At the heart of our work with communities in all the three areas in which we currently work – Mphumalanga and KwaZulu Natal in South Africa and Bikita in Zimbabwe – is to accompany communities in their journey of reviving their indigenous knowledge systems and practices. This encompasses revival of traditional seed diversity and farming systems and customary laws to protect their ancestral lands and their community ecological governance systems. It also involves recuperating the complimentary roles and leadership of women and men, and restoring intergenerational learning. This process enables communities to have the space to reflect and analyse their situation for themselves, recognise that they have a wealth of knowledge to draw on and identify what they feel are priorities and what assistance they might need. Thus they begin to take back control of their lives and their ‘development’ or ‘life path’.
Community Dialogues are the foundation of our methodology. This is where knowledgable elder women and men are encouraged to share their memory and knowledge with the community. As their memory comes back, stimulated through the dialogues, so does the picture of how the community used to live – the diversity of seeds the women used to cultivate and their different uses and nutritional and cultural value; the sacred sites and the various ritual ceremonies that were carried out, when and by whom, for what reason. Through this process of rebuilding an understanding of the past, their traditional knowledge and practices, the communities are able to analyse what has changed and why. What they have lost and what they want to recuperate. How they can do so.
We accompany the communities in this process and provide support to build on and enhance their practices, focussing on strengthening traditional governance and farming systems to secure food and seed sovereignty and community control of their ecosystems and ancestral land.
Based on the issues raised in community dialogues we tailor programmes and interventions building on each community’s specific needs and priorities, as revealed in the dialogues. Generally communities identify Agro-ecology Training and support as a priority. In most communities farming practices have been severely undermined over the years and this becomes a priority for them.
Our programmes therefore confer a high degree of sustainability as they are defined and led by the communities themselves, based on their indigenous knowledge systems and ways of life.
The activities build on each other, beginning with small, local community dialogues with elders, traditional leaders and young people, to revive Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) and identify the specific problems in the community and communal solutions. The dialogues lead to improved social cohesion and increased confidence, particularly for women leaders as their roles and responsibilities, as traditional leaders and keepers of seed and life, are revived.
There is an important practical dimension that is intrinsic to indigenous knowledge. And that is knowledge is related to practice. As communities remember what they used to have, they are stimulated to search for how to bring it back into practice. When they identify seeds that have been lost for example, immediately they are inspired to find someone who might have them, share them, bulk them up. Similarly with sacred sites and the associated rituals. They are eager to bring them back. Thus the revival of knowledge and practices go hand in hand.
Community Exchanges, between those following a similar path, are also a vital part of our methodology. Peer learning between communities are a very potent way for communities to learn from and challenge each other. This also builds solidarity and confidence as they feel they are not alone in charting this path. They have been told for decades that their traditions are backward, that their seeds are no good, that women are traditionally subordinate to men, that their sacred sites are outmoded beliefs. The dialogues reveal another reality. And they encourage each other by cross referencing what they have rediscovered, verifying a common bio-cultural worlview.
Eco-cultural maps and calendars
Once the dialogues are well-established, community animators have been trained in leading the process, and the picture of the knowledge, the farming practices, the land and the governance system becomes clear, another step can be taken. The communities are ready to develop their ancestral eco-cultural map and calendar. By bringing together neighbouring communities who have been doing this work , they are able to draw a map of the whole area in which they live, as it used to be – the mountains and rivers, the homesteads and farming areas, the fields and wild places and the sacred sites. Once they have done their ancestral maps, they have their baseline of the original order of their land.
Then they can go on to do a map and calendar of the present. The contrast is a shocking moment for the communities. When they see visually what has happened, the disorder in contrast to the past, they tend to feel a deep sadness and regret. This provides the bases for them to want to draw their future map of what they need to restore their land, their farming systems, to strengthen their compliance with their customary laws, to ensure their sacred sites are properly protect. Please see our page on Eco-Cultural Mapping for more in depth information.
Paralegal trainings, documentation, recognition
In the next phase, paralegal training can begin, to explore with the communities how they can affirm and gain recognition for their community ecological governance systems, customary laws, sacred natural sites as no go areas, traditional seed diversity and food sovereignty and other priorities. They also learn about their constitutional rights and how they can excercise their rights and responsibilities.
Once the community’s have completed maps they can begin to compile registration documents to submit to the government for recognition, or for their own affirmation. In line with this goal each community can develop their plans for how they can ensure that they reach their vision in their future map.
As communities become more confident in themselves, who they are, what is meaningful and important for them, their priorities, what they clearly do not want etc, they become stronger advocates. Communities can then participate meaningfully in public participation meetings that are organized by corporates or government for development projects that directly affect the people e.g. for potential mining, tourism, or industrial agriculture projects. EarthLore provides support as the need arises.
Each of these activities reinforce each other and become part of the communities practice. Community dialogues are what we call ‘the riverbed’. Traditionally communities met regularly to discuss, reflect and analyse, tell teaching stories, monitor what is happening and make decisions. These provide support for the community as it grows in strength and confidence. The Agro-ecology trainings provide ongoing support to farmers and communities in reviving indigenous seed and food sovereignty. Through this those most keen and talented can be trained to train others so that the work can spread. Once the three maps and calendars have been done, communities can carry on ‘zooming’ into more details using maps and calendars. They can form research groups with those that are especially interested in a topic, such as seed diversity; medicine; wild foods; sacred natural sites; livelihood options and so on.
This is why communities call this an ongoing journey because there is always more to learn, to explore, to develop, to refine, to adapt, rooted in ancestral knowledge, values and practices.