Weaving Bio-Cultural Systems back to Life

Women dancing in Ghana, photograph by Ruth Leavett for The Gaia Foundation

Gaia’s approach – which we often refer to as ‘Community Ecological Governance’ – is based upon a set of principles, processes and tools which can unfold in communities in different ways, dependent upon their most pressing concerns – from food and seed to water, Sacred Natural Sites or their ancestral lands as a whole. Regardless of the focus or ‘entry point’ to the work, our holistic approach recognises that everything is interconnected, and thereby the process will always ultimately lead to the reintegration of the whole bio-cultural system – the basis of social and ecological transformation and resilience.

For our grassroots partners and the field animators accompanying communities in this process, it requires an ‘unlearning’ of conventional “community development” ideas, where communities are often considered to be poor, uneducated and needing ‘capacity building’, leading to imposing preconceived solutions onto communities. Instead, this approach recognises that communities have been demoralised and fractured through colonisation and all that followed, and that they have a rich heritage which sustained them before the onslaught and which can be revived and reinvigorated. This path of revival demands a different way of working with communities – opening spaces for elders, youth, women and men to analyse and reflect on their situation, take the lead, identify barriers and their own priorities. Through an unhurried process with listening at its heart, communities learn that they have the solutions and do not need to depend on outside help. They learn to be discerning and to assess what they feel they do need from others, and search for allies to assist on their own terms.


Community Dialogues – with knowledgeable elders at the centre

42 participants from 4 communities gather to share their knowledge on seed and food as part of a process to revive biodiverse, secure and sovereign food systems damaged by centuries of colonial exploitation in Uganda

Community dialogues are the backbone of this approach. They offer powerful spaces in which the community revives their traditional practice of analysis and reflection. They provide opportunity to discuss challenges being faced; how things used to be and why they have changed; where the present disorder has come from; and how to restore order.

It is important that women and men have dialogues together, as well as on their own, in separate groups, so they can explore their differentiated knowledge and responsibilities in more depth. For example, traditionally women and men have different but complementary knowledge and responsibilities for seeds, crops and their uses. They also play different roles in maintaining customary laws and governance, and in sacred site ceremonies.

As their memory is revived, communities realise they have a wealth of knowledge and capacity to take back control of their lives. In this way, dialogues inspire communities to search for lost seed and crop varieties, to restore the practices to regenerate their farming systems, or to revive their sacred sites and ceremonies, depending on their own mutually defined priorities.

Dialogues build confidence and cohesion, and capacity for reflection and decision-making. It is essential for women and men to participate together, to weave the basket of knowledge back to life.


Eco-Cultural Maps & Calendars

Communities in Kenya map the original order of their ancestral territory, photograph The Gaia Foundation

Eco-cultural maps and calendars (also known as ‘talking’ maps and calendars) were first developed in the Colombian Amazon with indigenous communities. They are a practical and participatory tool for a community’s journey of reviving their traditional knowledge and practices. They provide a graphic and holistic representation of a territory: the dynamic interplay between farming systems, ecological systems, the climate, and the indicators of the changing seasonal cycles through the year.

As communities develop their maps and calendars, these ‘talk’ to the memory of the elders, stimulated by visually reconstructing a picture of their ancestral heritage before it became disordered. It takes time for reflection and cross- referencing between the elders, to revive the memory of the ancestral order where the resilience of their ecosystems and farming systems were maintained and guided by customary ecological laws.

Once communities are able to draw their ancestral past, they hold a common and compelling picture – a baseline eco-cultural map and calendar – of where they come from; how their whole territory used to be and all its interactions; the range of crops; the different activities indicated by the seasons; and the different roles of women and men in the farming, the home, the community, the land and the governance system.

The next eco-cultural map and calendar they can develop is of the present. This tends to be a shocking moment for the communities, when they see how much has been eroded and lost from their ancestral past. It spurs the communities on to do maps of the future – one, if they do nothing and the trends of the present continue, and one of the future they want to see.

