“The Rain Will Fall for Everybody”: Protecting Sacred Sites as Indigenous Cultures, Livelihoods, and Ecosystems
Two grants from First Peoples Worldwide’s Keepers of the Earth Fund support legal registration of seven sacred sites of the vhaVenda peoples in South Africa
By Katie Cheney
Situated in Limpopo, the most rural province of South Africa, the Vhembe District is simultaneously one of the poorest and most beautiful districts in the country. Abounding with mountains, forests, waterfalls and lakes, the people of Vhembe face a 50% unemployment rate, poverty, and a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS. Vhembe is home to the Indigenous vhaVenda peoples, who depend on the local eco-system for their livelihoods, medicine, and cultural practices.
Over centuries, the vhaVenda have protected their forests, rivers, and local biodiversity for its cultural and livelihood importance. However, the Vhembe District faces rapid deforestation as it is targeted for plantation expansion, tourism, and mining development. During Apartheid, the vhaVenda peoples were marginalized and oppressed, as white commercial farmers occupied their lands and paper companies began replacing Indigenous forests with hectares of plantations. Since 1994, the vhaVenda peoples have looked to the new South African Constitution for recognition of their rights, finding that laws meant to protect them are weakly enforced. In the face of this situation, the vhaVenda formed a sacred sites committee and movement, called Dzomo la Mupo.
A voluntary association led by elders, chiefs, and makhadzis, Dzomo la Mupo means “Voice of the Earth” in the vhaVenda language. Makhadzis are women leaders in the community, filling a role similar to that of the chief’s. Makhadzis are the majority of Dzomo la Mupo – the organization has 100 makhadzis and 35 chiefs. Dzomo la Mupo has partnered with the Mupo Foundation, a non-profit organization that works to preserve and revive cultural diversity in South Africa. Eight minority clans – Ramunangi, Vhutanda, Netshitotsheni, Netshidzivhe, Netshivhale, Nekhwevha, Nemavhola, Netshitungulu – each act as custodian of a sacred site throughout the Vhembe District, together forming a network of protection for the vhaVenda peoples’ sacred forests and sites.
“The mission of Dzomo la Mupo is to protect nature in all its forms, and especially indigenous forests and sacred sites. To stop the destruction and to heal the suffering of the earth. The specific purpose of Dzomo la Mupo is to protect and preserve sacred sites in Venda (listed in its Constitution).”
Even before the organization was established, Dzomo la Mupo started informal community dialogues with elders, youth, chiefs and makhadzis, determining that their community was most threatened by loss of land rights, destruction of their eco-systems and sacred sites, breakdown of community cohesion, loss of identity and values among youth, and diminishing options for food security and livelihoods. After working on various projects, including community mapping initiatives, recuperating native seed varieties, establishing tree nurseries, and reforestation, Dzomo la Mupo shifted their focus to protecting their most sacred sites and forests.
“Protection of the sacred site is not for us, it is for everybody. The rain will fall for everybody”. – a VhoMakhadzi or woman leader of the Vembe District, South Africa
Sacred sites are called zwifho in the Venda language, meaning an undisturbed place in the natural environment like forests, waterfalls, caves, mountains and springs. Not only do vhaVenda peoples honor their ancestors, pray for rain, and heal the community in these sacred spaces, these sites are also the heart of the local ecosystem. The vhaVenda community depends on sacred sites for their spiritual and economic livelihood, and conservation of the sites is part of their cultural and religious practices. Sacred sites are the place of mupo – interchangeably meaning “bowl of life”, “all living things”, or “the natural origin”. Mupo is a name, a principle, and a practice.
Mphatheleni Makaulule explains the concept of Mupo
Although each clan and community has their own customs and rituals, all members of Dzomo la Mupo are required to adhere to 12 principles regarding sacred sites:
- Sacred sites are not places of entertainment or for playing sports, they are to be protected and respected.
- Construction work of any kind, especially hotels or entertainment centers, is not allowed in sacred sites.
- Those who are not the custodians or guardians of the sacred site have to respect the boundaries, and should not enter within.
- Sacred sites are not tourist attractions, they play an important role within the ecosystem and society.
- Sacred sites are not dumping grounds for litter or rubbish.
- It is forbidden for anyone to chop down a tree in the sacred site, or to fetch firewood.
- Sacred sites are places for ritual activities and spirituality, only chosen clan members from origin can be custodians who perform the rituals on behalf of the whole community.
- Sacred sites are to be respected by everyone; including the custodians, the whole community and people passing by.
- Sacred sites should remain as undisturbed ecosystems; the trees and the atmosphere are essential for creating the right conditions for rain across the whole region.
- It is taboo to move or replace any object in a sacred site from its original place.
- Sacred sites should be respected by the government, and they should know that they have to discuss with the custodians first before proposing any project involving the sacred site.
- The sacred site is not only the forest on the surface, it goes far down to the under-soil and far above to the sky and the stars.
Dzomo la Mupo works to legally recognize sacred sites to ensure that they are protected, as well as to secure their community’s right to practice culture and religion at the sites. Dzomo la Mupo first requested a grant from First People’s Keepers of the Earth Fund to develop eco-cultural maps and governance plans in 2012, as part of the process to register and protect three of the vhaVenda’s sacred sites. Dzomo la Mupo also requested support to conduct workshops on heritage and sacred site rights for their community. By developing the necessary maps and other materials required for registering three vhaVenda sacred sites, Dzomo la Mupo was able to assert their customary, constitutional, and legal rights over their sacred sites, forests, and water sources. Ultimately, Dzomo la Mupo submitted an application for registration of their Sacred Natural Site under the South African Heritage Resources Act.
First Peoples Worldwide heard from Dzomo la Mupo again in 2013. With a second grant from the Keepers of the Earth Fund, Dzomo la Mupo developed and published registration profiles for four more sacred sites. The second grant not only supported community workshops and meetings for the four clans to arrange legal registration documents for their sites, but Dzomo la Mupo carried out a workshop for its members on constitutional rights and laws regarding sacred sites. The organization was also able to conduct capacity-building retreats for Makhadzis, where they shared ideas with other organizations and women working in similar contexts. After hiding their sacred knowledge and traditional roles during and after their Apartheid era, this retreat gave Makhadzis an opportunity to share and speak in an open and welcoming space, an event regarded as an “enormous milestone” by Dzomo la Mupo.
While Dzomo la Mupo worked to gather registration documents for the additional four clans throughout 2013 and 2014, they continued to try to make direct contact with the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) on the status of the first three sacred site registrations. At this stage in the project, Dzomo la Mupo had to make strategic decisions: prioritizing the official registration of the first three sacred sites over completing and submitting registration packages for the additional four sites. If the first three applications were accepted, it would pave the way for future sacred site registrations. Juggling these applications in different stages through 2014, Dzomo la Mupo finally connected with two officials that might champion the applications through the registration process. After a visit from SAHRA to the sacred sites, officials upgraded the applications from Provincial Heritage Sites to National Heritage Sites, elevating the applications to a higher level of attention and consideration.
As Dzomo la Mupo states, “The Venda landscape is tremendously unique, both culturally and ecologically. Our applications to SAHRA will ensure that this uniqueness will be legally protected through recognition as National Heritage sites.” We at First Peoples hope to share Dzomo la Mupo’s successes in registering their sacred sites in the near future.
- Dzomo la Mupo grant application to the Keepers of the Earth Fund, 2012
- Dzomo la Mupo grant application to the Keepers of the Earth Fund, 2013
- Dzomo la Mupo grant report to the Keepers of the Earth Fund, 2015
- The Mupo Foundation