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This is Venda in South Africa. Venda is home to the Ramunangi community, one of the last indigenous communities in this region of South Africa. It is an area of outstanding natural beauty and rich biodiversity.
The vhaVenda people are known as the “Rainmakers” in South Africa. They are a matriarchal tradition where the ecological knowledge which guides the governance of the community is held by women, known as makhadzis. Many of the makhadzis are also custodians of sacred natural sites and are responsible for the associated community practices and rituals to keep order in the community and the ecosystem.
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 which their territory is located. The vhaVenda community are currently fighting to protect their sacred Phiphidi waterfall from the development of tourist chalets and bars. If the development goes ahead the traditions of the community will change forever.
The Makhadzis are deeply pained by the destruction of their traditional territory and especially the sacred sites. Accompanied by the Mupo Foundation, our South African partner, they began a process of reviving their knowledge and practices to protect the sacred sites and the associated tradition of seed diversity, bringing young people and the chiefs onboard.
With support from the African Biodiversity Network and the Gaia Foundation, a community exercise in eco-cultural mapping was then carried out, in November 2009. More than 70 vhaVenda people took part, mostly from Tshidzivhe community, guided by trainers in eco-cultural mapping from Colombia and accompanied by indigenous leaders from the Colombian Amazon and the Russian Republic of Altai.
Women, men and youth spent six days mapping. It was a time for 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. The first map of the ancestral order of the territory, reflects how things were when the community was living traditionally. This is still in the living memory of the elders – when the territory was teaming with wild animals, forests and had abundant rain.
The second map was of the present. A map of disorder – where the forests are destroyed, there are no more wild animals, rivers and lakes are drying, 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. They have already begun to build their future now – elders are teaching in schools to revive traditional seed diversity, and working with the Mupo Foundation to restore and strengthen their bio-cultural knowledge and practices.
The Makhadzis and the community of Venda are now using their eco-cultural maps as evidence of the network of sacred sites which are critical to both the community, their way of life, and the health of the surrounding ecosystems. They face a legal battle to protect their sacred waterfall from development. Here a Makhadzi elder shows litter left by tourists visiting and disrespecting the site.
The destruction of the Phiphidi falls area has begun. The land is being torn apart to make way for tourist lodges and entertainment. This sacred space is being destroyed.
The Ramunangi are no longer allowed to enter the waterfall area. Here they stand outside the fenced off waterfall and development area. They will fight to save their sacred space for the sake of future generations.