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World: Experts Fight To Save Ancient Agricultural Systems

A qanat on the grounds of the Iranian National Library in Tehran (Courtesy Photo) PRAGUE, October 25, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Date farms in Sahara Desert oases. Terraced lemon orchards in coastal Italy. Indigenous forest management in Russia’s Far East. Ancient underground irrigation in Iran.

These are just a few examples of what the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) calls “Globally Important Agriculture Heritage Systems.” Experts from around the world are meeting in Rome this week to discuss ways to safeguard these endangered systems, which besides feeding people for centuries, have also created beautiful landscapes that prevent environmental degradation.

'Real Value For Humanity'

When the UN food agency came up with the program in 2002, the goal was to establish a framework for identifying and preserving the world’s most important agricultural heritage systems.

“Many of these local people have lost, in a way, the hope for really surviving the way they want. They’ve often lost their values -- the young people go to school and they do not return necessarily to the farm."

And a key part of that process will be the eventual creation of a World Agricultural Heritage designation -- similar to the one UNESCO awards to important historical and cultural sites.

“So far, we don’t have an agricultural heritage [designation]," says Parviz Koohafkan, director for rural development at the Rome-based FAO. "So the idea is, among all these traditional systems, there are many of them -- we have already identified some 200 -- many of them have real value for humanity.”

In a world powered by the jet engine, the Internet, and constantly evolving technologies, what’s so important about ancient rice-fish farms in China, Andean potato cultivation or nomadic herding in Iran?

Quite a lot, if you ask Pietro Laureano, an Italian expert on traditional agricultural techniques and environmental protection.

Still Sustaining The World

“The livelihood of two-thirds of humanity still resides in these techniques," Laureano says. "In reality, methods that are considered ancient, of the past, actually sustain much of the world’s population. Entire countries make their living from these methods.”

As Laureano recalls, much like UNESCO culture sites, many of these age-old agricultural systems are among the world’s most beautiful landscapes.

For example, among the FAO sites, there are the picturesque terraced lemon orchards on southern Italy’s Amalfi coast, where ancient techniques to preserve water and provide shade have helped produce a unique fruit.

The plan of a typical qanat (courtesy)

There are many other picturesque sites, including Saharan oases and the arid plains of Afghanistan and Iran, where an ancient water-distribution system, qanat, has allowed locals to develop specialized and diverse cropping systems.

Relying on gravity alone, qanats use tunnels that follow an aquifer to collect water from different layers of earth. They minimize loss of water through evaporation and ensure an efficient use of the resources.

Heritage Under Threat

Yet many of these ancient culture and their techniques are under dire threat.

Industrial development and pollution, climate change, and the exodus toward urban areas are just some of the challenges they face, Koohafkan says.

“Many of these local people have lost, in a way, the hope for really surviving the way they want," he adds. "They’ve often lost their values -- the young people go to school and they do not return necessarily to the farm. So we need to empower [them], and especially empower their local governance and social system, in order to actually maintain these systems.”

Increasingly, however, many of these ancient agricultural systems are being identified as bulwarks against environmental destruction.

Take the use of water in a Saharan oasis.

“The water is brought from hundreds of kilometers -- far, from the mountain areas, to the desert area -- to create the oasis, the gardens, which are very, very in biological diversity," Koohafkan says. "They are very, very important from a food and nutritional point of view. They are absolutely outstanding [in terms of] landscape diversity and beauty in the desert. But also they have strong cultural practices associated with all of that.”

But as Laureano recalls, many Saharan oases are disappearing because people have abandoned ancient water collection methods and instead used modern equipment to drill deep wells to gather water for large farming projects. But the wells eventually dry up, in the process destroying the oasis.

The Rise Of Industrial Farming

Water management is also at the heart of traditional terrace farming, from China to the Mediterranean. Ancient stonewalls and rivulets were built to capture water and regulate its use. But industrial farming has changed all that.

A farmer near Jalalabad, Afghanistan (epa file photo)

It requires massive amounts of water. That depletes underground aquifers, which are often then filled by seawater. That salinized soil then requires chemical fertilizers to hold onto water. Those chemicals do their own damage to the land, further stripping its ability to absorb rainfall.

This process, which can happen rapidly, is called “desertification,” and the result the transformation of once rich land into desert. And it’s happening around the world, from the Aral Sea in Central Asia to North America.

As one of the world’s leading expert on desertification, Laureano has long advocated for the protection of traditional agricultural methods as a first defense against environmental degradation and destruction.

A Contest For Preservation

For him, creating a new World Agricultural Heritage designation would be far more than a mere symbolic step.

“UNESCO has really had huge success with its list [of World Heritage Sites] because everyone wants to get on the list," Laureano says. "There are 800 sites now in the world on the list, and everyone wants to get in -- historic cities, monuments, landscapes. It’s become a contest -- a contest for preserving, for safeguarding.”

For now, the FAO initiative is concentrating on a few select pilot projects. They include ancient potato farms in Peru, fish-rice cultivation in China, and date farming in the oases of the Sahara Desert in Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria.

Farmers, scientists and government officials meeting in Rome this week will be discussing progress at those sites and upcoming plans for the next phase in the project.

That will involve implementing what the FAO calls “dynamic conservation management approaches” aimed at helping preserve the sites and their culture.

The lessons learned should lead to the creation, by 2014, of a World Agriculture Heritage category -- a designation that will hopefully help preserve many other ancient agricultural sites around the world.

An Increasingly Thirsty World

An Increasingly Thirsty World

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