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Contributing Practices for On-Farm Management of Agrobiodiversity

20 June 2014

The Convention on Biological Diversity ([CBD] 1992) breaks down conservation into ex situ and in situ conservation.


It defines ex situ conservation as “the conservation of components of biological diversity outside their natural habitat”; while in situ conservation is described as “the conservation of ecosystems and natural habitats and the maintenance and recovery of viable populations of species in their natural surroundings and, in the case of domesticated and cultivated species, in the surroundings where they have developed their distinctive properties” (4). In situ conservation, when applied in the field of agrobiodiversity, and to plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA) in particular, requires translation into practices that address conservation in the context of the livelihoods of small-scale and, often poor, farmers (Jarvis et al. 2011).

Since the CBD’s ratification, organizations with dissimilar backgrounds have been implementing a wide range of in situ and on-farm conservation projects, using the term in situ conservation on-farm. Organizations dedicated to the conservation of PGRFA focus on local varieties and farming communities. Activist nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) implement in situ and on-farm conservation projects with the aim of contributing to the empowerment of farming communities to exercise their (farmers’) rights to access and control their local genetic resources. Development organizations (NGOs) incorporate in situ and on-farm conservation strategies in their efforts to contribute to sustainable livelihoods (De Boef 2000; Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations [FAO] 2011). In this way, these organizations, with their various and different objectives, are now associating their conservation actions with small-scale and often poor farmers for whom the maintenance and use of local varieties was and continues to be an option to meet their livelihood needs (Sawadogo et al. 2005; Keleman et al. 2009; Kontoleon et al. 2009). Consequently, they have begun to enter into the field of, and debate the linkage between, biodiversity conservation and poverty reduction, in the area of nature conservation (Adams et al. 2004;Fisher et al. 2008), which was also one of the key aims behind the organization of 1992 Earth Summit of which the CBD is one of the main outcomes.

Over the years, it gradually became clear that the dynamic nature of the management and utilization of crops and local varieties by farmers did not match the expectations or methodologies of conservationists, in their design of in situ and on-farm conservation strategies (Hardon and De Boef 1993; De Boef 2000). An important problem was that the genetic resources needed to be approached as something dynamic. If we take this notion into account, in situ conservation on-farm of agrobiodiversity emerges as an oxymoron, that is, it seems contradictory but, surprisingly, expresses a reality. While “conservation” implies the halting of change, or the maintenance of a genetic resource in its present stage, the active dynamics of on-farm management, implemented by farming communities, are needed to achieve conservation. On-farm management can only be achieved by the dynamic process that promotes and sustains conservation, recognizing the importance of the farmers and  ommunities who cultivate agrobiodiversity, and incorporating its use into strategies that aim to improve the livelihood of farming communities (Jarvis et al. 2011). The fact that conservation efforts contribute to the dynamic (development) processes allows us to move beyond the dilemma of how to implement in situ conservation.

The First Report on the State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture replaced “in situ conservation on-farm” with “on farm management,” maintaining in situ conservation as the overarching term (FAO 1996), as this better accommodates the dynamism that seems to be incompatible with the principles of conservation, integrating developmental aspects into conservation (De Boef 2000). On-farm management further facilitates the creation of links between the conservation of PGRFA and other crop development activities, such as plant breeding and seed production (Hardon and De Boef 1993; Almekinders and De Boef 2000).

The Second Report on the State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (FAO 2011) provides ample insights into the advances being made concerning the on-farm management of PGRFA, for example:

  • “The last decade has seen an increase in the use of participatory approaches and multi-stakeholder teams implementing on-farm conservation projects” (FAO 2011, 45).
  •  “Scientific understanding of the on-farm management of genetic diversity has increased. While this approach to the conservation and use of PGRFA is becoming increasingly mainstreamed within national programs, further efforts are needed in this regard” (FAO 2011, 22).
  •  “In many countries NGOs play a very important role at the farm and community level in promoting and supporting the conservation and management of PGRFA” (FAO 2011, 126).

