Today, the world is facing numerous challenges in front of changes in almost every sphere of life. This clearly seems to be a transition period in the economic, social, cultural, technological and political fields together with environmental change and its consequences. According to scientists, the impact of these changes is due to the effect of unsustainable practices carried out by human activities. Examples of these practices are the incorrect, imbalanced and unsustainable use of natural resources, as well as untenable development models, which do not consider long term impacts or “side effects” of activities conducted.
Concerning the rural territory, the development model promoted in the last decades has not only shown to be ineffective to solve the economic problems of many rural areas, but also contributed to the loss of cultural values associated to rural communities. This has brought to the degradation of valuable land use systems and landscapes shaped by several generations of farmers, to the abandonment of millions of hectares of farmed land and to urbanization processes, creating social degradation and increasing urban sprawl.
As one of the human activities which has a direct relationship with nature and environment, agriculture is often considered as one of the main drivers of the negative trend that is being followed, representing the greatest immediate threat to species and ecosystems. In fact, unsustainable farming practices result in land conversion leading to soil erosion and degradation, habitat loss, genetic erosion, inefficient use of water, pollution impacting wild and human life.
Nevertheless, when agriculture is practiced in a sustainable way, it can preserve landscape, biocultural diversity, protect watersheds, and improve soil health and water quality.
In fact, the use of sustainable ecological practices is a key feature distinguishing resilient agricultures developed over centuries, based on long experience and proven traditions. This kind of farming may be considered as less productive from modern-intensive systems, but it has ensured sustainable yield over time, thanks to time-tested technologies and traditional know-hows, using reduced external energy inputs.
Based on this idea, in 2002, FAO launched the project name “Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS)”. GIAHS are remarkable land use systems and landscapes which are rich in globally significant biological diversity evolving from the co-adaptation of a community with its environment and its needs and aspirations for sustainable development. The aim of the initiative is to identify and safeguard farmers and agricultural landscapes that have survived using traditional techniques and are still providing many services to the ecosystem, a huge agrobiodiversity, ancestral knowledge transmitted through generations, and strong cultural and social values. Furthermore, food production practices associated to the quality of landscape and tourism, may represent a fundamental added value for the competitiveness of many rural areas not suited for industrial agriculture. This approach intends to contribute to a new vision for the future of the planet, integrating human society and the environment according to the sustainable development goals.
Considering the successful developments of the project, from 2015, based on the outcome of the 39th FAO Conference, GIAHS has become an official FAO corporate programme. Today the FAO Agricultural Heritage program includes 50 landscapes across the world and is the largest program of the UN dedicated to the protection of agricultural heritage.