News & Views

Central Asia: First Convening on Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty

A three-day gathering around agriculture and traditional knowledge took place this month in the Badakhshan region of Tajikistan, a remote mountainous landscape known as the ‘Roof of the World’. Delegates to Central Asia’s first Convening on Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty included farmers, researchers, and leaders of regional NGOs and government agencies, who gathered to share knowledge and experiences related to protecting the rich agricultural heritage of the region.

While communities around the world increasingly suffer from food insecurity caused by the homogenization of economic and agricultural systems, many farming communities in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are rediscovering traditional agroecological techniques and blending them with local market development to determine their own diverse and abundant food futures. The Convening on Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty, facilitated by The Christensen Fund and the Mountain Societies Development Support Programme (MSDSP), sought to strengthen and connect local movements which are asserting their right to determine what they grow, how they grow it, and which market opportunities they wish to pursue.

“It is good to see the community mobilizing to solve their own problems, to use their traditional knowledge and exchange experience with others,” said Savriniso Hofizova of the Tajik NGO Nisso, which works to improve the livelihoods and education of women in the Rasht Valley of Tajikistan. “The last three days we worked very hard and it was a very useful experience for me.”

Historically, the region is extremely important to the world’s agriculture. “In the mountains of Central Asia you find the farmers who first domesticated and who still keep alive the diversity of apples, of wheats, of most of the fruits and nuts that we consider part of the Eurasian food systems,” said Ken Wilson, Executive Director of The Christensen Fund. “These are farmers who grow roses, and in the mountain fields you have the scent of onions and of garlic, this is where these crops were domesticated.” The region is also important for the nomadic traditions of the Indigenous peoples, “who take their animals – which they also domesticated and later shared with the world – into the mountains in the summer and down into the desert in the winter, and whose cultural forms such as their oratory, poetry and music have greatly influenced European traditions and which are of themselves an extraordinary contribution to the human experience.”

Many of the Indigenous crop varieties and cultural practices of the region are endangered, and local stewards are leading efforts to revitalize their heritage. Muhabbat Mamadalieva, who attended the convening as the director of the Tajik NGO Zan va Zamin (Women and Earth), is enriching communities by linking traditional knowledge, landscapes and livelihoods around the revitalization of Central Asian varieties of fruits and crops.

In addition to sharing local experiences and agricultural models, participants of the convening broke into working groups to identify threats to agrobiodiversity and to plan ways to enhance agricultural self-determination.

The delegates also heard from international guests, including Paul Bordoni, from Italy-based Bioversity International who explained how the Platform for Agrobiodiversity Research works to collect, synthesize and disseminate agrobiodiversity knowledge, and Phrang Roy, who heads a new initiative, The Global Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty, which is working to connect grassroots movements around the world to facilitate exchange among Indigenous farming communities.

Delegates to the convening “focused their discussion not on agricultural production as such, but on the issues of revitalization of agricultural systems and agriculture as the whole way of life, as something holistic that also embraces cultural expression, intergenerational transfer of knowledge, the diversity and beauty of food, health, learning and experimenting, relationships to the land, water and plants,” said Erjen Khamaganova, Central Asia Program Officer for The Christensen Fund.

To witness how the Pamiri people are determining their own food futures in harmony with their culture and ecology, participants of the convening spent an entire day visiting local projects throughout the Rushan and Shugnan districts of Badakhshan. One example is a local brand of food products called Ganji Badakhshan – ‘Treasure of Badakhshan’ – which connects local producers of fruit, nuts, and potatoes with small processing groups to create products like organic potato chips and delicious mixed fruit and nut packs for local and regional markets. On another site visit participants saw first hand how a local farmer had efficiently terraced a plot on his land for a new fruit orchard nourished by water from springs high above on the mountain.

“It was a great opportunity for people to get to know each other and to share knowledge on maintaining resilient, diverse cultural and food systems,” said Jeff Campbell, Christensen’s Director of Grantmaking.

No visit to Badakhshan would be complete without plenty of good, local Pamiri food and music, and delegates were treated to an abundance of both. Fresh bread and yogurt, cherries and apricots, almonds and walnuts, and a variety of locally-raised meats and vegetables were enjoyed at festive and colorful gatherings. Music and dance are intimately tied to the traditional knowledge and histories of the Pamiri people, and over the course of the convening a wide range of people danced together and enjoyed rich cultural exchange, raising the prospects for a resilient future at the Roof of the World.