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4/7/16 - "Rural Women Use Indigenous Botanical Knowledge to Enhance Food Security at Dwesa-Cwebe Nature Reserve, South Africa" by Katie Tavenner

Rural Women Use Indigenous Botanical Knowledge to Enhance Food Security at Dwesa-Cwebe Nature Reserve, South Africa

by Katie Tavenner

Katie Tavenner, a dual-degree doctoral candidate in Rural Sociology and Women's Studies, received an ARC research grant in Fall 2013 for her project entitled "Co-Management Regimes in Protected Areas of South Africa: Implications for Gender Equity in the Forest-Food Security Nexus".

For over 100 years, the communities adjacent to the Dwesa and Cwebe Forests have been caught in a conflict over natural resources. Residents were forcibly removed from the area for decades by Colonial and Apartheid-era governments, and after being declared a Nature Reserve in 1978, locals were fenced out, losing all access to natural resources. Despite the communities winning a land-claim battle in 2001, the current management of the reserve still reflects a “fortress conservation” model, where local people are prohibited from harvesting natural resources, including a variety of forest foods. Remarkably, the indigenous knowledge associated with these foods endures, primarily through the stories, actions, and resistance of local women.

Katie Tavenner, a PhD Candidate in Rural Sociology and Women’s Studies at Penn State University, conducted ethnographic research over eight-months to understand how this indigenous knowledge was being used, valued, and transferred in the everyday lives of smallholder farmers adjacent to the reserve. Through community interviews, participatory photography, and a survey of 80 households in Hobeni Village, the continuing significance of forest foods was documented. The project yielded important information regarding the identification and valuation of forest species – knowledge that was previously undocumented in the area. For example, in a series of participatory workshops held in 2014, fifteen ecological experts were able to identify 64 different species of wild edible plants. About a third of these plants are wild fruits, while the remainder are indigenous vegetables – known locally as “imifino”. About 10 percent of these species are found outside of the forest veld, and many have been partially domesticated by smallholder farmers. A major finding of this research is the local-level innovation associated with transplantation of species as a result of the restrictions placed on forest resource harvesting. Thus, the home garden has become the primary site of food security for households in reserve-adjacent communities – spaces that are dominated by rural women.

Although the number of women entering the formal work-force has increased since the end of Apartheid, domestic responsibilities associated with family nutrition are held almost exclusively by mothers and grandmothers. Findings from this research show that the usage of wild foods contributes greatly to diet diversification and nutrition at the household level, and provides a buffer in times of economic hardship or food shortages. Dependency on these foods will likely increase in the future as the Wild Coast region is expected to be hit hard by climactic changes resulting in shorter planting seasons and drier conditions. And yet, the knowledge associated with wild foods remains invisible in forest management plans at both the local and provincial levels.

The findings of this research highlight the need to document indigenous knowledge, and particularly women’s knowledge, of wild foods to promote food security and management of natural resources at the local, national, and international level.

Katie would like to thank the Africana Research Center, the Dickerson Family, the U.S. Borlaug Fellows Program, Bioversity International, Ronnie Vernooy, Derick Fay, Kuzile Juza, the Donald Woods Foundation, Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency, the Office of International Programs, PSU College of Agriculture and the Interinstitutional Consortium for Indigenous Knowledge (ICIK) for facilitating and financially supporting this study.

An imifino expert collects leaves from domesticated forest species in her home garden in Lalini Village, South Africa.