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Towards the new Common Agricultural Policy for Biodiversity: custodian farmers for sustainable agricultural practices in the Apulia region (South of Italy)

Marilena Labianca


Le débat international sur la biodiversité est devenu progressivement plus explicite et prédominant dans différents champs disciplinaires, nécessitant des efforts surtout à l’échelle régionale. La future Politique Agricole Commune sera intégrée et stratégiquement liée aux objectifs du Green Deal et à la protection de la biodiversité, nécessitant de nouvelles approches, notamment au niveau local. A travers une revue de la littérature internationale et des documents de programmation, le parcours d’un cas significatif dans le sud de l’Italie, la région des Pouilles, caractérisée par une perte progressive de biodiversité dans l’agriculture est examiné. Le gouvernement régional a lancé une importante initiative appelée “agriculteurs gardiens” dans le cadre de la PAC dans les deux cycles de programmation 2007-2013, 2014-2020 pour la protection et le maintien de la biodiversité. En utilisant une combinaison de différentes sources et données, nous nous concentrerons sur cette initiative pour évaluer son poids et son importance au niveau régional grâce à une analyse cartographique. Les résultats seront analysés de manière critique et fourniront des réflexions pour l’avenir.

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Notes de la rédaction

This work is supported by “POR PUGLIA FESR-FSE 2014/2020” – European Social Fund approved with Decision C(2015)5854 of 13/08/2015. Axis X – Action 10.4. Research for Innovation – REFIN.

Texte intégral

The author is grateful to the editor and the anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments and suggestions which improved the paper.


1The international debate on biodiversity that started in the mid-1980s has become progressively more explicit and is predominant in the Convention on Biological Diversity adopted by more than 100 countries after the 1992 United Nations Conference on the Environment held in Río de Janeiro. Different approaches and perspectives on the subject, in a range of disciplinary fields, have gradually emerged, especially in recent years (Castree et al., 2009). The connection of biodiversity with different disciplines highlights the complexity of the theme and has stimulated various areas of geography, arousing growing interest, especially in understanding of phenomena on specific regional scales. In general, in the scientific debate, the tendency has been to separate ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, contrary to reality (Zimmerer, 2009; Gemmiti, 2016).

2The intertwining between different regional issues is becoming more and more evident. In fact, the global scale constantly provides a general “external” framework, while the biogeographical aspects at regional, landscape and local level, play a key role in the concrete implementation of approaches related to biodiversity, at the same time inspiring numerous studies in support of it (Zimmerer, 2009).

3In the international debate, the attempt to deepen the relationship between biodiversity and agriculture is related to a growing demand for sustainable agricultural practices, quality products and ecosystem services in which a strategic role is played by farmers, planners and institutions. Farmers are considered fundamental actors for the concrete implementation of practices capable of connecting agriculture, landscape and biodiversity (EC, 2020a, 2020b, 2021; FAO, 2019; Ledoux et al., 2000; Robinson, 2008; Scherr, McNeely, 2008; Kelemen et al., 2013). For over thirty years, especially in Europe, various policy actions aimed at promoting agricultural production have been implemented in order to improve farm income and also local development. These actions have progressively grown and multiplied over time throughout Europe in response to consumer demand for territorialized and quality products.

4In particular, the links between product-territory-landscape and local development are fundamental above all for rural areas with low population density, where interventions must also be accompanied by concrete, innovative measures to stabilize or increase the population and well-being (Moustier, 2021).

5In the FAO report (2019) a specific concept is used to designate the relationship between biodiversity and agriculture: the Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture (BFA). The BFA is a complex concept to understand the main causes of the progressive loss of biodiversity. On this basis, the role of diversification is emphasized at the international level to guarantee the diversity of habitats and landscapes, to promote the resilience of regions and to support food security and quality (FAO, 2019). Therefore, biodiversity is a fundamental objective for the coming years for various reasons, not only, as argued in the main international strategies in place, to guarantee food security on an international scale, but also because its impoverishment represents a threat to the economy, for the well-being of populations, for the environment, for the supply of ecosystem services, for the resilience of production systems, for the historical and cultural memory of territories and above all of landscapes.

6Considering the complex relationship between biodiversity, land use, landscapes and practices, we will try to discuss these issues in the sections below. Starting from the literature and analysis of the main programmatic documents, connected to the Common Agricultural Policy, we will analyze the implementation of these strategies on a local level, considering an emblematic case study on a national scale, the Apulia region (southern Italy). The region is characterized by the predominance of rural areas, a strong dependence on the Common Agricultural Policy, a high rate of innovation and experimentation in agriculture, especially in the context of LEADER (Labianca, 2021), but also by a progressive loss of biodiversity in agriculture. For this reason, the regional government has launched a significant initiative called “custodian farmers” within the framework of the CAP in the two programming cycles 2007-2013, 2014-2020, still in progress. Through two regional calls for proposals, financial support was granted to small farmers for the protection and maintenance of biodiversity through the conservation in situ of the phytogenetic resources indicated in the Rural Development Program. Combining official sources in particular: regional programming documents, data of the beneficiaries of the regional tenders (called “custodian farmers”), information layers of the System of Protection and Landscape Areas contained in the Territorial Landscape Plan of the region, we will focus on this initiative to assess its weight and significance at regional level, through cartographic analysis. Evaluations will be carried out on regional biodiversity initiatives, taking into account cartographic elaborations. The results will be critically examined to provide considerations and policy recommendations.

