Eco-Cultural Mapping

Story of Origin in Africa

In November 2009, we hosted a very special meeting within the Tshidzivhe community of Venda, South Africa. The meeting was to carry out an exercise in community participatory mapping – which we call  eco-cultural mapping – and this event is an important landmark in our journey. We were hosting indigenous people from the Colombian Amazon to show us how they had developed this approach over the last decade.  We were supported by the Gaia Foundation, Gaia Amazonas and the ABN to hold this gathering – and they had invited indigenous people from the Altai in Russia to learn with us. This was infact a major ceremony where the Amazonians handed their gift of eco-cultural mapping to African communities to use as a powerful path for restoring the confidence of communities in their traditions and in defending their rights to their ancestral territory and traditional culture.

EarthLore works with communities to document their knowledge, customs and folklore through the creation of eco-cultural maps and calendars. A women displays an eco-calendar created by women farmers in Venda, Limpopo. April 2013 (Photo Credit Juliana Thornton)

EarthLore works with communities to document their knowledge and customs  through the creation of eco-cultural maps and calendars. A women displays an eco-calendar created by farming communities in Venda, Limpopo. April 2013 (Photo Credit Juliana Thornton)

More than 70 vhaVenda people took part, mostly from Tshidzivhe community, guided by trainers in eco-cultural mapping from Colombia.

Background to the Mapping

The impact of colonization and the industrial process has fragmented communities, changed power relations and destroyed the rich biodiversity and forests of the extraordinary Soutpansberg mountains, in north-eastern South Africa. Industrial plantations, mining and tourism are all threatening the area.

The Makhadzi are knowlegable women who are deeply pained by the destruction of their traditional territory and especially the sacred sites. Elder Vhomakhadzi Vho-Phophi, who passed away in 2012 said: ‘‘In all my life I have never seen Zwifho (Sacred Natural Sites) so destroyed like these Zwifho. These people must stop what they are doing because these places are our home.”

Together with Mupo Foundation,now EarthLore the Makhadzi and the wider community began a process of reviving their knowledge and practices relating to their Zwifho and their seed diversity. The process brought together both young people and the chiefs in ongoing dialogues over a period of three years.

The community began to sketch the relationship between the sacred sites, showing how these sites are critical places within the ecosystem – natural springs, forest, wetlands, river basins and waterfalls – which maintain the health and resilience of their ancestral territory.

When the Amazonians came to show them how to map the memory that they had revived over 3 years of dialogues, it took 6 days. This was a time of deep reflection as the elders shared their knowledge of the territory, the sacred sites, the traditional practices and rituals, many of which are on the verge of being lost.

“When I look at the map we are drawing I feel I could cry. Our territory has been badly hurt…I cry for the coming generations. How are they going to live when this country is destroyed?” Joyce, Makhadzhi elder

The Mapping Process

Eco-cultural mapping involves all the community, especially the elders. Aside from local knowledge and wisdom, it requires no technology and only the bare minimum of materials, making it an exercise that is easy for communities to continue mapping on their own.

The first map was of the ancestral order of the territory and reflected how things were when the community was living traditionally. This is still in the living memory of the elders – when the territory was abundant with wild animals, forests and had plenty of rain.

The second map was of the present. This, they described as the map of disorder – where the forests are destroyed, there are no more wild animals, rivers and lakes are drying, the rainfall has radically fallen and the traditional crops have almost disappeared.

The final map is of the future – the vision of how the communities wish to regenerate the territory and rebuild their communities. This is where much of the work of EarthLore now focusses: work such as reviving seed diversity, and working with schools through EarthLore’s Youth Cultural Biodiversity programme.

As the different maps were completed the Makhadzi sang and danced in celebration. They had unearthed a new capacity to express their traditional ecological knowledge so that the community can hold a collective vision. Based on this experience, they have developed eco-cultural calendars that zoom into aspects of the map and show the annual cycle of the moon, stars, seeds and wildlife. This helps prompt the memories of the elders further, about how nature’s cycles used to be, and what knowledge can be ‘re’-membered and restored to promote this relationship with the Earth once again.

“We did not know how to move forward. But we now know which way to go. Now we can stand together and do one thing. I can see the way we are going to revive our culture.”  Chief of Vhutanda

Watch the Film! Reviving Our Culture, Mapping Our Future

If you have been inspired by this story or would like to know more about this process, watch this short film that captures its power and spirit – Reviving Our Culture, Mapping Our Future

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