Tunisia’s unique farming systems recognized as part of global agricultural heritage
23-06-2020 06:23:00 | by: Pie Kamau | hits: 1326 | Tags:

Tunisia's traditional Ramli agricultural systems in the lagoons of Ghar El Melh and its hanging gardens from Djebba El Olia, have been recognized as Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS), a designation managed by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). It is the second time Tunisian sites have won the GIAHS recognition, after Gafsa Oases in 2011.

Both sites reflect profound bonds between the cultivated crops and the natural ecosystem, local fauna and flora, while promoting the preservation of traditional knowledge and biodiversity conservation. Their recognition as GIAHS sites will encourage local communities to better treasure and conserve their heritage for future generations.

Ramli, meaning "on sand", are agricultural practices that consist of growing crops on sandy substrates. Unique not only in Tunisia but in the whole world, these gardens were created in the 17th century by the Andalusian diaspora to cope with the lack of cultivable land and fresh water.

The ingenious practices are based on a passive irrigation system where the roots of the plants are fed throughout each season by rainwater stored and floating on the surface of the sea through the movement of the tides.

The traditional knowledge preserved over the centuries enables farmers to maintain the lagoon plots through the precise supply of sand and organic matter so that the crops reach the right height, allowing the roots to be irrigated by a fine fresh water and not to be affected by salt water.

Hedges of fruit trees and shrubs on the lagoon barrier protect the cultivated plots from wind and sea spray, help slow down evaporation and fix the sand. Such a multifaceted system makes it possible to grow crops all year round without artificial water supplies, even during periods of drought. 

Today, fishing and agriculture are the main subsistence activities in the area. The farms of Ghar El Melh are small (81 percent have less than 5 hectares) and their primary production includes potatoes, beans and onions "on ramli".

Perched on the heights of Mount el Gorrâa, the gardens of Djebba el Olia form a unique agroforestry system. At an altitude of 600 metres, farmers have been able to shape this mountainous landscape to their advantage by integrating agriculture on terraces derived from natural geological formations or by building them out of dry stone. 

Reinforced by an efficient irrigation system, the hanging gardens are examples of innovative and resilient agroforestry that meets the food needs of the local communities throughout the year. Thanks to the preservation of the forests at high altitude and the multitude of species in the tree stratum of the gardens, Djebba El Olia benefits from a particular microclimate.

Based on practices combining agroforestry and agroecology, fig tree cultivation is the mainstay of a varied and resilient polycultural system supported by extensive livestock farming. Apart from figs, a large number of vegetables, pulses and fruit species are produced in the gardens, including  solanaceous plants (tomato, pepper) as well as squash, broad bean, onion, bean and potato.

Livestock breeding is also a big part of the site's biodiversity, in particular the local breed of sheep "Black Thibar", adapted to the rugged terrain, and the Brown Atlas cattle breed known for its hardiness.

These gardens benefit from the nearby forests and wild flora and fauna species ensuring that wild pollinators also support biodiversity. The art of managing cultivated and wild species is the basis of the site's ingenious knowledge. The quality of products is highly appreciated - Djebba's AOC labelled figs, fresh and dried fruits and  processed products (jams) are all highly sought after locally and abroad, representing an important source of income.

Officially submitted by the Tunisian Government, in March 2019, applications to GIAHS recognition were technically supported by UNDP for Ghar El Melh's site and by FAO Tunisia's Programme for Djebba El Olia's site, in coordination with the National GIAHS Focal Point and GIAHS Secretariat.

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