Guardians of Planet Earth: Protecting Biodiversity in Africa

Simon Mitambo is Executive Secretary of SALT-Kenya, a Thematic Coordinator of the African Biodiversity Network (ABN), a partner of Gaia and a graduate of Gaia’s first Earth Jurisprudence (EJ) course. ABN was among the winners of the 2018 Lush Spring Prize. The following piece, written by Katie Dancey-Downs and originally published on the LUSH website, features Simon, ABN and the community of Tharaka, alongside some of the methodologies of socio-ecological revival introduced by Gaia through the EJ trainings.

“Indigenous knowledge plays a key role in supporting environmental and social regeneration making Indigenous communities true Guardians of the Planet. In the first of her series of articles and audio documentaries exploring the nature of that custodian role, Lush Times reporter Katie Dancey-Downs travelled to Kenya to meet Spring Prize 2018 winner African Biodiversity Network, and meet some of the Indigenous communities helping that organisation find solutions to problems across Africa

Standing in front of the Kibuka waterfall, Venancio leans over the cliff edge to point out a rock in the centre of a vortex, where Elders perform rituals to protect this sacred natural site. Venancio is the community coordinator of an Indigenous community in Tharaka, Kenya, and he, and the Elders of local clans, have been telling me about the importance of protecting these sites.

I try to imagine one of the Elders I have just met standing on the rock, metres from the unrelenting pounding of the waterfall. There are crocodiles lurking in the water, and hippos just beyond the riverbank. The Elders haven’t done a ritual here since 1984; the act is now being reserved for purifying the site after it has been desecrated, whether that’s through deforestation, building, or construction work.

This might be the only chance I get to see the Kibuka waterfall. If I return in a few years, instead I could be greeted by a megadam, as planned by the Kenyan Government.

African Biodiversity Network

I’m in Tharaka with Simon Mitambo, the regional programme coordinator of African Biodiversity Network (ABN), to make an audio documentary. I first met Simon earlier in 2018 at the Lush Spring Prize, when ABN won the Influence Award.

ABN has a network all across Africa, working with individuals and organisations to create policies and practices that respect both people and the Planet. The organisation works around three key areas: community seeds; community ecological governance and sacred territories; and youth. At the heart of all this, is Indigenous knowledge.

“It is a network of individuals that subscribe to the philosophy of connecting people with Nature,” Simon tells me, when I ask him to describe ABN.

“It’s a way of building relationships where culture and Nature are intricately bound together. That is very critical in terms of protecting our Mother Earth, and Nature and the Planet, because the humans are part and parcel of the wider system.”

Simon brought me to Tharaka, the region where he grew up, to meet some of the communities ABN is working with, and to show me the importance of the role of the Custodians. There is no better way to understand this, than seeing this sacred natural site for myself, and realising what they are about to lose. Simon tells me about even more threats happening locally: destruction through mining, the natural world being commodified, and community land becoming private land.

“The area means a lot to me, and as somebody who has also been brought up as an Indigenous person, you know that territory is everything. It carries the knowledge about our ancestors and the story of our origin, which makes meaning,” Simon says.

“Tharaka has a lot of biodiversity, and a lot of the knowledge I have comes from that relationship with biodiversity.”

He tells me about the cultural knowledge and biodiversity loss that happens when sacred sites are damaged, calling the period of time we’re in now the sixth extinction.

A resolution to protect nature

In bringing me to see Kibuka, Simon is not just showing me something a community might lose. He is showing me something a community is fighting to save.

“It became imperative that we needed a law or a resolution that really protects these spaces, because their destruction is leading to a lot of biodiversity loss and making the community vulnerable to the effects of climate change,” Simon tells me.

In an effort to protect sacred natural sites in Africa, ABN and the Gaia Foundation has worked alongside communities to get a piece of legislation passed, known as Resolution 372, which confers protection of sacred natural sites and the roles of custodians. ABN met, initially, with custodians from across Africa, and together they wrote a statement. Eventually, this was taken to the African Commission, and the campaigners finally got the recognition that there was a need to protect these areas when the Resolution was passed by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) in May 2017.

The Resolution is just that, an idea that has been adopted and so not yet a legally-binding or enforceable law, but Simon adds: “It is expected that all the nations that are signatory to the African Union should incorporate the philosophy of that resolution.”

