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Features and Criteria

This section provides an overview of the main features of Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) and the Criteria for their selection.

Characteristics of the proposed GIAHS should include global (or national) importance. Global (or national) importance is a composite criterion, under which the overall value of a traditional/historic agricultural system, represented by a particular site, is established as a heritage of human kind (or a country). It synthesizes its overall Global (or National/local) “Public Good” value described under the five subsequent criteria. By summing up/combining the five criteria, the complex relationships and positive connectivity and linkages between the system’s elements are integrated as a holistic system.

The outstanding (or unique) features of the system should be summarized in terms of their relevance to global concerns addressing sustainable development and ecosystems management and their cultural and agricultural heritage value. The Five Criteria for the selection of the Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS) represent the totality of functionalities, goods and services provided by the system. These criteria are as follows:

1. Food and livelihood security

The proposed agriculture system should contribute to the food and livelihood security of local communities (often indigenous), representing the majority of their livelihood provisions. This includes provisioning and exchange among local communities to create a relatively stable and resilient food and livelihood system. Traditional agricultural systems are still providing food and livelihood security for some two billion people, local communities, poor and small farmers. Despite the conventional opinion that traditional agricultural practices are primitive and unproductive, many scientists and researchers have indicated that traditional farming (small farms) is much more productive than modern farming (large scale) if the total output rather than yield from a single crop is considered. 

In order to meet their daily food and livelihoods, traditional farming practices the following; diversification, planting of numerous crop species in order to maximise space and time for a given season, low use of chemical inputs and theuse of locally available resources. The dynamic conservation of GIAHS is conceptualized around the idea that globalization, environmental degradation and increasing population pressure have placed production systems under stress, and hence, resulted in the loss of important biological diversity, economic returns and livelihoods especially for the marginalized and poor, traditional family farming communities. The promotion of GIAHS can help in increasing on-farm food production and improving rural livelihoods.  

2. Biodiversity and ecosystem function

GIAHS represent a unique sub-set of agricultural systems, which exemplify customary use of globally significant agricultural biodiversity and merit to be recognised as a heritage of human kind within the national sovereignty jurisdictions. They feature globally (or nationally) significant agricultural biodiversity and genetic resources (species, varieties & breeds), as well as other biodiversity such as wild relatives, pollinators and wildlife associated with the agricultural system and landscape. 

GIAHS can thus sum up  the following characteristics:

  • The domestication, maintenance and adaptation of agricultural biodiversity of global significance (ABGS): The ABGS is managed holistically by optimising the following elements: integration at the level of inter and intra-species dynamics; integration of different scales of agricultural biodiversity: genetic resources, species, ecosystem and landscape; integration of the sustainable management of biotic and non-biotic natural resources (land and water); integration of biodiversity and ecosystem characteristics with indigenous/traditional knowledge systems, technologies, with forms of social organisation and institutions for ecosystem management, with human needs and aspirations, as well as their cultural practices, views and preferences; and adaptive management. The ABGS has co-evolved with these systems and their associated cultures over centuries, even millennia, in a process of mutual adaptation.
  • The system still has full integrity: all the necessary elements to sustain the system are in place and can be reproduced. A growing body of scientific evidence demonstrates that indigenous and traditional agricultural systems feature a high degree of plant and genetic resources for food and agriculture. At farm level, one of the salient features of GIAHS is their high degree of biodiversity. This diversity occurs at various scales from plant and animal genetic resources to landscapes. By planting several species and varieties of crops farmers minimize the risk of catastrophic loss, stabilize yields over the long term, and maximize returns even with low levels of technology and limited resources. This strategy, moreover, promotes dietary diversity. Many of these plants cultivated by local farmers are landraces grown from seed which has been passed down from generation to generation and selected over the years to produce desired production characteristics. Landraces are genetically more heterogeneous than modern cultivars and can offer a variety of defences against vulnerability. The same holds true for local animal breeds, which have been domesticated and developed over centuries to meet local environmental and social requirements.

These complex agroecosystems and their agricultural biodiversity and associated landscapes can, therefore, only be conserved and managed sustainably with a holistic approach, involving all stakeholders and building on local people's knowledge and experience. The dynamic conservation of GIAHS is vital to the future of humankind, and should be treated at the international level as an ecological and cultural resource of utmost global significance. Many scientists acknowledge that traditional agro-ecosystems have the potential to provide solutions for the unforeseeable changes and transformations facing humanity in an era of climate change, energy and financial crisis.

3. Knowledge systems and adapted technologies

GIAHS are a set of practices and knowledge systems, institutions, technologies, skills, traditions, beliefs and values proper to farming communities. They maintain invaluable knowledge, ingenious technology and management systems of natural resources, including biota, land and water; social organisations and institutions, that include customary institutions for agro-ecological management, normative arrangements for resource access and benefit sharing, etc. 

The traditional and indigenous knowledge systems employed in GIAHS are the foundation and basis of the agro-ecosystem management, with its processes and functions which maintain the general ecosystem and landscape integrity. As such, agricultural systems have evolved, co-evolved with the human communities, handed down from one generation onto another generation, refined and continuously fine-tuned, primarily as a response to the specific natural environment changes due to which they need to gain their livelihood.

Thus, agricultural systems in many parts of the world have led to landscape-scale ecosystem variation, and provided mosaics of micro-habitats, with associated plant and animal communities, which now depend largely on continued management for their viability. In many regions of the world, especially where natural conditions of climate, soil, accessibility and human presence militate against intensification, there still persist agro-ecosystems and landscapes that are maintained through traditional knowledge and practices developed by generations of farmers, forest dwellers, and herders.

