Saving Phiphidi Falls

Photograph by Will BaxterVenda's forests, rivers, mountain peaks and waterfalls are places of vital ecological, cultural and spiritual importance. Venda is one of the 19 centres of endemic flora in Southern Africa and home to 594 different species, a higher number than any other comparable area size in South Africa.

The forests of Venda help to maintain the climate of the region and play host to many of the sources of springs and tributaries that feed into the local river system and provide water for the surrounding land and communities. But they have an additional significance for the communities who surround them: the area is revered as sacred sites. Each sacred site is protected by a different clan, and each clan is a custodian of that site. It is the elder women - the Makhadzi - who, within these clans are specifically responsible for the forests and sacred sites. They are known as the "rainmakers" of South Africa, using their cultural traditions of rainmaking to maintain the health and integrity of the local ecosystems.

Destroying this sacred site is killing us. Protection of the sacred site is not for us, the Ramunangi clan only, it is for everybody. The rain will fall for everybody. Makhadzi, Ramunangi clan, Venda

In recent years the Makhadzi and wider Venda community have faced an unrelenting battle to protect their sacred sites. These areas of natural beauty have become tourist hotspots, but those visiting the region have little to no respect for the wider cultural significance of these sites.

For years now the Makhadzi have been picking their way through the mounds of litter - including used condoms - being left behind by tourists disrespecting the VhaVenda people's sacred waterfall, Phiphidi Falls. For the VhaVenda people, the Phiphidi waterfall and forest plays a vital role in the rainmaking system of sacred forests in Venda: "Destroying this sacred site is killing us. Protection of the sacred site is not for us, the Ramunangi clan only, it is for everybody. The rain will fall for everybody" (Makhadzi, Ramunangi clan, Venda).

The construction site in VendaIn May 2010 an even more destructive force took hold over the community's sacred sites. In the lead up to South Africa hosting the 2010 World Cup, tourist development across the country peaked. The Phiphidi Falls were to be the location for a tourist development project entailing a number of wooden chalets, right beside the waterfall, right where the makhadzis had been carrying out their rainmaking rituals for centuries.

Bulldozers began to tear through the sacred land surrounding the waterfall and those behind the development showed complete disregard for the rights of the communities for whom this space was sacred. Many sacred trees were cut down as the chalets were erected beside the waterfall. The face of the area, and the vitality of this once buoyant ecosystem was being threatened irreversibly.

In response, the Makhadzhi formed a committee called Dzomo la Mupo (meaning Voices of Earth) to defend and protect their network of sacred sites - and in particular the Phiphidi falls and surrounding forest. The Makhadzhi recognised that the destruction of one sacred forest would open the door to the destruction of others - it would set a precedent that would be all the more easy to replicate. If this were to happen then their way of life would, in time, be destroyed irreversibly.

In 2010 Dzomo la Mupo courageously took the developer to court for violating their traditional and Constitutional cultural and spiritual rights and breaching planning regulations. The Mupo Foundation and The Gaia Foundation together supported Dzomo la Mupo's application to the South African High Court for an interim court interdict, requiring developers to stop building the tourism complex at Phiphidi sacred waterfall and forest, pending a full hearing. The Judge recognised the custodians' constitutional rights and agreed that the whole site is sacred: "In the same way a church building is regarded by some as a holy place, even though the rituals are done only at the altar", Judge Mann, South African High Court (7 July 2010).

In the same way a church building is regarded by some as a holy place, even though the rituals are done only at the altar

Judge Mann, South African High Court, 7 July 2010.

On 22 February 2011, following breach of the court order, the South African High Court extended the temporary court interdict to the builders to once again halt the illegal development at Phiphidi falls. Contempt of court proceedings and hearing of a permanent court interdict are under way.

To secure long-term protection of their network of sacred sites, Dzomo la Mupo and local communities have come together to begin documenting guiding principles, such as securing sacred sites as 'No-Go Zones' for development, and developing local constitutions and community governance plans for each of the sacred forests. These will set the foundation for registering the protection of the network of sacred sites under national and international laws.

See how this community is fighting to regain what has been lost, as well as the very special role of the custodians of the sacred sites, the Makhadzi, in the Eco-Cultural Mapping in Venda photostory and "Reviving Our Culture, Mapping Our Future film" as well as The Makhadzi photostory. You can also watch the inspiring film Reviving Our Culture, Mapping Our Future which documents an eco-cultural mapping process which The Gaia Foundation co-facilitated with The Mupo Foundation and the communities of VhaVenda. It was through this empowering process of reflecting on their land and the traditions so inextricably linked to their land, that the community had the confidence to take on their current battle to protect their Sacred Sites.

How can you help?

You can support Dzomo la Mupo in their ongoing court battle by making a donation. Legal fees, time and expertise cost money, money that the community and committee do not have. With your support they can continue this critical fight for their culture, their land and their future. We thank you for your support.

About The Mupo Foundation

Gaia's partner The Mupo Foundation (Mupo), is working with local communities in Venda, Limpopo Province, South Africa. The word 'Mupo' means all that is naturally made, including the entire cosmos. Mupo are working with women elders, chiefs and local communities from seven different clans to revive indigenous ecological knowledge and practices, to regenerate their degraded territories, strengthen their sustainable livelihoods and adapt and respond to the challenges of today.