Mapping local knowledge to regenerate lands in climate-changed times

November 29, 2019

     By Maria Faciolince     

This photo story explores how indigenous Tharakan people from central Kenya are reviving their customary laws, natural sites, indigenous seeds and the life of their territory in climate-changed times. It tells the process of mapping their local knowledge to forge paths and build alliances in their struggle to protect their cultures and lands. This process was led by SALT and accompanied and documented by Gaia foundation.

A group of elders, sacred site custodians, seed savers, herbalists, hunters, bee keepers and youth have been meeting monthly for the past five years in central Kenya, brought together by SALT (Society for Alternative Learning and Transformation), a community-based organisation founded by Tharakan people.

From 30th September to 5th October 2019, this group with ancestral roots in Tharaka territory came together to document their knowledge using eco-cultural maps and calendars. First developed by Indigenous communities in the Colombian Amazon over thirty years ago, these maps and calendars are ‘talking tools’. Making them through a collective process supports communities to discuss, debate and develop shared understandings of how their territories and governance systems functioned in the past, the cultural and ecological losses and challenges of the present, and a shared vision of the future. (Check out these resources on collective mapping to learn more)

Remembering the Past

At the end of a long dry season, a group of 55 Tharakans and guests from Uganda, Zimbabwe, South Africa and the UK gathered in Tharaka Nithi County for the mapping process.

Ugandan sacred site custodians contributed their experience of mapping and calendar-making in Buliisa, Uganda, where millions of barrels of oil have been discovered along the shores of Ithaka Mwitanzige (Lake Albert). Ugandan lawyer Dennis Tabaro added insights from five years working alongside Kagole and Byenkya.

Inspired by these stories, Tharakan sacred site custodians, seed savers and cultural knowledge holders began the process of drawing maps and calendars of the past. They added detail and depth to ‘sketch’ maps and calendars completed in 2018, having engaged in intense dialogues and further community research to fill the gaps which emerged in their first draft.

The ancestral calendars, drawn by seed custodians, mainly women, reveal how the seasons cycled through Tharaka Territory in the past. Deconstructing the imposed Gregorian Calendar, brought to Africa during colonisation, the calendar depicts the four traditional seasons in the Tharakan year and reveals the changes in weather, constellations, ecosystems and human rhythms that took place in each. The ancestral calendar shows a predictable, regular cycle free from climactic extremes, such as long dry spells.

Navigating the Present

Having mapped their memory of their ancestral land, the group began the task of developing a shared picture of the present. This process enables communities to develop a comparative analysis with the past, identifying and debating positive and negative changes that have taken place.

Elders discussed the devastating, intertwined erosion of culture and nature they have observed in their territory since colonisation and the neoliberal structural adjustment and globalisation that followed independence. They also raised concerns about the changing, unpredictable climate they are experiencing, and which is affecting every aspect of life in the territory.

The present map also revealed extensive deforestation driven by agricultural expansion and charcoal burning. Dried rivers, dead animals, road building and related settlement, were also drawn. Depictions of the violation of sacred natural sites by infrastructure including bars and dams, and the arrival of churches and a fanatical version of Christianity indicate the concurrent and deeply-related erosion of customary ecological governance and traditional culture that has occurred. 

Calendar of the present
The calendar of the present corroborates the map’s depiction of ecological and social disorder and loss. The outer rings clearly reveal the impacts of climate change, with large suns, hot colours and a more erratic, intense distribution of weather phenomena across the seasons. Traditional seasonal activities and rituals have disappeared and been replaced by rituals and rhythms unrelated to the territory’s ecological cycles. Drought is striking crop monocultures hard, causing hunger, and western media has eroded cultural dress and identity.

Imagining the Future

Having made a painful comparison between the past and present, the group gathered in Tharaka began the process of drawing a map and calendar of the future. The future map and calendar evoke aspirational visions that can help the community agree upon and distil the actions that will be necessary to revive their territories and traditions. They also affirm the steps the community has already been taking towards revival by revitalising indigenous seeds and foods, sacred natural sites rituals, songs, dances and traditional dress through community dialogues.