Biodiversity, land use and landscapes in agriculture

7Farming gains advantages from the benefits of biodiversity, but the processes of intensification of farming, especially in recent years, are among the main threats to biodiversity all over the world (Kelemen et al., 2019). Therefore, as declared in international agendas (FAO, 2019; EC, 2019, 2020b, 2021), farmer involvement has become a crucial political issue in achieving the aims of preserving biodiversity.

8At the international level, the most recent orientation is towards an “ecosystemic approach” to the conservation of biodiversity, in relation to growing food needs, also in consideration of the dependence of protected areas as a support matrix for land, water use and creation of biological corridors. The main aspects concern the current agricultural footprint and the profound ecological impact on the landscape, genetically modified crops, industrial and intensive production practices, the loss of biodiversity especially in protected areas and growing demand for agricultural products caused by increasing urbanization and income, which occurs precisely in ecologically sensitive areas of the world (Scherr, McNeely, 2008).

9The objective of preserving biodiversity is fundamental for the achievement or maintenance of landscape quality. The landscape, the result of different ways of interacting between environment and social realities, each of them characterized by a specific cultural heritage, reminds us that the conservation of its diversity can guarantee the survival of the identities of local populations (Scanu et al., 2010). Through the landscape it is possible to understand the socio-territorial changes, interpret and give meaning to the transformations of the various territorial contexts, clarifying and questioning the different territorial functions and the social, economic and political processes that shape the landscape itself. Therefore, the landscape is a tool for interpreting territorial change. Through the territorial stratifications, it highlights characters of continuity and discontinuity in the trajectories of regional development (Castiglioni et al., 2021). According to this interpretation, the landscape is a privileged tool for the planning and for the study and critical reflection on local outcomes and practices. In this sense, the agricultural landscape, whose role is fundamental in guaranteeing ecosystem balance, is therefore not limited to its economic value but its cultural, social, symbolic, identity value must also be recognized (Vallega, 2008; Gambino, 2002). Furthermore, the intensification of agricultural activities and the adoption of specific practices has undermined the provision of ecosystem services, contributing to the reduction of the structural diversity of landscapes and the degradation of many traditional agricultural ones, accelerating the loss of typical biodiversity (Rounsevell et al., 2018; Simoncini et al., 2019; FAO, 2019; Grillotti Di Giacomo, De Felice, 2019; 2020; Marshall, Moonen, 2002; Vickery et al., 2009). Various studies conducted on an international scale (Bojie, Liding, 1996; Pigaiani et al., 2021; Billeter et al., 2008; Levers et al., 2016) show that landscape diversity can be related to land use, land management and planning. In particular, some important indicators have been identified. Vallega (2008) identifies indicators for recognition of anthropic pressure, evaluation and monitoring of landscape (including loss of diversity of plant and/or animal species, richness of species, endangered, protected species and ecologically protected areas). Zimmerar (2009) argues that the richness of varieties (i.e. the number of species) estimated per unit area can be a good approximation of the extent of biodiversity. These studies are able to define the geographical ranges of areas, whether they are under-represented in terms of biodiversity or, on the contrary, concentrated.

10Among the main factors of biodiversity loss are changes in landscape structure and agricultural practices (Robinson, Sutherland, 2002). More specifically a large-scale research conducted on 25 agricultural landscapes in seven European countries (these landscapes were chosen to cover different types and structures of landscape, in relation to land use), showed the importance of the heterogeneity of landscapes, with different forms of organization and spatial arrangement of the various elements, and different degrees of intensity in the use of the land, for the functioning and stability of ecosystems and related services, and for well-being, on ethical and aesthetic grounds (Billeter et al., 2008).

11However, although numerous studies have addressed the negative impacts of intensification of agricultural practices on ecosystem services, as yet little attention has been paid to a rigorous assessment that takes stock of the best available knowledge on the effects of the CAP on biodiversity and ecosystem services in Europe (Simoncini et al., 2019). Among the different approaches to these forms of agriculture, a key role is certainly played by the farmers, management practices and planning frameworks that can be applied, often linked to the specific territorial contexts as we shall discuss below.

