Our role and Commitment
A fundamental premise guiding our work is that communities have the traditional knowledge and systems for governance and regenerative livelihoods, having evolved them over generations. But the impact of colonisation and all that ensued has severely undermined them, and what we see today are fragments of what used to be. Therefore it takes hard work to rebuild the traditions and the knowledge and practices. Our commitment is to accompany those who wish to make this journey.
We therefore work according to a system of engagement which involves introductory community dialogues, working in particular with elder knowledge holders (men and women), traditional leaders, women leaders, and young people to revive and enhance their traditional governance systems as integral to culture, regenerative farming systems and protection of sacred lands.
Mpumalanga, South Africa
During March 2015, we initiated work with 3 communities in Mpumalanga that are all peri-urban and all affected by mining in some way.
They have the following individual characteristics:
– Elukwatini has a relatively strong traditional governance systems (an important cornerstone for our work), is isolated with little external support, the people are eager to improve their farming systems.
– Tonga has an active civil society already involved in activism through the Mpumalanga Water Caucus (MPWC)
– Bushbuckridge has a group of traditional healers who are keen to revive traditional ceremonies and restore sources of medicine and protect their sacred water sources through the MPWC.
Our work is progressing well with communities around Elukwatini area who are eager to revive their traditional knowledge and practices, with priority given to their farming systems. They hold regular dialogues and through this are remembering the seed diversity and communal work that used to enable`e their ancestors to have abundant food. They are searching amongst themselves and neighbouring communities to recuperate their lost seeds. EarthLore has agreed to assist them with training in agro-ecology practices as they identified that they had lost a lot of this knowledge.
Initially, the participants were mainly older women, who are the ones who are most concerned about the breakdown in the community and connections with the land. Gradually others are being drawn in and are attending the dialogues to share and learn more. As the group grows, so men and young people are becoming interested. This is usually the way these processes begin. This year we anticipate that surrounding communities will approach us to enable them to begin this journey as well.
A mapping exercise was conducted in Mpumalanga that involved 23 households. About 40% are saving traditional seeds. A little less than half the households practice intercropping, but only 20% use compost or animal manure. The majority rely on commercial fertilizers. There are no water conservation practices or use of wastewater.
The women in Mpumalanga said the mapping results show them that there are different ways of farming and that they are abandoning their traditional practices and adopting an expensive way of production. Use of fertilizer has resulted in poor harvests and tired soils, and in addition to the poor rains, this is resulting in people not having much of a harvest. People don’t have livestock to get manure. People have drifted away from agriculture because it is expensive. After being made aware of these problems, they are eager to bring back traditional agricultural and seed saving practices.
The mapping exercise has highlighted a need for more agro-ecology training in Mpumalanga.
Together with the field animators in Mpumalanga, we will continue monitoring the capacity of the three communities we initiated work with in 2015, while expanding around the stronger one in Elukwatini.
EarthLore continues to work in 3 communities in the Bikita district of Zimbabwe, namely Mamutse, Chiroorwe and Gangare. They are all deeply rural with fields and gardens growing traditional food crops. They all have an existing active farmer base and an existing internal governance structure for the management of fields and gardens. It has been heartening to see that since we began working in Zimbabwe, the three communities are eager to improve their seed and farming systems and the broader ecosystem.
Farmers who are members of the Communal Garden groups in the 3 villages in Bikita have reserved fields and gardens specifically for indigenous maize and other indigenous crops and small grains. They will use this space to multiply indigenous seed varieties that they will share with the greater community in the coming seasons. Communities are planning to revive their indigenous ways of working together in groups to do work collectively, like ploughing, weeding, winnowing under the traditional flagship of what they call “Jangano/Jaka/Humwe.” Very scarce indigenous seed varieties like svoboda and mharupwa, which only three elders in the community have, are now earmarked for propagation to share with more farmers in the coming season. Dialogues on seed and food have revived an interest in indigenous seed and traditional foods and there is now a growing motivation to plant indigenous seeds and start cooking more traditional foods.
The lesson from the dialogues is that it requires time to enable indigenous knowledge to revive, as most farmers do not easily volunteer to share their knowledge before building trust in the process. Elders take their time to open up because they have had so many years of being told they are ignorant and uneducated. This reinforced that the dialogue methodology needs time to build the confidence of the elders, to be assured that people involved are serious. It also simply takes time for the memory to come back, and regular dialogues trigger the memory and inspire the participants to revive their seed and practices.
As we have learnt from Bikita, the process can shift quickly if the animators are patient and take their time to build trust with the communities by following their pace. Thanks to the slow and careful way in which animators have facilitated processes, we have grown very trusting relationships with all communities in Bikita, and they are now increasingly taking the lead.
In Zimbabwe there is strong support for the work from traditional leaders and ward councillors, who are attending the meetings and realising the importance of saving and propagating indigenous seed and strengthening agro-ecology practices. We facilitated 1 revival meeting for Association of Zimbabwe Traditional Environmental Conservationists (AZTREC) involving various Chieftaincies.
We jointly facilitated 3 farmer exchanges and agro-ecology workshops and one Seed and Food Fair with the Zimbabwe Smallholder Organic Farmers Forum (ZimSOFF) and the African Biodiversity Network (ABN).
