Promoting agrobiodiversity conservation and use in Sri Lankan agroecosystems for livelihoods and adaptation to climate change

A UNEP GEF supported project that will build resilience and help rural communities meet the challenges of climate change through the conservation and use of agrobiodiversity

The role of agrobiodiversity in helping farmers and rural communities to adapt to climate change and to improve their livelihoods is being explored in a major new UNEP GEF supported project in Sri Lanka. The project, implemented by the Sri Lanka Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources and Bioversity international jointly with the Sri Lanka Ministry of Agriculture, will last for the next five years and includes a number of aspects that make it extremely innovative:

  1. It is concerned with a wide range of agrobiodiversity, including crops, agroforestry, animals, fish, and the associated soil and pollinator diversity found in the different production systems involved.
  2. It will explicitly explore the ways in which enhanced use of diversity can be linked with sustainable production practices.
  3. It works directly with farmers and communities in three quite different landscapes in a participatory way through transdisciplinary approaches.
  4. It is concerned with building national capacity, developing an improved policy framework and strengthening research on agrobiodiversity.

Sri Lanka is home to a wealth of agrobiodiversity that has both global importance and a central place in the livelihoods of traditional farming communities. About 1.8 million families and 75% of the country’s labour force depend on agriculture and on the diversity that is present in and around the farm, which includes some 230 different fruits, 82 vegetables 16 cereals and legumes, 20 spices, 20 species of edible freshwater fish and over 1500 medicinal plant species. Many different crop varieties and livestock breeds are also found and these constitute an important resource for rural communities, providing types adapted to different situations and uses. This rich diversity is under threat from a variety of factors that include unsuitable production practices, changing land use patterns, the introduction of modern, often poorly adapted, varieties and climate change itself.

The project is being undertaken in collaboration with communities in three different landscapes:

SL_Kandyan landscape-medium

Kandyan landscape, Sri Lanka

Kandyan home gardens located in the mid-country region of Sri Lanka represent a centuries-old sustainable system of production based on a highly diversified portfolio of perennial mixed cropping comprising a variety of tree crops with multiple uses and to a lesser extent livestock. This traditional complex and risk-averse multi-storey production system, comprising several perennial food crops, fruits, vegetables, roots, tubers, medicinal plants, sugar crops, spice crops and timber crops, has continuously provided high levels of nutritional and diet diversity to households while medicinal species, spices and tree species provide substantial additional income. While similar to other home garden systems in other parts of the world Kandyan home gardens are unique in the high levels of functional plant diversity they contain.

Small tank system, Sri Lanka

Small tank system, Sri Lanka

The “small tank” system forms part of Sri Lanka’s irrigation network of thousands of man-made lakes and ponds, traditionally known as ‘tanks’ (after tanque, the Portuguese word for ‘reservoir’, also known as wewas). The tank system, which most likely developed as an adaptation to rainfall patterns, has historically contributed to village food security, livelihoods and environmental and biodiversity protection, as well as community cohesion and well-being. Collectively the tanks form a series of water bodies along small water courses in a cascading system. They have been constructed to ensure water is managed efficiently and to deal with the vagaries of irregular rainfall. It is believed there are about 12,500 village tanks scattered throughout the dry zone of Sri Lanka.

Owita agro-ecosystem, Sri Lanka

Owita agro-ecosystem, Sri Lanka

The “owita”agro-ecosystem is a unique peri-urban land use system found between the rice paddies and the uplands of the wet zone of Sri Lanka. Owita plots are usually about a quarter to half an acre in size and are owned by subsistence farmers in villages mainly in Colombo (south of Colombo city), and the Kalutara and Galle districts. The owita system is characterized by high groundwater levels throughout the year and by a shallow, perennial stream flowing through it or alongside it. The land plots are used to grow a mixture of crops, which are used to ensure household food security. This agro-ecosystem is integral to the villages’ land use system and livelihoods, which mostly derive from paddy farming and home garden cultivation. The owita system is mainly found in the wet zone sub-regions where rubber, coconut, cinnamon and mixed home gardens and paddy cultivation are predominant. Increasingly commercialized the system provides local markets with a rich diversity of traditional vegetables.

The project is a multi partner initiative. Other partners include key Sri Lankan Ministries and Departments, the Green Movement and other civil society organizations, Sri Lankan Universities, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the University of California, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Platform for Agrobiodiversity Research.

Currently the final baseline studies are being undertaken to determine the current extent and distribution of different components of agrobiodiversity in the three sites and to describe some of the main areas of concern with relation to the provision of key ecosystem services associated with soil and water quality. This process is being combined with extensive community based discussions on the main problems that they confront in respect of livelihoods and coping with change, especially climate change. These discussions are also exploring the potential role that agrobiodiversity may have in improving production, sustainability, resilience and livelihoods. Over the coming months a variety of activities will be undertaken to enhance awareness and appreciation of local agrobiodiversity (e.g. Diversity Fairs and Farmer Field Fora). These will be accompanied by work to identify potential new useful diversity that the communities are interested in using.

Over the next 5 years we hope to provide updates on the progress of the project and share information on agrobiodiversity more widely.

Further information

For more information on the landscapes involved see Sustainable Use of Biological Diversity in Socio-ecological Production Landscapes CBD Technical Series No 52 (2010)[1].

The project partners currently involved in working on the project welcome enquiries and support for the development and implementation of the project. If you would like more information please contact:

Toby Hodgkin at

[1] Bélair C., Ichikawa K., Wong B.Y. L., and Mulongoy K.J. (Editors) (2010). Sustainable use of biological diversity in socio-ecological production landscapes. Background to the ‘Satoyama Initiative for the benefit of biodiversity and human well-being.’ Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, Montreal. Technical Series no. 52, 184 pages.