Biodiversity, European policies and the future of rural areas

12The greater complexity of society, which reflects the conflicting interests of the various stakeholders and the growing awareness that world resources are limited, requires increasingly detailed regulatory and policy tools for the management of agricultural land and the use of resources. However, although there has been growing interest from various parties in supporting biodiversity, the provision of ecosystem services, effectiveness, efficiency and equity, the CAP’s performance in this regard is not yet satisfactory (Simoncini et al., 2019). At the international level, various policy instruments have tried to focus attention directly or indirectly on the conservation of biodiversity and on ecosystem services. However, the main concerns and difficulties relate to the translation and implementation of these policy recommendations especially at local level due to multiple factors such as the conflicting objectives related to economic growth, the absence of binding provisions or adequate tools, the lack of coordination (between instruments and sectoral policies) and of a real multilevel cooperation (Zimmerer, 2009). Considering the European context, it is known that the Common Agricultural Policy since the 1960s has exerted a strong influence on the choices of farmers, and on the methods of management and cultivation in Europe. The growth objectives of agricultural production, implemented through a market policy, subsidizing production, regulating import and export and intensifying agricultural practices, have led to transformations of the agricultural and rural landscape, as well as negative economic, social and environmental impacts. In the current framework and considering future challenges it is clear that agricultural production in the future will have to focus more explicitly on sustainable management systems. From a functional point of view, work and management by stakeholder groups working together are fundamental to achieving biodiversity, production and livelihood goals. Some practices, such as eco-agriculture, favor the diversity and variety of landscapes. The landscapes of eco-agriculture, in fact, are recognizable and appear as land use mosaics characterized by the presence of “natural” areas (with high quality habitats and specific niches, in which it is possible to take advantage of the synergies with production or other benefits for subsistence), alongside agricultural production areas (productive and profitable while meeting the objectives of food security, production and livelihood), ecosystem services, and institutional mechanisms for coordinating initiatives to achieve production objectives, conservation and sustenance, protection and enhancement, using different synergies (Scherr, McNeely, 2008).

13In this context, the EU therefore assumes a strategic role for the coming years for the protection and improvement of biodiversity, especially in agriculture, through the definition of standards, norms and allocation of financial resources, co-financing most of the agricultural expenditure of the members (European Court of Auditors, 2020). Confirming this recent orientation of the European Commission (2019), a study entitled “Evaluation of the impact of the CAP on habitats, landscapes, biodiversity”, considers the impacts of CAP measures on all components of biodiversity, regardless of rarity or potential threat. This study evaluates the impacts of the CAP on landscapes, the diversity of European landscapes and the contribution of the CAP to support biodiversity and ecosystems. The diversity of the landscape does not exclusively concern physical, morphological and environmental characteristics but considers broad regional aspects, such as those related to structural and functional connectivity.

14Therefore, in 2019, the European Commission pledged to respect the objectives of the Green Deal, with a specific communication (EC, 2020b) which explained the need to start a new growth strategy compatible with the objectives of equity, prosperity and environmental sustainability, also in response to the effects of the Covid 19 pandemic. This transition through tools, processes and strategies operates both in the context of cohesion policies and new orientations, and through the transition towards a Green Economy (see Prezioso, 2020). In fact, in the context of current and future rural development policies, the European Green Deal (EC, 2019) requires a rethinking not only of policies for the supply of clean energy but in all sectors of the economy, necessarily integrating sustainability into all European policies. In consideration of the global crises, the CAP has also focused its attention on the strategic nature of these interventions. The emphasis is on simplifying and modernizing an integrated, multi-governance and bottom-up system to respond to new economic, social and environmental challenges. The CAP in the coming years, as emerges in the various programming documents (EC, 2019, 2021), will therefore have a key role in the transition process towards a sustainable food system, supporting European farmers in contributing to the achievement of the environmental sustainability objectives of the EU. In order to support the long-term sustainability (nature and farming), the Biodiversity Strategy is designed to act in synergy with the Farm to Fork Strategy and the new Common Agricultural Policy (EC, 2020a, 2020b, 2021). This integration should materialize with specific agricultural practices where farmers are considered as the leading protagonists and custodians of “our land” and have a strategic role in preserving biodiversity (EC, 2021). All this highlights the importance of the local level for the implementation of these policies and makes it necessary to provide adequate methods and tools that enable the territorial impacts to be assessed and monitored and diversified actions and solutions based on the geographical diversity to be adopted.

15At the operational level, it will be up to the strategic plans to promote sustainable practices in the various sectors and in the different facets of the regions. Important aspects concern ecosystem interventions that require minimum thresholds to be respected, in particular for the protection and enhancement of the characteristic elements of the highly diverse landscape in Europe. Among the most widespread practices there are agroecology, organic agriculture, the protection of genetic varieties, as will be discussed in the regional case.

The Common Agricultural Policy for biodiversity in Apulia region (programming cycles 2007-2013 and 2014-2020)

16Considering the changes that have occurred in Italy since 1800, it can be argued that the complex landscape mosaic marking different areas of the country has been progressively simplified and this has happened in particular in areas characterized in the past by considerable diversification in agriculture. Therefore, the diversity of spaces linked to traditional agricultural and forestry land use represents one of the most qualifying aspects of the overall biodiversity. The latter can disappear above all following phenomena of abandonment or intensive cultivation methods and practices, therefore the reduction of the diversity of spaces, linked to land uses, itself contributes to defining the overall biodiversity of the territories (Agnoletti, 2002).