“Younger members of the community worked with their elders’ knowledge of the past to assess present challenges and develop their vision of the territory they want to live in and pass on to future generations.”

Drawing future maps and calendars is a joyous process, but also a complex negotiation of what is possible and what changes have arrived for good. Younger members of the community worked with their elders’ knowledge of the past to assess present challenges and develop their vision of the territory they want to live in and pass on to future generations.

Tharaka’s future map depicts the restoration of sacred natural sites as a matter of urgency.  The return of year-round rivers to the territory, reforestation and the migration of wildlife back into the territory from Meru National Park to the north are all revealed as community priorities. A revival of climate-critical ecosystems is anticipated, while roads, schools, health centres and other new features from the present map remain in the territory. 

Future calendar

The future calendar shows more stable climate conditions, year-round access to water, diversified traditional seeds and foods and farming techniques. These and other changes to the seasonal cycle will, according to the calendar, be made possible by the restoration of the territory’s ecosystems, the revival of customary laws and the resumption of rituals at sacred natural sites.

Having mapped their desired future, map and calendar makers presented their work to each other as a way of checking their meaning and accuracy. These presentations stimulated important discussions about the next steps for achieving the future visions embedded in the maps and calendars. The hope and determination inscribed on the maps and shared through the presentations was palpable.

Opening Spaces, Finding Allies

The community can use their finished maps and calendars as a basis for developing their ‘Life Path’, a longer journey, and for advocacy. These collective documents provide the factual basis for the community and their allies to press for recognition of their Indigenous rights, natural sites and territories, and the customary laws and governance systems that protect them.

Through developing maps, resolutions, customary laws and clan constitutions, they have developed strong shared positions advocating the protection of their sacred natural sites and ancestral lands.

Tharakan custodians, elders and youth worked together to distil resolutions – immediate actions necessary for the community to realise their desired future. These resolutions identified other key stakeholders, such as local government officials, who might help the community make their vision a reality. These decision-makers were brought into the process.

They too have found allies in local government who share their concerns and are now willing to develop bylaws that will recognise the customary laws that protect sacred natural sites and other key ecosystems from oil development. Meanwhile, allies at national level have established a landmark new Rights of Nature clause in Uganda’s Environment Act that can back up custodian communities’ customary laws, which inherently recognise the rights of nature in their territory. This work is part of a multiple legal strategy that acknowledges the interdependence of rights.


On the final day of the process, the communities presented their maps and calendars to political influencers, media, youth and their peers from across Tharaka. Their resolutions were read out in full and the next steps of practical collaboration laid down for achieving similar successes to those in process in Uganda.

Building a Movement

Following in the footsteps of allies in Uganda and Kenya, community efforts to revive ecological knowledge, governance and ecosystems through dialogues, maps and calendars are beginning or underway in Benin, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Ethiopia and beyond.

These communities are being accompanied by Earth Jurisprudence (EJ) Practitioners – graduates of Gaia’s Trainings for Transformation. Their work combines community animation with collective efforts to secure greater recognition of customary governance systems for the protection of sacred natural sites and the territories of indigenous peoples, at regional and international levels.

To date, custodians and EJ practitioners have joined forces to convince the International Union for the Conservation and the African Commission to adopt landmark resolutions defending sacred natural sites and territories, their custodians and ecological governance systems.

This high-level advocacy was further strengthened following the mapping process this October, as Tharakan elder custodians Nderi Kiobe and Salome Gautumi joined Simon Mitambo to present their fresh maps and calendars to the African Commission’s Expert Working Group on Indigenous Peoples (WGIP) in Nairobi. Ugandan custodians Kagole and Byenkya also presented the progress the Bagungu People have made.

Nderi and Salome’s presentation affirmed that the customary laws they are reviving stem from the Earth herself and that they must be respected under the African Charter’s call for African States to acknowledge Africa’s pluri-legal systems. 

Combining forces, custodian communities and EJ Practitioners are building a movement for Earth-centred law and governance across Africa. It is a movement rooted in African lands, waters and cosmologies, but one that speaks powerfully to us all and a world in the midst of climate and ecological crisis.

All photos were taken by Gaia, and are republished here with permission.