The Resolution spells out the spirit of the protection, but now Simon and his colleagues are aiming to develop something more binding – an African Model Law, which will set a legal framework for the African governments to make laws that protect the Sacred Natural Sites and Territories. ABN will then present the law to the African Commission, and if it goes through, will lobby all the African States to adopt the same piece of legislation.

This is not the first story of legal rights being fought for the natural world. In New Zealand, the Māori tribe of Whanganui succeeded in pushing through a bid for the Whanganui river to be given the same rights as humans. Inspired by this, India granted the same rights for the Ganges and the Yamuna rivers. There are other examples scattered around the world, but these stories are still rare.

Learning from Indigenous traditions

Protecting Nature on a grand scale, like the work around sacred natural sites, is important, but ABN is also working at a micro level to protect community seeds. In Tharaka, the Indigenous Elders lay out a blanket, and cover it with different types of seeds including pumpkin, cowpea, and millet. Simon translates, as Sabella Kaguna, one of the Elders, explains to me how Indigenous seeds are much better suited to the land, but are being lost. Sabella has now become a Custodian of Seeds, and has developed an in-depth knowledge of the different varieties and their properties.

All the work ABN does comes from speaking to communities. Simon explains: “We are working with communities to revive customary laws for social and and ecological regeneration and protection. It’s the community that comes up with the knowledge and the understanding and then we are able to present their views.”

Simon talks at length about ecoliteracy; the language of Nature, where people are able to understand and interpret the symbols of Nature. Through this, they can recognise potential risks such as changes in the environment, and act accordingly. Simon gives the example that when certain birds make a lot of noise, it might be that there is a snake in the tree.

“Some of the Elders who are ecoliterate are able to tell within their area what will happen with the weather,” he tells me.

People in Tharaka are basing their lives around the rhythms of the natural world, and what Nature dictates. They prepare the ground before the rains come, they have marriages in the seasons abundant with food, they avoid travelling at night in the seasons when hippos will be crossing. For them, it’s about understanding, just as their ancestors would have done, how the cycles of Nature behave, so that they work with it, rather than against it.

To understand and document all this, they have created eco-calendars, which plot out what the Calendar of Nature used to look like, how it looks now, and how they want it to look in the future. The same practice has been applied to eco-maps, which look at the changing face of the land in the past, present, and future.

“Because of industrialisation, people everywhere have become disconnected with the natural world,” Simon tells me.

But for the communities in Tharaka, there is still a strong connection with Nature, and they share meanings they find by telling traditional stories.

Learning from Indigenous Traditions

As we eat breakfast one morning in Thika, Simon tells me a story about a lion who had a thorn stuck in his paw. The lion found a group of people, who gently removed the thorn. The lion was then free to run, and catch its prey. A little while later, that same lion paid his debt to the people who had helped him, by leaving a gift of some of the prey he had caught, in a place where he knew they’d find it.

If we’re going to regenerate the planet, Simon believes we need to learn from Indigenous traditions, which have evolved from interactions with Nature.

“We are brought up to live in a collective community, which means we are living today to respect what our ancestors left to us. We should hand over the same territory to the future generation,” he tells me.

“If anything goes wrong, you feel indebted to the ancestors, and you feel ashamed of what you are going to leave for the future generation. We cannot just live for today, and forget the others who are going to come after us.”

I couldn’t agree more.

We need to care about what kind of planet future generations are going to inherit. Seeing the Tharaka community’s eco-maps is a very real reminder that things have changed on our planet extremely quickly, and that we simply don’t have the luxury of time.

I can’t help wonder what eco-maps of my own country would look like – a country where fracking has just started up again. In the ideal “UK map of the future”, would there be frack sites? Would single use plastics litter our beaches? What animals would be on the map, and which would have been all but erased? Maybe, like in Tharaka, plotting out what we want the future to look like will help us succeed in a successful and sustainable Regeneration.

To find out more about African Biodiversity, listen to the audio documentary on Lush Player.

Featured photo: Sabella at the Sacred Natural Site (Katie Dancey-Downs/LUSH)
Header photo: Sabella and Venancio hold up an eco-map in Tharaka (Katie Dancey-Downs/LUSH)