Saving Life on the Edges of the World
Published on Thursday, October 26, 2006 by the Inter Press Service
Saving Life on the Edges of the World
by Sabina Zaccaro

ROME - Communities that lived off fishing and forest produce on the Chiloe archipelago in the south of Chile for centuries have now begun to leave. They could deal with the difficult conditions, but the environment cannot sustain many of them any more.

In North Africa communities that lived around oases for centuries have begun to move out. The traditional people of old are the refugees of today.

Difficult places both, but not so difficult that they could not sustain local people. And in turn the indigenous people of these areas worked with the environment to develop new sustenance for themselves and others. Chiloe gave the world the potato, some agriculturists say.

But as difficult conditions become close to impossible, many of these places need help. The beginning of that came by way of the Globally Important Agriculture Heritage Systems (GIAHS) initiative launched in 2002 by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, with the support of the Global Environment Fund.

The initiative, which has led mostly to research so far, identified about 200 agricultural systems that are threatened by climate change, rural impoverishment, exodus to urban areas, exclusion of local economies from large-scale markets and other such dangers.

"These systems provide food security for two million people worldwide and potentially all humanity will need them in the future," FAO rural development director and coordinator of the GIAHS project Parviz Koohafkan told IPS.

"Seventy-five percent of rural poor live thanks to agriculture, they are custodians of unbelievable agricultural methods. But globalization is a tremendous challenge for agriculture and small-scale farmers, and humanity could lose these heritages if we don't take care of them."

During the four years of its preparatory phase (2002-2006), the GIAHS initiative has identified seven pilot sites in Peru, Chile, China, the Philippines, and at oases in the Maghreb in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria.

In Morocco, "36 percent of the population is living below the poverty line," Noureddine Nasr, representative of the GIAHS pilot systems in the Maghreb told IPS. "The increasing demographic pressure on the natural resources of the oases and the intrinsic poverty are destabilising the ecosystem."

Many people are continually abandoning these areas to try to flee to Italy and other European countries, he said.

Over the next seven years (2007-14) the GIAHS project will work with direct involvement of indigenous communities to implement new conservation methods identified during the studies so far.

"At a local level, our objective is building on local people's knowledge and empowering communities to recognise the importance of these systems so that they can keep on maintaining them for themselves before doing that for the rest of humanity," Koohafkan said. "Because, agriculture is a way of living, prior to being a way to produce food."

Indigenous groups are often not even aware of the many treasures they have, he said. "Our aim is help them understand what they have and realise their own rights over this value, and to prevent government actions to label products, as often happens, and simply take them away from farmers."

The first experiences with five pilot projects and the challenges of wider implementation were discussed at a three-day international forum on traditional agricultural systems at the FAO headquarters in Rome Oct. 24-26. The meeting brought together farmers, scientists and members of indigenous groups from all continents.

The experiences were revealing. "The area where we're working for the last four years has an extremely low standard of living," Mario Tapia, coordinator of the GIAHS pilot site in Peru told IPS. This site is located in the southern Peruvian Andes around Machu Picchu at 1900 metres above sea level, going up to Lake Titicaca at 3,800 metres. The path links two very different municipalities and four communities of 1,800 peasant families.

The project here, in coordination with the Peruvian environmental group Consejo Nacional del Ambiente, is aiming to conserve ancient traditional agricultural technologies that have worked for centuries.

"There is a direct link between depletion of natural resources or loss of biodiversity and global challenges like exodus towards cities or other countries," Mario Tapia told IPS.

"As much as you increase the possibility to earn from the land, you can limit migration, like our experience in Peru clearly shows. There has been 20 percent reduction of permanent migration and 50 percent reduction of temporary migration (people who leave the country for up to two years) due to a more direct participation of local communities in land preservation."

Alipio Canahua who specialises in Andean agriculture told IPS that in this region "there is shortage of food for six months in a year" and that the aim of the GIAHS project is "halving this deficit over the next two years."

The contribution of women "who are the custodians of knowledge on seeds" will be critical, Canahua said. "While men more and more frequently go to the big cities to work, women stay at home and rediscover the culinary traditions which otherwise would have been lost. They just bring biodiversity alive."

The GIAHS project is intended to eventually encompass 100 to 150 such systems worldwide and create a World Agriculture Heritage to guarantee the sustainability of these agro-eco systems.

© Copyright 2006 IPS - Inter Press Service