Traditional knowledge, often the key to unlocking benefits of biodiversity, under threat
FAO/ICRISAT research in Mozambique casts the problem in stark relief
For ten thousand years, farmers, fishermen, pastoralists and forest dwellers have been managing genetic diversity by selecting plants and animals to meet environmental conditions and food needs.
Farmers everywhere possess priceless local knowledge, including a highly tuned sense of how to match the right variety or breed with a particular agricultural ecosystem.
Such traditional knowledge, passed on from one generation to the next, is often the key to unlocking the benefits of local biodiversity -- both on and off the farm.
In sub-Saharan Africa, however, this knowledge is being lost as the HIV/AIDS epidemics claims the lives of farmers before they can past it on to their children.
The case of Mozambique
Recent FAO/ICRISAT research in Mozambique sheds light on how knowledge of the uses of agricultural biodiversity in sub-Saharan Africa is being lost as a result of the epidemic.
More than 1.3 million Mozambicans, out of a population of 18 million, are thought to be living with HIV/AIDS. FAO predicts that by 2020 the country will have lost over 20 percent of its agricultural labour force to the disease.
The disease impedes the passing of farming know-how about traditional crops from generation to generation as infected adults slowly become incapacitated and stop planting many varieties of crops.
"Most of the farmers use seeds that they produce themselves to grow their own crops; the way they pass on knowledge about how to identify, improve and conserve that seed is from parent to children," notes Rachel Waterhouse, one of several researchers involved in the FAO/ICRISAT study on Mozambique. "So what happens if you stop producing a certain seed type is that the knowledge around it is not passed on."
Almost all the people FAO interviewed for the study cited parents or other close relatives as the continuing key source of learning on farming and seed.
Knowledge loss about local varieties was clearly evident: 25, 27 and 33 percent of younger adults interviewed could not name any local variety of groundnuts, pumpkin or cassava respectively, compared to only 12, 10 and 19 percent of elders.
The Mozambique government estimates that over 600 000 children have been orphaned by the disease.
In response to the orphan crisis, FAO is field-testing ways to help the children learn farming and life skills and acquire the knowledge about using local biodiversity that their parents were unable to pass on.
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