As a result of lack of land title, insensitive state intervention and climate change, members of the Barabaig tribe of Tanzania are facing the greatest challenge to their physical and cultural survival in living memory.
Recognizing the problems of the Barabaig and the deficiencies of state assistance, the Indigenous Knowledge Project (IKP) has devised ‘The Barabaig project’ with members of the tribe. A fully participatory scheme, the project seeks to empower members of the Barabaig to help themselves out of their current crisis and to secure an autonomous future. This initiative is a rarity, founded on the ideals of sharing, autonomy, participation and sustainability. In the words of IKP co-founder Heather Cruise, it has to be “heart-to-heart, grass roots, participatory.”
This is the story so far.
The group of Basodami Barabaig who are the first to have chosen to embrace the IKP’s initiative (after numerous consultations and unanimous votes) are facing grave challenges indicative of those being suffered by other Indigenous Peoples in this region. Based in a highland area of Tanzania near Mount Hanang the Barabaig were, for the largest part of their history, semi-nomadic pastoralists. However, since 1969 this way of existence has been under threat due to the extensive violation of Barabaig land rights. The result of these transgressions has been the privatization of vast swathes of indigenous territory for use as exclusionary nature reserves and agricultural developments. The Barabaig have weathered assaults, the desecration of their sacred sites, house burnings and the revocation of their customary land rights. As a result their livelihoods have been left decimated by decades of suffrage.
The Barabaig of Basodami specifically have been acutely affected. Without enough land to graze large groups of cattle they are unable to live as they once did. Though the men continue to tend what remains of their herds, they cannot travel far and the settlement has become largely sedentary. This enforced sedentism has ushered in numerous problems, among them a scarcity of drinking water, gender biased marginalization and a lack of food to eat. Whereas these Barabaig would have once moved their herds and settlements from one water source to another, they are now stranded fifteen kilometres from the nearest supply. Women often rise at two o’clock in the morning to fetch water for their families. This is an exertion that many women of the village can scarcely afford, especially those without husbands to provide the little food still available; who are left utterly without a means of feeding their families or themselves. The majority of the households IKP found to be starving contained widows and no adult males. Thus it is those who were already vulnerable who have taken on the majority of the burden of suffering created by land loss.
At the heart of these Barabaig’s struggle is the fact that they have no history as cultivators and so the cessation of a pastoralist way of life has left them without a sure means of securing food throughout the year. Recognizing that they could no longer subsist as herders, and despite once warring with farming peoples, in 1998 the Barabaig of this village accepted that they needed to farm to feed themselves. With open arms they accepted the Tanzanian governments offer of training and resources to become small scale subsistence agriculturalists. They were let down. According to the villagers, they received only patchy training that utilized unsustainable technologies such as tractors. They never received access to these technologies afterwards and felt unable to produce anywhere near the scale of food they required. Compounding these issues, the Barabaig report that solar intensity has increased during the past decade, causing what crops they had been able to foster to die. Thus the Barabaig of this sub-village have found themselves unable to herd or farm effectively enough to meet their needs.
After all that has passed, twenty five of the ninety households in Basodami sub-village are suffering extreme food poverty. The majority of other Barabaig, on the other hand, are nutritionally insecure at best. Young Barabaig are leaving to escape such conditions, yet without them there is little hope for a community looking to save both its people and its culture whilst adapting to a changing environment. This could so easily be a situation without hope, another consignment of an indigenous population to the annals of history. Yet this is not the case; these Barabaig are fighting back to sow the seeds of their future in soil that is not barren and parched.
The self-professed aim of the IKP, progenitors of the Barabaig project with the villagers of Basodami sub-village, is to:
“Assist rural indigenous communities grappling with climatic change and globalization to achieve food sovereignty by increasing local, diversified food access and nutrition. Empowering the people in the documentation and protection of their traditional knowledge, habitat, and genetic resources.”
As has been delineated already the issues are a priority for the Barabaig. The next question that must be answered is how can these goals be achieved? It is this ‘how’ that defines the Barabaig project, supported by IKP, which is seeking to break out of a developmental paradigm that has ushered in countless phony sustainable initiatives. Behind these the developmental trope of modernization has lurked, though often shrewdly masked, to the detriment of many indigenous populations.
The first way in which the Barabaig project hopes to emerge and to help and empower the Basodami Barabaig is by securing their physical survival. This chief concern, given the Barabaig groups current nutritional crisis, will be achieved by equipping them with the knowledge necessary to become effective cultivators. It is intended that this will complement the Barabaig’s traditional knowledge and help achieve greater food security and ultimately, sovereignty.