17In order to understand the policies mentioned above and their concrete implementation, we examined a regional case study considered emblematic at national level: the Apulia region (South of Italy). The region is classified as showing a delay in development and has been allocated various European financial resources, especially in agriculture. The region is characterized by the predominance of rural areas across the territory, with a consequent marked dependence on the Common Agricultural Policy. Although it is defined a convergence objective region, it is considered one of the most dynamic ones due to the significant investments in innovation for governance, planning and experimentation in agriculture, especially in the context of LEADER. It therefore represents a testing ground at national level (Labianca, 2016, 2021).

18The territory, mainly plains and hilly terrain, covers 19,000 square kilometers and is marked by a distinctly individual character and physical uniformity due to the specific lithological makeup. Geographical and historical factors have weighed on the uneven population distribution, the kind of economic structures and the transformation processes especially in the agricultural sector (Bissanti, 1977).

19It has experienced a demographic and economic territorial disparity, in which agricultural speculation is of the most varied kinds. The smaller municipalities continue to depopulate, with a consequent reduction of public and private services and in many cases the population depends on agriculture for its livelihood. In recent years, the region has constantly invested in specific measures for valorization of the ecosystems and the safeguarding and restoration of biodiversity, to a significant degree compared to other Italian regions, precisely because of the recognition of a considerable ongoing reduction of biodiversity in the territory (as expressly declared, see Regione Puglia, 2011, 2013).

  • 1 About the methodology and analysis over time of Italian agricultural systems, including the Apul (...)
  • 2 Census data from 2020 (Istat, 2022) show a Utilized Agricultural Area (UAA) of over 1,400,000 he (...)

20The analysis of agricultural systems1 shows that the region presents such a richness and variety of farming and production structures that its agriculture stands out from the rest of Italy (Fiori, Varraso, 2000). In fact, based on the latest census data (Istat, 2022), it is marked by the highest number of farms in Italy (with an incidence of about 17%), now declining as in the rest of the national territory, with a high level of utilized agricultural area, extensive areas of significant rural landscapes and a prevalence of micro-businesses established over time2.

21The region stands out for the traditional local crops of national importance (including the best known, olives and grapes). Extremely widespread in the territory, they constitute the defining feature of the rural landscape but also show dynamic farming and production practices. This is favored by the orographic-environmental conditions and above all by the unceasing human activity which over the time has made land available through a labor of transformation, which however has often undermined the landscape features of large parts of the region (Fiori, Varraso, 2000). In this process of rural transformation an important role has been played by the numerous interventions over the years (Colamonico, 1960; Grillotti Di Giacomo, 2000) and more recently by the CAP, since the region depends heavily on European funding (Labianca, 2016, 2021; Cejudo, Labianca, 2017).

  • 3 For further information see Colamonico (1960).

22This means that in this region alternating historical and socio-economic events have played a key role in guiding decisions in the farming sector. In explaining the regional initiative, the history of the region, the natural conditions, the human activity and the role of institutions are important. In fact, over the years, a process of agrarian transformation, exacerbated in the 1950s, greatly transformed the appearance of unique territories and landscapes (Colamonico, 1960; Fiori, Varraso, 2000) still visible today. This process has taken place in the region with different intensities and forms, in relation to the density of the population, the types of settlements, the various occupations and above all the historical events, often modifying cropping with often irreversible effects on landscapes. On top of this there have been a series of different interventions, especially of a regulatory kind, around 1870 and subsequent reforms after World War II of agrarian valorisation of large parts of the region3, followed by socio-economic, political and market events that have profoundly affected the process of rural transformation, encouraging the progressive division of landholdings (Colamonico, 1960; Di Carlo, 1996; Grillotti Di Giacomo, 2000). This is true today more than ever, in favoring the maintenance but above all the enhancement of farming and biodiversity. In fact, the risk is that traditional cultivars will be lost and we will inevitably witness a new process of agricultural transformation inspired by the logic of the market and big business.

23The regional authorities have only recently become aware of the effects of the intense transformation brought about by anthropic activity. This awareness was triggered by the CAP and especially in the last programming cycles, the Region has been trying to move towards a more sustainable agriculture of quality than in the past. In fact, the Rural Development Program of the Apulia Region of 2007-2013 states: “Farming, in particular, has replaced most of the natural systems and habitats with agri-ecosystems, modifying the original landscape and using both renewable and non-renewable natural resources in various ways […]. Biodiversity erosion has had different impacts, always serious, in all the rural areas of Apulia, so that intervention in rural areas can no longer be postponed, in order to encourage and promote the defence of autochtonous genetic resources of agricultural, forestry and zootechnical value, threatened with genetic erosion or at risk of extinction” (Regione Puglia, 2013, pp. 61-62).

24While on the one hand the Region recognizes the presence of highly valuable rural areas, with deeply rooted traditions and an inestimable rural and cultural content, on the other hand it denounces the tendency towards the general loss of biodiversity, especially the constant reduction of numerous species and cultivars (agricultural biodiversity), whereas expressly stated, the agricultural and forest areas of the region are essential for the conservation of biodiversity. This can be connected to the aims of protecting the countryside which can generate positive effects in the social and economic sense, especially in more disadvantaged areas with the valorization of quality products and services related to the agriculture, as will be presented in more detail below.