Nine members of farmers groups in Gangare, Chiroorwe and Mamutse in Bikita were inducted as members of the Central Cluster of ZimSOFF. These farmers attend trainings and meetings at Shashe Agro-ecology centre and carry the learnings back to their communities, with detailed report-backs taking place as part of community dialogues.
Two women in particular have stood out:
Mai (Mrs) Mugano the treasurer of the Mabheka Community garden in Mamutse, gave a very detailed feedback of the Shashe seed fair. She shared in great detail about the varieties and ways of using indigenous seeds identified during the Seed Fair.
Mai (Mrs) Varaidzo Gaiko the Chairperson of the Farmers Group in Chiroorwe also gave feedback on the seed fair for the Chiroorwe dialogue on 31 August 2015. This dialogue included the Chief, 7 headmen and the Ward Councillor. She spoke in great detail about the varieties and uses of indigenous seeds identified during the Seed Fair, especially how seeds are related to sacred sites and the preservation of culture and identity. She shared the example of Mupata in Gutu who are working on the revival of their seeds, restoration of their land, wetlands and forests. Other farmers also added. She also shared how seed has become a tug-of-war waged on indigenous communities by big multinational corporations owned by former colonial masters. She spoke passionately about the political games being played to keep people under ‘smart colonialism’, which ‘we thought we fought against and won!‘. This was a very rich talk by her, showing comprehension of all that had happened at the Seed Fair and why it was so important. Participants expressed determination to implement what they had learned.
KwaZulu Natal, South Africa
The work in KwaZulu Natal (KZN) began in 2006 in the Uthungulu district, near Escourt, with a community that was concerned about the degradation of their sacred sites, the lack of ritual ceremony and the breakdown that occurs when these are lost. The process of reviving their Sacred Natural Site (SNS) and the required rituals to bring rain was supported by Richard Haigh and Haidee Swanby. After a couple of years, we did not have the resources to continue our work in KZN.
In March 2015, we reinitiated our work in KZN with the Fuleni community, neighbours of the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park and the famous iMfolozi Wilderness Area, the first wilderness area established in Africa – a sanctuary for White and Black rhino.
The Fuleni community had recently been informed that Ibutho Coal proposed an open cast mine in the middle of six villages. The mine will impact on 16500 people. Many of the residents are opposed to the mine, especially those who are already affected by dust, blasting, water loss, cattle mysteriously dying, etc., associated with the Somkhele coal mine, 10 kms away that started operations in 2008.
As typically happens, the traditional leaders have been bought by the company with its promises of special deals and wealth, and so they are pushing for the Fuleni mine regardless of the views of the people who will be directly affected. The area is highly politicised and the divisions are growing wider. Activists opposing the mine are regularly threatened and intimidated.
Within this context of distrust and suspicion, it became increasingly difficult to conduct the dialogues. After a few months, the impacts of the dialogues became visible and started posing a threat to the traditional leaders who were in favour of the mine. It became apparent that people who were reconnecting to their traditions, their land, and their sacred sites were less likely to support the mine. Very rapidly tension mounted and, in July 2015, after working with the Fuleni community for four months, the decision was made to withdraw from the area in order to protect innocent people. This followed a stone throwing incident and threats to burn the house of one of the elders who had participated in the dialogues.
While we continued to provide support to the Fuleni community activists, we initiated our first dialogues in Msinga, also in Zululand, in August 2015. We were fortunate to have an established relationship with the Msinga communities, which are more rural and traditional, and more united than the Fuleni communities. Usually our work progresses more rapidly in these settings because the people still have links to their traditions, rituals and ceremonies, and sacred sites. Generally, however, their agricultural practices have been influenced by modern approaches and most people rely on commercially available seeds, including GMOs, without being aware of what they are planting.
An agro-ecology course in KZN for Fuleni, Somkhele and Msinga communities opened people’s awareness to the importance of cultivating healthy relationships to the earth, to the soil, to seeds and plants, to livestock, to our food and to ourselves.
As so often happens through the dialogues, it emerged that one or two of the Msinga elders still had small supplies of traditional seeds. These discoveries were very exciting for the whole community. In February 2016, at a joint dialogue that brought together two of the Msinga villages, a range of delicious traditional food was prepared from crops that had been planted. For the children and the younger generations, this was the first time they had tasted some of the dishes. In one instance, the dish had not been prepared in the region for at least 40 years!
Shortly after commencing our work in Msinga, we discovered that prospecting was taking place in the area, probably for coal. The whole district is also included in a new fracking project that incorporates almost all of Zululand. So in parallel to the dialogues, joint workshops and meetings have been held with representative from the Fuleni, Somkhele and Msinga communities to inform and capacitate them about the devastation caused by coal mining and fracking.
With the Fuleni communities, we facilitated 4 coalition meetings in safe venues where they were able to come together and strategise without fear of reprisals. We also organised a video training workshop in KZN for activists from Fuleni, Somkhele, Msinga and from Mpumalanga and Zimbabwe. This was followed by the Isolesizwe Film Festival held in Fuleni, where Sphiwe Mazibuko’s powerful video “UnderMining Life: Activists threatened in South Africa”, a Mupo film, was given a preliminary viewing to great acclaim.
The Fuleni activists have formed a community based organisation (CBO) called the Mfolozi Communities Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO) and they are hoping it will include all the communities that depend on the Mfolozi river for their livelihoods. Strong links have been forged between the Fuleni and Somkhele communities, and these continue to strengthen.