livestock systems in the Himalayas and mountain agro-ecosystems in Philippines to shifting cultivation in South America and Southeast Asia's rice-fish farming systems. Many are linked to important centres of origin and diversity of domesticated plant and animal species. Using diverse species and often ingenious combinations of management practices, all these systems contribute tremendously to food security, agricultural biodiversity and the world's natural and cultural heritage."
Minimize risk, maximize returns. One of the salient features of crop-based GIAHS is their high degree of biodiversity, which reflects farmers' strategies for minimizing risk by planting several species and varieties of crops in order to stabilize long-term yields, promote dietary diversity and maximize returns from low levels of inputs. Biodiverse systems are usually endowed with nutrient-enriching plants, insect predators, pollinators, nitrogen-fixing and nitrogen-decomposing bacteria, and a variety of other organisms that perform various beneficial ecological functions. Other systems diversify by making optimum use of different landscape elements (e.g. slopes, valleys) or by integrating crops and livestock.
Traditional farming systems and technologies tend to combine several production activities as part of a household resource management scheme. Studies of these systems have identified a series of factors that underlie their sustainability. Among them: small farm size with continuous production serving subsistence and market demands,
diversified production based on mixtures of crops, trees and animals with high genetic variability, maximum use of local resources, and low dependence on off-farm inputs. Net energy yield is high because energy inputs are relatively low, labour is drawn largely from the household or community, and nutrients and other materials are regularly recycled. Finally, FAO says, GIAHS "build on natural ecological processes rather than struggling against them".
But GIAHS world-wide are at risk. "The focus on agricultural productivity, specialization and global markets has led to a general neglect of research-and-development support for diversified, ingenious systems," says David Boerma, focal point for FAO's new project. "These pressures are constraining farmer innovation and leading to the adoption of unsustainable practices, overexploitation of resources and declining productivity." The rapidity and extent of today's technological and economic changes threaten the very biodiversity on which most GIAHs are based - the widespread adoption of high-yielding crop monoculture and exotic livestock poses a severe threat to biodiversity and associated knowledge systems.
To improve understanding of the evolution and development potentials of agricultural heritage systems, FAO is now seeking to identify 10 pilot sites representing a broad spectrum of GIAHS. "Site selection will be done on the basis of biophysical, socio-cultural and economic criteria, taking into account their global, national and local importance," Boerma explains. "On each pilot site, the project will centre on linkages among these elements." In collaboration with policymakers, scientists and other stakeholders, it will strengthen the capacity of farmers to conserve and sustainably manage their systems, and share knowledge of the in situ conservation of agricultural biodiversity. It will also help communities and governments develop a supportive legal and policy environment.
"Promoting knowledge and understanding of GIAHS may be enough to help some of them survive," David Boerma concludes. "Others may need more specific support - for example, by creating niche markets for certain produce, or creating mechanisms that recognize communities for the environmental services and quality of life that their land-use systems provide. But, whatever the strategy, GIAHS represent a wealth of accumulated knowledge and experience in the management and use of resources that needs to be preserved and allowed to evolve."