Based on these observations, development and conservation organizations approach PGRFA in the context of sustainable and livelihood development, rather than as a means to achieve conservation. Jarvis et al. (2011) indicate that most practices for contributing to on-farm management are small, with modest aims and a limited area for implementation and application, having been developed to solve problems associated with the use and maintenance of PGRFA by farmers and their communities, for their livelihoods. These practices target a multitude of crops, in dissimilar locations and situations. Each individual experience, while alone modest, contributes to a comprehensive body of knowledge and experiences on how to associate conservation-oriented practices with farmers’ livelihood development.

Despite the fact that both FAO reports (1996, 2011) recognize the importance of the in situ conservation strategy, those organizations mandated for conservation of PGRFA, that is, those who should take the lead, are still faced with the dilemma of how to incorporate on-farm management into their day-to-day conservation work. Few are purposely engaged in on-farm management, and those that are, are only involved in an experimental manner. This article uses the experiences of several conservation and development organizations as case studies. They are analyzed with the aim of contributing to the debate on in situ conservation, in both conceptual and practical terms. Our aim is to provide insights into, and experiences on, moving beyond the


Wheat Gene Management Zones in Turkey (TU)
In situ conservation of wild relatives of wheat (Aegilops spp., Tricicum spp.) is currently being implemented in Turkey through the establishment of gene management zones. This conservation practice includes controlled grazing and mowing, or fire management, which discourages perennial species, especially perennial grasses, from displacing annual wild relatives of wheat from their habitat. The wheat gene management zone is managed as a habitat at the Ceylanpinar State Farm, which is run by the national genetic resources institution. The neighboring rural communities have lost their access to the area; their access is now controlled through the management plan. The basic purpose for establishing the zones is to sustain the ecosystems in such a way that the wild relatives of wheat can be maintained, allowing for the evolutionary changes and continuity of the crop’s wild relatives, and facilitating the investigation of those species and the evolutionary processes (Ertug Firat and Tan 1997; Hunter and Heywood 2011).

Coffee Forest Conservation in Ethiopia (ET1)

The organizations responsible for the conservation of coffee plant genetic resources in Ethiopia use in situ strategies to conserve wild and semi-wild coffee (Coffea arabica L.) within so-called coffee forests. The conservation sites are located where forest coffee still emerges and grows spontaneously as an understory plant in Afromontane rainforests. This in situ conservation effort complements ex situ field gene bank collections, but above all ensures the conservation of the coffee forests, with dynamic populations of the coffee species. Farmers collect “wild” coffee, but are not allowed to encroach upon the natural forest and damage the coffee stands and shade trees, or associated forest cover, by collecting fuel wood, for example. The farmers are only allowed to harvest coffee beans, non-timber products, such as forest honey, spices, and bamboo, and engage themselves in eco-tourism. They increasingly sell their produce in special markets, through coffee marketing cooperatives, supported by various international projects where forest coffee from the center of origin has the potential to secure a premium price (Worede 1997; Wikström 2003; Senbeta and Denich 2006; Labouisse et al. 2008).

Community Seed Banks in Ethiopia (ET2)

In the late 1990s, the national gene bank in Ethiopia set up a network of community seed banks, establishing a local base for genetic resource conservation and use. It organized farmers into conservation cooperatives and created a basic infrastructure to save and store germplasm and the seed of local varieties. In most cases, local materials were reintroduced from the national gene bank. The community seed banks ensure farmers have access to varieties and create an incentive for on-farm management. Furthermore, these seed banks enforce the self-reliance of farmers, stabilize the local seed supply, and serve as centers for community empowerment. They continue to operate up to this day, following the conclusion of the original project. These banks are supported by the NGO, Ethio- rganic Seed Action (EOSA), and by several public research and extension organizations. The conservation cooperatives are expanding their activities to include income generation in order to sustain their conservation efforts. Some are engaged in value addition, thus seeking niche markets for the products of local varieties, while others are involved in the commercial seed production of local varieties (Worede et al. 1999; Balcha and Tanto 2008; Engels et al. 2008).

Further Reading

You can view the full report by clicking here.

June 2014

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