Lydia Chabata

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 1993
This description of Lydia Chabata's work was prepared when Lydia Chabata was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1993.


A traditional spirit medium entrusted with the care of the environment, Lydia Chabata has organized remarkably successful tree-planting programs by drawing on the spiritual authority and natural leadership of similarly concerned mediums.

The New Idea

Lydia's commitment to rehabilitating the environment in Zimbabwe led her to form AZTREC -the Association of Zimbabwean Traditional Ecologists. AZTREC mobilizes traditional ecologists/spirit mediums (known in the local Shona language as "masvikiro") of Zimbabwe to protect and rehabilitate the environment.
Lydia has joined the spiritual authority that she and other "svikiros" (traditional ecologists) have in rural communities with the political authority of traditional chiefs and the capacity for mobilization and implementation held by ex-combatants to "re-clothe" the environment through planting indigenous trees. Through her pioneering experiments, she has successfully germinated indigenous trees (many once thought this to be impossible). These trees not only have the potential to provide firewood, indigenous fruits, and medicine for rural people; but they also provide the opportunity to restore the badly disrupted ecological balance in much of rural Zimbabwe.
Her mobilization and education program so far has successfully ensured that more than 700,000 trees have been planted in drought-prone Masvingo province, including 500,000 last year. This has been accomplished by developing nurseries, using traditional ritual ceremonies, and involving the government.

The Problem

Desertification and the need for ecological rehabilitation has increasingly become a problem in Zimbabwe. Clearance for cultivation has been the most important cause of deforestation. Recent estimates suggest that the average annual conversion of woodland into cultivation area increased from 55,000 hectares in 1963-1973 to approximately 84,000 hectares in 1974-1984. The forest growing stock lost due to this conversion is estimated to have risen from 1.4 million cubic meters to 2.2 million cubic meters during this period.

A second factor in the widespread deforestation is the collection of fuel wood and poles from communal land areas, where most of Zimbabwe's rural population live. Estimates indicate that 95% of rural households depend on fuel wood as a source of energy. About 6 million cubic meters of fuel wood is consumed annually and is mostly extracted from woodland. Already, about 2% of these communal areas are experiencing acute shortages of firewood, and the number is rising steadily.

The effect of the deforestation has been to knock the whole ecological system out of balance. As Lydia explains, "Domesticated animals (cattle and goats) began dying in large numbers–they were unable to find enough grass because the land was becoming barren. Also the wild animals (baboons) were killing the goats at a disturbing rate–because they were no longer getting fruit from indigenous trees. The animals were getting fewer because the trees became fewer."

The Strategy

AZTREC's indigenous tree reforestation program is largest of its kind in Zimbabwe. Lydia has been able to achieve this through a comprehensive strategy.

Lydia's partnership with the masvikiros, the tribal chiefs, and the ex-combatants resembles the cooperative strategy that many say led to the success of Zimbabwe's rebellion. Drawing on the deepest ties of the rural communities, Lydia has been able to spread her environmental message with considerable moral force. Operating in this manner, as opposed to ministry proclamations, allows the communities to feel ownership of the projects.

The basic component of the strategy is to educate the masses about the need to plant trees, how to take care of them, and how to use them efficiently. Lydia works with individual communities to develop reforestation plans based on what the nurseries she is encouraging in that region can produce and how much the people need. Once the community has established its needs, they are ready to draw upon the government's resources to help them achieve their goals.

Much of Lydia's success comes from her special ability to identify and germinate important indigenous species. AZTREC operates seven nurseries and distributes the seedlings to the communities with special instructions on how to care for trees in woodlots.

The Person

Lydia is from a family of "svikiro" spirit medium/religious leaders who have promoted an ecological world view long before the problems became so stark. Like many svikiro's, she was actively involved in Zimbabwe's war for liberation, a war in which the spirit mediums are generally credited for playing an important moral role. After the war Lydia brought together 165 war-disabled people and used an abandoned store as a home for them. She provided traditional health care for them as well as education and literacy.

Her next mission was to get involved with "the war of the trees". Through her dreams and communication with ancestral spirits, Lydia began to realize that it was necessary to combat the environmental degradation that was becoming more and more apparent. She now plans to extend her movement and its supporting a nation-wide tripartite alliance.