Mountain communities rebuild diverse, climate-resilient crops

The Sustainable Development Goals have been agreed, but for mountain communities around the world this action can't come quickly enough. Climate change is already here, threatening their food security, nutrition and livelihoods.

The Potato Park, Peru, which hosted a previous meeting of the International Network of Mountain Indigenous Peoples (Image: IIED)

Indigenous groups and traditional farmers from 21 mountain communities in 10 countries gathered recently in Tajikistan to assess climate change impacts and develop responses to this crisis. The meeting was organised by Asociacion ANDES (Peru), the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and the Aga Khan Foundation's Mountain Development Support Programme.

This was the second learning exchange of the International Network of Mountain Indigenous Peoples, which includes communities from Bhutan, China, India, Kyrgyzstan, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Thailand and the Philippines. 

The meeting culminated in the Tuggoz Declaration, which calls on governments to recognise that traditional knowledge has equal and complementary value to western science, to respect the cultural and spiritual values, worldviews and languages of indigenous peoples and traditional farmers, and to protect farmers' rights and indigenous peoples' intellectual property rights.   

Ahead of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations' (FAO) biennial International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resource for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) meeting on 5-9 October, the event developed solutions that will aid the implementation of the treaty's objectives on in-situ conservation and to enhance the resilience of indigenous famers in the face of global warming threats. 

The implementation of farmers' rights is a key issue on the agenda for the FAO Treaty Governing Body meeting in Rome next week. 

Farmers' rights are increasingly being eroded by the introduction or strengthening of intellectual property rights (IPRs) for plant breeders, since farmers often have no equivalent protection in many countries.  

As a result, traditional farmers are facing serious challenges and a lack of incentives for sustaining their diverse genetic resources for food and agriculture.

Climate change impacts

The Tajikistan meeting found that mountain communities are already facing drastic changes in their food and farming systems due to extreme and unusual weather patterns, and that these impacts have worsened in the last 18 months. 

Many are suffering from reduced water availability and increased pests linked to decreasing rainfall and increasing temperatures, however the meeting has already been able to provide some steps towards tackling this. 

Local crop varieties are often resistant to droughts and pests, unlike the modern, introduced varieties sold by agricultural institutes and multinational companies. In Tajikistan's Jafr community, only local fruit trees can survive the worsening drought conditions and heat. In Thailand, wild bees are more resilient to increased heat than introduced varieties. 

Traditional knowledge and practices are also becoming increasingly critical to survival.

Diversification is another important response to reduce the risk of crop failure, in terms of the plants themselves, the landscape they are farmed in and mixed production systems. Traditional farming landscapes provide living gene banks where crops can continue to evolve and shift across ecological niches to adapt to climate change.

For example in the ANDES-supported Potato Park, Peru, six communities conserve 1,400 different types of potato and work with scientists to test them in different parts of the landscape.  

Alejandro Argumedo, from ANDES, said: "In the Jafr community, a traditional farmer has collected and tested local fruit trees from across the region, has adapted potatoes from Peru through selection over five years to enhance diversity, and has grafted tomatoes onto potatoes to enhance productivity."

Local solutions to global threats

The meeting resulted in the creation of an International Network of Biocultural Heritage Territories for in-situ conservation of crop diversity and holistic adaptation to climate change at landscape level. This network will support the establishment of new biocultural heritage territories in centres of origin and diversity of crops in several countries, using successful models like the Potato Park in Peru, which is managed by six Quechua communities. 

The meeting also established an International Network of Community Seed Banks and initiated a related farmers' seed exchange programme. 

IIED principal researcher Krystyna Swiderska said: "Community seed banks are vital for preventing the loss of crop diversity and ensuring seed access for poor farmers. They are also an important response to climate change, enabling recovery from climate disasters."

The international seed exchange programme has already begun, enabling similar mountain communities to access more resilient local varieties and diversify their crops. But communities need support to ensure that seed exchange is disease-free and complies with relevant legislation. 

Argumedo added: "Communities with seed banks should be allowed to become members of the FAO Treaty's Multi-Lateral System to facilitate legal seed exchange with other communities, using the FAO's standard Material Transfer Agreement. The Potato Park has deposited its potato seed collection, supported by the treaty's benefit-sharing fund, in the Svalbard Seed Vault, which places its collection alongside national gene banks."

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