Sowing seeds in Tunisian sands

When agricultural heritage helps crops adapt to drought and feeds communities despite the odds

The Ramli agricultural systems in the lagoons of Ghar El Melh are an ingenious method of cropping on the sand, using the tides from the sea to irrigate crops with fresh rainwater. This is only one of the over 60 Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) that FAO has recognized worldwide. ©FAO/Abdelhakim Aissaoui


Nature can transform itself from a foe to an ally. Farmers have known this for centuries and have learned to survive and produce food despite hot temperatures, little water and even lack of arable land. Under such circumstances, communities have translated their resilience and inventiveness into farming techniques that have endured the test of time and are part of the solution for a challenging future.     

A small town in the north of Tunisia, Ghar El Melh, was once a Phoenician settlement (1101 BC). Between the mountains of Jbel Ennadhour and the lagoons of Ghar El Melh and Sebha of Sidi Ali el Mekki, a small space for agricultural activities has flourished using a technique called Ramli, adopted during the Andalusian diaspora in the 17th century. Ramli means “on sand and the practice is exactly that, growing food on a sandy terrain.

Ramli crops are irrigated by fresh rainwater that floats on the surface of the salty sea water. This fresh water reaches the crops through the movement of the tides. Farmers must regularly calculate the sea level and maintain the soil at the exact level of the water. If the plot is too low, the roots come into contact with saltwater, killing the crops. If it is too high, the roots dry out. Farmers regulate the soil levels by adding sand and manure.

This ingenious system allows year-round cultivation without artificial water, even during periods of drought. Ramli practices are highly adapted to fight dry environmental conditions by reducing water loss from evaporation and increasing the capacity of soils to retain water.

The Ghar El Melh village retains its traditional cultural heritage where fishing and agricultural activities are the main livelihoods. 46 percent of the workforce is involved in these two activities. Farmers primarily grow potatoes, beans and onions. Indeed, ramli crops are known to have a unique flavour well known by local consumers. This is a result of the natural irrigation that exactly meets the water needs of the plants. This Ramli system, preserved for generations, allows local people to round out their yearly income.

46 percent of the workforce in Ghar El Melh is involved in fishing or agriculture. The preservation of traditional practices is vital to ensuring the food security of this area. ©FAO/Abdelhakim Aissaoui

Preserving ancient knowledge

The Ramli agricultural systems in the lagoons of Ghar El Melh and the Hanging gardens from Djebba El Olia, both in Tunisia, have been recently recognized as Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS), a programme designed by FAO to preserve traditional yet innovative agricultural practices. Tunisia now has three GIAHS sites, including the historical Gafsa Oases site, designated in 2011.

“This [Ramli] system is basically family farming. Farmers exchange means of production among themselves and the workforce is made up of family members who pass on know-how and production techniques over the years from generation to generation,” said Mohamed Ali Dridi, Chief Engineer and Head of Biodiversity in Tunisia’s Ministry of the Environment.

“It is vital to recognize the site as a valuable heritage through awareness-raising and the integration of the site in local development, not only as a production system but also as a culturally and historically diverse system,” added Ali Dridi.

Tunisia´s coast is home to two-thirds of its total population. Already facing rising sea levels and changes in temperature, these coastal areas are particularly vulnerable to climate change. FAO and UNDP are working with the country to help enhance the resilience of vulnerable communities. ©FAO/Abdelhakim Aissaoui

Climate change: a formidable foe

Tunisia’s coast is home to two-thirds of its total population. With these areas so densely populated and susceptible to the impacts of climate change, protecting these coastal zones is one of the country’s major challenges.

“The FAO GIAHS recognition will help preserve the ingenious climate change adaptation and sustainable natural resource management systems. It will also help to ensure social balance in the region related to resource management and food production and to maintain practices that ensure food security in the area,” explained Fadhel Baccar, Project Manager at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The UNDP project, Addressing Climate Change Vulnerabilities and Risks in Vulnerable Coastal Areas of Tunisia, is also supporting this site to help specifically address the difficulties that climate change poses to its survival.

In addition to the great challenge of climate change, the preservation of agricultural heritage is also threatened by the large amount of youth that migrate out of rural areas to cities in search of better job opportunities. FAO’s GIAHS programme helps identify ways to mitigate threats faced by farmers and enhance the benefits derived from these agricultural systems.

GIAHS addressing drought and desertification

June 17 is a day to raise awareness about desertification and drought. Around the world, the availability and productivity of arable land is declining, with climate change a direct player in this. FAO’s GIAHS programme helps support the ingenuity of farmers and the preservation of practices that help fight climate change and allow agriculture to strive in extreme conditions. The Ramli cropping systems proves that even drought and desertification aren’t insurmountable foes for the inventiveness and perseverance of farmers.

Over 60 sites have been officially recognized as GIAHS. Vital to achieving food and livelihood security, these are dynamic spaces where culture, biodiversity and sustainable agricultural techniques coexist. The GIAHS programme helps farmers and our food production at large battle the increasing challenges of ending hunger and ensuring nutritious food for everyone.

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8. Decent work and economic growth, 13. Climate action, 15. Life on land