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The ancient farming technique navigating climate change

October 27, 2023
topic:Sustainable Agriculture
tags:#Tunisia, #Sustainable Agriculture, #climate change, #food security, #biodiversity
by:Bob Koigi
A centuries-old farming technique is drawing global attention for its biodiversity conservation capabilities. But rising seas and reduced rainfall are threatening its viability. Can experts help preserve it?

A traditional irrigation system near a lagoon in northern Tunisia is allowing farmers to grow crops year-round while promoting biodiversity conservation. 

Dubbed Ramli, Arabic for "sandy," the farming technique traces its roots back to the 17th century. It was developed by Jews and Muslims who settled in the Ghar El Melh area in Tunisia after fleeing the Catholic reconquest of Andalusia in Spain.

Since then, the farming model has been passed through generations and is celebrated for the balance it fosters between crop cultivation and natural ecosystem preservation.  

Irrigating crops naturally

The farming technique involves growing crops in sandy plots averaging five hectares or less and cumulatively covering approximately 200 hectares. The method is reportedly supporting roughly 300 people in Ghar El Melh in northern Tunisia - an area where shallow water is separated from the Mediterranean sea by low sandy dunes.

The crops are irrigated with fresh underground rainwater, which is lighter than sea water and therefore is able to float above salty water without mixing with it. The movement of the tides raises the levels of both, which allows the fresh water to reach the roots of the crops.

"It’s not land that we cultivate for the profit it brings, but for the art and the pleasure," said a 61-year-old retired teacher who grows potatoes, lettuces and onions using the Ramli technique in an interview for the Times of Malta.

But farmers practicing Ramli must maintain a delicate balance that requires them to be meticulous in measuring sea water levels while ensuring that the soil remains at the same level with the water. If farms are situated too low, the roots will touch the saltwater which ultimately kills the crops. On the other hand, if the farms are too high the roots get deprived of groundwater and dry up. 

Over time, farmers have perfected this centuries-old system, which has enabled them to grow horticultural crops such as onions, beans and potatoes across the year even when the rest of the country faces drought

Ramli: Unique to Tunisia?

Farmers employing this technique are able to produce up to 20 tonnes of produce annually. Furthermore, according to a 2020 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), Ramli crops have a unique flavour that resonates with locals. This uniqueness stems from the natural irrigation system that caters to the precise water requirements of these crops.

A cascade of shrubs, fruit trees and reeds around the lagoon protect the farms from erosion, wind and sea spray, while fixing the sand and reducing evaporation. The practice also promotes agricultural biodiversity by allowing farmers to increase the variety of crops they grow and exchange seeds. 

While food security experts argue that this model is unique to Tunisian farms and cannot be replicated elsewhere due to the unique topography of the lagoon, they hail it Ramli as a novel and effective system that comes in handy at a time when the world is grappling with unprecedented water shortage

According to such experts, traditional methods, the majority of whom are unique to particular communities and regions, should be embraced as sustainable solutions for food security. They also emphasise the pivotal role these techniques play in promoting biodiversity conservation. 

Nelson Maina from the East-Africa-based agriculture company Elgon Kenya, told FairPlanet that in an era where the world grapples with the consequences of climate change and its detrimental effects on crucial sectors such as agriculture, particularly in developing nations, traditional practices like Ramli play a pivotal role. They bridge the gap, he claimed, between ancestral wisdom and contemporary science, offering solutions to current challenges.

"They should be embraced and conserved as key heritage in order to pass knowledge to generations to come," he added.  

Global recognition

The Ramli farms gained international recognition through the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's initiative known as Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS). This programme is dedicated to preserving both traditional and innovative agricultural practices, supporting farmers in addressing the increasing challenges related to food security and the promotion of nutritious food for all. As of this reporting, over 60 sites around the world have received the GIAHS designation.

"This [Ramli] system is basically family farming. Farmers exchange means of production among themselves and the workforce is made up of family members who pass on know-how and production techniques over the years from generation to generation," Mohamed Ali Dridi, Chief Engineer and Head of Biodiversity in Tunisia’s Ministry of the Environment, was quoted as saying in a FAO document

"It is vital to recognize the site as a valuable heritage through awareness-raising and the integration of the site in local development, not only as a production system but also as a culturally and historically diverse system."

"The GIAHS programme helps farmers and our food production at large battle the increasing challenges of ending hunger and ensuring nutritious food for everyone," the FAO report further notes. 

The United Nations Development Programme, (UNDP) has also been suporting sustainable agricultural initiatives - including Ramli farms - through a project dubbed Addressing Climate Change Vulnerabilities and Risks in Vulnerable Coastal Areas of Tunisia.

Such recognitions have gone a long way in encouraging farming communities in Tunisia to practice the Ramli agricultural system and conserve this heritage for future generations. 

Facing headwinds

But as climate change causes more erratic rainfall patterns and rising sea levels, this unique model faces emerging threats. The rising seas could lead to saltwater intrusion into the soil, ultimately jeopardising the system.

"This ingenious system is dependent on certain preventive actions that must be put in place to combat the effects of climate change, including erosion that will be accelerated and the rapid rise in sea level," Raoudha Gafrej, an expert on water resources and climate change told AFP. "Of course, sea level rising does not happen overnight. It’s a relatively long rise. But after a while, if we do nothing now, these crops will be gone in maybe 100 years."

Furthermore, as the region opens up to more development and tourism, farmers are increasingly ceding their land to real estate, which  threatens this agricultural technique, according to a news report by RTL Today.

"In addition to the great challenge of climate change, the preservation of agricultural heritage is also threatened by the large amount of youth that migrate out of rural areas to cities in search of better job opportunities," FAO further noted.

Image by Husein Kaya.

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Embed from Getty Images
Dubbed Ramli, Arabic for "sandy," the farming technique traces its roots back to the 17th century.
Embed from Getty Images
The farming technique involves growing crops in sandy plots, averaging five hectares or less, cumulatively covering approximately 200 hectares.
Embed from Getty Images
The crops are irrigated with fresh underground rainwater, which is lighter than sea water and therefore is able to float above salty water without mixing with it.