Early in the twentieth century, there was a series of books that investigated how previous forms of agriculture had sustained both the soil and the people dependent on them. From the Inca ruins in the Andes, the Hunza in the Himalayas or the variety of forms of intensive agriculture in China, it became apparent that other types of agriculture were possible. In part, this drive was informed by the knowledge of the soils on which food production was failing, with the ‘dust bowl’ in the US as the most obvious example. This crisis bled through into popular magazines such as ‘The National Geographic’, more scientifically based books such as ‘The Rape of the Earth’ and political polemics.
One of the core technologies that these papers focused on was the use of terraces. Wrench wrote about the Hunza people with their carefully cultivated Himalayan mountainsides, with soil that they had nurtured, providing a diet rich in vegetables and fruits, leading to what he argued was their outstanding health. Cook was impressed by the ruins of Inca agriculture that showed how through sophisticated use of irrigation techniques they were able to supply the mountain terraces. Through this combination of terraces, irrigation, and appropriate crops (for example potatoes) a large population was sustained. The Hunza were increasingly threatened by modern agriculture; while what Cook saw in the terraces of Peru were the ruins of a form of farming now lost.
If we scroll forward to the present, with our pressing concerns about soil sustainability and food security, the same themes emerge and with that a renewed interest in the role of terraces in mountain agriculture. This week I’ve been walking the terraces of Cyprus where a team from The Cyprus Institute as part of the RECARE project are investigating the role of terraces in preserving the soil. Here the team is using tools, for example, laser scanning that sits at the leading edge of conservation science. More significantly they are working in partnership with the local farmers who own, work and maintain these terraces. Alongside the scientific skills, the team is working on preserving and sharing the skills that are used to construct the dry-stone walls. It is a burgeoning partnership that allies cutting edge skills in science with the hard-won skills of working the land in the most efficient manner, using local resources and artisanal knowledge.
As with most remote rural communities, the challenge is not only to produce food but to sell that in a way that develops livelihoods and sustains the environment. Connecting the global flow of people who visit the coastal beaches to the fruit, vegetables, honey and wine produced in the mountains is both an opportunity and a challenge. A better living can be made working in the tourism industry on the coast, leaving fewer people to grow the produce. But if even a small fraction of the value of the visitor economy can be connected to food production then many of the mountain communities would receive a significant boost.
Watching the warmth of the friendship between the scientists and the farmers over lunch it became clear that a significant partnership is being forged in the rugged mountains of Cyprus. Just as terrace farming has had a remarkable past in sustaining communities, by combining scientific and farming knowledge they should also have a vital future