Crossed views on the preservation and enhancement of agricultural and food heritages. Focus on North Africa

06 Jul 2021

The FAO Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) program and the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity

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 where every decision is decisive to ensure their survival. 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.

North Africa food heritage

If the valorization of biodiversity and ‘traditional terroirs’ has not been the main path chosen in rural development strategies, it represents today 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 work with communities and governments in North Africa to support the preservation and valorization of agricultural and food heritages.

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

There are several tools for recognition and valorization 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 in itself, but rather the beginning of the implementation of a range of activities aimed at addressing the challenges and aspirations of rural communities.

The activities of valorization can be varied and always complementary, involving the valorization of the cuisine, the agricultural product or the land from which it comes. With this in mind, the Slow Food Foundation has developed a range of activities that allow for the concrete implementation of these preservation and enhancement actions.

North Africa food heritage

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:

In the agro-sylvo-pastoral system of the argan tree, Morocco –> Presidium on traditional edible oil, linked to the protection of this know-how but also to the management of the natural argan grove (see the article The edible argan oil: a little-known delicacy, in an endangered ecosystem)

In the cold oases of the High Atlas, Morocco –> Saffron Presidium, strictly linked to village terraces above 1,400 meters, with traditional gravity irrigation systems.

In the Siwa oasis, Egypt –> Siwa Date Presidium which fights for the maintenance of the varietal diversity of dates and their cultivation in stratified agroforestry systems, in the face of monoculture systems which have become the norm.

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

  • 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 where, outside its canopy, the desert is found and, in the shade of its palms, successive levels of vegetation are created, creating a microclimate and a zone favorable to agriculture.

Legend to the drawing: outside the oasis, there is the desert, inside the oasis there are traditional irrigation systems and a “layered” cultivation method which support the biodiversity in the Oasis surrounded by extreme arid climate conditions: 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.

North Africa food heritage

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, a sine qua non condition for the preservation of these fragile ecosystems, are not competitive on the market with monocultures. This is why, in the absence of ambitious policies aimed at defending and enhancing these systems, the rural exodus 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.

  • 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 adaptation to their availability. These systems are born from the interaction and adaptation of Man to his environment through culture, social organizations, agricultural practices, etc. Video of a rotational irrigation system

All of 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 GISHS recognition alone are able to stem the rural exodus, the loss of knowledge and biodiversity and the abandonment of the most difficult areas. Thus, the idea of promoting tourism in the GIAHS is being explored and mentioned in the dynamic conservation plans. However, if tourism is seen as an additional string to the farmers’ bow, it is nonetheless a solution that must be thought through in such a way that it 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.

North Africa food heritage

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 agricultural and gastronomic heritage.

Each Slow Food Travel member site is committed to a process of self-training and mutual learning aimed at creating a group identity based on shared values: each site becomes an ambassador for the area, welcoming guests into their homes and providing all the necessary information to introduce them to producers, host structures and sites of cultural and scenic interest in the area.

A path of appropriation of the local heritage that reestablishes community ties is therefore the starting point of the project, accompanied by the implementation of a participatory guarantee system to ensure that the guidelines are effectively respected.

The objective is to create a group identity based on shared values and to give travelers access to local culture, identity and gastronomy. Meeting this challenge will only be possible through the knowledge of the territorial specificities and the awareness of the challenges and threats to the sustainability of the system. These activities can take the form 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 authorities. 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 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 valorization, such as Slow Food Travel.

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 “ParishMaps” Ecomuseums 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 both 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 treasures an effective tool for sustainable and inclusive valuation and recognition.

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