Soil: a sacred resource at the foundation of traditional agricultural heritage systems

Interview with Mr. Moujahed Achouri, Director of FAO's Land and Water division (part 1)

1. What are Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems? Where do soils fit in?

Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems, or GIAHS, are defined as “remarkable land use systems and landscapes which are rich in globally significant biological diversity evolving from the co-adaptation of a community with its environment and its needs and aspirations for sustainable development”.

GIAHS, which are founded on traditional ecological knowledge systems, have resulted not only in outstanding landscapes, maintenance and adaptation of agricultural biodiversity, indigenous knowledge and resilient ecosystems, but, above all, in the sustained provision of multiple goods and services, food and livelihood security for millions of local community members and indigenous peoples, well beyond their borders.

So, how do soils fit in? Soils are literally at the very foundation of these systems. In fact, in areas where GIAHS custodians are indigenous peoples and communities who are living closer to nature, soil is viewed as much more than a medium for growing food. It is considered a 'sacred resource', an integral part of life which is linked to their cultural, social and spiritual identity. Indigenous communities respect and protect soils as mother Earth, they have a deep and sophisticated understanding of nature and the properties of soils, and they know that the foundation of productivity, cultivation and diversification of crops for food and medicine, as well as raising livestock, is a healthy living soil.

2. Soils have many functions that underpin agriculture, livestock and forestry production systems, providing a wide variety of ecosystem services. Because of these multiple functions, soils cannot be considered in isolation but are a critical part of any agricultural ecosystem. 

The IYS has highlighted six key functions of healthy soils, keeping these in mind, how do GIAHS safeguard this precious resource?

One of the fundamental principles of agricultural heritage is conserving and safeguarding the  'sustainability functions' of traditional agricultural systems because these functions guarantee a wide variety of ecosystem goods and services which we all depend on. By performing a variety of key functions which contribute to sustainable development, soils are at the heart of GIAHS natural agro-ecosystems.

For example, traditional agricultural and forestry systems strengthen soils by enriching and protecting their biological diversity.

Healthy soils contain millions of diverse living organisms, ranging from a myriad of invisible microbes, bacteria and fungi to the more familiar macro-fauna such as earthworms and termites. Plant roots and other farm or organic residues can also be considered as soil organisms in view of their symbiotic relationships and interactions with other soil components. These diverse organisms interact with one another and with the various plants and animals in the ecosystem, forming a complex web of biological activity.

It is important to note that this diversity is affected by many environmental factors, such as temperature, moisture and acidity, as well as anthropogenic actions and agricultural and forestry management practices. This affects soil biological communities and their functions to different extents. If this complex web of biological activity is not considered, soil health, ecosystem function and productivity is jeopardized. 

3. Farmers depend on soils for food, feed and a wide range of ecosystem services but soils also depend on farmers. The promotion of natural/sustainable resource management is central to GIAHS, what can farmers do to protect their soils in this respect?

Knowledgeable farmers who practise traditional farming know how to protect their soils because they live on the land and they have an intimate knowledge of their soils. Their knowledge and practices are important not only in terms of soil conservation but for the production of high quality nutritious food for their family's consumption and for local and global economies alike.

Besides protecting and keeping soil healthy for the production of safe and nutritious food, the concept of GIAHS is embedded in the inherent characteristics of traditional agriculture: an evolving system of practices that is perfected over time through trial and error, and by adjusting to the changing environment, to cope with socio-economic needs while better managing finite natural resources like soil.

This holistic and multidisciplinary approach is rooted in cultural/agricultural heritage.

GIAHS farmers value their heritage, and because they value their heritage, they value soils and the crops they produce. All existing GIAHS sites reveal the sustainable and ingenious management of soil resources.

The rice fish culture in China; the ancient mountain rice terraces in the Philippines; agroforestry systems and home gardening in Asia and Latin America; the Andean sites (mountain terracing, Lake Titicaca etc.) in the corridor, Cusco and Puno in Peru; and the integrated resources management in the island of Chiloé in Chile,  are  just some of the living examples and proof of sustainable natural resources management of GIAHS, where the history of protecting and respecting soils has been passed from generation to generation.

Without this transmitted knowledge, globally important agricultural heritage systems would not exist today.

4. How does GIAHS support farmers in the promotion of sustainable land management and soil conservation?

GIAHS adopts an integrated management approach which is multi-level, multi-sector and promotes dynamic conservation and management of natural resources through these systems. However, small-scale farmers, indigenous communities and national governments are the main actors in the process with FAO acting exclusively as a facilitator.

In particular, FAO and national partners are putting more emphasis on intervention at the local level. Empowering and building the capacities of family farmers, indigenous peoples and small-scale farmers (men, women and youth) to sustainably manage their land, water, biodiversity and soil resources is central to the GIAHS approach.


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