The “custodian farmer” for the conservation and promotion of biodiversity: a regional cartographic analysis

25In this section, we will focus on the contribution and results obtained by regional policy for the achievement of biodiversity objectives. In particular, starting from 2010, in compliance with the provisions of the FAO Treaty, ratified by law (Law 101/2004), the term “custodian farmers” was coined at an international level as an intervention in favor of small farmers designed to promote conservation and the sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. The task of implementing these provisions was entrusted to the various countries. In Italy, specific objectives have been formulated within some thematic areas of intervention integrated into agricultural policy, connected with the Farm to Fork Strategy and implemented at regional level (Ministero dell’Ambiente, 2010). In line with this orientation, the Apulia region has established a specific strategy for biodiversity as part of the Rural Development Program in two planning cycles 2007-2013 and 2014-2020, envisaging specific measures.

26More specifically, starting from 2007-2013, the Region has established Axis 2 “Improvement of environment and the countryside”, consisting of 9 measures, contributing to sustainable development, aiming to protect and strengthen natural resources and landscapes in rural areas. For this purpose, emphasis falls on priority areas at community level serving for the implementation of the Nature 2000 network, for the upholding of commitments made on biodiversity and development of farming and forestry systems with a high natural value and of traditional rural landscapes. This axis includes measure 214 “Agri-environmental payments”, of which actions 3 and 4 have the objectives of protection of biodiversity through the farming practices implemented by local “custodian farmers”, integrated projects, databases and dissemination for biodiversity (Regione Puglia, 2011).

27The aims are: preservation of genetic diversity by promoting the cultivation/introduction of species/varieties risking extinction and the creation of a system to maintain biodiversity and protect the typical elements of the rural landscape. The protection of endangered varieties is therefore considered important in order to “strengthen” or “maintain” the cultural identity linked to rural landscapes (Regione Puglia, 2013). In order to implement these measures and to avoid negative consequences on the ecosystem, landscape, local practices and traditions, as had already happened in the past, the regional government has published two public calls for application, one for each programming cycle by granting public support for small farmers.

28The farmers who agreed to participate, classed as “custodian” farmers, were designated for the conservation in situ of the phytogenetic resources indicated in the Rural Development Programme. The instrument for this purpose is financial: there would be specific prizes especially for small farmers operating in disadvantaged areas, protected areas under special protection and sites of community importance. It envisages the possibility of applying for economic support both individually and as an association, either of farmers, public bodies, or authorities running legally recognized national and regional parks, for whom the funding allocated is related to the surface area (respecting a minimum of utilized agricultural area) and type of crop, with variable size classes. The crop types cover fruit, olives for oil, grapevines, grain and vegetable and the farmers must guarantee that their farming techniques will reflect best practices for the local area. In particular, due to the fact that they are so widespread, olive trees and vineyards have had and still have an economic and social significance and are the basis of the history of the region and of age-old farming practices (Colamonico, 1960; Bissanti, 1977; Di Carlo, 1986).

29In this process, the Region has therefore identified over a hundred traditional crops at risk of extinction, collecting all the information in a territorial information system. This mosaic of crops (from field crops to fruit and vegetables) is described and reported in the regional map of land use dating from the 1950s by Colamonico (1960) and brings undeniable diversity and enhances the quality of the landscape, as well as a wide range of quality products for local supply chains.

30The recognition of the importance of understanding the processes regarding agricultural transformation in the region and of the potential consequences for the ecosystem and landscape, solicited the regional government to collect data in order to reconstruct the features of the crop varieties to be protected and information on the farmers’ applications to participate in these initiatives. This method is intended to have broader territorial effects going far beyond the conservation of genetic diversity and the promoting of endangered cultivars. A preliminary identification in the territory of indigenous plant varieties at risk of erosion was carried out, by using georeferencing, the creation of descriptive cards and photographic dossiers, the assessment of the local situation, maintenance and networking. The custodian farmers, upon request, had to be supported by the Region, with the binding commitment to cultivate, or reproduce on the farm, one or more indigenous plant varieties at risk of extinction, identified as such in the list of regional indigenous genetic resources.

  • 4 The Region implemented the intervention with the construction of an archive of data and informat (...)

31Therefore, on a programmatic level, the Region supports the creation of a system of biodiversity maintenance and protection of the characteristic elements of the rural landscape, through a research activity with subsequent intervention designed for specific areas of intervention and cultivation4. These data can solve problem of the lack of information which often generates difficulties in assessing the territorial impacts in European territories deriving from interventions, especially in rural and marginal areas.

32For this study, specific sources and data of interest have been selected within the information system set up by the regional government. The policy documents, in particular the rural development programmes for 2007-2013 and 2014-2020 and the regional calls, provided the regulatory basis to understand the regional interventions. Data concerning the beneficiaries of the regional tenders, called “custodian farmers” and information layers of the System of Protection and Landscape Areas containing in the Territorial Landscape Plan of the Apulia region (see Regione Puglia, 2022) have allowed, through a preliminary geolocation and subsequent analysis, to understand the regional initiative, through the distribution, the intensity of the presence of the “custodian farmers” over time.

