A COMMUNITY based management of indigenous forests generally leads to the conservation of the entire ecosystem around such places. Such conservation efforts have led to modalities that will see Nerumedzo Sacred Forest in Bikita in the Masvingo province being declared a national heritage site. National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe (NMMZ) is working to declare Nerumedzo forest in Bikita a national heritage site, as it has acknowledged the importance of stink bugs (harurwa) that are found in the forest.
Nerumedzo is the name of the chief who lives about 40 kilometres south-west of Nyika growth point. The significance of the chief, the area and the people is that over the years they successfully conserved this forest.
The forest, endowed with indigenous and exotic fruits, is home to edible insects known as harurwa which the locals harvest from mid March to August.
The only archaeological artifacts in this forest are rock art sites. The area surrounding this forest has suffered from massive deforestation and soil erosion and the elders have attributed the survival of the forest to its sacredness and observance of traditional beliefs and practices which influence the way people relate with the forest.
The local people derive direct benefits from the forest and are therefore willing to forego timber for firewood and use fertile arable and grazing land in the well watered river valley. Elders also emphasised that traditional beliefs restrain people from destroying the forest and the benefits reinforce their desire to maintain it.
The organisational structure for the management of the forest derives from a locally known and accepted myth that it is the home of the spirit of the four eyed Nerumedzo ancestor who escaped death from his father. Like twins that time, Nemeso (as he was popularly known) had to be killed because he was considered an abomination to society.
He fled with his mother but returned after several years. It is believed that it was during this return that the stink bug was introduced along his route.
Nemeso is alleged to have been murdered by his own people in the forest, an act that later turned out to be “sacrilegious” because he had supernatural powers. Until they brewed beer in order to expiate him, the society was plagued by a series of mishaps.
The spirit of the legendary Nemeso is believed to be in the forest and is responsible for the seasonal migration of the stink bug.
Another Karanga legend recounts the origins of stink bug use. Nemeso was exiled by his father the chief because he had four eyes. His fortitude was rewarded by the ancestors revealing the secret of rendering stink bugs palatable.
The brewing of beer and the slaughter of a sacrificial lamb for the propitiation ceremony has become an annual event, and involves the whole community.
These folklores are also referred to by scholars as “the mythical charter of Africans” which cannot be tested by any known scientific methods. Within the context of heritage management, and in particular, by the Nerumedzo people, the myth has achieved the desirable goals such as the mobilisation, accrual of benefits to the people leading to their improved quality of life and the sustainable management of resources.
Harurwa remains one of the most unexpectedly sought after edible insects in Southern Africa. It is consumed as a delicacy in south eastern Zimbabwe by the Karanga people as well as by two geographically separate ethnic groups in South Africa, the Vhavenda and the Mapulana.
Although insects such as stink bugs, are able to produce noxious defence chemicals to ward off predators, nevertheless, villagers in Bikita have recipes to render them delicious.
As insects are cold-blooded, the cooler temperatures between dusk and dawn immobilise the stink bugs. When they are warmed by the sun, stink bugs fly-away or drop to the ground and fake death or scurry beneath leaf-litter to escape harvesting.
Harvesters climb trees or use wooden crooks up to three metres long to bend branches and access clumps of stink bugs. Occasionally branches were sawn-off a practice now forbidden. The end of a branch is placed in a 25-litre bucket and stink bugs are brushed off with the free hand. When the bucket is about to fill the stink bugs are transferred to a cord-tied bag.
The bag is shaken before opening so the stink bugs are disorientated and cannot fly away. Shaking causes the stink bugs to release their defence chemical and the energy involved in this process heats up the bag. Bags are secured onto the harvester by a scarf or jacket.
Villagers said there are two methods used to remove the defence chemical for increased palatability. Preparation methods differed in whether or not water was used and also whether the head was left intact or removed.
Stink bugs have numerous medicinal uses, in particular as a hangover cure. NMMZ curators say awareness and optimal use of beneficial insects, such as stink bugs, in rural areas could lead to a reconsideration of current environmental management strategies, where harvesters act as habitat stewards and clearing, grazing or burning indigenous vegetation is kept to a minimum.
Stink bug harvesting has tended to be matriarchal with the majority in Bikita being women harvesters. Post-harvest sorting of live from dead stink bugs is done by female harvesters.
The removal of the defence chemical is paramount to stink bugs being a table delight, and two methods of preparation are commonly used. Zimbabweans, and occasionally the Vhavenda, use the traditional time-consuming method of removing the heads and stink glands and eating the stink bugs on the day of preparation.
The modern water method leaves the head intact and allows many stink bugs to be processed at one time for maximum profit and extended shelf life.
There is also the traditional waterless preparation method that was started by cattle herders when water was unavailable. Storage methods are simple and shelf life of living and dead stink bugs was less than six months.
Women also cause live edible stink bugs to release their defence chemical before dying by pouring hot water over them and stirring with a wooden stick. The contaminated water drains out of the perforated bucket and the air is foul from the released chemical.
Waste water from stink bug preparation is thrown away in Zimbabwe but in Malawi it was used as a termiticide.
People from other areas use derogatory names such as stink bugs or zvipembenene/izibungu. Such terms do not promote insect conservation which needs to extend beyond the fences of protected areas and into private gardens and communal lands. Stink bug harvesting represents overcoming a fear-of-nature as it involves eating an organism that is usually abhorred.
The traditionally inspired management system by the Nerumedzo people is applicable in those areas where traditional beliefs and practices are still upheld, and there are many such places where spirit mediums command the respect of the people. In
Zimbabwe this is plausible option for the management of archaeological sites. However, given the incongruence of the distribution of spirit mediums and archaeological sites, this option has no potential for universal application.
When a community obtains economic or other benefits from an ecosystem it is likely to be protected from anthropogenic modification. In the past, fear-based traditions sufficed for sustainable environmental management but as communities develop, knowledge-based adaptive management where the benefits of biodiversity and ecosystems are acknowledged will be needed to prevent environmental degradation and ensure the survival of stinkbugs and associated indigenous plants and animals.