Traditions and sustainable environmental management

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MOST people, whether black or white, somehow believe in the spirit world.
Christians also believe in the unseen guardian angels. These invisible beings dictate our fate and the way we live, and we appease them differently; some brew beer, some have all night prayer vigils while others have made idols to which they supplicate with all sorts of gifts, thanking them for the blessings received.
When Zimbabwe was colonised, we were made to believe the god of the whiteman was more supreme and our own ancestral spirits were demons.
We were made to defile our wells, groves, graves and other sacred sites as they were deemed unclean.
Over the years, our wetlands or matoro are no longer oozing clean water, the wells have dried up, the graves of our forefathers have been desecrated and our forests cut down.
We are over-harvesting wild fruits and selling them in urban markets.
We have built houses on top of wetlands.
We have cut down trees in sacred forests that were meant to give us fruits and medicines.
We have hunted down all the wild animals.
We have shunned our ancestors and we are worshipping the whiteman’s god and no longer brewing beer to appease our guardian spirits.
Instead, the whiteman has invaded our forests in search of our wild fruits, medicines, insects and anything that he could lay his hands on.
He has patented everything he got from our forests and is extracting our natural, wildlife and mineral resources with reckless abandon.
Last month, I visited Gwanda where hundreds of people descended on the mopane woodlands harvesting mopane worms or madora/amacimbi.
People came from as far away as Binga, Hwange and Mutare to harvest the worms. They pruned every tree of its worms, filled buckets and sacks later to be sold to satisfy the insatiable appetites of urban dwellers.
Some export the worms as far as DRC, Tanzania, Zambia and SA.
There were no rituals to thank the spirits for providing this delicacy, although the chiefs lamented the over-harvesting of this resource. Nobody paid attention to anyone, everyone was minding his/her own business; harvesting the nearest worm he/she could lay hands on. It was a sorry sight indeed.
Elders said culturally, the first worms were given to the local traditional leaders who would ‘give’ them to the spirits of the forest so that the next harvest would be abundant. Now there are fears the over-harvesting will result in the emperor moth, the host to the worm, further migrating away, resulting in the shortage of the worms.
A different scenario has occurred in the Nerumedzo Sacred Forest in Bikita in the Masvingo Province, home to the stink bugs or harurwa.
The situation is slightly different from that obtaining in Gwanda. At least in Bikita, some cultural rites are undertaken before anyone is allowed to harvest the stink bugs.
There are superstitions attached to the forest and people strictly observe to these.
Nerumedzo is the name of the chief who lives about 40km, south-west of Bikita Growth Point. The significance of the chief, the area and the people is that, over the years, they successfully conserved this forest.
The forest is endowed with indigenous and exotic fruits as well as the edible insects, the harurwa, which the locals harvest from mid-March to August and sell.
The only archeological sites in this forest are rock art sites.
The area surrounding this forest has suffered massive deforestation and soil erosion and the elders have attributed the survival of the forest to its sacredness and observance of traditional beliefs and practices which influence the way people relate with the forest.
The local people derive direct benefits from the forest and are therefore willing to forego timber for firewood and use fertile arable and grazing land in the well-watered river valley.
Elders emphasised that traditional beliefs restrain people from destroying the forest and the benefits reinforce their desire to maintain it.
The organisational structure for the management of the forest derives from a locally known and accepted myth that it is the home of the spirit of the four-eyed Nerumedzo ancestor who escaped death from his father.
Like twins that time, Nemeso, as he was popularly known, had to be killed because he was considered an abomination to society.
He fled with his mother but returned after several years.
It is believed that it was during this return that the stink bug was was found along his route.
Nemeso is alleged to have been murdered by his own people in the forest, an act that later turned out to be ‘sacrilegious’ because he had supernatural powers.
Until they brewed beer in order to expiate him, the society was plagued by a series of mishaps.
The spirit of the legendary Nemeso is believed to be in the forest and is responsible for the seasonal migration of the stink bug.
Another Karanga legend recounts origins of the stink bug.
Nemeso is exiled by his father, the chief, because he has four eyes.
His fortitude is rewarded by the ancestors revealing the secret of rendering stink bugs palatable.
The brewing of beer and the slaughter of a sacrificial lamb for the propitiation ceremony has become an annual event, and involves the whole community.
These folklores are also referred to by scholars as ‘the mythical chatter of Africans’ which cannot be tested by any known scientific methods.
Within the context of heritage management and in particular, by the Nerumedzo people, the myth has achieved the desirable goals such as the mobilisation, accrual of benefits to the people leading to their improved quality of life and the sustainable management of resources.
Harurwa remains one of the most unexpectedly sought after edible insects in southern Africa. It is consumed as a delicacy in south-eastern Zimbabwe by the Karanga people as well as by two geographically separate ethnic groups in SA, the vaVenda and the Mapulana.
Although insects, such as stink bugs, are able to produce noxious defence chemicals to ward off predators, nevertheless, villagers in Bikita have recipes to render them delicious.
Stink bugs have numerous medicinal uses, in particular as a hangover cure.
Elders say awareness and optimal use of beneficial insects, such as stink bugs and mopane worms, in rural areas could lead to a reconsideration of current environmental management strategies, where harvesters act as habitat stewards and clearing, grazing or burning indigenous vegetation is kept to a minimum.
The traditionally inspired management system by the Nerumedzo people is applicable in those areas where traditional beliefs and practices are still upheld, and there are many such places where spirit mediums command the respect of the people.
In Zimbabwe, this is plausible option for the management of archeological sites. However, given the incongruence of the distribution of spirit mediums and archeological sites, this option has no potential for universal application.
When a community obtains economic or other benefits from an ecosystem, it is likely to be protected from anthropogenic modification.
In the past, fear-based traditions sufficed for sustainable environmental management but as communities develop, knowledge-based adaptive management, where the benefits of biodiversity and ecosystems are acknowledged, will be needed to prevent environmental degradation and ensure the survival of stink bugs and associated indigenous plants and animals.

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