By Prestige Dube.
DWINDLING of wild animal species and vegetation has become a common feature at global level, let alone in Zimbabwe.
Resultantly, various International Conferences, including the promulgation of countless conventions aimed at environmental endowment, have come and gone, yet the destruction of biodiversity remains unprecedented.
Zimbabwe, together with many other countries ratified the Convention on Biodiversity Conservation, albeit with little or no implementation. Zimbabwe, a country which has been rocked with serious social and political problems — has environmental concerns to match. This has been accelerated by misguided resettlement programmes, which have resulted in environmental degradation and species extinction.
Between 1990 and 2005, Zimbabwe lost 21 percent of its forest cover and deforestation rates have increased by 16 percent since the end of the 1990s. While it can be argued that poor government policies regarding conservative have been a major cause for environmental degradation, colonisation and historical factors have also had their own share of blame.
Colonisation and colonial education in Zimbabwe undermined, or rather disregarded indigenous knowledge systems that are important in the conservation of biodiversity within local societies. The sole aim of the country’s colonisers was resources exploitation, hence little consideration of the cultural beliefs embedded within local communities. Foreign invasions disregarded existing sacred places, taboos and cultural beliefs passed from one generation to another within communities.
As the nation moves along the road of development, it has been characterised by massive destruction of biodiversity due to rapid industrialisation, urban expansion and population pressure on land. In the wetter Eastern parts of Zimbabwe vast tracts of land have been cleared to give way to timber, tea and coffee plantations while the drier South East Lowveld and the Zambezi valley have not been spared for commercial activities like sugarcane plantation.
The obvious result has been rampant destruction of forests, animals and land degradation. Ausible  noted a link between destruction of cultural diversity and extinction of biological diversity. As native cultures disappear there is also a loss of knowledge of a way of living in a balance with the earth.
The UN conference on Environment and Development in 1992 catalysed the interest in the contribution of indigenous knowledge to a better understanding of sustainable development and highlighted the urgent need for mechanisms to protect the earth’s biological diversity through local knowledge. Sophisticated knowledge of the natural world is not confined to science. Societies from all parts of the world possess rich sets of experiences, understanding and explanations.
Indigenous knowledge refers to the understandings, skills and philosophies developed by societies with long histories of interaction with their natural surroundings. For rural and indigenous peoples, local knowledge informs decision-making about fundamental aspects of day to day life.
It is the wisdom, knowledge and practices of indigenous people gained over time through experience and orally passed on from generation to generation and unique to a given culture or society. This knowledge is integral to a cultural complex that also encompasses language, systems of classification, resource use practices, social interactions, ritual and spirituality.
This unique knowledge is an important facet of the world’s cultural diversity, and provides a foundation for locally- appropriate sustainable development. Indigenous people who live close to natural resources often observe the activities around them and are the first to identify and adapt to any changes.
Religious beliefs, traditional beliefs, cultural norms and practices play a crucial role for the successful conservation of the environment. The natural environment and resources are under serious threat, but cultural taboos and their sanctions have helped to check abuse of the environment at least among the local people.
Indigenous knowledge systems are often aligned with today’s conservation ethics, and it is imperative that they are upheld as they are critical in the wise conservation and management of natural resources. The preservation of the environment has an inextricable link to the culture of the people especially in communal areas.
It should be appreciated that much of the Zimbabwe’s biological diversity is in the custody of farmers who follow age-old farming and land use practices. These ecologically complex agricultural systems encompass crop genetic diversity as well as include traditional cultivars that serve humanity as biological resource.
The Shona and Ndebele culture, the two main cultures in Zimbabwe consists of various traditional beliefs and values which serves as rules and regulations governing the exploitation of some specific forest products. The cultures view a diversity of wildlife and plant species as part of their cultural heritage. Certain plant species like Burkea Africana and sclerorya are regarded as sacred and such specified species cannot be tempered with in any way such as burning or cutting.
It is synonymous between the cultures that ancestral spirits use certain tree species to reach people hence their conservation is of importance. It is believed that destruction of such trees would detach people from their ancestors, spelling doom to the tribe. Some tree species are used by traditional healers as traditional medicine in Zimbabwe and these include Psudalachnostylis Maprouniflolia and Maytenus Senegalensis.
The medicinal value of these species stimulates proper management from the general populace in the community. These specific species have in many cases survived deforestation, among other mismanagement activities, from the hands of the communal people, who are usually in great need of fuel wood. As such, there is a growing consensus that traditional institutions provide considerable protection of ecosystems and biodiversity without governmental juridical restrictions.
Moreover, the use of taboos, totems and sacred places has been used to protect and preserve the environment. Taboos have been used to maintain the values and respect for animal life especially the endangered, small and powerless creatures such as pythons and pangolins, hence protecting them from extinction.
Water sources have also been kept clean and protected by adhering to taboos regarding to the use of water. Various physical features like hills, mountains, forests and pools have been considered sacred, hence their protection against shirking, lest offenders will incur the wrath of the ancestral spirits inhabiting the areas.
Apparently, indigenous knowledge systems are now being unjustly negated and have recently been viewed in some quarters as somehow inherently primitive. Indigenous knowledge has often been dismissed as unsystematic and hence it has not been captured and stored in a systematic way with the implicit danger it may become extinct. It is then of great value that Indigenous knowledge systems policy be put in place in Zimbabwe coupled with provision of financial and human resources to support indigenous knowledge within communities.
Fund must be budgeted to assist institutions to undertake programmes on indigenous knowledge in areas such as research, workshops and conferences on the subject matter to revive traditional beliefs that are rapidly eroding worldwide. The resulting breakdown of these informal, self-imposed restrictions on land and resource use is threatening species and habitats that were once afforded protection by traditions.
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