This week, local indigenous clans from across Venda in the Limpopo province of South Africa, are joined by allies from Kenya, Ghana and Benin, to explore the use of eco-cultural maps and calendars, also known as ‘talking tools’, to revive traditional culture, seed diversity, and protect Sacred Natural Sites. The workshop is being hosted by local partner, The Mupo Foundation.

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Known as “The Land of Myth and Legend”, Venda is home to a network of Sacred Natural Sites known as Ziwfho. From forests to springs and waterfalls, these sites have traditionally been protected and revered by custodian clans of the VhaVenda people. In recent years the onset of tourism and development projects, and the threat of coal mining in the region, pose a threat to these sites. The Mupo Foundation is working with the local clans and Dzomo la Mupo, local community-based organisation, for the protection of Venda’s Sacred Natural Sites and the rights of their custodian clans.

The Mupo Foundation held its first eco-cultural mapping workshop in 2009 – documented in the highly popular video “Reviving our Culture, Mapping our Future” – when indigenous leaders from the Colombian Amazon shared their knowledge and experience in using this innovative and participatory means of understanding landscape and culture, past and present.

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Eco-cultural maps are created by the community through a simple process using paper and coloured pens. The elders, and those who hold the most traditional knowledge within the community, take a leading role in the process, and everyone gets involved as a series of ‘maps’ are drawn. The first reflects the past, the customary laws and ecological integrity of the landscape. The second, the map of the present, draws out the transformations and changes suffered by the landscape and the people. The final map, of the future, is where the communities envision how they can ensure a resilient, bio-diverse and culturally vibrant future. Eco-cultural calendars compliment the maps. These are cyclical charts showing the cosmos, the climate, the breeding cycles of animals and fish, fruiting trees and shrubs, the time for planting or harvest, and the rituals for the different seasons.

The important character of theses “talking tools” – as they have come to be known – is that the communities continue to use them to deepen their own research into their cultures which have been eroded through the colonial and post colonial processes. They are tools that enable communities to revive ancestral knowledge and practices, analyse the challenges of the present, and develop a common vision of how to rebuild their future now.

At this latest workshop, held just outside the town of Thohoyandou in Venda, local clans will focus on their Sacred Natural Sites, using maps of the future as a tool to define their governance plans. Two clans will develop also develop calendars around traditional seed varieties, whilst a further clan is concerned especially with its river and the growing threat to water security.

They will be joined by allies from Kenya, Ghana and Benin – members of the African Biodiversity Network – who will be learning from the process how to better support local communities in their own countries to protect their Sacred Natural Sites.

In the words of one Makhadzi, a woman elder from Venda, “The seeds of our knowledge and life are still with us and Nature is still alive. These maps are our life-plans, they have emerged from us. After understanding the fragmentation of our present we are here to build a common shared future. Let’s transform the present with hope and guidance from our ancestors.”

Find out more:

  • Watch “Reviving our Culture, Mapping our Future” – a film about eco-cultural mapping in Venda, South Africa –

This workshop is funded by the European Union