33The analysis was carried out through the Geographical Information Systems (GIS), which permit analysis and a more immediate visualization of the phenomenon. The basic analysis to acquire this information was accompanied by further analysis designed to pinpoint the breadth of farmer support for the Region’s scheme, significant because it signals the degree of local activation regarding the issues at stake.

34The cartographic analysis was carried out in successive steps. In the first phase, a preliminary geolocalization of “custodian farmers” applications for the 2007-2013, 2014-2020 programming cycles and the boundaries of areas subject to particular national protections (such as parks and reserves, and regional protection, as significant rural landscapes) was made. In this phase, qualitative position maps have been produced for the two programming cycles (fig. 1 and 2) that therefore overlap the data layers we have considered. This basic information has been verified through the overlapping of other layers of information, such as, in particular, cadastral data to identify the structure of the land ownership of farmers. These geolocalized data of farmers’ applications were examined for information on the characteristics of their activities and then superimposed other layers of information.

Figure 1. Apulia Region: geolocalization of custodian farmers (2007-2013 programming cycle), boundaries of areas subject to national and regional protection.

Figure 1. Apulia Region: geolocalization of custodian farmers (2007-2013 programming cycle), boundaries of areas subject to national and regional protection.

Source: our elaboration based on “custodian farmers” applications provided by the Apulia Region and information layers of the System of Protection and Landscape Areas contained in the Territorial Landscape Plan of the Apulia region (see Regione Puglia, 2022)

Figure 2. Apulia Region: geolocalization of custodian farmers (2014-2020 programming cycle), boundaries of areas subject to national and regional protection.

Figure 2. Apulia Region: geolocalization of custodian farmers (2014-2020 programming cycle), boundaries of areas subject to national and regional protection.

Source: our elaboration based on “custodian farmers” applications provided by the Apulia Region and information layers of the System of Protection and Landscape Areas contained in the Territorial Landscape Plan of the Apulia region (see Regione Puglia, 2022)

35In the final phase, a synthesis map, by using geo-localized data of farmers’ applications (fig. 3) was drawn up. It made it possible to weigh the presence and spread of the phenomenon of custodian farmers. The synthesis map was developed using the “heat map” method defined as “geospatial data on a map by using different colors to represent areas with different concentrations of points –showing overall shape and concentration trends” creating a density raster starting from the vector layer of input point data (De Boer, 2015).

36This is a representation method which, although not yet widely investigated in theoretical cartography (Panecki, Pokojski, 2019), is regarded as a highly accredited hotspot mapping method widespread in various fields of geographic research especially for identifying spatial clustering patterns and for planning and predictive purposes (Hua et al., 2018; Nakaya, Yano, 2010; Delso et al., 2018; Okabe et al., 2009; Mohaymany et al., 2013). This method of visual analysis allows to see “the geographic clustering of a phenomenon”, produces a map of the “hotspots” so as to identify areas of concentration (Netek et al., 2018).

37The heat map showed in figure 3, being a synthesis map, does not allow for technical reasons to superimpose other information layers. It expresses the intensity of the presence of custodian farmers who have participated in the regional calls. The summary value takes into account the weight of the phenomenon as a function of the affected area, so the intensity of the phenomenon is greater where the map shows a more intense shade of color (in our case red colour), giving the appearance of getting “hotter”.

Figure 3. Apulia region: heat map of the presence of custodian farmers participating in regional tenders.

Figure 3. Apulia region: heat map of the presence of custodian farmers participating in regional tenders.

Source: our elaboration based on “custodian farmers” applications provided by the Apulia Region

Main results of the cartographic analysis

38The analysis carried out made it possible to obtain qualitative position maps (fig. 1 and 2) and a quantitative synthesis map (fig. 3) for the two programming cycles. This enables us to understand the type of crop that farm-businesses are most interested in protecting based on the number of requests they presented, the location and size of custodian farmers’ participation in the regional initiative along with their distribution and evolution over time in the territory, the effectiveness of regional intervention towards fragile territories. This allows for an initial assessment of the scheme, as well as shedding light on the farmers’ degree of interest and awareness of the issue of biodiversity, since it is related to crops that are integral to the territorial identity and typify the countryside.

39As emerged by our analysis, typical situations are related to small adjoining farms in which specific varieties are grown (with a strong prevalence of olive trees), usually associated with other similar cultivars, in general the most profitable crops (especially vineyards or small market-gardens). These small businesses are in most cases owned by a single farmer or by very close family members or more rarely by neighboring farmers with similar cultivars putting together small parcels of land to reach the size threshold established by the regional tender and to keep traditional cultivars. These are choices mainly driven by considerations of economy in land and farms management. Considering the national and regional protection areas, it emerges that the regional intervention makes it possible to maintain these cultivars on small farms which, although of value, would probably be lost in the absence of support (for example due to management costs not justified by the unit yield and market prices).

40The analysis of applications by custodian farmers for the two programming cycles (fig. 1 and 2) reveals a progressive spread of the practices, but concentrated in specific areas, falling mainly in the north and the center of the region where there is a greater concentration of “custodian farmers” (fig. 3), while the other areas in the south of the region are less represented.

