Agro-Biodiversity is the variety and variability of animals, plants and micro-organisms that are used directly or indirectly for food, livelihoods (fodder, fibre, fuel, medicine etc.) and incomes, and included crops, livestock, forest and aquatic products, insects, etc. In general, TABI considers and promotes indigenous ABD, in multifunctional landscapes. Thus, mono-culture and non-indigenous maize, rubber and sugar cane, for example, are at the opposite end of the spectrum to “ABD”.
Agro-biodiversity is the result of natural selection processes, and the careful selection and inventive developments of farmers, herders and fishers over millennia. It includes all forms of life directly relevant to agriculture and existing on or flowing through the farm and surrounding forests and landscapes.
Agro-biodiversity is the result of the interaction between the environment, genetic resources and management systems and practices used by culturally diverse peoples, and therefore land and water resources are used for production in different ways. Local knowledge and culture can therefore be considered as integral parts of agro-biodiversity, because it is the human activity of agriculture that shapes and conserves this biodiversity.
From Biodiversity Conservation to Agro-Biodiversity Management
Conventional conservation efforts world-wide have tended to focus on establishing protected areas to conserve critical ecosystems that support biodiversity resources. More recently conservationists and scientists have recognised that protected areas are necessary but not sufficient and focus began to turn to the role of multifunctional landscapes as important contributors to the management and conservation of biodiversity. In recognition of this, the Third Conference of Parties to the CBD (Convention on Biological Diversity) promotes the implementation of long-term, coordinated approaches to improved management of agricultural biodiversity.
Agro-Biodiversity in the Lao PDR
The Lao PDR is well endowed with productive and ecologically unique forests and farming landscapes, rich in biodiversity. These resources are not only vital for providing essential ecological services, but they also play a key role in adapting to global economic or climate changes. Agrobiodiversity is crucial to the national economy, with some 66 percent of GDP depending directly on natural resources. Over 80 percent of the Lao people live in rural areas and are highly dependent on the local environment for subsistence farming, family nutrition, livelihood activities and cash income. Consequently, biodiversity also has a key role to play in the quality of rural life, ethnic cultures and poverty reduction.
Lao PDR is considered a “mega-bio-diverse” country, and a “Centre of Origin” of many agriculturally important domesticated plants, and the following points illustrate the richness of Lao biodiversity:
- Laos is a centre of biodiversity for glutinous rice. Since the early 1990s, more than 13,500 rice samples have been collected, of which 85% are glutinous types. These samples represent more than 3,000 rice varieties.
- Laos is abundant in Non-timber forest products including plants, barks, vines, tubers and other forest products. These provide a source of food and income to local people. As forests diminish there are opportunities to domesticate these species.
- Aquatic diversity is incredibly high within the country. The Mekong and its tributaries host the largest in-land fisheries in the world.
- Livestock diversity is high with a number of indigenous breeds of chicken, buffalo and pigs. The uplands are highly suitable for intensive livestock production with improved breeds, better grazing and multiple fodder/feed production systems in selected areas.
- Vegetable diversity is high. The National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute have collected more than 2,100 accessions of local vegetables.
Agro-Biodiversity is Under Increasing Pressure
We are in an era of rapid ecological, social, and economic change, and the pace of this change will accelerate during the next several decades and increase the pressure on biodiversity in natural and farming ecosystems. In the Lao PDR the transition from subsistence and small scale cash-farming to a mono-culture based market economy is particularly fast-moving and threatens not only agro-biodiversity resources but also erodes the livelihood base of millions of rural families. In recent years, the approach of the Government of Laos to ‘turn land into capital to fuel development’ has brought both opportunities and challenges to equitable and sustainable development. On the one hand it provides an opportunity for rapid large-scale development to bring the country out of Least Developed Country Status. On the other, this type of development has often proven unsustainable and, particularly in the Uplands, land degradation, land alienation, exacerbated poverty, increased income disparity and heightened food insecurity.
Since the advent of agriculture, biodiversity has provided the raw material for new innovations in agriculture, critical ecosystem services, and options for an uncertain future. Yet at this time in human history, we face the prospect of agricultural landscapes that are biodiversity-poor, with increasing threats to wild biodiversity. Modern agriculture is currently one of the greatest extinction threats to biodiversity in both agro-ecosystems and in wild-lands, and holds thus the key to the conservation of the remaining biodiversity.
Innovative biodiversity-rich farming systems can potentially be high-yielding and sustainable, and thus support persistence of wild species by limiting the adverse effects of agriculture on wild-land habitats. Adoption of farming practices that utilize and conserve biodiversity may ultimately improve environmental quality and establish sustainable farming and land use systems.