By Dr Natasha Constant
Since 2018, I have been working with the community-based organisation Dzomo La Mupo and the South African Research Chair on Biodiversity and Change at the University of Venda, to develop a series of management plants to guide their work to support the planting of indigenous trees with a wider aim to rehabilitate riverine forests and sacred forests on their lands. In 2018, we worked with a small group of elders and youth representatives from the villages of Vuvha and Tshidzivhe in the Vhembe District of the north-east Limpopo Province to create a collective vision for the restoration of their land and forest environments using participatory maps.
Participatory mapping is a process that engages with local people to create maps representing their indigenous and local knowledge of their traditional territories and natural resources. In the case, we wanted to explore how forests are used by local people, and to identify key priorities and visions for their land and forests. Through the creation of these maps, we develop dialogues with the community to reflect on social and environmental changes that have impacted the land, and to develop new visions for the management of indigenous forests into the future.
In 2018, we organised workshops with 2 villages which consisted of women, men, elders, traditional healers, livestock farmers, all individuals, each had their own contribution to make to the creation of the maps. We created two maps: one of the past, before, the establishment of forestry plantations (pine and eucalytpus) in the region that resulted in the conversion of land from the 1930s-1970s to support the country’s timber needs; and a second map of the territory today. The establishment of the plantations also coincided with a forced land use designation known as betterment, during apartheid leading to the removal of local people, and re-settlement into the lowlands of clustered villages.
The first maps start with drawing the boundaries of the traditional territory, these are normally dictated by the presence of rivers, that create the boundary point between neighbouring villages. The villages of Tshidzivhe are bounded by the Mutale River, the source of which is located in the Thathe Sacred Forest (Zwifho), and the Tshirovha Rivers, that enters the Mutale at a confluence named Thanganyoni. The mapping process starts with lively discussions between all members who work together to remember the traditional Tshivenda place names for all of the rivers, mountains, rivers, forests, wetlands, villages that made up their historical territories.
Once the first map is complete, this is overlaid with acetate paper, and we begin drawing the map of today. This allows everyone to identify how things have changed within the territory, particularly, how natural environments such as forests, have been replaced by new infrastructure, roads, and settlements, plantations and other impacts. Once the maps are complete we engage with the community to understand how the territory and the natural resources are used by local people including forests, the major environmental and social changes that have taken place within the territory, and local people’s visions and goals for their land. More specifically, what areas of land do they want to rehabilitate, what are the priorities, what do they envision for their forests in the future?
In rural areas, villages are scattered in fragmented landscapes surrounded by subsistence agriculture, commercial forestry plantations and commercial crops of tea and fruit trees that have replaced the network of indigenous montane forests and woodlands. Currently, the distribution of montane forests and deciduous woodlands in the eastern Soutpansberg are largely confined to river valleys and higher elevations of the mountain on south-facing slopes.
The participants from the villages of Tshidzivhe and Vuvha identified a range of habitats for tree planting including springs and riverine forests that have become degraded largely due to extensive fuelwood harvesting. The rivers are valued by local people for the important provisioning ecosystem services they provide for drinking water for household consumption, livestock, washing clothes, fishing, and harvesting edible of edible fruits and firewood. Sacred forests were also identified as key areas for tree planting. In Vhavenda cosmology, sacred forests serve as the abodes of ancestral spirits and as places for ritual ceremonies for a variety of cultural purposes. such as the good harvest celebrations and first-fruit ceremonies. During these ceremonies, Nwali (God) and ancestral spirits are thanked for the sharing of the year’s harvests and newly ripened fruits (Thevhula) and offerings to the ancestors (U Phasa). The ceremony is also used to ask for appeasement in terms of other phenomena that have disturbed harmony within the community including disease, bad harvests and natural disasters and to call the rain for the next season’s harvest.
Motivations for restoring degraded forests were also associated with objectives to revive indigenous knowledge and cultural practices for forest management and restoration. The Vhavenda integrate a range of strategies for protecting plant resources including prohibitions against certain plants from being used, and the propagation of plant species to support ecological restoration. Vhavenda discussions highlighted several tree species that are tabooed from being cut down, used for construction, firewood or used in the home including Anthocleista grandiflora, Breonadia salicina, Bridelia micrantha, Combretum molle, Ekebergia capensis, Englerophytum magalismontanum, Ficus sur, Mundulea sericea, Pterocarpus angolensis and Sclerocarya birrea. Some species such as the Common Wild Fig (Ficus thonningii) are propagated in home nurseries motivated by the need to grow important trees for food, medicines and to support tree planting activities.
Several women discussed the sensitive management of rivers systems to ensure the edges of rivers are protected by tree cover, and prohibitions regarding the cultivation of fields for cultivation close to riverbanks promote sustainable land-use practices. The protection of sacred forests imbued in normative and moral codes of conduct that contribute to the maintenance of a longstanding and culturally specific conservation ethic to protect natural forests. Taboos also prohibit the harvesting of natural resources from these areas, to maintain their ecological integrity and specific protocols are followed to maintain notions of sacredness and respect. Stories and myths shared by some informants report punitive measures inflicted upon transgressors who violate the rules associated with sacred sites; angering the ancestors. Fear of community sanctions and punishments have traditionally maintained the integrity of these sites ensuring their protection. The role of myths and taboos in Vhavenda culture serve as strategies for natural resource management, to prevent the over exploitation of plants and other natural resources, but also the protection of natural sacred sites.
The communities also expressed an interest in reviving traditional knowledge of the cultural importance of plants, and traditional protocols for management of forest systems, alongside scientific knowledge supported by our project to develop educational resources for communities, and schools. From October, of this year we will work with an artist to create a resource book designed for this purpose. Through, this process, we aim to revive eroding cultural knowledge, and ecological knowledge to inform a holistic and participatory restoration approach.
In 2019, we worked with representatives of the community to visit the locations of many of the mapped areas using a hand held GPS unit to create digital maps of the traditional territories. From early 2019, we visited the areas identified for tree planting to understand – what type of trees should be propagated for planting, but also notifying the presence of exotic species that need to be removed. We have also been working with the communities to explore the traditional uses of different indigenous plant species – this data will be used to develop a planting scheme based on the ecological suitability of different tree species for the targeted planting areas, but also the ethnobotanical importance of these species for local communities. The applications of this work will lead to the creation of community management plans with integrated maps, and tree lists for each community to support the work of Dzomo La Mupo to inform current and future tree planting projects.
In July 2019, we visited the village of Vuvha to meet with the representatives of the community to plan activities for tree planting through September to November of this year. We visited over 7 nurseries that have been developed by women in the community who have worked with Dzomo La Mupo to grow indigenous trees from seeds that will be used to plant the trees for the project. Dzoma La Mupo has recently been granted funding from the United Nations Global Environment Facility to support this work, and will contribute payments for the trees, that will support local women in their endeavours. We will meet later in August to see how we can engage the wider community, and schools in our activities.