Updated: Aug 8
Agricultural heritage systems may sound like they belong to the past, or like they are very limited to specific cultural contexts and thus unable to teach lessons that can elicit universal interest. They may sound like that, but that's not what they are: an agricultural heritage system might be being developed in your very own city, right now, while some system from Peru or India is being studied at an Ivy League college ecology department for lessons of how to manage crop production more efficiently. In fact, here are five major perks of agricultural heritage systems that might make you want to take a look at them as something more than a curiosity:
1) They sustain biodiversity on several layers.
With the role of biodiversity being increasingly recognized for both the role it plays in preventing the homogenization and genetic impoverishment of crops as well as in establishing networks of biological pest control, these agricultural heritage systems often act as a reservoir for landrace varieties of common crops (that sometimes have even evolved to be resistant of a specific plague) where that genetic diversity can be kept alive and evolving. This biodiversity means an increased stability in yields over time, as there is a consistently reduced chance of catastrophic failures for each year's harvests. In short, these systems sustain both a diversity of varieties of the crops they serve to grow, as well as a variety of species of insects and other animals that make them actual reservoirs of zoological biodiversity. Much like how the urban gardens could help save the bumblebees.
Areas near agricultural heritage systems present a diversity of varieties of the same crops, like the variety of potatoes in this street market in Huancayo, Peru.
2) They serve as experimental cases of study.
According to a 2011 FAO booklet, agricultural heritage systems are also live experiment grounds from which the scientists can discover new ways to improve the efficiency of commercially dominant food production systems. Or, as the FAO puts it:
"By studying traditional systems, scientists can learn more about the dynamics of complex systems, especially about the links between agricultural biodiversity and ecosystem function and thereby contribute to the enrichment of the ecological theory and derive principles for practical application in the design of modern sustainable farming systems. For example, in deciphering how intercropping practice works, farmers can take advantage of the ability of cropping systems to reuse their own stored nutrients. This information can be gleaned to improve the ways in which farmers can manage soil fertility."
3) They are essential for food security.
Tied to these two last points, agricultural heritage systems also serve as barriers against famine in their local areas, especially with the looming threat of climate change, and they could very much improve the stability and safety of all areas of the world that start to face similar challenges to the ones that these systems faced during their creation. The tassa farming techniques of the western Sahel or the systems of acequias of southern Spain are just a couple of examples of low-technology, simple ways of facing permanent or frequent drought conditions, while the famous systems of terracing that are used in millions of acres of slopes across South Asia and South America could help to turn steep land into productive farmland, as more and more plains around the world start to be flooded by rising sea levels.
Terraces with recently sown potatoes, tomatoes and squash near the city of Arequipa, in Peru.
4) They generate cultural changes, for the better.
Agricultural heritage systems are, almost necessarily, a communal affaire. Be they managed by just a few families, by villages, by many or just a few people separately or together, agricultural heritage systems create cultural ties around them that generate a new way to look at food production, a new culture of cultivation that challenges the dominant paradigm that sustainable and efficient food production requires tractors, an uninterrupted flow of fertilizers and pesticides, and acres upon acres of land where a single species is grown. They also serve as a space for the interaction of all the members of a community in the pursuit of a common goal, and could serve to combat the hidden epidemic of loneliness that hits the US and the whole developed world.
5) They are alive and expanding, and new ones can be created.
Probably the best perk of agricultural heritage systems, however, is that their number is not fixed. As much as they can die if the communities built around them stop taking care of them (due to migration, changing climate, better economic opportunities for the young elsewhere, war or any of the many challenges that communities around the globe face), they can also begin from scratch if a community or just a single individual start the task of creating one. The whole aim of the permaculture movement, in fact, could perhaps be defined as the creation of new agricultural heritage systems, where the 'perma' part of permaculture is the permanency of the system over time, across generations. A legacy for the future generations can be started today, and it can be both efficient and productive: that is, in the end, the greatest perk of agricultural heritage systems, and the secret of their survival until today.
Terraces in a new eco-village in the Cameroonian chiefdom of Bandrefam, Kouo'shi Ndamzù, which began to exist in 2017.