Revival of ancient farming urged to protect biodiversity

Environmental group hears that traditional agricultural practices could help protect earth's biodiversity and save wildlife and farmland

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 December, 2013, 9:05pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 December, 2013, 3:31am

Ancient farming practices, such as raising fish in rice paddies in China or Aboriginal Australian fire controls, will get a new lease of life under plans to slow extinctions of animals and plants, experts said yesterday.

Turning to traditional farming is seen as a way to limit what UN studies say is the worst spate of extinctions since the dinosaurs vanished 65 million years ago, driven by a rising human population that wrecks natural habitats.

A 115-nation group seeking to protect the diversity of wildlife, which underpins everything from food supplies to medicines, will look at ways to revive and promote indigenous peoples' practices at talks in Turkey that run until Saturday.

"Indigenous and local knowledge … has played a key role in arresting biodiversity loss and conserving biodiversity," said Zakri Abdul Hamid, founding chair of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

The idea is partly to compare traditional farming around the world and see if the practices can be used in other nations.

Among ideas, raising fish in the waters of rice paddies, a practice used in south China for 1,200 years and in some other Asian nations, can reduce pests. Most modern rice paddies are not used to raise fish.

Farming the two together "reduces by 68 per cent the need for pesticides and by 24 per cent the need for chemical fertiliser compared with monocultures", an IPBES report said. Pesticides often kill many more species than those targeted.

In countries including Australia, Indonesia, Japan and Venezuela, traditional burning of some countryside can create a mosaic of firebreaks that prevents the spread of devastating blazes in the dry season, it said.

Small fires mean that wildlife can get out of harm's way more easily than in a big fire, reducing risks of extinctions.

In Australia, such protection generates carbon credits for Aborigines by slowing deforestation - a source of up to a fifth of man-made greenhouse gases blamed for causing global warming.

In June, Australia's Indigenous Land Corporation said it sold 25,000 tonnes of carbon credits for savannah burning, the first such open market sale, to Chevron for more than $A20 (HKD$140) a tonne.

Trees and other plants absorb carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas from human activities, from the air as they grow and release it when they burn or rot. Sam Johnston, of the UN University's Institute for Advanced Studies, said carbon markets might be used elsewhere. "We've found almost identical conditions in parts of Africa and Latin America," he said.

Other examples of traditional knowledge include pits dug on Tanzanian hillsides to collect rainfall in the rainy season to limit erosion, or weather observations by Inuit people in the Arctic to complement satellite data about melting ice.

Many Pacific island communities safeguard fish stocks around coral reefs, for instance by declaring some areas sacred sites that are off limits to fishing.

Anne Larigauderie, incoming executive secretary of IPBES, said indigenous peoples often felt ignored by government planners. "There is a great need for recognition and acceptance of their knowledge," she said.

Other efforts to slow extinctions include creating more protected areas and enforcing laws on wildlife protection.