41The analysis of subsequent calls for proposals aimed at strengthening measures for an increasingly “green” and sustainable agricultural production, trying to recover “a proactive relationship between agriculture, environment, forests and landscape” (Regione Puglia, 2017, p. 12) shows on the one hand the regional attempt to broaden the geographic areas of interest, so as to involve the less represented provinces. On the other hand, it shows the results which have turned out to be rather modest, confirming specific areas of significant concentration already observed in the previous programming cycle, mainly in the north of the region (see fig. 2). The combined reading of the three maps (fig. 1, 2, 3) allows us to trace the evolutionary path of the phenomenon in recent years. It is possible to observe, on the one hand, a clear determination of the regional government to provide concrete aid in favor of biodiversity in support of small farmers (on a programmatic level in Rural Development Programmes, through financial resources and the creation of an information system) and on the other hand differentiated territorial effects. This strong presence of custodian farmers can be observed, over the period, in the north and center of the region (fig. 3).

42As can be seen in figures 1 and 2, these areas are characterized by the presence and proximity of sites of naturalistic importance, in particular two large national parks, respectively, in the north and centre of the region (the Gargano National Park and the Alta Murgia Park) and areas subject to regional protection for the presence of important rural landscapes. These institutional overlapping are significant because their support has been essential especially for raising awareness of biodiversity issues among local farmers. In fact, due to the small size of their farms, the latter in many cases do not have the material and immaterial tools to manage such varieties and, even less, to enhance their value. The maps show interesting concentrations that not only reflect the distribution of the production areas (mainly olive trees, vineyards and small market-gardens), but especially signals from the territories in the implementation of more sustainable agricultural practices. In this regard, studies conducted on a European scale (Hervé et al., 2020), confirm the strong heterogeneity in terms of agricultural practices in response to targeted policies and interventions, especially at local level. The behavior and choices of farmers are in fact the result of a combination of personal, socio-cultural, economic, institutional, environmental factors, in which the formation of values in a specific geographical, institutional and cultural context is important.

43All this contributes to interactions that influence practices, perceptions, beliefs, social dimensions of learning processes, professional identity and shared norms.

44As can be seen from the results of this study, although recognition methods and specific programmatic lines have been put in place, the effects of the interventions should be improved. Important limitations are related to the provision of financial instruments alone and the attention paid to the objectives of maintaining rather than enhancing local cultivars. Furthermore, many small farms are below the limit set by the Region. In fact, the analysis of agricultural systems in 2010 shows that in all the provinces (with the exception of Foggia) over 60% of micro-enterprises are between 0 and 2 hectares. It is clear that the regional government cannot simply rely on financial actions but must take into consideration the actual structure, size and more complex features and regional relationships of small farms. This needs to be done in order to design more effective and strategic interventions to act on multiple actors and factors, not merely focusing on maintenance and protection.

45A significant role can be played by specific actors who can encourage such practices in the management of agricultural and forest areas with a high naturalistic value (especially the Park Authorities), the enhancement of local products and knowledge (such as quality consortia, cooperatives), as well as qualified and experienced actors (such as research institutions, universities, Local Actions Groups, etc.).

46In fact, the existence of constraints and control regimes or specific insistence may have influenced the choices of small farmers, specifically in the areas with a great concentration characterized by high vulnerability which in the absence of interventions, would have been more exposed to the risk of agricultural and forest abandonment.

47The different attitude on the part of the Park Authorities is not surprising either, in fact the most evident result is in the northern area of the region (in correspondence with the Gargano National Park) where custodian farmers progressively increase and appear strengthened in the two programming cycles. In fact, at the European level, different modes of management and governance of protected areas may coexist: in some cases, particular emphasis may be directed towards objectives of rigid preservation of traditional forms of land use and general protection while in other cases there may be a combination of approaches tackling “the multifunctionality of landscapes and rural regions” (Cejudo et al., 2022). In any case, protected natural areas can represent fundamental safeguards at European level for the concrete implementation of biodiversity conservation strategies and ecosystem services and this is in line with recent approaches to natural heritage and policies for enhancing regional identities (Prezioso et al., 2016).

48In addition to promoting the protection of landscape and agricultural values, these interventions can fulfill multiple purposes in these areas, including support for small farmers and for their constant adaptation to socio-economic changes.

Final considerations

49The questions related to biodiversity at the international level, in particular within the EU framework, emphasize that the new regulation and the instruments adopted play a key role for biodiversity. In the European context, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is known to have exerted a strong influence since the 1960s on the choices of farmers, on the methods of management and cultivation. Considering the challenges described in the main international agendas, they cannot be addressed through traditional solutions and strategies, but new approaches are needed, providing important contributions on the ecosystem level.

50However, although numerous studies have addressed the negative impacts of intensification of agricultural practices on ecosystem services, in the attempt to explain biodiversity and the relationships with agriculture, as yet little attention is paid to a rigorous assessment that takes stock of the best available knowledge on the effects of the CAP on biodiversity and ecosystem services in Europe. Among the different approaches to agriculture aiming at landscape conservation, biodiversity and rural development, a key role is certainly played by the institutional, economic and social context in which farmers operate, as well as the management practices and planning frameworks that can be applied at local level.