Unlike the state initiative, this goal is to be achieved through integrative local education, the sharing of knowledge and accessible technologies. Any offer of input from the IKP is voted on by the villagers themselves so that they can choose to align the initiatives they accept with their own culture, knowledge and hopes for the future. This full participation and democratic process is a central tenet of the project; and so far, it has made great strides to confirm what many scientists and researchers have only theorized: that giving the people the power to choose will bear fruit. Several simple and affordable rain water hafirs have already been constructed by the villagers so that they are ready to commence cultivation when the rains arrive in December. A women’s group in nearby Katesh, including Barabaig members, has been equipped with vital knowledge on nutrition, gendered struggle and the skills of cultivation in order to teach their friends and decrease the vulnerability of women. This knowledge is being shared now to be ready like the hafirs. All technology that is to be used is readily available in the area so that access is not an issue. It is also to be useable by all, hence the education offered by the women of Katesh, to make sure this is a truly communal initiative and that all resources produced are similarly shared. With these measures in place food security has become a realistic goal, though it is currently only that as little in the way of actual growing can be started in the dry season. After security has been achieved the next ‘how’ is to secure food sovereignty and prevent physical survival from being an immediate concern. All cultivation methods are therefore permaculture based to ensure that yields are environmentally sustainable. As well, there will be no use of chemicals, only bio-intensive methods will be applied to ensure the Barabaig are not nutritionally stranded during future dry seasons. The project seeks to enable the Barabaig to maintain their autonomy and focus on their cultural survival.
Equipping the Barabaig to subsist successfully as small scale agriculturalists will allow, with hard work, the inter-generational learning and retention of both new and old knowledge systems. This second learning process is another ‘how’ of the project as it seeks to achieve long term cultural benefits with the Barabaig people by being socially heritable and sustainable. It is the intention of the villagers and the IKP that young Barabaig be actively involved in the initiative, learning how to cultivate and tending the community gardens that have been planned whilst simultaneously learning or re-learning about their culture. This involvement will hopefully entice those who would have left in the past to stay, strengthening Barabaig numbers, the continuity of their culture and knowledge as well as the practice of cultivation so vital to physical survival.
With food security and sovereignty, not to mention securing the Barabaig’s physical endurance and a learning process to encourage cultural survival, the IKP hope that a newly empowered Barabaig will then want to share their knowledge with others. This more extensive sharing process is the third ‘how’. First, when the Barabaig of Basodami have managed to secure their own sustainable future, the plan is for this group to go to others and, if those communities accept it, share with them what they have learned.
It is also hoped that the group and others will document and share their own indigenous knowledge of the genetic resources they rely on through the IKP website. A process which is designed to help them to gain intellectual property rights over these resources. It is further hoped that the documentation process may also help to foster benefit sharing agreements in the future and act to prevent bio-prospecting and the theft of precious intellectual and physical resources.
Lastly, as a fundamentally two way process, it is the IKP’s intention to learn from their experience with the Barabaig in order to develop a blueprint to engage with other indigenous peoples around the world who may also benefit from similar methods – with the ultimate goal of combatting the issues discussed in the IKP’s main objective.
Though still in its infancy, the foundation of the Barabaig project is laid deep in solid ground. In principle–and in practice to date–the project does not seek to promote a hegemony of knowledge, but rather to listen to its component parts and create a shared vision to strive for. It is not only concerned with short term crises, but instead looks to secure physical and cultural sustainability long into the future. It does not underestimate or deem indigenous knowledge backward but seeks only to share new knowledge to complement it where necessary and only when it is wanted. It does not seek long term governance and control over indigenous affairs but rather aims to keep this power with the people themselves.
Taking all of this into account, there is reason to be optimistic that the IKP can achieve its goal of shattering the “development” mould. Empowering the Barabaig to seize their autonomy despite the wrongs done to them may only be the first step. Yet it is a big step. The prospect of market involvement, even if small, and the challenges of possible contact with the tourism industry will set off alarms in the minds of many. These are no small issues and each has caused major upheaval in indigenous communities in the past. And yet, though the context has varied and certainly plays a role, these challenges have also met various overcomes by resourceful and empowered indigenous people.* Given these successes it may not be as presumptuous as some think to suggest that the Barabaig project, guided by the gleaming ‘hows’ of participation, sharing and sustainability, can achieve the same and perhaps start something far greater in scale. We must hope that it can.
You can help contribute to the Indigenous Knowledge Projects work by visiting their website and enriching their database of indigenous peoples and flora if you have the relevant knowledge. By doing so you can aid indigenous peoples to gain recognition for themselves and their knowledge, protecting it from theft, misuse and extinction.
* See this contribution to the hypervolume for more information- BJ Duggan, 1997, Tourism, Cultural Aunthenticity, and the Native Crafts Cooperative:The Eastern Cherokee Experience, In Tourism and Culture:An Applied perspective, Erve Chambers (Ed), SUNY
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