A shared past, present and future in the Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems

How remarkable systems of human and animal coexistence have helped preserve biodiversity and provide food security

The agro-silvo-pastoral system of the mountains in Leon, Spain is home to many unique indigenous breeds of livestock. ©Photo courtesy of GIAHS Agro-Silvo-Pastoral System of the Leon Mountains


If you set out to design a strategy for preserving some of our most vital but also fragile agriculture and food systems into the future, the chances are you might come up with something very like the Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) programme, created by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). These unique locations uphold important human traditions of sustainability and living in harmony with animals and nature.

Healthy and vibrant ecosystems, including the plants and animals with which we live, are vital for our daily lives and needs such as water, food, medicines, shelter and energy. The FAO-designated GIAHS are places where such co-existence has endured and prospered over centuries or even millennia.

Let’s look at a few of the recently designated GIAHS where humans and animals coexist and thrive together:

The agro-silvo-pastoral system of the mountains in Leon, Spain

In this region rich in biodiversity but poor and difficult in terms of opportunities to cultivate food, livestock form a key strand of local communities’ livelihoods. What sets these cattle, goats, sheep and horses apart are their unique indigenous breeds. In the villages throughout the mountain range, traditional livestock fairs provide venues for trading not just in animals but also in traditional knowledge.

The sustainable livestock farming practised here contributes to a respectful interaction with the environment and higher quality in the array of produce from the region. The tradition of transhumance, or seasonal movement of livestock over an extensive area, also plays an important role in seed dispersal and fertilisation of fields, thus favouring genetic heritage and biodiversity.

The landscape biodiversity, with a mosaic structure in which each family unit combines forestry, livestock and agricultural activities simultaneously, makes for greater resilience and environmental, social and economic sustainability.

Left/top: The buffalo holds crucial importance in Thailand’s rural traditions. ©Supasek Opitakon. Right/bottom: For the nomads of the Figuig oasis in Morocco, animal products are stored up in years of abundance. ©Saidi Seddik

The Thale Noi Wetland Buffalo Pastoral Agro-eco-system in Thailand

The buffalo has a letter of the Thai script named after it and countless lyrics and ceremonies praising it, such is its importance in the country’s rural traditions. So it’s not surprising that the animal should play a central role in Thailand’s first designated GIAHS.

Buffalo pastoralism is central to the livelihoods of the communities living and working in the vast wetland area in southern Thailand. It has contributed, over the centuries, to shaping ecosystems and conserving biodiversity. Buffalo trampling continuously changes the topography of local landscape, creating waterways, canals, trails, wallows and depressions throughout the wetlands, providing protective habitats for nesting birds and animal feeding grounds. Buffalo-created waterways also act as an effective natural barrier to fires during the dry season, minimizing the amount of carbon emitted by peat swamp fires.

Buffaloes also provide meat and milk products for humans, while their dung serves as fertilizer for soil and even as food for fish, which in turn provide nourishment for birds.

The Figuig Ksour- Oasis in Morocco

The inhabitants of this oasis in eastern Morocco practice two types of livestock farming, either rearing their animals within their homes and surrounding palm groves or alternatively, contracting their livestock out to nearby nomad associations to look after them together with the pastoralists’ own animals.

Farmers have made use of natural biodiversity and, based on an empirical selection of plants and animals over thousands of years, have produced seed varieties or animal breeds adapted to different local conditions. Relying on indigenous breeds of sheep, such as D’man, which are small in size and suited to the environment, the pastoralists follow a highly mobile lifestyle, going wherever there is food to be found for the animals of the desert.

For the nomads of the oasis of Figuig, the products of their animals, including meat, wool, hides and horns, form the backbone of their livelihoods. Amid the harsh desert climatic conditions, farmers store up these products in years of abundance.

The communities of the Amazonian Chakra cultivate a large variety of biodiverse foods that they rely on at different times of the year. ©Pareto Paysages

The Amazonian Chakra in Ecuador

The traditional agroforestry system, also called the chakra system, of the Amazon region is optimally positioned for the conservation of biodiversity. The system is defined by the interdependence of the environment with its human communities, who embrace everything from reptiles, amphibians, birds, fauna and invertebrates.

Livestock rearing and hunting are an integral part of the lives of the Kichwa and Kijus communities who populate this chakra. The belief system of these populations revolves around the intimate connection between the worlds of humans, spirits and animals and the air, soil and water. Humans and other beings exist together at close quarters.

At different times of the year, the communities seek out whatever foods are available, whether they be fish from the river, crops from the chakra or fruits and meat from hunting, keeping a balance between food sources and reducing pressure on any one ecosystem.

As we can see from all these communities, the interaction between humans and animals is key to maintaining food and livelihood security. It’s also crucial for the resilience of biodiverse ecosystems. The GIAHS programme supports global efforts to preserve our planet's biodiversity and the remarkable agrifood systems that promote sustainability.

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2. Zero hunger, 12. Responsible consumption and production, 15. Life on land