The Southern Caucasus is an important centre of origin and diversity of many species and varieties that are the basis for global food production. This great biodiversity is maintained by farmers, and their gardens are a healthy source of food production, experimental places to develop sustainable technologies and laboratories to maintain seeds and biodiversity.
This book is divided into nine chapters that follow a short story in the form of a verse.
At the crossroads between East and West
The Caucasus is a geographic hinge that connects Europe and Asia. It is characterized by the imposing mountain ranges that give their name to the region.This book focuses on the southern slopes of the Caucasus range and the nearby areas located between the Black and the Caspian Seas. The high mountains (over 5 000 m) provide protection from the excesses of the northern continental climate, but the variety of lands and soils (mountains, plains, lowlands and seashores) creates a unique combination of different climates, ranging from dry to humid and from subtropical to alpine. Due also to these features, the Southern Caucasus has been identified as one of the centres of origin of many plant species, such as soft wheat, and a centre of genetic differentiation. Like other areas in the world, the Southern Caucasus is experiencing the negative effects of weak past policies and ecosystem management, pollution, overexploitation and, more recently, climate change. But the Southern Caucasus is also a land of hope: throughout its varied territories, people and institutions are willing to restore and maintain their resources and biodiversity.
In three hospitable countries
The territory of the Southern Caucasus is shared by three countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia (throughout the book the names of the three countries are generally listed in alphabetical order). Their identities are closely linked with the characteristics of the region: they are different yet similar. They share common features but have their individual properties; all three are rich in history, culture and natural resources. Armenia is in the centre of the region, and is the smallest of the three countries. It is landlocked but hosts the largest freshwater reservoir of the region (Lake Sevan). Azerbaijan lies to the east and south and faces the Caspian Sea. It is the largest country of the three. Georgia lies to the northwest, facing the Black Sea. It has the highest peak in the Southern Caucasus (Mount Shkhara, 5 201 m). Population density is comparable for the three countries (80—100 inhabitants/km2).
Agriculture and breeding have been developed since the Neolithic
Besides being one of the centres of origin and of differentiation of plant species, the Southern Caucasus is also an area in which agriculture and breeding were first developed, about 10 000 to 5 000 years ago, in the Neolithic. There is significant evidence of such an early presence of farmers and cattle breeders throughout the region. The cultivated species found include several varieties of wheat, apples, apricots, pears, grapes, peas and beans. Agriculture and breeding flourished over the centuries, but many local varieties are currently at risk of extinction. It is important to maintain the genetic resources and integrate state-of-the-art information and technologies with traditional practices that proved to be so efficient in the past.
Coping with the rhythms of the seasons
The Southern Caucasus stretches from west to east along a narrow range of latitudes, between 38° and 43° north. As a result, its many different climatic patterns, determined by the variety of chorography, influence of seas, etc., share the common rhythm of the four yearly seasons. Over the centuries, plants and animals have adapted to this rhythm and to the different climates, and people have had to adapt their farming practices to cope with these changes for a sustainable living. For example, in colder climates, specific varieties have been selected, such as the winter apple, and many methods of preserving food (such as jams, syrups, dry meat and dry bread – the lavash) have been developed in order to withstand the long winters. The rich biodiversity of the Southern Caucasus, concentrated in such a small territory, could become a natural laboratory for the maintenance and diffusion of precious genetic material and to face climate changes.
A treasure of genetic resources is maintained in gardens
Historically, the family garden represents the basis of agricultural production in the region. The rugged territory and the presence of a significant rural population have presented perfect conditions for the diffusion of an agricultural system based on these gardens. Yet the garden is even more: it is the symbol of a lifestyle, of the deep knowledge of a territory and its resources, a continuous search for balance between exploitation and maintenance of the resources, and adaptation to varying conditions in the short, medium and long terms. It is the guardian of biodiversity, of family life and culture. In an area of less than a hectare there are different varieties of fruit trees, vegetables, a few cows, sheep or goats, poultry, and possibly some beehives. Whoever owns and manages a garden has a treasure of knowledge and experience that must be preserved and shared. This knowledge is reflected in the consideration that farmers have for education and the commitment to allow their children to study. As a result, the three Caucasian countries, although they rank low in the world list of per capita gross domestic product, are at the top in literacy and culture indicators. The generally high level of education in the Southern Caucasus may help the success of any sustainable development policy, because it enables the people for whom it is directed to play leading roles.
To make bread, cheese and wine
Local transformation of agricultural products is another significant feature of the rural Caucasus. The region has an impressive range of food products that in turn form the basis of a rich and diversified cuisine. Bread is an example of how a simple chain production– transformation–consumption can help preserve biodiversity and the environment. It has been said that the Caucasus is rich in wheat and other cereal varieties, as a centre of origin and differentiation. People use these to make many kinds of bread, which are much appreciated and always part of Caucasian meals. In this sense, the circle closes: consumption sustains production. Similarly, many different types of cheese (from cow, buffalo, sheep, goat and mixed milk) are produced and consumed. Not to mention the social importance of wine, as testified by the widespread tradition of toasting.
Pastoralists and farmers manage the landscapes
Many landscapes in the Southern Caucasus bear signs of unsustainable agricultural and breeding intensification policies, such as degradation of soils, salinization and loss of landscape heterogeneity and of biodiversity. Nevertheless, several factors could induce optimism towards the improvement of the environment, such as the widespread presence of pastoralists and farmers (about 46 percent of the population is rural). Their knowledge of traditional practices has survived over the centuries, and their good cultural level enables them to introduce, adapt and diffuse new technologies. But they need understanding and support. Conserving and using biodiversity sustainably need to become integral components of social and economic development in order to correct past policy and market failures. However, the central focus must remain on pastoralists and farmers. Their understanding of the landscapes in which they live and operate must be the starting-point for the application of modern technologies and policies.
Rural people know and use wild plants and animals
The system based on garden production is not a closed one. Cultivation and breeding are often integrated with collecting wild species and hunting. This contributes to nutritional diversity in diets and helps people overcome times of hardship such as economic, food and energy crises. Grasslands play an important role in this scenario, as they provide the right environmental conditions for the development of wild f lora and fauna and represent the bridge between agriculture, animal production and nature conservation, protection and sustainable management. The Southern Caucasus is rich in grasslands, but today too many are degraded because of overexploitation and pollution. Rural populations wisely use natural resources: they just need to be supported by adequate policies.
Combining biodiversity, healthy ecosystems and smallholders’ dedication: A pathway into the future
The ecosystem approach is the framework for action under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). It identifies 12 principles that represent the guidelines for the conservation and sustainable use of natural resources. Each principle is summarized in this chapter and connections are made to subjects developed in this book. The role of biodiversity and its genetic resources is essential for ensuring food sovereignty and food security; sustainable livelihoods; ecosystem resilience; coping strategies for climate change; and sustainable agricultural production. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) provides a platform for dialogue and negotiation through its Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, to reach global consensus on policies relevant to biodiversity for food and agriculture and hosts the Secretariat for the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. FAO is assisting countries in strengthening their policies on the matter as well as in providing technical capacity to address the dual needs of food security and environmental sustainability through the ecosystem approach.
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