Life underground: digging deeper to learn more about soils

Interview with Mr. Moujahed Achouri, Director of FAO's Land and Water division (part 2)

In the second part of his interview, Mr Achouri provides specific examples of GIAHS sites that impact positively on soils, food security, nutrition and stronger livelihoods. He speaks about the links between biological diversity, cultural diversity and traditional knowlege and their relevance to soils and looks to the future beyond the IYS 2015.

 1. Conserving biodiversity and local knowledge is another key aim of the GIAHS programme, why are these important when it comes to soils? Can you give any examples?

The conservation of biodiversity and local knowledge are key components of the GIAHS programme. In fact, a number of studies show that there is a strong link between areas with high biological diversity and areas with high cultural diversity.In view of the need to conserve and sustain diversity of food crops and species, both biodiversity and local knowledge are very important and relevant to soils

In their long history of managing the environment, farmers and indigenous people have accumulated the ecological knowledge and know-how to conserve biological diversity and soils. This is evident from practices such as agricultural adaptation, plant breeding, utilisation of wild crop relatives, resilient farming and resource management, including climate forecasting. Farmers’ knowledge of plant breeding is evident from the thousands of traditional varieties present in GIAHS.  Many of these have been developed or improved by farmers themselves matched with appropriate, site-specific soil management. For example, the preservation and conservation of crops in GIAHS sites in Chile are being conducted by skilled farmers (mostly women), based on their knowledge of crops, agro-ecological and surrounding ecosystems (i.e. local breeding to improve or to have drought resistant seeds).

Another example is Koraput Traditional agriculture in the State of Orissa in India. Here, tribal groups and women utilize their traditional knowledge systems in plant breeding, which are integral to the healthy functioning of the soil and agro-ecosystems. Traditional agriculture practices, local breeding techniques, diversification and multiple cropping ensure that households and local communities have food and nutritious food. In addition, they strengthen crops by making them genetically robust and well adapted to the local environment.

2. Could you describe two GIAHS sites that impact positively on soils and in turn on the production of nutritious food?

All GIAHS sites have a positive impact on soils and on the production of safe and nutritious food.  Two GIAHS sites in South-East Asia which highlight this are:

(1)  Ifugao Rice Terraces, Philippines

Ifugao Rice Terraces system is a remarkable agricultural farming system which retained the viability of 2 000-year old organic paddy farming. The rice terraces are supported by indigenous knowledge management of ‘muyong’, a private forest that caps each terrace cluster. These well-managed ‘muyong’ have important roles, not only in producing traditional rice varieties that are important for food security and from a social and cultural point of view, but also in the provision of  water and preventing soil erosion, as well as clean water for domestic and household use. This traditional management and knowledge has enabled farmers to grow rice at over 1 000 meters above sea level in a sustainable manner.

(2)  Rice-Fish Culture, China

Over time, an ecological symbiosis has emerged in traditional rice-fish culture. While rice provides shade and food for fish, fish provide fertilizers for rice, regulate micro-climate conditions, soften the soil, displace water, and eat larvae and weeds in flooded fields. Thanks to this symbiosis, soil has been maintained without using chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides for insect and weed control while producing staple and nutritious food and protecting flora and fauna.

3.  With 33% of the world's soils moderately to highly degraded, the current rate of soil degradation threatens the capacity to meet the needs of future generations. In your opinion, what else can FAO do to promote soil health and raise awareness about soils beyond the International Year of Soils?

FAO members have established the Global Soil Partnership (GSP) which aims to promote sustainable soil management at all levels. The IYS is a fundamental platform to advocate for this cause and set the basis for increasing attention to soils and thus bolster investment on soils. After 2015, FAO through the implementation of the five GSP pillars of action will continue with its task of raising awareness on the importance of soils, by implementing the World Soil Charter principles and sustainable soil management, conservation and restoration programmes. All of these activities are aimed to contribute to food security and nutrition, climate change adaptation and mitigation, sustainable development and Post-2015 agenda.

Joint programmes and sharing experiences are at the centre of this process with FAO bridging the gaps between countries while also learning from these ingenious and sustainable systems. It is clear that when it comes to soils we all have something to learn from one another, from soil scientists to indigenous people and policy makers to agricultural planners. Even the general public can make a difference by spreading the word about why soils are important: ultimately there is ongoing life beneath our feet and a healthy soil means a healthy life!


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