Mountain communities could help rebuild diverse, climate-resilient crops

Oct 19, 2015



World leaders left New York having agreed a framework for the world’s sustainable development, 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 mountains of Misamis Oriental.

The mountains of Misamis Oriental.

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.1


Ahead of the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) biennial International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resource for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) meeting on 5-9 October, 2 the meeting developed solutions that will aid the implementation of the Treaty’s objectives on in-situ conservation and 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 Treaty3 Governing Body meeting in Rome next week.

Higaonon tribal leaders in Lantad

Higaonon tribal leaders in Lantad

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


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.

A typical dwelling in the mountain fastness of Digkilaan Parish

A typical dwelling in the mountain fastness of Digkilaan Parish

For example in the ANDES-supported Potato Park, Peru, six communities conserve 1400 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.”


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.


Krystyna Swiderska, IIED researcher 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.


Alejandro 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”.


The meeting culminated in the Tuggoz Declaration5 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.


 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 FAO Treaty recognises the enormous contribution that local and indigenous communities and farmers of all regions of the world have made, and will continue to make, for the conservation, development and use of plant genetic resources as the basis of food and agriculture production throughout the world. Its objectives are the conservation of plant genetic resources, their sustainable use, and the equitable sharing of benefits from their use. It has 136 contracting parties. Yet, according to the FAO, genetic resources are being lost at an alarming rate. The Sustainable Development Goals require urgent action to address this – goal 2 “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”, target 2.5 “by 2020 maintain genetic diversity of seeds, cultivated plants, farmed and domesticated animals and their related wild species”.

Examples include those provisions under UPOV ’91, (the Convention on the protection of new plant varieties) which can limit the rights of farmers to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seeds (which are recognised by article 9 of the FAO Treaty).

About IIED:

IIED is an independent, non-profit research institute. Set up in 1971 and based in London, IIED provides expertise and leadership in researching and achieving sustainable development.


About Asociacion ANDES:

ANDES is a small Cusco-based international non-profit organisation focusing on independent research to provide support to indigenous peoples in their struggles for locally-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems and endogenous development based on their core values.


For more information and interviews please contact:

Krystyna Swiderska, IIED principal researcher,

Katharine Mansell, IIED media and external affairs manager, / +44 (0)7814 455639

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