The following presentation was given at the ICOMOS side event on the role climate change plays on cultural heritage and how to expand engagement of these issues.
Farming alongside of cultural and natural heritage conservation
Agriculture is a dynamic and constantly evolving industry, molded by a myriad of social, environmental, economic and cultural factors. Adapting our agricultural land management to a rapidly changing world may be a challenge, however it is an essential step towards protecting the natural and built assets of this world whilst providing food and fibre to meet our ever growing needs. Change will occur inevitability in rural communities and the surrounding environment, but what will differ is the acceptance to change, the ease of transition, and the direction of change.
Over the next few decades the greatest challenge faced by farmers will be increasing food production to feed the 9 billion by 2050 amidst unprecedented obstacles. The challenge of increasing agriculture production is affecting and transforming farming across the globe. Understanding climatic patterns, seeking ecosystem stability and achieving global food security are imperatives that are inextricably linked.
However, as input costs rise for farmers the profit margins decrease, land managers are ever backed into a corner of producing more from less, right now. Those that produce more yield, more profit, more efficiently are held up as success stories. There seems to be a focus on economics- a perverse desire to monetize everything- and to measure benefit or loss with currency symbols. But what is the price of the priceless? How do we put a dollar value on landscapes, on stories, on culture? The simple answer is that the intangible cannot be valued in a manner that our accountants would like them to be.
I have been fortunate enough to spend much of this year in Laos, Southeast Asia. Here I was working with farmers, researching their traditional agricultural practices and how they are being impacted by climate change. These famers have limited resources and as such low adaptive capacity to changing conditions. However, what was truly unexpected to me, was seeing how these farmers place great value on things that most western farmers do not.
The verdant green rice paddies of Laos are a patchwork of shallow ponds, scattered with ancient forest, and decorated by brightly clad women. Fish and ducks swim amongst the rice, fertilising the plants, and removing weeds and insects the natural way. Buffalo that toiled the soil are tethered on the banks lazily eating the stubble from last seasons harvest. And the first question you will always be asked on arriving at a rice paddy – “Isn’t it beautiful?”
It is not the yield or the profit that is of most importance- it is the beauty of a balanced ecosystem sustaining both human and non-human life. As well, the more modest agricultural program of the traditional Lao farmer enables time to be spent with family and friends exchanging stories and discussing events – a vital way of passing on cultural information in the largely non-literate older generation.
However, longer dry seasons and increasingly intense shorter wet seasons are playing an influence over the social cohesion of these communities. Interregional and international migration in developing countries is often understood as an outcome of economic growth in urban sectors and of relative poverty and socioeconomic change in rural areas. In Laos, there is a clear trend in labour migration, with young farm workers heading to urban centres and regional destinations for higher earning, easier, year-round employment. The migration of men in particular means that a gender shift in farm responsibilities sees women playing a more prominent role in managing both crops and animals, in addition to their traditional household responsibilities. With reduced labour availability farmers must sell their buffalo, a traditional symbol of status and prosperity, to buy hand-tractors. Without their buffalo they now need to apply synthetic fertilisers to raise soil fertility. Production constraints caused by an increasingly variable climate means farmers must encroach forest areas to achieve yield goals- traditionally a sacred place where the spirit world lived. Their natural and cultural heritage is being increasingly compromised.
Last week at the Conference of Youth I heard from a young Sami man who lives with his family and local community on the boarder of Finland and Norway. The whole way of life for these indigenous people is shifting, as climate change exacerbates the challenges this minority group faces. He told us that there is no language other than Sami to convey the techniques and practices involved in reindeer herding and salmon fishing. No words to describe the greenness of the moss or fragility of the ice- elements essential to the management of their land and animals. The father and son herding and hunting trips are a time to pass on the language and stories of his ancestors. The obstacles for his community are already great- where ecosystem and social disturbance is very real. And now there is the threat of culture loss- the fabric of his community.
As a fellow young farmer, I was deeply touched by his story. How can the next generation play a role in safeguarding these intangible assets?
Traditional farming practices
Traditional practices and knowledge need to be understood, harnessed and incorporated in farming systems of the future. The challenge is not to rediscover or adopt traditional agricultural systems that would lead to a drastic reduction of agricultural production incompatible with increasing food security requirements, but rather develop modern integrated systems that provide both environmental benefit and higher socioeconomic value- and still retain intangible cultural value. Therefore, involving local stakeholders in designing and implementing adaptation strategies for existing production systems is of utmost importance.
Farmers have such a strong affinity to the land and to those the land supports. They live and work with the natural environment, and recognise the importance of soil, water, biodiversity, and climate, in addition to the human influences.
One would be pressed to find an industry as varied and dynamic as that of agriculture. It is a complex web of interrelations and interdependence, with vast differences between farming systems throughout the world. Cultural heritage linking community cohesion in farming is strong is some regions, while less significant in others.
Where to from here?
Achieving sustainable agricultural landscapes is a broad, perhaps audacious goal; yet, the need to improve current agricultural systems is undeniable. The challenge of producing more with less is becoming ever greater, and as such it is undeniable that farming systems must evolve.
Farming sustainably with cultural protection in mind requires good information, adaptability, support networks, and a holistic perspective. It involves a comprehensive, anticipatory approach. We need to understand what is vulnerable and valuable and how we can protect it. In farming systems this means working with, not against, the resources within the property boundaries and beyond- resources being the living and non-living. It is about not only maintaining natural assets, but enhancing them – the notion that these fragile environs can produce quality food and fibre without exhaustion or degradation when carefully managed. Managing the environment and production system in the optimal manner is the fundamental basis on which social resilience and cultural preservation can be achieved.
National Trust farms around the world are not only playing a vital role in protecting and conserving rural buildings, rare breeds, traditional skills and local biodiversity but also in developing innovative sustainable practices that reflect the changing environment of the twenty-first century. A tour around Hafod y Llan in northern Wales last week demonstrated to me just how new technologies, like renewable energy, can be sympathetically added to a landscape and enhance the farming operation alongside of it without compromising heritage values. A greater awareness and mindfulness developed from learning about past agricultural landscapes and practices, will allow change to be approached in a confident, cooperative manner, and in the context of clear values and a long-term vision.