Backing the stewards of cultural and biological diversity/

African Rift Valley

The northern section of the Great African Rift Valley is the fertile connecting point of the Mediterranean, African and Western Asian biogeographic regions and civilizations. Montane forests here support Eurasian butterflies; farmers grow unique barleys; and ancient caravan routes connect peoples and famous markets governed by traditional systems. The birthplace of humanity, the Rift Valley of East Africa has served as a crucial refugia of biodiversity and human societies for thousands of years, including through Africa’s last great period of drying climate change. From the ecologically-inspired systems of nomadic pastoralism to unique craftsmanship, lake fishing and sustainable harvesting of forest products, a lush diversity of traditional livelihoods thrives in the landscapes of the Great Rift Valley.

Though the forces of globalization are rapidly reshaping the region, agrobiodiversity remains vibrant, and evolving alliances and organizations are highlighting the value of Indigenous and local culture and traditional foodways as assets toward modern development. Entering into our second decade of grantmaking in the African Rift Valley, we continue to back the efforts of stewards to maintain culture-based livelihoods on their ancestral lands and to adapt their resource management systems to contribute to national economic development in ways that advance food sovereignty, resilience and sustainability.

To do this work in both Ethiopia and Northern Kenya we support Indigenous and local community and civil society organizations and their collaborations with regional, national and sometimes international expertise. This includes creatively integrating Traditional Knowledge with Western science to find what works best, and deploying international instruments like World Heritage Sites and local initiatives like music festivals and partnerships between local communities and universities.

Primary Themes for Grantmaking

Northern Kenya is home to dozens of pastoralist tribes as well as fisher and hunter-gatherer peoples who have sustainably stewarded the natural resources of this arid environment for generations, and who supply the nation of Kenya with the vast majority of its meat and dairy products. The Ethiopian Rift, meanwhile, is one of the world’s most important locations for the domestication of plants and development of agricultural systems. The regional government in Southern Ethiopia recognizes sixty two distinct ethnic groups in the Southwest. The value of all of this diversity and local knowledge in the African Rift Valley and how it can contribute to local and national development is still little understood, so our grantmaking centers around two primary themes:

Agroecology and Pastoral Livelihoods

This theme aims to strengthen livelihoods and landscape-level sustainability for pastoral communities and the cultivation of diverse Indigenous staples such as enset, sorghum and barley. This work interweaves agro-ecosystem, food sovereignty and natural resource management approaches and aims to support cultural identities and practices as they are artfully inscribed on the land. We also support the integration of appropriate wildlife and culture-based ecotourism as well as crafts development to diversify and enhance livelihoods.

Cultural Expression and Sacred Sites

This theme focuses on cultural expression, particularly music and food, and the stewardship of sacred and cultural sites across the region. The approach is to promote “unity in diversity” by supporting cultural activities that bring people together in peaceful respect for each other and for the land that sustains them all. By supporting cultural diversity and expression we can reinforce the traditional resource management regimes that make pastoralism in Northern Kenya the most viable and ecologically sustainable land use option for development. Sacred sites throughout the African Rift Valley such as revered mountains, pastures, springs and thousands of sacred forests, meanwhile, are major reservoirs of biodiversity as well as places where people re-affirm their connection to creation.

Priority Landscapes of Focus:

Desert Mosaic of Northern Kenya

This landscape is comprised of low, semi-arid and desert landscapes punctuated by moist montane plateaus, with Lake Turkana at its western edge. Most of the region supports nomadic pastoralism with camels, sheep and goats; fisher communties around the Lake and craftsmen, hunter-gatherer and ‘honey peoples’ in the montane areas. Working within the opportunities provided by Kenya’s new constitution we are supporting communities in Marsabit, Chalbi, Isiolo and parts of Samburu districts to manage their pastoral, forest, fishing, wildlife, pilgrimage and cultural resources to deploy and adapt their traditional governance systems, advancing new approaches to development that secure the integrity and diversity of their cultures, lands and waters for the future.

Pastoral Southern Lowlands and Southwestern Highlands of Ethiopia

Dry savannas and semi-desert areas mix in the Southern lowlands with river floodplains that nourish forest and wetland areas and provide opportunities for flood-retreat agriculture. Diverse cattle, goat, and sheep pastoralism is active throughout the landscape, blending with traditions from across the region and based on flexible, creative governance systems to manage grazing and wildlife in a highly variable environment. Up in the important highlands of Ethiopia’s Southwest, scarps and lakes comprise a diverse and fluid landscape integrated by trade, spiritual connections, and hydrological and ecological processes. The cultivation of coffee, enset and a diverse range of cereals, vegetables and root crops are crucial to peoples’ lives and are sustained in some of the world’s oldest farming landscapes by careful management of nutrient cycles, including through mountain grazing and integrating livestock into homesteads. Working with Ethiopian specialists and local communities, we’re helping to build greater understanding of the relevance of Indigenous agroecology and pastoralism to the national economy and how these vibrant communities can best develop on their own terms, in ways that are sustainable.