Agricultural heritage systems contain a wealth of diverse knowledge systems and management techniques which help to ensure food security and quality of life for humanity and cope with the global and economic challenges of today and tomorrow. GIAHS have other values beyond food and fiber production; these living and evolving systems have kept their communities’ distinct identities intact on the strength of unifying values such as nature, family, community, history, and a sense of belonging to their natural habitats.

4. Culture, value systems and social organisations (Agri-culture)

GIAHS are systems regulated by strong cultural values and collective forms of social organization including customary institutions for agro-ecological management, normative arrangements for resource access and benefit sharing, value systems, rituals, etc.  The agri-culture includes cosmo-vision, value systems and agri-cultural practices associated with environment and agricultural calendar; festivities and rituals as knowledge transfer. 

The stability and capacity of ecological systems to provide goods and services critically depends upon rural communities having and sustaining diverse and complex forms of social organization ( kinship, territoriality, settlement, group membership and identity, gender relations, leadership and political organization), culture ( worldviews, languages, values, rights, knowledge, aesthetics), modes of production, labour allocation, and technologies and practices.

Local institutions play a critical role in balancing environmental and socio-economic objectives, in creating resilience and in the reproduction of all elements and processes critical to the functioning of the agricultural system. Some may ensure conservation of and promote equity in the use and access to natural resources; some transmit traditional knowledge systems and critical values that promote custodianship of biodiversity, land and water; some facilitate planning, cooperation and innovation/adaptation. Such institutions may take the form of ceremonial and religious beliefs and practices, including taboos, ceremonies and festivities; of customary law and conflict resolution, including on resource tenure; of kinship, marriage and inheritance systems; of forms of leadership, decision-making and cooperation; of oral and written traditions; of games and other forms of education and instruction; of division of roles and distribution of labour, including gender roles and specialized functions; etc (intangibles).

5. Remarkable landscapes, land and water resources management features

Landscape features resulting from human management, that provide particularly ingenious or practical solutions to environmental or social constraints, such as land use mosaics, irrigation/water management systems, terraces, particular ecosystem adaptive  architecture, which might provide for resource conservation/efficiency or provide habitats for valued biodiversity, recreational values collective or non commercial valuable uses (aesthetic, artistic, educational, spiritual, and/or scientific values of ecosystems).

©FAO\Parviz Koohafkan
Food security
©FAO\Carlos Venegas
©FAO\M.S. Swaminathan
Knowledge systems
©FAO\Min Qingwen
©FAO\Jane dela Cruz
Remarkable landscapes
Other social and cultural characteristics pertinent to the management of the agricultural system (optional)

Other goods and services generated by the system (incl. ecosystems services, climate adaptation and other environmental benefits of global importance or specific features such as archeological/historic value or contribution to political stability).

For each element a range of sub-criteria will be developed. For instance, indicators can be developed for biodiversity on genetic, intra- and inter species, and endemic diversity, for inter-species dynamics, for ecosystem-diversity and integration, as well as for the taxonomic groups: plants, animal, microbial and ecosystem. Also, knowledge and cultural heritage endowments will be spelled out more concretely by creating specific categories, with indicators to match. The future development of detailed indicators is considered necessary on these characteristics. A proposed sixth category of the criterion has been added to allow for the description of specific additional benefits that may be of global importance.

Indicators for this criterion include:

Benefits Maximisation: Maximise economic, social, livelihood and environmental benefits.

Social Cohesion and cultural expression: Promote social cohesion, solidarity and sense of belonging and identity, culinary culture, festivities, art and music, etc

Resource endowments and knowledge systems: Possess remarkable natural resource endowments (especially biodiversity) and intrinsic knowledge systems of global benefit.

Social and Cultural Diversity: Represent diverse social and cultural, institutional and economic approaches to management.

Public Goods: Provide global public goods and heritage which needed economic valuation

Traditional Knowledge: Maintain invaluable knowledge and technology about landscapes, genetic resources, human cultures, and social organisation and institutions

Relation to the land: everyday as well as associative values of the landscape and agro-ecosystem for peoples collective and individual survival and livelihood, their identity and spiritual, religious, philosophical life and the artistic expressions thereof.

Historic relevance

The contribution of the agricultural system/site to the domestication and development of agricultural biodiversity, the creation of valuable landscapes, the development of agricultural knowledge and technologies over generations, and the contribution to human, social and cultural development in general, constitute its historic relevance. Additionally, historic relevance is determined by whether a system/site has remained sustainable and has shown its resilience in the face of environmental and socioeconomic changes over time.

Contemporary relevance

The systems/sites’ contemporary relevance is established by its present and future capacity to provide food and livelihood security, to contribute to human well-being and quality of life, and to generate other local, national and global economic and environmental goods and services to its community and society. This criterion therefore relates to the relevance of an agricultural system/site to global or national policy and sustainable development challenges, most prominently achieving food security, human well-being and environmental goals, such as climate adaptation, carbon sequestration, water, land and biodiversity conservation. Under this criterion one should highlight particular lessons learnt or principles that can be derived from the system site, which might be applied elsewhere.

Global Environment Facility

Global Environment Facility

Internetauftritt des Bundesministeriums für Ernährung, Landwirtschaft und Verbraucherschutz