Million Belay Ali and Abebayehu Kassaye

February 2018

Local communities in Bale have a special relationship with their Sacred Natural Sites. For Bale community, sacred natural sites are respected as sources of life, water, cultural and spiritual values and tradition, identity, wisdom, community cohesion and livelihoods. They include forests, trees, water bodies such as rivers caves, rocks, hills, burial places or any other natural ecosystems defined and respected as such by the community. They are critical places where the custodian community gathers and conducts ritual and seasonal ceremonies for the health and wellbeing of the ecosystem and communities, as well as to address social problems such as disputes and illness in the community. Surrounding areas are often the source of livelihood for the communities, including traditional beekeeping, spice production and ecologically sustainable agriculture.

In 2009, a local NGO called MELCA – Ethiopia introduced counter hegemonic or participatory mapping where key features of the social, cultural and ecological history of the past are un earthed and compared with the present to identify key areas of concern. One of the Key areas of concern identified by the community was the degradation of sacred natural sites. In recent years, long-standing cultural values and traditional rural practices that are crucial to conserving biodiversity have started to erode with the advent and expansion of modern (Western) education, introduction of new religious beliefs, population growth and changes in government policies favouring agricultural expansion. SNS and the contribution they make to biodiversity conservation, ecosystem service provision and cultural rights are not formally recognised under Ethiopian law. Although laws exist that are favourable to community rights, the community law enforcement and government administrative organs are not always aware of the laws or choose to ignore or misinterpret them.

The key strategies employed by MELCA –  Ethiopia to revive the SNSs included awareness building and transgressive community dialogues regarding the importance of SNS and benefits to community wellbeing, bio-cultural diversity and the environment. These repeated dialogues involving the community, the government and MELCA has also resulted in the: establishment of committees for demarcating and maintaining sites; development of community bylaws; provision of key and relevant trainings including legal training to communities and government justice body on environmental and cultural rights; participatory video training with local media/journalists; experience sharing among community members and government; biocultural celebration events at community level and with schools; and livelihood and income generation activities which target poorer community members.

One of the biggest challenge for MELCA to implement these transformation dialogues was the sudden issuing of a proclamation which restricts the facilitation of these transformative dialogues. The 2009 Charities and Societies proclamation gave authorities excessive powers to interfere in the affairs of CSOs in Ethiopia and limit their engagement in advocacy activities at the national level.  The 30:70 ruling introduced as part of the same law, stipulated that CSOs can only spend 30% of total funds on administration, research and public meetings involving government and the remaining 70% on direct service delivery activities. This has put the work of local NGOs like MELCA under huge strain.

MELCA used different strategies to facilitate the revival of SNS using the transgressive dialogues even though the government restriction was severe. These included: avoiding use of language including ‘community rights’, ‘demand’ or ‘advocacy’ and instead using terms such as ‘empowering communities’ ‘awareness raising’ and ‘collaboration’; aligning with the Ethiopian policy of environmental rehabilitation and addressing climate change; Working at district level where there is a mandate to involve citizens in governance and decision making; making strategic collaboration with academicians and academic institutions for research; involving local communities from the start of the project; starting with a baseline study and successfully using the evidence to demonstrate to the government that the SNS protection aligns with the rehabilitation policy of the government; organizing exchange visits for key government staff and community members to give them hands on experience; training on rights including paralegal training to community members and training government justice body on constitution and other relevant proclamations related to SNS .

This has brought a lot of transformation including: Greater recognition for SNS at all levels of government and government and community support for their revival; the certification of the SNS by the government and the contribution of this to the re-energising of communities and to the revival of rituals; the increase in awareness by the local community and the government about the legal rights of communities which has resulted, for example, in court order to stop the expansion of agriculture to SNS; increase in community coalitions and the resultant effect in increasing the sense of togetherness and shared identity; the increase in respect to elders and Custodians knowledge and experience; the opening of political space for communities to engage with and have access to decision makers and to address and discuss concerns, and agree joint plans; the dramatic increase in wildlife, the rehabilitation of degraded areas, the re-emergence of lost water bodies and wetlands in protected SNS due to the fencing of the SNS and strict protection by community member; finally, the direct involvement of the government offices in the protection of SNS due to the attendance of their representatives in community meetings.

The key to the success of this project is the continuous transformative and transgressive dialogues that took place between community leaders, key government offices including Culture and Tourism, Land administration and environmental protection and administration and MELCA-Ethiopia. These dialogues have been used to surface tensions and conflicts between contesting interests. Some of these contested interests were between: expansion of agriculture and protection of SNS; traditional belief systems and Islam and Christianity; conservation of biodiversity and use of natural resources for livelihoods. As reported above, the dialogues resulted in mutual understanding of these contested realities and reaching at a mutually accepted solution. The transformative process has also taken place at a lower and higher scale. Even though it has started at a local level, the district and the Zone governmental offices and communities took it and implemented it. The experience featured in a National workshop on SNS and later a film crew from Ethiopian Culture and Tourism has documented it and transmitted it in national media.