Every Landscape Can Be Healed

By Precious Phiri

A few weeks ago, I participated in a chat at Commonland with my friend the author Judith Schwartz, talking about the “Unbreaking News.” (meaning: news that will not break our spirits, but rather fortify us for the Earth-healing work that needs to be done.) The conversation, attended by a global audience, was an activator of happy hormones, making us confirmed “hoptimists” (yes to hopeful and optimistic). We were not talking about Utopia, though it helps to always have that picture, we were chatting about real people, facing real situations in dealing with nature and harsh conditions and yet in ways beyond imagination, they still have incredible stories of change and success in regenerating highly degraded landscapes. Stories that writers like Judith and platforms like Soil Centric, Regeneration International, and many others are sharing to let the world know that regeneration is both possible and happening.

I am given this opportunity to share a little bit of my own inspiration and lessons in my journey in regenerating landscapes both with my communities home in Zimbabwe, and Africa-wide with some incredible partners. My work involves conversations, and decision-making that help us transition from poverty to abundance, rebuild soils, as well as dignity and pride, and restore water and food security; for people, livestock and wildlife above and below ground. One of my greatest privileges in life to date has been exposure to, co-creating with and learning from different groups using the Holistic Management framework as a Savory Accredited Professional.  

Looking back at my life, my inspiration is deeply founded on being raised by a heroic grandmother, who passed on leaving me to lead our household at the young age of 16. I see that my path collided with regeneration as my struggles (especially with food insecurity) started me on a path of seeking solutions, so that if possible everyone could live off their land and thrive. Now, as a new mom after a long wait, the pursuit of a regenerative legacy has never been stronger.

There are a few lessons I have learnt and continue to learn in this work. One of the most important ones is right here; while land may look arid, continuously deteriorating beyond repair, most of the spaces are proving that with the right management tools, there is a possibility to reverse vicious cycles of desertification and poverty; Nature is forgiving! She has shown us in many places that we as humans are not able to manipulate parts of nature and win, because living systems self-organise and sometimes humans get outcomes we didn't intend. This means, as land managers, we have a responsibility to consider ourselves as part of the complex systems we have an opportunity to manage. If after a careful consideration of biological, economic and social consequences, contextually relevant tools are adopted by a committed group of people, we’ll create the potential to turn individual places around and thrive to their potential. What we’re doing is enabling the effectiveness of ecosystem processes. This allows the land we depend on to be resilient and continuously prosper in its diversity.  These photos are from my friends and partners at Soft Foot Alliance showing a spot that was losing soil and getting worse every year. Through the regenerative tools of animal impact, water harvesting and permaculture design framework, it is once again a thriving ecosystem full of ground-cover and growing food. Taken by drone, the photos illustrate regeneration taking place on what had been a highly degraded landscape:

Left: Site in 2018 same season before impact, Right: Regenerated site in 2021 in the same season.

The communities with which we work have experienced some tough times in the face of massive land degradation, and dreaming of a better future is getting more and more lost. In Zimbabwe, our focus is on a language of positivity. This means seeing opportunity to regenerate rather than focusing on the challenges, abundance thinking instead of scarcity thinking and talking about “WE” instead of me. The challenges are ecological and economic and the impacts include social unrest. As this journey continues, in one place after another, we are learning that no land is hopeless! Examples around the world are proving land has the capacity to regenerate and nurture life.  

With regeneration, all land has a chance to evolve and be like the Africa Centre for Holistic Management a Savory hub in Zimbabwe, whose landscape at Dimbangombe is completely different when compared to national parks and communally-owned land.  You can view this side by side short comparison clip on this link. It is important to understand that this short video is by no means trying to shine best practices and scorn or shoot down the other pieces of land.
Rather it is meant to illustrate how much of a difference  management decisions can make if attention is given to the unique needs of each place. I will borrow from my mentor and Founder of Holistic Management, Allan Savory, who always says, “Most people have the best of intentions when they make whatever decision, however, lack of connecting dots in managing living systems (understanding complexity) makes us end up with unintended consequences.”  

For us to start making contextually appropriate decisions, as facilitators of regeneration, we have a huge responsibility to keep asking questions. Asking questions will help us understand what once made these ecosystems and the people thrive. The citizens are part of the regeneration rising story. 

A photo showing the Land management herd at ACHM

In my experience, it's been helpful to ask the elders, and the young, for wisdom and attitudes that existed before things went wrong. It is by no means an act of over-romanticizing the past, but there usually are some important lessons on how they coexisted with nature, their attitudes, cultural idioms, sayings, taboos, sacredness of certain things that inform us how they managed to curtail extractive behaviors. 

As a student and practitioner in the regeneration movement, these stories, from others and from my own people, have completely changed my life. Below I share a photo of an incredible group of women from Samburu Northern Kenya, a place that left a significant mark on my journey. From how different the community is from mine -- these communities are purely pastoral, facing the harsh realities of advancing deserts, social insecurity (i.e. gun violence with neighboring settlements) due to scarcity -- to the incredible wisdom and leadership of the elders, warriors and the women. The dynamics of the social structure here is completely different from my native background, but I learned the power of harnessing my assumptions about a certain group of people and assuming I am wrong. I work with them purely because they are human, powerful and life changing. I am forever grateful. 

As I continue to learn together with communities and collaborative partners in my journey, it is getting clearer to me that we are ever-learning and never superior to the land on which we depend. Thank you for taking time to read through this small offering, my hope is that the few stories inspire you on your own amazing regenerative journey ☺.

Precious Phiri is founding director of EarthWisdom Consulting Co., which directs community organizing and training in regenerative and restorative agriculture and holistic grazing practices in the Hwange Communal Lands region of Zimbabwe. Her work focuses on training rural communities and collaborating with networks in Africa to reduce poverty, rebuild soils, and restore food and water security for people, livestock and wildlife and reduce drought and flood risks. Precious’ previous work includes nine years with the Savory Institute Hub in Zimbabwe, focused on training and community engagement. She serves as a Steering Committee member for Regeneration International. We are incredibly honored that she also serves on Soil Centric’s Advisory Board.


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