Strengthening traditional sustainable agriculture

Restoring indigenous sustainable farming practices
Appreciating benefits of agricultural traditions
Supporting traditional mixed farming

Traditional mixed farming usually comprises subsistence or part-time farming involving small-scale integrated crop and livestock production. Such systems are of considerable conservation interest as the mixture of habitats can support a high diversity and abundance of wildlife, including that of globally threatened species.


For centuries, agriculture in Sri Lanka centred around the cultivation of rice, which was transformed into a fine art that fostered unity among people at all levels as well as stimulating cultural development and economic independence. The Sinhala people developed an intricate network of irrigation systems with vast artificial reservoirs in the dry zone plains. However, later foreign invasions destroyed most of the agricultural land. Six decades ago local leaders rebuilt the ancient irrigation system, and as a result vast areas of rice fields were re-established which provide around 90% of the food of Sri Lanka. Certain sustainable agricultural practices of the past could not be easily restored, however, because they had been replaced by processes imported by multinational companies and commercial agencies which control seeds, pesticides and other agricultural resources. Since the majority of the current farmers are unaware of the traditional and sustainable practices adopted by earlier generations, the National NGO Council of Sri Lanka is collecting information on traditional agricultural practices with the aim of compiling a "Reference Volume". The report will focus on water management, seed production and storage, pest control and production and application of organic fertilizers that are cheap and environment-friendly, giving farmers the incentive and means to break away from their dependency on foreign agencies. Following field training, farmers have found that there is also a sharp drop in their production costs. An educational programme is also being designed to operate through the schools systems.

Traditional farmers in the dry zone of Sri Lanka maintained soil fertility of paddy fields for centuries without applying mineral fertilizers. Some of their traditional cultivation practices not only preserved the natural processes which lead to the regeneration of fertility, but also added nutrients to the soil. This study highlights those traditional practices: fallow period, application of green manure and animal waste, aquaculture in paddy fields, utilization of nutrients in irrigation water and planting trees on paddy fields. These practices ceased to exist with the introduction of agricultural modernizations and increased population.

Prior to the onset of colonial rule at the turn of the century, the Kikuyu people of Kirinyaga, Kenya adapted to competing pressures for retaining and removing tree cover. A combination of religious beliefs, tenure relations based on a communal property-rights regime and farm forestry practices contributed to the conservation of trees. Such strategies were not aimed at reversing deforestation but mitigating its impact by incorporating valued tree into local sociocultural and household production systems, direct retaining multipurpose trees conveniently near settlements. There are current conflicts between small- and large-scale forest users, as well as between forestry and non-forestry uses of land, and a prevalent belief that local households and small-scale forest enterprises posed the most serious threat to sustained-yield management of the reserve. However, the historical evidence shows that widespread forest destruction was associated with large-scale industrial and commercial development: the use of fuelwood by tea factories, the expansion of plantation forests, and the establishment of government tea revenue farms.

In Java, kebun-talun (rotation system between mixed garden and tree plantation) is a traditional system that increases overall production and serves multiple functions by sequentially combining agricultural crops with tree crops. Pekarangan (homegarden intercropping system) is a traditional system located in the villages that provides both subsistence and commercial products and serves multiple functions by simultaneously combining agricultural crops with tree crops and animals.

The past indigenous technology of raised field agriculture on the banks of Lake Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia is being restored. Individual peasants and communal groups, without extraordinary foreign assistance, are reconstructing the abandoned raised fields and utilizing them for new production. While the plains of the altiplano are of poor soil and are subject to unpredictable weather patterns, they can be reclaimed by indigenous populations if the raised fields are cultivated with Andean plants indigenous to the area. Principals to sustain this system appear to be: the control of water, production, and recycling of nutrients, and managing the microclimate (fish and animals) of the raised fields.

The rural inhabitants (campesinos) of the lowland tropical region of southeastern Mexico have managed their traditional agro-ecosystems for centuries with a focus on sustaining yields on a long term basis rather than maximizing them in the short term. Recently introduced agricultural technology in the region has been rapidly displacing and even eliminating local practices in favor of large-scale commercial farming and cattle raising, yet without achieving the production levels originally proposed. This is accompanied by a loss of diversity in local cropping systems, leading to an ever-increasing dependence on imported food products, poorer nutrition, and degradation of natural resources. The proposal has been made for modular production units based on traditional agro-ecosystems in order to help achieve once again the diversity and stability of productivity originally characteristic of the traditional agro-ecosystems. The primary focus of the units center around the application of ecological principles still extant in the region. This includes high species diversity in both time and space, high rates of biomass accumulation, closed nutrient cycling, and biological control mechanisms for weeds, pests, and disease.

The islands of Futuna and Uvea, in the southwestern Pacific, both retain indigenous agricultural systems.


Agenda 21 indicates that improving traditional farming and animal husbandry activities would assist in the protection of genetic resources in situ.

Type Classification:
E: Emanations of other strategies
Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 1: No PovertyGOAL 2: Zero HungerGOAL 3: Good Health and Well-beingGOAL 4: Quality EducationGOAL 5: Gender EqualityGOAL 6: Clean Water and SanitationGOAL 7: Affordable and Clean EnergyGOAL 8: Decent Work and Economic GrowthGOAL 9: Industry, Innovation and InfrastructureGOAL 10: Reduced InequalityGOAL 11: Sustainable Cities and CommunitiesGOAL 12: Responsible Consumption and ProductionGOAL 13: Climate ActionGOAL 14: Life Below WaterGOAL 15: Life on LandGOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong InstitutionsGOAL 17: Partnerships to achieve the Goal