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01.12.2018 | Research | Ausgabe 1/2018 Open Access

Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 1/2018

Hierarchies of knowledge: ethnobotanical knowledge, practices and beliefs of the Vhavenda in South Africa for biodiversity conservation

Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine > Ausgabe 1/2018
Natasha Louise Constant, Milingoni Peter Tshisikhawe



Indigenous and local knowledge systems are characterised by a ‘knowledge-practice-belief’ complex that plays a critical role for biodiversity management and conservation on indigenous lands. However, few studies take into consideration the interconnected relationship between the social processes underpinning knowledge accumulation, generation and transmission. The study draws on ethnobotanical research to explore plant uses, practices and belief systems developed among the indigenous Vhavenda in South Africa for sustaining indigenous plant resources and highlights some of the forces of change influencing the acquisition and transmission of knowledge.


Data was collected from September–November 2016 from 31 individuals by means of semi-structured interviews; walks in home gardens, cultivated fields, montane forests and deciduous woodlands; and vouchering of plant species in six villages (Duthuni, Tshidzivhe, Vuvha, Lwamondo, Mashau and Tshiendeulu) in the Vhembe District of South Africa. The Use Value Index (UVI) was used to measure the number of different uses of each species and the Relative Frequency Index (RFI) to measure the local importance of each species. Semi-structured interviews and comparisons with published works also explored cultural practices and belief systems associated with plants, modes and barriers of knowledge transmission.


Eighty-four plant species were reported within 44 families, with Fabaceae representing the highest diversity of plant species. We identified six species not previously documented in the Vhavenda ethnobotanical literature, 68 novel uses of plants and another 14 variations of known uses. Vhavenda plants were predominantly used for food (36.0%) and medicine (26.1%) and consisted mainly of native (73.8%) compared to non-native species (26.2%). The Vhavenda possess a range of practices for managing plant resources that can be attributed to taboos preventing the use of selected species, promotion of sustainable harvesting practices and the propagation of plant species for ecological restoration. Plant knowledge and management practices were transmitted from relatives (48.4%), self-taught through time spent planting and harvesting plants on the land (19.4%), through apprenticeships with traditional healers (16.1%), initiation schools (9.7%) and clan gatherings (6.4%). Changes in traditional learning platforms for knowledge exchange, erosion of cultural institutions and shifting value systems serve as barriers for knowledge transmission among the Vhavenda.


The study points to a need for new partnerships to be forged between conservationists, government actors and local and indigenous knowledge holders to foster hybrid knowledge coproduction for developing strategies to enhance the productivity and biodiversity of indigenous lands.
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