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 weaving and other craftsmanship, lake fishing and sustainable harvesting of forest products, a lush diversity of traditional livelihoods is supported in the landscapes of the Great Rift Valley.

Though the forces of globalization are rapidly reshaping the region, agrobiodiversity remains vibrant, and new alliances and organizations are highlighting the value of Indigenous and local culture and traditional foodways as an asset towards the modern development of this region. Our grantmaking strategy in the African Rift Valley centers on helping traditional communities contribute to national development through backing their efforts to sustain and adapt their own livelihoods and environmental management systems to advance their food sovereignty, resilience and sustainability by building upon their cultures and local knowledge. This involves creatively integrating the “old” and the “new” to find what works best, and deploying international instruments like World Heritage Sites and local initiatives like music festivals and locally conserved areas for wildlife and crop genetic diversity. To do this work we support Indigenous and local community and civil society organizations and their collaborations with regional, national and sometimes international expertise in both Ethiopia and Northern Kenya. We also fund training at local and international universities; the publication of numerous dictionaries and books by local specialists on biodiversity, history, culture, folktales, linguistics and other issues; the launch and development of local museums (such as at Kaffa around the origin of coffee, Afar around “Lucy” and the origin of humans); and the digitization and repatriation of important historic manuscripts of the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition.

Primary Themes for Grantmaking

The Ethiopian Rift is one of the world’s most important locations for the domestication of plants and development of agricultural systems, and the Rift Valley is globally renowned for its biodiversity. Ethiopia’s SNNPRS Regional Government recognizes sixty two ethnic groups in the Southwest, and Northern Kenya is home to a dozen more pastoralist, fisher, honey gathering and hunter-gatherer peoples, with rich traditions of cultural expression, including in music and dance.  However, the value of all of this diversity and local knowledge 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 thematic program aims to strengthen livelihoods and landscape-level sustainability for pastoral communities in the lowlands and the cultivation of diverse Indigenous staples such as enset, sorghum, barley, etc. in the river valleys and highlands. This work interweaves agro-ecosystem, food sovereignty and natural resource management approaches. We also support the integration of appropriate wildlife and culturally-based eco-tourism 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 here 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. Sacred sites in Ethiopia, especially the tens of thousands of sacred forests, are a major reservoir of biodiversity as well as places where people re-affirm their connection to creation.

Priority Landscapes of Focus:

The Rift Valley of Ethiopia: Southwest Highlands; Eastern, Central, and Western Rift

The important highlands, scarps and lakes of this area comprise a diverse and fluid landscape integrated by trade, spiritual connections, and hydrological and ecological processes. The cultivation of coffee, enset as a starchy staple, 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 integrating livestock in homesteads and mountain grazing. The numerous lakes of the Valley floor are extraordinarily rich in biodiversity, and support the livelihoods of various farmer and fisher communities.

Pastoral Southern Lowlands of Ethiopia

This landscape encompasses dry savannas and semi-desert areas, with floodplains from the rivers that cascade down from the highlands which provide forest and wetland areas, and opportunities for flood-retreat agriculture. Diverse cattle, goat, and sheep pastoralism runs throughout, blending with traditions from across the region, and based on flexible, creative systems of managing grazing and wildlife in a highly variable environment. Working with Ethiopian specialists and local communities, we’re building greater understanding of the relevance of pastoralism to the national economy and how pastoralist communities can best develop on their own terms and in ways that are sustainable.

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; with 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, land and lake scapes for the future.