As they develop their map of the future they want to regenerate, they refer to the baseline ancestral map. They look at how climate is changing and ways in which they can enhance their resilience – for example, in bringing back their seed diversity and the related ceremonies for sacred natural sites.


Zooming in – community research for deepening knowledge and seed revival

Communities in  Ethiopia come together to map their ancestral territory. Photo The Gaia Foundation

As communities go through the process of dialogues and developing their eco-cultural maps and calendars, they begin to identify their own priorities and plans, and the areas where they need further dialogue and research with the elders. There may be more varieties of seeds to explore, or more depth on traditional pest control; ways to rehabilitate critical areas like Sacred Natural Sites and riverine areas; or customary laws and practices for protecting wild food areas and the ecosystem.

Often they form community research groups to zoom in on different aspects. As evident in our report, Celebrating African Rural Women: Custodians of Seed, Food and Traditional Knowledge, it is the women who tend to lead on more detailed calendars, especially on seed and agro-ecological practices. When women reconnect with their profound knowledge and their role as seed custodians, they are unstoppable.


Community Exchanges, Markets & Celebrations

Emerging grassroots leaders from Ethiopia, Benin, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Uganda meet for the first time to embark upon a shared learning experience, July 2017

Exchanges between communities mutually involved in this journey are critical. Through these exchanges they can recover and share lost seed varieties and knowledge, and inspire continued momentum. Some communities may have more favourable conditions for multiplying certain seeds to share; others may have more elders with precious lost seeds and knowledge; while others may have sacred natural sites and ceremonies more intact.

Different traditions find much in common, as well as unique customs and practices which differentiate them. Solidarity and confidence grows as they feel part of a larger movement for transformation, united by a common concern for creating a viable future, rooted in their heritage.

As this inclusive path towards Community Ecological Governance unfolds and deepens, more seed varieties are recovered and multiplied and more food is grown, households become secure in seed and food, and sacred site ceremonies are revived. This leads to sharing and selling their diverse indigenous seeds and foods at farmers markets, fairs and ceremonies. As the process grows and more communities become involved, so the conditions for regenerating the health of ecosystems which sustain healthy food systems build.

Kaguna, an elder from the Tharaka community in Kenya shows her traditional sorghum and millet varieties to fellow sacred sites custodians from across Africa

Often schools are drawn into the process. Teachers become inspired and encourage children to develop their own eco- cultural calendars and maps by consulting their elders. The children respond with great enthusiasm to the invitation to become researchers, and the elders are delighted as they can at last share the knowledge they thought young people were not interested in learning.

‘Cultural Biodiversity Celebrations’ can take place at schools and in communities, where the children demonstrate what they have learnt from the elders: the seeds they have discovered and collected; related songs and dances; stories about the birds, insects, plants and animals. These are also good opportunities for sharing knowledge, seeds and food – widening the circles of exchange – and celebrating the growing voice of the women as custodians of seed, food, life.

Politicians, local authorities and the media can be invited to fairs and celebrations – opportunities to advocate for and affirm the community’s commitment to rebuilding their food and farming systems, regenerating their ecosystem and governance systems, taking back control of their lives, and recognising the vital role of women in doing so.

As the community and exchange systems rebuild, through celebrations, fairs and markets, so does the local economy, ensuring that the wealth generated remains circulating in the community and is not drained away. Thus their bio-cultural systems begin to weave back to life, across larger landscapes.

You can learn more about this process in action by reading Method’s story here, reading our report Celebrating African Rural Women: Custodians of Seed, Food and Traditional Knowledge for Climate Change Resilience, and watching our films Seeds of Sovereignty or Reviving our Culture, Mapping our Future.


decorative splash

Take a Leap with Us - Support our work with a donation

We live in a time of multiple, complex crises. There are no easy answers. Working to uphold the health and diversity of our living planet is always rewarding, but we think you’ll agree it can sometimes feel like swimming against the stream. And yet like salmon we leap, and more often than you might expect, we make it. We invite you to make the next leap with us by making a donation of any size. Thank you for your solidarity.

Donate now