Eco-mapping helps Venda communities to reconnect with nature and ancient knowledge

Eco-mapping helps Venda communities to reconnect with nature and ancient knowledge
Mphatheleni Makaulule is using eco-mapping techniques to restore the connection between communities and their land. (Photo: Thom Pierce_The Actionists)

Mphatheleni Makaulule and her organisation Mupo are working to strengthen the relationship between communities, nature and the ancestors’ ways.

Mphatheleni Makaulule was born in Venda to a father who was a traditional healer, community leader and farmer. He raised her with a deep indigenous spiritual knowledge that she has carried with her throughout her life. However, growing up in a modern, capitalist society, shaped by apartheid and colonialism, she found herself distanced from her traditional values.

After completing her university education, she was ready to reassess. She returned to her community with a deep sense of being lost in the modern world. Around this time, she became unwell and was diagnosed with pulmonary TB and admitted to hospital for treatment.

After a short period, she discharged herself from hospital, deciding to live alone in the mountains for two years, eating all-natural food, breathing fresh air and drinking water from the streams.

Although she continued to return to the hospital for regular check-ups, she took her health into her own hands, informed by traditional ways of living. Within the first year, she had regained her health through a combination of healthy living, modern medication and hospital visits.

In 1998, together with the community, Makaulule started “Mupo”, a programme aimed at organising community elders, youth and children to remember the indigenous knowledge and value of nature. The objective was to revive and practise indigenous systems and teach spirituality as guidance for life. It was a space where people would visit with an open mind to engage.

“You cannot disconnect from the indigenous ways; everything embraces that knowledge. For the Vha­Venda people, everything we do is connected with spirituality and our ancestors’ ways.”

Makaulule is passionate about intergenerational learning to revive indigenous knowledge and practices through community dialogues, workshops and research.

As part of her training, she travelled to the Amazon in 2006 and 2008 to learn about reviving indigenous knowledge. In Colombia, she learnt about eco-mapping, a visual way to represent a community’s relationship to the world around them.

Through community dialogues, a territory is drawn, from the largest to the smallest elements, the mountains to the stones and insects. The past, present and future are mapped out through memories and projections, and discussions are facilitated about what has been lost, and what needs to be regained for society to be healthy. The process includes traditional healing, commons (how people live together), the importance of animals and climate change. It gives people an overview of who they are and where they live. Every community finds its unique vision of what it has lost and what it wants to bring back.

“A lot of life has been lost in the mountains. Animals have been displaced, rivers are no longer flowing and the habitat is no longer the same. When we do eco-mapping, we can see climate change. We map the territory and the seasonal calendar. Rain has changed, and plants are not bearing fruit, the rivers are getting dry. We have lost who we are. At the centre of the huge circle of everything is the human being.”

Mupo is focusing on eco-mapping in different areas around Venda to teach the youth about the severe challenges of food and water security. Makaulule believes that if they can connect the dots between the water, land, food and seed systems, they can start to develop a deep connection to their environment, and work to protect it for future generations.

But there are more dots that eco-mapping can connect. Through mapping, communities can reclaim connections to land and resources severed by colonialism and apartheid, and to one another. The reconstitution of shared narratives that eco-mapping provides has also been key in enabling more meaningful engagements concerning questions of governance.

Together with Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, Makaulule has been leading eco-mapping processes in Humansdorp and Jeffreys Bay in response to proposed developments of gas, oil, nuclear and green hydrogen and in the Venda region in response to the proposed Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone. The knowledge generated through the mapping will underpin public engagement with the state and developers on the proposed projects. DM

Thom Pierce is an award-winning British portrait photographer, who is based in Johannesburg.

This story is one of a series of articles produced by The Actionists in collaboration with the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Cape Town office to highlight the incredible work of organisations and activists across South Africa in their pursuit of justice and equal rights for all.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The Actionists

The Actionists was launched in early 2023 by photographer Thom Pierce. It consists of on-the-ground problem solvers, community activists, climate campaigners and human rights defenders who engage in direct action. They are people anyone can turn to in difficult circumstances: a growing community of people who care about the future of South Africa. Through a series of photographic stories, Pierce profiles these people. Through a website, discussion forum and social media, the aim is to provide ways for people to get involved.

Nominate Actionists in your circle at or email [email protected].


This article first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick newspaper, DM168, which is available countrywide for R29.

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