Preservation and enhancement of the agricultural and food heritage in North Africa

23 Jul 2021

North Africa abounds in traditional agricultural systems that are remarkable both for the high levels of cultivated biodiversity they represent and for the reservoir of traditional agricultural and culinary knowledge that they have been transmitting for centuries.

Subjected to the devastating pressures of rapid globalization, rural exodus and the effects of climate change, these systems and the communities that depend on them are now facing real challenges. Cultural erosion, genetic erosion, erosion of landscapes; the stakes are high but solutions exist because all the riches that inhabit these sites can and must be enhanced to recreate attractiveness and open a new path of possibilities for future generations.

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If the valorization of biodiversity and ‘traditional terroirs’ has not been the mainstream path chosen in rural development strategies, today it represents a real strategic alternative to rethink a fair and inclusive, sustainable and resilient future for rural communities around the world. It is in this context that the Slow Food Foundation and the GIAHS program wish to engage in a joint effort, with the communities and governments in North Africa, to support the preservation and promotion of agricultural and food heritages.

Highlighting and promoting culinary and agricultural heritage: GIAHS and Slow Food Presidia

There are several tools for recognition and valorisation that complement each other in an attempt to respond to the challenges posed by the crises we are experiencing.

Among them, the GIAHS recognition aims at identifying and recognizing complex agricultural systems based on their importance in terms of food security, biodiversity, agricultural know-how and practices, culture and landscape maintenance. While GIAHS are not necessarily endangered, they are certainly threatened and require special attention from governments to ensure their sustainability. Recognition is not an end, but rather the beginning of the implementation of a range of activities aimed to face the challenges and aspirations of rural communities.

The activities of valorisation can be varied and are always complementary, involving the cuisine, a product or the agricultural system to which they belong. According to that, the Slow Food Foundation has developed a range of activities that allow for the concrete implementation of these preservation and enhancement actions.

Slow Food Presidia are products that are emblematic of a territory and in danger of disappearing. Deeply rooted in historical rural landscapes and evolving in perfect harmony with both the natural and artificial environments in which they were developed, they may be plant varieties, animal breeds or products that have been processed for preservation. Thus, a Presidium can become a key to understanding the ecosystem and culture that generated it, the risks that threaten its existence and possible solutions. Risks and solutions that emerge through discussions with producers, in a process of recognition of the importance of these products and the most effective ways to protect and promote them.

To date, seven GIAHS have been recognized in North Africa, three of which are home to Slow Food Presidia:

It is interesting to note that most GIAHS and Slow Food Presidia in North Africa share common characteristics:

1. They are found in oases, in the mountains and in the plains, and thus represent the most successful model of agroforestry in an arid context: outside its canopy, the desert is found and, in the shade of its palms, a “layered” cultivation method is practised, supported by traditional irrigation systems, which favours the development of a microclimate and a zone favourable to agriculture. At the higher level there are palm trees, below which there are lower trees such as olive or pomegranate trees or almond trees, below which there are vegetable and fodder crops.

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Although oases seem to be natural models adapted to these areas, they are very old artificial systems, managed by local communities, which are now in danger. The varied and small-scale productions typical of oases, however, are not competitive on the market with monocultures. This is why, in the absence of ambitious policies aimed at defending and enhancing these systems, migration and abandonment of the family farming model is difficult to stem. To this inestimable loss is added the competition and pressure on natural water resources by industrial agriculture and large tourist establishments.

2. They include dry-stone construction artifacts (The “art of dry-stone construction” is listed as an intangible heritage by UNESCO):

  • With terraced landscapes, making agriculture possible in mountain areas subject to strong erosion and allowing the best storage of water in the soil;
  • With the traditional irrigation systems of the Oasis, such as qanat or ketthara, consisting of a set of vertical wells (access, aeration) connected to a slightly sloping gallery that carries the water to cisterns;
  • With the retaining walls of the Wadi beds (generic term for a river in North Africa or the Middle East in semi-desert regions, which come alive during rare and heavy rainfall), which are essential devices for containing the increasingly violent flood waters due to climate change.
  • They are based on a common social management of natural resources, allowing for the fair distribution of water and land, but also the adaptation to their availability. These systems are born from the interaction and adaptation of people to their environment through culture, social organizations and agricultural practices. Video of a rotational irrigation system
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All these elements characterize the region’s landscapes and make them functional and essential for sustaining life and landscapes in the region’s arid and/or mountainous areas. For this reason, they are distinctive elements both in the definition of the SIPAM sites and in the context of a Slow Food Presidium.

