Skip to main content

Learning from the past, securing a resilient future

Bioversity International and the World Agricultural Heritage Foundation together support agricultural heritage systems and family farming communities to safeguard their biodiversity for food and nutrition security, enhancing their indigenous knowledge, food culture and their resilience to climate change.

What is an agricultural heritage system?

All over the world survive ancient agricultural systems, developed over thousands of years. These systems combine rich natural resources with human ingenuity, resulting in the capacity to provide for local livelihoods and nutrition while respecting, and even improving, natural resources.

Why are they globally important?

Resilient landscapes and livelihoods that have been maintained sustainably for thousands of years offer many insights to the challenges facing modern agriculture. How do you increase production, for example, without depleting soils? How do you combine biodiversity conservation with the health and wellbeing of rural communities?

Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS)

GIAHS is a programme of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), founded as a UN partnership initiative for sustainable development in 2002. It aims to identify, support and safeguard globally important agricultural heritage systems and their livelihoods, agricultural and associated biodiversity, knowledge systems, cultures and landscapes around the world. GIAHS sites are not living museums, but places where people practise ‘dynamic conservation’. They retain the best of the past to build a sustainable future.

The Ifugao Rice Terraces

The Ifugao Rice Terraces are a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System in the mountains of northern Philippines. Home to a remarkably sophisticated system of livelihood and landscape management, the terraces , are fed by an ancient irrigation system from the rainforests above them. The rice terraces, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1995, are a feat of engineering ingenuity carved into the mountain by ancestors of the indigenous people approximately 2000 years ago.

The agricultural system provides a complete diet, with rice varieties, vegetables grown on drier mounds, fish raised in holes and molluscs and algae sourced from the water. The terraces have been managed through the ancestral land use traditions of the indigenous Ifugao community. The maintenance of the living rice terraces reflects detailed knowledge of the rich diversity of biological resources existing in the agroecosystem, respecting lunar cycles, zoning and planning, extensive soil conservation, and the mastery of a complex pest control regime based on the processing of herbs, accompanied by religious rituals.

How do we support GIAHS?

FAO has a mandate to review and designate GIAHS and follow up their compliance with set criteria and action plans. Bioversity International works hand in hand with the World Agricultural Heritage Foundation (WAHF) to provide on-the-ground technical support to farmer communities, promote market opportunities and mobilize financial resources for the implementation of GIAHS dynamic conservation action plans. Bioversity International and WAHF strongly believe that GIAHS can be viable systems that contribute to contemporary and future challenges of food and nutrition security and conservation of biological diversity and genetic resources.

GIAHS focus on biodiversity at a genetic level – looking at the conservation and use of indigenous varieties and species. They also focus on biodiversity at a landscape level – the mosaic of different land uses which produce ecosystem services such as clean water and food security. Bioversity International and WAHF have expertise and knowledge in several areas which support GIAHS to become stronger and more action oriented.

These include:

  • On-farm conservation
  • Community biodiversity management
  • Dietary diversity and nutrition
  • Payment for Agrobiodiversity Conservation Services (PACS)
  • Certification and markets of neglected and underutilized species (NUS)
  • Biocultural heritage, traditional foodways and intergenerational transmission

Main activities include:

  • Resilience assessments using scientifically validated measurements to assess different aspects of a livelihood system to see how able it is to adapt to shocks, such as changing and variable climate patterns. By understanding and improving their environmental and economic conditions, local people can increase the social and ecological resilience of their landscapes.
  • Capacity building programmes of local farming communities and local and national institutions to conserve and sustainably manage GIAHS 
  • Mitigation of risks of biodiversity decline, land degradation and loss of traditional knowledge
  • Developing incentive mechanisms for biodiversity conservation and sustainable management efforts of local communities.