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EghtesadOnline: The qanat-based saffron farming system in Iran's northeastern Khorasan Razavi Province’s Gonabad County has been formally designated as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System.

"The designation came at a meeting in Rome of the GIAHS Scientific Advisory Group affiliated with the Food and Agricultural Organization of United Nations on Friday," Ali Kianirad, an official with the Economic and Rural Development Research Institute, told Financial Tribune.

APERDRI is affiliated with Iran's Agriculture Ministry.

“This cultivation system is unique in that the farms are irrigated via the qanat [or aquaduct] system constructed in the region hundreds of years ago. As saffron is a drought-tolerant plant and Gonabad is located in an arid and semi-arid climate this qanat-based saffron farming system, a legacy handed down to the farmers of the region by their ancestors, provides the means for efficient water management,” Financial Tribune quoted Kianirad as saying.

A qanat is a gently sloping underground channel to transport water from an aquifer or water well to surface for irrigation and drinking. This is an old system of water supply from a deep well with a series of vertical access shafts. 

The underground channels create a reliable supply of water for human settlements and irrigation in hot, arid and semi-arid climates, but the value of this system is directly related to the quality, volume and regularity of water flow.

The qanat systems in Gonabad, Kianirad explained, have been inscribed as United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s World Heritage Sites.

Ghasabe Qanat of Gonabad also known as Keykhosrow Kariz is one of the oldest and largest qanats in the world built between 700-500 BC. It contains 427 water wells with a total length of 33,113 meters. This site was first added to the UNESCO's list of tentative World Heritage Sites in 2007, then officially inscribed in 2016 with several other qanat as "The Persian Qanat". 

The proposal for qanat-based saffron farming system in Gonabad, Kianirad said, was sent by APERDRI to be designated as GIAHS early 2017 with the Seno in Gonabad’s Kakhak District as the pilot village.

Severe water shortages in the area pose major threats to food security and livelihoods of local communities, FAO wrote on its website.

However, the proper use of water resources supplied by the qanat irrigation system and production of high value added products, especially saffron, have created a unique opportunity for farmers and residents of the region to improve their livelihoods.

Saffron does not require large quantities of water compared to cereals, which has resulted in the allocation of more areas for the cultivation of this invaluable crop making it a major source of income for many farming households. 

At present, it plays a key role in creating jobs, reducing migration, providing sustainable livelihoods, improving water efficiency and productivity as well as developing ecotourism.


3 Iranian Systems/Sites Inscribed in GIAHS 

The Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems Partnership Initiative was conceptualized in Food and Agricultural Organization in 2002 during the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. 

This UN Partnership Initiative aims to identify, support and safeguard Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems and their livelihoods, agricultural and associated biodiversity, landscapes, knowledge systems and cultures across the world. 

The GIAHS Partnership Initiative recognizes the crucial importance of the wellbeing of family farming communities in an integrated approach while directing activities toward sustainable agriculture and rural development. 

This is the third Iranian agricultural system or site inscribed in GIAHS. 

The first one was the Qanat Irrigated Agricultural Heritage Systems in Kashan, Isfahan Province, which was recognized as a world heritage in 2014. The second was the traditional grape cultivation in Malayer County’s Jowzan Valley rural district, Hamedan Province, which was designated as a GIAHS this year in late November.

A total of 57 systems or sites are currently inscribed in GIAHS from across the world.

In response to global trends that undermine family farming and traditional agricultural systems in 2002, during the World Summit on Sustainable Development, FAO launched a Global Partnership Initiative on conservation and adaptive management of GIAHS.

Kianirad said the system aims to safeguard and expand agricultural systems that have adapted themselves to the climatic conditions of specific regions, helped sustainable farming and maintained agricultural biodiversity. 

GIAHS establishes long-term programs to support these systems.

“There are many benefits to being designated as a GIAHS. First and foremost, the product, the area and the specific farming method will be highlighted and introduced to the world. This promotes agricultural and rural tourism in the region, which is turning into a popular trend nowadays. This can further boost the local as well as national economy," he told Financial Tribune in an earlier interview.

The official noted that the designation can help with the branding of the products cultivated in these regions. 

This, he added, can bring Iranian and foreign investors, as well as institutes, that invest in GIAHS such as FAO itself, the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the Global Environment Facility to the region and transform their economic scene.

Kianirad said similar to the last two designations, the Agriculture Ministry, in cooperation with locals, has prepared an action plan to support and maintain the unique saffron cultivation system in Gonabad.

In these action plans, he said earlier, the roles of all responsible bodies, public and private, in the conservation, sustenance and expansion of the newly-recognized system, required expenses and the planning, monitoring and supervision procedures are meticulously delineated.


World’s Leading Saffron Producer

Latest data show Iran exported 135 tons of saffron worth $178 million during the first seven months of the current Iranian year (March 21-Oct. 22) to register a 48% and 27% growth in weight and value respectively compared with the corresponding period of last year.

According to Javad Mir-Arab, an official with the Agriculture Ministry, saffron is cultivated across 108,000 hectares in Iran.

"Last year’s production amounted to 397 tons. Some 400 tons of the crop will be harvested by the yearend," he added. 

About 236 tons of saffron worth more than $325 million were exported from Iran in the last fiscal year (March 2017-18) to register a 55% and 56% growth in weight and value respectively compared with the year before. 

“Some 20 countries were among our main export destinations. About 77% of Iran’s saffron exports headed to three countries, namely Hong Kong, the UAE and Spain,” the head of Agriculture, Water and Food Industries Commission with Tehran Chamber of Commerce, Industries, Mines and Agriculture, Kaveh Zargaran, told Financial Tribune. 

However, despite the near-total dominance in output, Iran accounts for 60% of global saffron trade as a major part of the exports is repackaged, reexported and sold under foreign brands, depriving Iran of the added value.

The volume marked a 10-year record in exports for two consecutive years.

Iran is the world’s biggest producer of saffron and accounts for more than 90% of global production.

Close to 95% of Iranian saffron are grown in the two provinces of South Khorasan and Khorasan Razavi.

Per capita consumption of saffron in the Middle Eastern country stands at 1 gram. Annually, 80 tons of saffron are consumed domestically.


Iran Khorasan Razavi Saffron Farming GIAHS qanat Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System