Preserving agricultural heritage around the world

13/04/2017 - 

You might know about, or have even visited, Machu Picchu and the Cusco region of Peru. Perhaps you have also heard about Egypt’s Siwa oasis, China’s Hani rice terraces or Bangladesh’s floating gardens? More than likely, you have eaten dates and pistachios or drank Jasmine tea. But you might not know that all of these things are thanks in part to indigenous and local peoples around the globe who have maintained traditional methods of agriculture and preserved native crops in stunning landscapes.

Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) are sites that have survived over millennia, often in harsh environments, remote areas and extreme climates owing to the knowledge and ingenuity of indigenous and local peoples. FAO has recognized the need to preserve these GIAHS, not only because they are vital to the food security and livelihoods of family farmers, but because they also demonstrate unique cultural values and traditional lifestyles.

Since 2002, FAO has designated 37 sites in 16 countries as Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems. You can find information about these sites within our country profile pages as well as in the GIAHS section of

FAO created the GIAHS programme to safeguard these distinct agricultural systems and the unique cultural values which were created and maintained around them. These “agri-cultural” values and methods include living in harmony with the environment, working with the land in sustainable ways and preserving the biological diversity of the crops.

While conceptually similar to UNESCO cultural landscapes, a GIAHS is dynamic site that changes with community interaction. Its conservation does not imply a static state. Through the transfer of knowledge from one generation to the other, these living systems will continue to evolve to meet the needs and demands of those who maintain them – the smallholders, family farmers and indigenous peoples who are often the poorest of the poor.

These traditional agricultural systems also represent models of sustainable agricultural production and, in some cases, are recognized as best practices that can be applied as climate change adaptation and mitigation interventions. Four GIAHS are particularly valuable examples of this climate-smart agriculture:  Rice-fish agriculture systems in China, Sustainable practices of nomadic pastoralists in Iran, Oases system in the Atlas mountains and India's Kuttanad region below sea-level farming.

These systems are, however, at risk due to climate change and modernization’s many influences including population growth, scarcity of natural resources, modern and high-scale agriculture, migration to urban areas and abandonment by younger generations.

Through the establishment of economic alternatives (e.g. agrotourism, branding of products, leisure activities), the GIAHS programme can help provide other solutions to these farmers who depend solely on traditional agriculture. The GIAHS programme balances the two important sides of conservation: preserving traditional, cultural values and ecological diversity while allowing for the agricultural and socio-economic development that leads to stable, decent livelihoods.

FAO has identified about 200 of these sites around the globe, roughly covering about 500 million hectares of land. However, countries must apply to the programme to obtain GIAHS designation. Learn more about FAO’s GIAHS around the world.