Building evidence through walking
General Coordinator Fassil Gebeyehu travels to Ethiopia to participate in a workshop using ABN’s multiple evidence approach and cemented his belief that learning is not a one-way process.
Ato Mohammed from Boru Silasie community of Ethiopia welcomed us to the walking workshop, organised by the Institute for Sustainable Development (ISD) at the end of November last year. Set up under the theme “Indigenous Futures Thinking: Changing the narrative and re-building based on re-rooting”, a walking workshop is a technique we have been trialling in collaboration with SwedBio, to support communities in strengthening plans and visions for their futures, based on their experiences in eco-cultural mapping and calendars.
This particular walking workshop had been organised to create an opportunity for communities in Boru Silasie, in the northern part of Ethiopa, to engage with elements of futures thinking and mutual learning as well as co-generation of knowledge between indigenous and scientific knowledge systems. The overarching approach of this initiative is what we call Multiple Evidence Base (MEB).
MEB aims to revive indigenous knowledge, practices and values that have been undermined and suppressed, to revalue and use them to strengthen the community and ecosystem resilience. The approach promotes respect and facilitates collaboration between different knowledge systems in biodiversity governance, policy and research, based on equity, reciprocity and usefulness for all involved. It recognizes that learning is not a one-way process, i.e. merely from the teacher to a pupil. People learn through interactions with other people. In situations where there is no formal education, people learn different things from their parents and others. Learning takes place through the complex web of overlapping social roles and relationships.
Cultural and agronomical practices
Participants brought many different knowledge systems to the workshop, coming from local communities, academia, government, community-based organizations (CBOs), and women and youth groups. Prior to the workshop, they had been oriented about the importance of collaboration between indigenous knowledge systems and scientific knowledge, to be prepared in the workshop to learn from observations of nature, cultural practices and interaction with elders in the field. Welcoming participants to the workshop, Mohammed was dressed in an attire reflecting the culture of the community as a show of respect to the guests. The same dress is used when people go to the traditional court, in the presence of elders to explain cases, etc. Mohammed explained that it is customary to serve coffee and snacks to a guest before any discussion. The coffee ceremony is common in most parts of Ethiopia with different serving styles depending on the specific culture. In the case of the Boru Silasie community, senior elders offer their blessings first. Then coffee is served, accompanied by snacks usually prepared from roasted beans, wheat or soft bread made with Teff flour and a smeared a layer of butter and pepper pepper.
Ato Mohammed and Ato Awol presented the ecological map of the past, present, and future of the community which had been done through extensive community dialogue processes over the last two years. They explained the territorial landscape and its social, cultural and natural features since ancestral time. The presentation of this map was inspirational because elders revealed their deep knowledge about community ecological governance including a step-by-step process and practice of agronomic, cultural and spiritual that has sustained community life for centuries. The past community ecological map was full of life. Awol talked about the interplay between human and nature. He explained the essence of human-nature relationships and traditional institutions which are powerful tools of community ecological, social and cultural governance. Some institutions such as edir/kire, shengo, debo, Dua, etc remain important for the community to hold values and the essence of people’s lives in contemporary rural situations. In the modern day, where people are increasingly unconcerned about their actions against humanity and nature, the role of traditional institutions has become more important and holds much relevance to ensure peace, stability, responsibility and accountability for one another.
Ato Mohammed explained, “Through our traditional institutions such as edir/Kire, we maintained our culture of supporting one another. Our communal life is significantly intertwined with one another and nature. For example, we have a mechanism to provide support for those who might lose their loved ones and wedding times. Our debo institution helps us to offer labour support to harvest one’s crop in the field. Shengo is a traditional court system in which any level of conflict between individuals will be solved through an established system that addresses people’s physical and psychological problems. In our dua cultural institution, we conduct prayers and rituals of different kinds. For example, we conduct rituals during harvesting, weddings, mourning, and when we seek rains. We conducted rituals when COVID-19 pandemic emerged and you can see that the pandemic hasn’t harmed us so far.”
Taken from this perspective, knowledge is always emerging in traditional settings. It is acquired through a lifelong process of learning daily. Elders who led the walking workshop re-affirmed the fact that their knowledge about farming, livestock management, natural medicine, food culture, and other socio-cultural practices has come through inter-generational learning, inherited from their ancestors. This kind of learning is not pre-designed like modern education, it is dynamic.
Challenges facing the community
Workshop participants were put into three groups, each guided by elders who took them deep into the Boru Silasie community. Elders and young farmers explained to scientists, development practitioners and other professionals about various perspectives of the landscape and described elements of lives close to nature and the challenges they were facing. For example, there has been a problem with water and sanitation. They said that although discussions have been held with government representatives, the problem hasn’t been solved. Mohammed said that there used to be a strong spring and river that flowed during the time of his parents. The location of Boru Silasie community is near the main trade route, on which merchants used to camp by the side of the river, seeking water for their pack animals. Mohammed remembered that his father told him the camping practice by merchants disturbed the community as the animals used to encroach into farmlands and destroy the community’s harvest. As a result, the community decided to clog the spring to address the problem of animal encroachment into the community farm. The water source has been lost since then and the community couldn’t revive it despite digging deep in the same spot. Elders say that this scenario of losing the water source after clogging shows that we never know how nature works and we have to be careful about our actions. Some measures or intervention against the natural world to seek a temporary solution can lead to permanent, irreversible damage.
Knowledge that emerged during the walking workshop
On the following day of the workshop, it was time for feedback and discussion about the lessons learned in the field. Groups presented their findings and experiences of the previous day. They all fed back that dialoguing while walking in nature is a great initiative to make interactions very active.
They also found the following:
- Traditional practices that had been important in the community, such as communal labour, caring for elders and needy members of the society, are slowly fading away.
- Farmers’ rich experience in agroecology such as knowledge of seed plantation, soil and water conservation, use of natural fertilizer, use of crop residue, knowledge in cropping calendar, farm intensification, are also decreasing due to interventions from Government agricultural extension work.
- Traditional knowledge and practices of diseases and pest control also are deteriorating due to a lack of attention from the government and other stakeholders.
- Elders shared their knowledge on how they identified that beans are not suitable for spring farming.
- Elders shared their observations about the irresponsible actions of individuals and the community which contributed to the depletion of water resources.
- Land scarcity, population growth, water shortages, expansion of eucalyptus forest were all raised during the walking workshop and some suggested solutions explored.
- Government representatives highlighted that there are relevant sectors in government to deal with problems of water and they will report the issue to the department in the near future.
Walking workshop: a new approach and learning opportunity for the communities
This workshop in Boru Silasie was truly educative for all involved. It has the potential to scale-up learnings to ABN partners and others across the region. All participants found the MEB approach to be unique and important in connecting different knowledge systems. The views of indigenous, local and scientific knowledge holders generate new insights and innovations for sustainable governance of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Participants were impressed at how elders in the community are knowledgeable about environmental, social-cultural, historic, and economic issues. The approach really creates a fertile ground for mutual understanding and learning among knowledge bearers from diverse knowledge systems, which will inform policy decisions. Recommendations from this process stem from grounded experiences ensuring that the decision-making processes will be inclusive and interactive.