Agricultural heritage recognized by the UN
By Lu Yan  ·  2023-06-02  ·   Source: NO.23 JUNE 8, 2023
Farmers pick tea leaves in Anxi, Fujian Province, in October 2018 (XINHUA)

On the Ar Horqin Grassland, where north China's farming areas meet its grasslands, herders maintain the ancient and traditional nomadic customs that have existed there for thousands of years. They live in harmony with nature, ensuring both their own livelihood and ecological sustainability.

In May, the Ar Horqin Grassland Nomadic System was designated as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS) by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

On May 22, which also marked International Day for Biological Diversity, the FAO awarded certificates at its headquarters in Rome, Italy, to 24 new GIAHS sites. They are located in 12 countries, including China—home to four new sites. These new sites were the first to be recognized by the FAO since 2018.

Many of the GIAHS had become "reservoirs of biological diversity," FAO Director General Qu Dongyu said at the award ceremony. "Agricultural heritage systems showcase practices that offer solutions to climate change and biodiversity loss, in particular at the local level."

Agriculture is a source of greenhouse gas emissions, but can also be a major contributor to increases in carbon sequestration and sinks, both of which have the potential to help keep global warming under control, Zhao Lixin, head of the Institute of Environment and Sustainable Development in Agriculture at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, told Beijing Review, adding that China is already making progress in this regard.

The GIAHS network currently consists of 74 systems across the world. China is home to 19 of them, making it the largest single contributor to the list.

Guang Defu, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of China to the FAO, said China is ready to further increase investment in the development of GIAHS and contribute to safeguarding global food security to realize the UN's 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

Nature-human harmony

For millennia, on the Ar Horqin Grassland in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, herders, livestock, grasslands and rivers have all been interdependent. Written records and cultural relics show how the grassland nomadic culture has existed there for at least 5,000 years. There, mountains are towering, the grasslands are vast and the rivers are numerous.

People live according to the water and the grass, eat meat and cheese, ride horses and live traditional lifestyles. Through traditional nomadism, they have achieved harmony between humanity and nature. Similar to Europeans practicing transhumance, which means herding livestock to different, geographically distant grazing areas over the course of a year, herders on the Ar Horqin rotate livestock between summer and winter camps, using different grazing methods in each. The rotation is conducive to the natural rehabilitation of the grassland.

Today, herders also apply new technologies. Previously, herders would brave the piercingly cold wind of the snowfields in winter, which can reach around minus 30 degrees Celsius. Now, they have built houses in the winter pastures and use a smartphone app to monitor the movement of livestock from the warmth of their homes.

Media platforms powered by new technologies have also changed the way locals access information. Thanks to this, and the central and local governments' calls for grassland protection, herders are adopting ecologically sustainable grazing methods. "I used to think the more cattle and sheep, the better; now, I focus on raising lower quantities with higher quality. This can protect the grassland and make money," Lu Jiang, a 60-something local, told

The combination of agricultural production and ecological conservation is not only practiced on the grasslands of north China, but has also been practiced for a long time in other places around the country.

More than 1,200 years ago, farmers began to raise fish in their paddy fields. In this system, the rice provides the fish with shelter and organic food while the fish in turn soften the soil, provide fertilizer and eat pests and weeds. It helps maintain the ecological balance of the fields and facilitates a dual harvest of rice and fish. In 2005, the rice-fish culture in Qingtian, a county in Zhejiang Province, was listed in the world's first group of GIAHS, making it China's first traditional agricultural system on the list.

The Qingyuan Forest-Mushroom Co-culture System in Zhejiang was also added to the GIAHS list this year. Located in the southwestern mountainous area of the province in east China, the agroforestry system dates back to the 13th century.

Developed in the high-altitude mountainous region, the system integrates forest conservation with mushroom cultivation, namely, growing fungi on felled trees in the forest. "The felled mushroom wood rots naturally and increases humus, which not only maintains soil fertility and promotes water conservation, but also protects the forest," Ye Xiaoxing, Director of the Edible Fungus Industry Center in Qingyuan County, said.

According to a staff member at the forest farm, mushrooms grow naturally in the shade of the forest canopy and are free from any pollution. Passed down from one generation to the next, the system is hailed as a living museum of mushroom cultivation technology in China.

Bio and food diversity

GIAHS is an FAO flagship program established in 2002 to identify and protect important agricultural heritage sites and their associated biodiversity, landscapes, knowledge systems and cultures.

According to the organization, the GIAHS are agroecosystems inhabited by communities that live in an intricate relationship with their territory. These evolving sites are resilient systems characterized by remarkable agrobiodiversity, traditional knowledge, invaluable cultures and landscapes, sustainably managed by farmers, herders, fishers and forest people in ways that contribute to their livelihoods and food security.

"In the context of agrifood systems and rural areas, we need to consider the combined conservation of biodiversity and food diversity. This is the most pragmatic way to raise public awareness of biodiversity," Qu said.

According to the FAO, in the Shexian Dryland Stone Terraced System, also added to the list in May, rich and diverse cash crops are cultivated. It not only provides ample food for the local population but also guarantees the preservation of large numbers of valuable local varieties.

The system was developed by the ancestors of locals in Shexian County of north China's Hebei Province in the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). The system arose as an adaptation to and transformation of the county's harsh natural environment, which is mainly drought-stricken and mountainous. The ancient people of Shexian used stone to create terraced hillside farmland.

The stone terraces form a rain-fed agricultural system. "With the storage of precious rainwater in stone cellars for farming, coupled with planting crops suitable for the local climate and using donkey manure as organic fertilizer, the dryland terraces help us tap into the little land and resources we have in a sustainable way," He Xianlin, an agricultural specialist who was involved in the system's inclusion on the FAO list, told China Daily.

The system not only reduces the occurrence of natural disasters such as soil erosion and landslides, but also provides locals with a quality environment to live and work in.

"This system could be considered a model for the use of soil and water in mountainous areas, as well as for sustainable and ecological agriculture in drylands," the FAO stated on its website while describing the system's global significance.

The Anxi Tieguanyin Tea Culture System was also added to the list in May. The system has brought both ecological and economic benefits to local people. Anxi County in southeast China's Fujian Province has a tea production history of over 1,000 years and is home to the renowned Tieguanyin tea, a type of semi-fermented oolong tea which falls into a category between green and black tea. The tea industry is a pillar of the county—about 80 percent of the population works in the industry chain and more than half of farmer incomes come from it.

Local farmers know how to manage the natural environment to guarantee the best conditions for tea cultivation and produce tea with high quality. These legacies have ensured long-term stability and sustainability of the ecological systems of its tea plantations and embedded the product as part of the identity of local communities, the FAO said. Anxi tea played a role in ancient cross-border trade and exchange. In the Song (960-1279) and Yuan dynasties, it was exported along the Maritime Silk Road, a passage for commercial and cultural communication between ancient China and the world.

In modern times, Tieguanyin tea is consumed at major diplomatic events such as the 2017 BRICS Summit in Xiamen, Fujian, and the 18th Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit in Qingdao, Shandong Province, in 2018.

(Print Edition Title: Fertile and Fruitful)

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson 

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