51From the analysis on the case of Apulia, a rural region lagging behind in development in Southern Italy, representing a testing ground at national level, the regional authorities have only recently become aware of the effects of the intense agrarian transformation which took place over time. In line with international and national agendas, the regional government has in recent years worked constantly for the protection and enhancement of traditional cultivars and the heritage of genetic diversity present in the territories. In fact, the initial stages of fact-finding by the Region were followed by specific tenders to support small farmers called “custodian farmers”, in order to avoid the depletion of biodiversity for sustainable and resilient agriculture.

52This study, combining programming documents and specific data on local farmers’ responses to the regional initiative for the protection of cultivars at risk of extinction for 2007-2013 and 2014-2020 programming cycles and on areas of specific national and regional protection, has allowed to evaluate the weight and significance of the initiative at the regional level, revealing heterogeneous responses and therefore specific local sensitivities and attitudes to biodiversity. The cartographic analysis shows areas of concentration of positive responses to regional intervention, close to areas subject to national and regional protection, highlighting the importance of systemic and networking actions. The study shows the importance of the relationships related to biodiversity that can explain the choices of farmers and the more complex territorial dynamics. In fact, as this research found, farmers’ choices reflect not only individual characteristics but also the value system, the socio-economic and institutional environment in which they are embedded.

53Although signs of dynamism can be found in certain areas, especially concentrated in proximity of national and regional protection sites, the regional initiative, although innovative, is still modest because it is mainly linked to financial support and oriented towards maintenance and protection biodiversity not to enhancing it in an integrated perspective. It is clear that these are recent interventions, implemented only in the last few years, where the enhancement of quality products requires collective efforts to achieve the recognition of specific well-accepted systems. The interventions must promote full awareness on the part of farmers regarding the importance of these resources, as an expression of local identity and extraordinary development potential, especially for marginal areas.

54It is a matter of promoting and enhancing the landscape and agricultural values and these interventions can fulfill multiple purposes in these areas, including the support of small farmers and their constant adaptation and responsiveness to socio-economic changes. The awareness of individual farmers about biodiversity and its different values ​​influences their willingness to apply agricultural practices that uphold biodiversity. These elements are deeply rooted in their daily life and linked to agricultural practices. The context in which farmers are embedded is important, as it is reflecting on the values of biodiversity, which must be done with the support of different actors. This draws attention to the need to integrate regulatory efforts and traditional economic incentives with non-binding tools that are capable of impacting innovative and biodiversity-sensitive management practices. The approach that can be pursued is towards a sort of “eco-agriculture” aimed at reconciling economy, ecological relations and mutual interdependence between agriculture, biodiversity and ecosystem services, in which landscapes are presented as real mosaics of land use, of complex relationships and functions in which the work and management by different actors is fundamental for the future of the territories, especially of marginal rural ones.

55A significant role can be played by specific actors who can solicit such practices. In addition to promoting the protection of landscape and agricultural values, these interventions can fulfill multiple purposes in these areas, including sustenance and constant adaptation to socio-economic changes of small farmers. Finally, the role of knowledge, communication and networking between different actors (Velten et al., 2018; Esparcia, 2014; Navarro et al., 2022) should be recognized and supported as having a role of primary importance for the promotion of sustainable innovative agricultural practices by farmers.

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1 About the methodology and analysis over time of Italian agricultural systems, including the Apulia region see Grillotti Di Giacomo (2000).

2 Census data from 2020 (Istat, 2022) show a Utilized Agricultural Area (UAA) of over 1,400,000 hectares, placing the region second nationally, after Sicily.

3 For further information see Colamonico (1960).

4 The Region implemented the intervention with the construction of an archive of data and information collected in the Territorial Information System, one of the most comprehensive at the national level.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Apulia Region: geolocalization of custodian farmers (2007-2013 programming cycle), boundaries of areas subject to national and regional protection.
Crédits Source: our elaboration based on “custodian farmers” applications provided by the Apulia Region and information layers of the System of Protection and Landscape Areas contained in the Territorial Landscape Plan of the Apulia region (see Regione Puglia, 2022)
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,1M
Titre Figure 2. Apulia Region: geolocalization of custodian farmers (2014-2020 programming cycle), boundaries of areas subject to national and regional protection.
Crédits Source: our elaboration based on “custodian farmers” applications provided by the Apulia Region and information layers of the System of Protection and Landscape Areas contained in the Territorial Landscape Plan of the Apulia region (see Regione Puglia, 2022)
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,1M
Titre Figure 3. Apulia region: heat map of the presence of custodian farmers participating in regional tenders.
Crédits Source: our elaboration based on “custodian farmers” applications provided by the Apulia Region
Fichier image/jpeg, 99k
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Marilena Labianca, « Towards the new Common Agricultural Policy for Biodiversity: custodian farmers for sustainable agricultural practices in the Apulia region (South of Italy) »Belgeo [En ligne], 4 | 2022, mis en ligne le 27 décembre 2022, consulté le 03 février 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Marilena Labianca

Department of Economics, University of Foggia,

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