Fighting Poverty and Climate Change by Promoting Traditional Farming Practices and Biodiversity

17 years ago during the World Summit on Sustainable Development that took place in Johannesburg, South Africa, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations launched a Global Partnership aimed to support the conservation and adaptive management of “Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems” or GIAHS as per its acronym in English (SIPAM in Spanish, French and Italian). Today, there are 57 GIAHS certified sites in 21 countries around the world with at least a dozen more in the pipeline waiting to be assisted in the preparation of their proposals or evaluated for certification.

Certification as a GIAHS system, comprises adherence to five main parameters: 1) the system must contribute to food and livelihood security; 2) it must be endowed with globally significant biodiversity[1] and genetic resources for food and agriculture; 3) the system should strive to maintain local and invaluable traditional knowledge and practices, and ingenious adaptive technology and management systems of natural resources; 4) cultural identity and sense of place are embedded in and belong to specific agricultural sites; and 5) these systems feature landscapes and seascapes that have been developed over time through inter-linkages characterised by long historical persistence and a strong connection with the local socio-economic systems that produced them.

In addition, each prospective site must present in the proposal an Action Plan that defines the steps that the site will take to guarantee the dynamic conservation of the system. This includes an analysis of threats and challenges as well as the involvement of various relevant stakeholders to promote the sustainable and responsible development of the system’s geographical area and the communities living there.

The People’s Republic of China was one of the early adopters of the GIAHS programme and is now a global leader with 15 of the 57 globally certified GIAHS sites being located in China alone. These sites are case studies of how local communities have developed, through the centuries, sustainable and innovative techniques to adapt to inhospitable terrains and climate change while fighting poverty and rural-to-urban economic migration.

The Rice Terraces in sub-tropical China (Hunan Xinhua Ziquejie Terraces, Guangxi Longsheng Longji Terraces, Jiangxi Chongyi Hakka Terraces and Fujian Youxi Lianhe Terraces), the Rice-Fish Culture in Qintian County in Zhejiang Province and Conjiang county in Guizhou province and the Huzhou Mulberry–dyke & Fish Pond System were just three of the success stories being featured during World Tourism Day at FAO’s headquarters in Rome last September.These GIAHS sites showcase examples of how local communities have developed farming practices that have added economic value and aesthetic beauty to the geographical areas where they are located. Such practices include, but are not limited to, the building of terraces for rice crops and the enhancement of ecological symbiosis between animals and plants that are beneficial to biodiversity, increase agricultural productivity and farmers’ income. However, what makes these sites particularly worth of notice is the adoption of public-private partnerships with companies such as Alibaba and AirBnB to offer financing to farmers and to promote sustainable tourism in these areas. As stated by Mr Zhang Yuan, Director at the World Tourism Alliance in China, during his speech at FAO in September “Tourism is playing a major role in China. In some areas, it is the only tool for rural people to escape poverty.” Partnerships like the one established in China with AirBnB are building capacity at the village level to welcome tourists in infrastructures that are attractive to the international traveller and managed by local women that are trained following AirBnB’s extensive knowledge in the sector.

The development of tourism represents also new challenges to these communities as they thrive in the generation of income from new sources while ensuring the conservation of the systems. This is one of the reasons why FAO is now designing processes to support GIAHS communities in the strategic implementation of their dynamic conservation Action Plans by developing monitoring and evaluation mechanisms. FAO’s Director General, Qu Dongyu, showed his support to the goals of the GIAHS programme in a recent post on his twitter account describing how he believed that “preserving traditions and promoting agro-tourism provides opportunities that empower communities and make agriculture attractive to the youth.”

The GIAHS network is expanding rapidly, even to developed countries. Some of the most recently certified sites are now located in European countries such as Italy (Soave Traditional Vineyards and Olive Groves of the Slopes between Assisi and Spoleto), Portugal (Barroso Agro-Sylvo-Pastoral System) and Spain (Malaga Raisin Production System in La Axarquía, the Agricultural System of Ancient Olive Trees Territorio Sénia and the Agricultural System of Valle Salado de Añana).The exchange of knowledge and experiences among the 57 sites of the GIAHS network is opening new roads for the generation of income opportunities in these areas and the commercialisation of products grown in GIAHS systems.By continuing this type of exchange and joining forces in the implementation of innovative and sustainable practices, the visibility of the sites, their products and the programme itself is growing together with the expectations for the programme to increasingly deliver tangible results. Some of these opportunities are related to the use of ICT to support agricultural activities. The office of FAO in China, for example, has set up an Innovation Lab that focuses on connecting family farmers to the market with ICT and reducing food loss and waste. FAO is also supporting capacity development by delivering service design courses, design thinking and Hackatons for agricultural innovation. Indeed, projects like the FAO-Tsinghua Ag-LabCx project in China bring together stakeholders for the development and implementation of cutting-edge technologies and concepts in support of the work undertaken by the organisation to fight poverty.

In a recent statement, Rene Castro Salazar, Assistant Director General at FAO for Climate, Biodiversity, Land and Water Department, stated, “we are working to expand the network of GIAHS sites. We want at least one in every country; now is the run for Central America, these sites will be important for biodiversity, in situ conservation, rural tourism, jobs creation and to migrate towards low CO2 products.”

With a new leadership in place at FAO and the management of the GIAHS programme determined to increase outputs and tangible results, this seems to be the right time to join the network and share in the benefits.

For more information on GIAHS or on how to apply to become a GIAHS certified site, please write to

This article was first published in the Global Poverty Reduction and Inclusive Growth Portal of the International Poverty Reduction Center in China.

[1] (*) FAO defines agro-biodiversity as follows: "The variety and variability of animals, plants and micro-organisms that are used directly or indirectly for food and agriculture, including crops, livestock, forestry and fisheries. It comprises the diversity of genetic resources (varieties, breeds) and species used for food, fodder, fibre, fuel and pharmaceuticals. It also includes the diversity of non-harvested species that support production (soil micro-organisms, predators, pollinators), and those in the wider environment that support agro-ecosystems (agricultural, pastoral, forest and aquatic) as well as the diversity of the agro-ecosystems." Source:

Photo credits: FAO

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