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Systèmes Ingénieux du Patrimoine Agricole Mondial (SIPAM)

Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems, conserving biodiversity and building a bridge to the future

Rome, Italy, 18 October 2012

“Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) are living proof that agriculture can be sustainable”.  Mr Alexander Mueller, Assistant Director-General at the Natural Resources Department, FAO thus opened the GIAHS side event held at FAO on 17 October 2012, during the 39th session of the CFS.  “With the GIAHS initiative, established by FAO in 2002, we have a strong link between two major international events: the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) and the UN Convention on Biodiversity. This is something unique. Taking into account the decisive role of family farmers as stewards of biodiversity, GIAHS is even establishing a third link – this time, with the UN International Year of Family Farmers, in 2014.”

The side event was very well attended, with the room hardly seating all of the numerous high-level CFS delegates and attendees. The meeting was chaired by Ms Maryam Rahmanian, Vice Chairperson of the High Level Panel of Experts of the Committee on World Food Security and Research Associate at the Centre for Sustainable Development and Environment, an Iranian NGO.

“GIAHS’ holistic approach in bridging biodiversity, food security and family farming is unique, as it takes into account the culture pillar – a multidimensional one, allowing family farmers to keep their agricultural systems, and their own knowledge, alive. A knowledge that is key to biodiversity conservation, especially if we want to adapt to changing climate conditions,” added Mr Mueller.

Invited by Ms Rahmanian to illustrate the GIAHS initiative in more depth, Mr Parviz Koohafkan, Director of the Land and Water Division and GIAHS Coordinator delivered his presentation, showing how relevant GIAHS is to a sustainable future. The meeting participants were reminded how, as of today, more than 1 billion people are food insecure. Mr Koohafkan went on to explain: “Towards 2050 we have the challenge of population growth and changes in diet: for 1 kilo of beef, 15000 liter of water are consumed! According to FAO,  we need to increase our food production by 60% at the same time as ensuring that we conserve our natural resource base.  How are we going to produce food whilst addressing poverty? We need a paradigm shift.” Several examples of traditional agriculture practiced in GIAHS sites followed, showing how eco-farming based on lessons learned from the past can provide a bridge to the future.

As she encouraged the panelists to have an open discussion, Ms Rahmanian emphasized how “the vision of FAO is really quite future oriented, as GIAHS is not being nostalgic about the past.”

Talking about a much-needed paradigm shift, Professor Grego from University of Tuscia, Italy recalled how in the 1960s, lectures only concentrated on monoculture. “There was no way that biodiversity was involved in the discussion,” he said. “Now we know that that approach was completely wrong.”

Mr Emile Frison, Director-General of Bioversity International, agreed that the GIAHS holistic approach has a tremendous potential to go forward in a sustainable way, adding how his organization had been associated with GIAHS since the beginning:  “We have been looking at how maintaining these systems could be the basis of sustainable development. Now it’s important to bring modern science in. Let’s bring this marriage of traditional knowledge and science to maintain diversity. GIAHS are important sites to demonstrate what can be done and how to replicate successful models outside,” he concluded.

Working for more than thirty years with civil society on international trade and development issues, co-founder of ETC group Pat Mooney intervened to comment. “I think the work that has been done is extraordinary. We can replace technology, but we can’t replace knowledge. I just think about the need to respond to climate change. We have the work done by the Norwegian Government to collect seed in their gene bank. This variety has only been preserved thanks to farmer knowledge throughout the millennia. I commend FAO for this work.”

The work carried out throughout the years by the GIAHS initiative was found to be “very important, comprehensive and holistic” by Mr Shakeel Bhatti, Secretary general of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture based at FAO. Mr Bhatti quoted several articles taken from the International Treaty, showing the relevance of the GIAHS initiative vis-à-vis climate change (Article 5 of the International Treaty) and the protection of traditional knowledge (Article 9).  “From our point of view,” Mr Bhatti affirmed, “the initiative addresses a crucial link between the use of crops and the cultural and landscape dimensions of that use. Every single country in the world is dependent on genetic resources coming from other countries.”

Working with IFAD’s Grants Secretariat, Ms Rima Alcadi underlined how “At IFAD, we recognize that biodiversity is very important. And we know that we can appreciate biodiversity most when we can use it.” IFAD is already very active in this area, with more than 80 projects. One in particular is replicating the GIAHS model in Morocco, studying the effects of promoting tourism in the High Atlas mountains. “We endorse GIAHS also for its way of dealing with, and reducing, poverty – a very ambitious target,” added Ms Alcadi.

As the panel discussion drew to an end, Mr Mueller stressed the need to find out the conditions, and coalitions, leading to the resilience found in the traditional GIAHS systems. “We had an intensive discussion yesterday on the role of nutrition - not just of food security, but also of nutrition,” said Mr Mueller. “What do we have to do in order to change the market system so as to bring together resilience, healthy diets and the eradication of poverty? We have to ask ourselves, ‘What do we have to do to make these systems live on, while conserving biodiversity and building a bridge to the future.’”