The eco-mapping process shows how important it is to thoroughly understand the past existence of things and the consequences of the current procedure. (Photo: Blackdot Multimedia (Pty) Ltd)
Eco-mapping – developed by indigenous peoples in the Colombian Amazon – is being introduced in areas of rural Limpopo in response to the threat posed by the planned Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone and extractivism by NGOs.
Claire Rousell is an artist, writer, activist, and researcher focused on the intersection of extractivism, food sovereignty, social justice, and the arts. Her work takes a variety of forms including visual harvesting, animation, poetry and she plays a key role in Straight from the Ground NPC, a vegetable crate project with local smallholders in and around Johannesburg.
Brandon Abdinor is a lawyer and activist for environmental and climate protection. At the time of this writing, he was an associate of Earthlife Africa and has served as a climate protection attorney with the Center for Environmental Rights since then. This article was co-authored in his personal capacity.
âThere was a baobab tree there, on which people met and drummed,â says Tshiwela Tshihuwa, pointing to an area on a large, hand-drawn map on the ground. âNow it’s a gas station and people don’t drum so much anymore. They play music over loudspeakers and dance to it. “
She points to a large blue band that is marked on the map: “ZZ2 has farms on the Muengedzi River and has built a dam”. She explains that despite pressure from the farm owners to leave, her uncle is staying there. “Even lawyers couldn’t remove it!” When her aunt died, the woman fought for her right to be buried there, even though she could not be buried with it for two years.
âNow you have to pay at the yard gate to get mashonzha,âShe says, pointing to the gate on the map, referring to the harvest of mopane worms, a local delicacy and important cultural food that can no longer be freely gathered as people in the area have done for centuries. Now they have to pay a farmer to get access to the land that has historically been collectively farmed. The same goes for firewood. You have to pay to collect it. This, along with hundreds of plant and animal species with which the people of the area were in regular contact and part of the web of daily relationships, are now being sealed off by land ownership in an area officially administered by communal land.
âPeople should have access to wild animals. We learn a lot from them, “says another participant in the five-day eco-mapping process, which took place near Thohoyandou in May 2021 and through a collaboration between Earthlife Africa Johannesburg and Dzomo La Mupo (The Voice of Nature / The Universe) , with support from Natural Justice.
The three NGOs worked together to make the Eco-Mapping workshop possible, partly in response to the threat posed by the proposed Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone (MMSEZ) and as part of a deeper and broader process of community building and extraivism awareness among those involved Organizations.
You can read about the destructive effects and dubious foundations of the project Here, Here, Here, and Here. The project is still going through a troubled and flawed Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process that is currently pending due to alleged procedural irregularities and complaints about its inadequate attempts at meaningful public participation. EIAs are required by law to aid in informed decision-making and to ensure that environmental, socio-economic, heritage and other impacts are properly assessed. This is a healthy law that, when implemented with integrity and a commitment to real change, is part of what a lived democracy is like.
An essential aspect of this legal instrument in its ideal form is the participation of the public in the environmental decision-making process, especially those who are directly affected by the proposed project. The law states that the participation of all interested and concerned parties in environmental policy must be encouraged and that all people must have the opportunity to develop the understanding, skills and abilities necessary for fair and effective participation and the participation of marginalized and vulnerable people Persons are required in particular must be guaranteed.
This is a far cry from what is considered standard in public participation processes and the MMSEZ is no exception. There appears to have been very little concerted effort to reach affected people and communities. Most of the public participation sessions were not translated into national languages ââand the presentations on the project and its impact were short, incomplete and full of technical terminology.
Q&A sessions were limited in time and many questions could not be answered because the necessary specialists were not present. In essence, the hardest hit get the least airtime and are often the last to learn what is planned for their home, livelihood, and sacred sites.
The alternative to this would be to envision a situation where the process is led by the communities concerned and focused on the connected destinies of a variety of species, not just humans, and how those would be affected if a particular project were to be tackled would-ahead. Such an approach is unknown in an official EIA and public participation process, yet the eco-mapping process has stimulated the imagination of what alternative public participation might look like.
This particular approach to eco-mapping was developed by indigenous peoples in the Colombian Amazon who trained Vho Mphatheleni Makaulule, the founder and director of Dzomo la Mupo. It is a cross-generational process that invokes the memories of the elders and the creative energy of the youth to draw rivers, mountains, homesteads, holy places, animals, plants, and in general the Order, on large sheets of things as far as they can remember.
This ancestral map forms the basis that enables young people to imagine how things were. This becomes a reference for how the land could be restored. Then it is overlaid with tracing paper, which is labeled with drawings and writings about the current state of affairs.
And then the final layer shows what is likely to become of the area as development takes place. It is a completely different approach to gathering information, assessing risks, and exploring the needs and opportunities to protect the environment for the benefit of present and future generations.
This eco-mapping event near Thohoyandou in Venda was conceived and made possible by Makaulele and the Executive Director of Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, Makoma Lekalakala, and included five days of discussion, remembering, dancing, singing and drawing maps of a completely different kind than so the – so-called empirical maps that underpin so much of the colonial imperative of conquering land.
The wisdom and knowledge of the elders met the fiery and imaginative passion of the younger community activists, and the debate was lively, broad, and deep. A feeling of belonging and wholeness was created. The people, the land, the flora and fauna, the history, the culture and the sacred practices are inextricably linked, as is the pursuit of development and improved well-being.
When the MMSEZ is built and put into operation, the entire social and environmental character of the Vhembe region is likely to change forever. And for all of these devastating effects, despite the existing environmental impact assessment legislation, there were few holistic, detailed assessments.
Without a full understanding of all the implications for the interconnected systems that make up the diverse life of the Limpopo Valley, sound environmental decision-making cannot be made, and the EIA and public participation processes are simply unable to cope with this complexity.
The eco-mapping process shows how important it is to thoroughly understand the past existence of things and the consequences of the current procedure.
And that the most important experts for the country, its species and Zwifho (holy places) are the people who have lived here for generations and should be consulted first when assessing the country or looking for a business profit. DM