Biocultural Heritage

Promoting resilient farming systems and local economies

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Smallholder Innovation for Resilience (SIFOR)

From 2012-17 IIED worked with partners in China, India, Kenya and Peru to revitalise traditional knowledge-based – or 'biocultural' – innovation systems of smallholder farmers in order to strengthen food security in the face of climate change. 

Traditional farmers continually improve and adapt their crops and farming practices in response to new challenges, using local knowledge and biodiversity, generating new technologies and practices.

A herbalist providing information on medicinal and food plants occurring in Kaya Kinondo

A herbalist shares information on medicinal and food plants growing in Kaya Kinondo Sacred Coastal Forest in Kenya (Photo: Doris Mutta)

Climate change has a significant impact on poor farmers and indigenous people in marginal areas, such as drylands, semi-arid areas and mountains. These people often sustain a rich diversity of crop varieties and resilient local landraces, which are key for adapting to climate change on both a local and global basis.

But much agricultural biodiversity has been lost – and remaining pockets are being eroded by the spread of monocultures and other pressures. Despite their critical importance for adaptation, very little has been invested to sustain these areas of diversity to enable them to continue to evolve and co-evolve for climate adaptation through selection and breeding by farmers.

What we did

IIED and partners addressed these challenges through a five-year participatory action-research project 'Smallholder innovation for resilience (SIFOR): strengthening innovation systems for food security in the face of climate change', which formed part of a wider programme on biocultural heritage.

We worked with 64 indigenous and traditional farming communities in areas vulnerable to climate change but rich in crop diversity. Through research facilitated by local partners, we helped to identify, conserve and spread resilient crop varieties and related biocultural innovations for adaptation, including:

  • Maize and rice landraces in the karst mountains in southwest China
  • Rice and millets in the central and eastern Himalayas, India
  • Indigenous vegetables and cassava in the forests and drylands of coastal Kenya, and
  • Native potatoes in the Potato Park in Cusco, Peru.


The project aimed to strengthen biocultural heritage as the basis of local innovation systems, recognising the close inter-dependence between traditional knowledge, biodiversity, landscapes, customary laws and cultural and spiritual values. It:

  • Generated new evidence of the role of biocultural innovations – such as developing traditional crops and employing traditional knowledge-based adaptation – in resilience to climate change (for example, coping with increased drought and pests)
  • Developed practical tools and approaches to strengthen local innovation systems and rights, including community seed banks and registers, novel biocultural products, biocultural heritage territories, community protocols and participatory plant breeding, and
  • Promoted enabling policies at international, national and local levels that support biocultural innovation, such as 'biocultural heritage indications' to protect novel products, and policies that protect farmers' rights and seed systems.

The project conducted qualitative and quantitative baseline studies on trends in climate, food security and crop diversity and biocultural innovations and innovation conditions. It also supported the ANDES-led International Network of Mountain Indigenous Peoples.


Smallholder farmers have experienced significant adverse climatic changes in recent years, notably increased drought and erratic rainfall. Traditional knowledge and crops, and related innovations, have helped them to adapt, for example through the development of biopesticides and the revival of traditional soil and water conservation practices.

This project identified more than 500 traditional knowledge-based or ‘biocultural’ innovations that enhance food security, resilience, livelihoods and biodiversity – some very effectively. It also found that the genetic diversity preserved by indigenous knowledge and practices can provide a valuable resource for improving food security and adapting to climate change.

Evidence from the SIFOR project shows how these approaches can significantly enhance productivity, incomes and resilience in harsh environments. This can contribute to the targets set out in Sustainable Development Goal 2 – zero hunger – to double productivity and incomes and ensure sustainable and resilient production by 2030, and maintain genetic diversity by 2020.

However, community innovation is rarely supported, and the cultural values and biodiversity that sustain it are eroding. Greater support is needed for indigenous people’s innovations and practices to ensure that we do not lose the genetic diversity and knowledge they hold.

Strengthening community innovation systems requires investment in co-innovation processes such as participatory plant breeding and biocultural heritage territories. Priority should be given to conserving and improving resilient landraces in-situ, through community seed banks, community-managed landscapes, participatory plant breeding and market linkages for traditional products.

Research from this initiative fed into two other projects aiming to revitalise biocultural heritage for climate-resilient and sustainable food systems. These are:

Project advisory committee

A European project advisory committee was set up to provide strategic advice and to strengthen European developing country research partnerships. It brought together five leading experts:

Project donors

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The project was funded by the European Union’s Agriculture Research for Development programme, and part-funded by UK aid.
The contents of this website do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union or the UK government.

Find out more about the project