Abstract Although not well understood scientifically, integrated and diversified aquaculture-agriculture systems have a history of some two millennia in parts of South and Southeast Asia. With the extremely limited farm area and scanty resources available to the typical small-scale farmer of these regions, integrated agro-ecosystems, based on generations of empirical knowledge, provide a balanced diet and often a small marketable surplus for poor rural households, while continuously recycling nutrients and energy through the system, producing little waste, and maintaining a local ecological balance. Despite the few scientific data available on such systems, they are being widely advocated for use in developing countries with no prior experience of integrated farming. This paper (paper I) describes the environmental context and provides an overview of the mulberry dike-polycultural carp pond resource system of Leliu Commune, in the Zhujiang Delta of the People's Republic of China, where complex and highly productive integrated farming systems are operated on a geographical and economic scale unmatched elsewhere. Subsequent papers will focus on the human ecology of the dike-pond system, the ecological basis for system integration, and the results and implications of experiments and trials for increasing the productivity of and the economic rate of return from the system.