Now is the time to restore our ecosystems!

Six agricultural heritage sites demonstrate how we can manage ecosystems sustainably

Peruvians living in the Andes have developed innovative farming systems at high altitudes. ©FAO/David Boerma


Scientists say that these next ten years will count the most in the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss. 2021 marks the start of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, and this is our opportunity to turn the tide to prevent, halt and reverse degradation of ecosystems worldwide.

So, what is ecosystem restoration?

Ecosystem restoration means repairing ecosystems that have been degraded as well as protecting the ones that are healthy. This includes a wide range of activities from enhancing organic carbon in agricultural soils and increasing fish stocks in overfished zones to restoring polluted sites.

To help us make this leap, we can draw on the experiences of farmers who, for generations, have sustainably lived off the land. With traditional know-how, recognition of the environment’s value and a sense of cultural identity, these farmers possess unique knowledge of and experience with good agricultural practices and methods for ecosystem preservation.

FAO has designated these remarkable systems as Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS). These are agricultural sites where local communities use their surroundings and natural resources respectfully and thrive in harmony with nature.

Here are six GIAHS sites proving that environmental sustainability is not just possible, it is successful!

Andean Agriculture, Peru

Andean agricultural methods have been used in the mountainous area of Peru for more than 5 000 years. With agricultural knowledge passed on for centuries, the indigenous peoples of this area have established and maintained terraces, local irrigation systems and three main agricultural systems adapted to different altitudes. Unique in the world, the waru waru practice, which consists of water canals that trap solar radiation during the day, stopping the crops from freezing at night. These terraces and water management techniques that allow cultivation of native crops and maintain soil health are a longstanding example of farmers sustainably adapting to a harsh environment.

Nishi-Awa Steep Slope Land Agricultural System, Japan

On an area of steep mountainsides deemed unsuitable for cultivation, farmers in Shikoku, Japan, have developed a unique way of farming the land. By adding in stone walls to lessen the steep incline and utilizing mulching practices called kaya to reduce soil erosion, these farmers are able to leave mountain slopes intact. Although each farm’s cultivation area is small, a large variety of grains and vegetables are grown. Surrounded by forests, the system is also part of an ecological corridor for wildlife that contributes to biodiversity conservation in the ecosystem.

Left/top: We can learn from communities like this one in Tanzania, who live and work in harmony with the local ecosystem. ©FAO/Felipe Rodríguez. Right/bottom: Moroccan communities have been caring for and living off this climate-resilient agricultural land, on which Argan trees flourish. ©Saidi Seddik

Shimbwe Juu Kihamba Agro-forestry, Tanzania

The traditional Kihamba system, on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, is recognised for its impressive agricultural methods adapted to a difficult environment. It has been developed and conserved by the traditional knowledge of generations of famers. Local communities constructed a multi-tiered farming system which includes four main layers of vegetation. The uppermost layer of vegetation is formed by sparsely spaced trees which provide shade, medicine, fodder, fruits and timber. Under these trees, many varieties of bananas are grown and those, together with coffee shrubs and vegetables, provide food for local communities. This multilayer system maximises the use of limited land to provide a large variety of foods all year around.  Intercropping together with environment-friendly pest management helps maintain the area’s biodiversity and soil health.

Agro-forestry System, Morocco

The agro-forestry system in Ait Souab-Ait Mansour, Morocco is a unique biodiversity hotspot where argan trees are grown together with more than 50 other plant species thathave been cultivated for centuries. This system is impressive because it taps into large underground caverns that catch and filter water from the land above. These tanks carved into the rock are so effective at collecting water that locals can continue their livelihoods despite long dry periods. In this way, this agricultural system thrives despite the arid environment and poor soils.

Jiaxian Traditional Chinese Date Gardens, China

The Jujube, also called the Chinese date, is a unique fruit species native to China. The way it is farmed has been developed over centuries to create a sustainable, climate-friendly agricultural system. The Jujube trees are used as shade to reduce evaporation from the soils and are intercropped with vegetables, grapevines, pear, apple and apricot trees to provide nutrition and livelihoods for the local community. The Jujube trees, with their vast web of roots, play an important role in maintaining biodiversity but also in conserving water, preventing soil erosion and protecting against wind and sandstorms.

Territorio Sénia in Spain has the highest concentration of ancient olive trees in the world. ©Mancomunidad Taula del Sénia

Ancient Olive Trees System of Taula del Sènia, Spain

In Taula del Senia, eastern Spain, 5 000 ancient olive trees, many of which are between 1 000 and 2 000 years old, span the countryside. In fact, the density of millennia-old olive trees in this area is the highest in the world! Local communities living amidst these treasures rely on the trees for their income and livelihoods. However, economic activities, such as oil production and agritourism, are carried out in harmony with nature.  Many of the current oil cultivation and production techniques stem from ancient Roman and Arab times and have been passed down through generations. All parts of the land are used and ancient olive trees that no longer produce are identified and restored.

The UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration highlights how the healthier our ecosystems are, the healthier we and our planet are too. By learning about the traditional, sustainable methods used for years by communities in these heritage sites around the world, we have role models for living and working in harmony with the planet.

We can prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems, but no single individual or entity can achieve this alone. We will only succeed if everyone plays a part, so join #GenerationRestoration and get involved.

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1. No poverty, 2. Zero hunger, 12. Responsible consumption and production, 15. Life on land