Diversifying activities to limit the rural exodus: the Slow Food Travel approach

Neither the Presidia nor the GIAHS recognition alone can dam the rural exodus, the loss of knowledge and biodiversity and the abandonment of the most difficult areas. Thus, the idea of promoting sustainable food systems as drivers for sustainable tourism in GIAHS sites is being explored and mentioned in the dynamic conservation plans. However, tourism can be a solution if it is planned in a way which benefits the farmers directly and meets all the sustainability requirements of the system. This is where Slow Food can intervene to accompany the development of such activities, thanks to the lessons learned since the launch of the Slow Food Travel project.

This is Slow Food’s most recent project, designed to involve and create synergies between the various actors in a territory, including producers, cooks, accommodation establishments (B&Bs, guest houses, etc.) and local associations, in a process of recognition of their territory and mutual support, but also respect for specific criteria for each sector.

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Slow Food Travel gives territories the opportunity to develop their own potential as a quality gastronomic destination, in strict compliance with the Slow Food guidelines and philosophy, by building alliances and experiences that best enhance the local agroecological, cultural and gastronomic heritage.

The starting point of the project is therefore a path of appropriation of the local heritage that re-establishes community ties, accompanied by the implementation of a Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) to ensure that the guidelines are effectively developed and respected by all involved.

Each Slow Food Travel member becomes an ambassador for the area, welcoming guests into and providing all the necessary information to introduce them to producers, host commodities and sites of cultural and scenic interest in the area.

The objective is to create a group identity based on shared values and to give travellers access to local culture and gastronomy. These activities can take the shape of visits and meetings with Slow Food Presidia producers, workshops to discover the products included in the Ark of Taste, or meetings with Terra Madre communities.

The initiative starts with a project (Slow Food Travel), aimed at the gradual establishment of the necessary conditions for its adoption by local communities. It is therefore a project that has the potential for development and renewal over time, becoming not only a local network, but also a nucleus connected to a larger international network, that of Slow Food.

Potentially, all GIAHS sites are potential hubs for Slow Food projects, as a historic rural landscape that has retained its agricultural vocation still plays a role in maintaining food biodiversity, that can be enhanced by Presidia recognition. These initiatives can help defend endangered foods, but also the landscapes in which they are embedded (and on which they depend) and can then be integrated into larger projects of territorial valorisation, such as Slow Food Travel.

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The GIAHS and Slow Food approaches echo the European Landscape Convention, ratified in 2005 with the Faro Convention, which indicated the path to be followed by any actor wishing to contribute to making landscapes the true home of the communities that inhabit them:

“Citizen participation is an essential element in raising awareness of the value of cultural heritage and its contribution to well-being and quality of life. In this context, States are called upon to promote a participatory process of enhancement, based on the synergy between public institutions, individuals and associations.”

This is a route that Slow Food Travel is trying to develop, inspired also by the experience of the Eco-museums “Parish Maps“, working in the front line in the application of the European Landscape Convention. This itinerary also marks the meeting with the FAO’s GIAHS program, which is marked by the growing interest of candidate countries to promote diversification and socio-economic resilience of farmers by building and cherishing their local heritage.

The paths of GIAHS and Slow Food converge in the desire to explore the possibilities offered by sustainable tourism in the original sense of the term, managed by local communities who, through the protection and enhancement of their cultural and territorial heritage, give new life to their identity and their attachment to agricultural traditions.

Traditional agricultural systems already carry all the natural resources, knowledge and creativity to provide an authentic and sustainable service of their own. Our responsibility today is to give communities the necessary maps to be able to make these heritages an effective tool for sustainable and inclusive valuation and recognition.

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