By Hannibal Rhoades
“The root causes of the crises facing Africa today, like land grabbing and ecosystem degradation, date back to colonialism and the human-centred thinking that sees us as superior and having rights that override those of other beings”, says Dennis Tabaro.
Dennis, an affable former accountant, did not always see things this way. But over the past three years, he and five other civil society leaders have undergone a transformative training in the philosophy and practice of Earth Jurisprudence that has changed their view.
An eco-centric philosophy of law and governance, Earth Jurisprudence recognises that humans must govern themselves according to the ecological laws and limits of the Earth system, as indigenous peoples have done for millennia.
Blending wilderness experience and written assignments, African and western philosophical and legal traditions, advocacy strategies and practices for reviving indigenous knowledge systems, the three year course Dennis and his fellow participants have undertaken is the first of its kind.
Commended by the UN’s Harmony with Nature Initiative, and developed and led by The Gaia Foundation, the course is helping nurture the African Earth Jurisprudence movement.
Blessed by Kikuyu, Maasai and Tharakan elders, at the end of July, Africa’s first ever group of Earth Jurisprudence practitioners graduated in a colourful ceremony in the foothills of Mount Kenya.
The graduates are comprised of lawyers, educators, former accountants and civil society leaders from Benin, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Each of them has taken a profound personal journey ‘back to roots’, returning to their rural childhood homes to reconnect with their community lands, elders and a body of traditional knowledge they had left behind.
“We are all born barefoot lawyers for the Earth, but as we grow up we become so consumed by the so-called modern world, by the city, that we easily forget. As Africans many of us are born in communities that are embedded in Nature. This course has helped me to become myself again”, says Fassil Gebeyehu, one of the new graduates from Ethiopia.
This de-colonising process is an integral part of the course. It aims to give practitioners an opportunity to re-appreciate ecological place-based knowledge and spirituality that have been demonised by, amongst others, colonists, missionaries and multinationals.
“People in Africa face many challenges in practicing traditional cultures that protect Nature. They are often accused of witchcraft or rejecting modernity. This is a big challenge. But when we see Nature through the eyes of these traditional cultures, this is what brings us back to life”, says Method Gundidza, another graduate.
Long-held and constantly adapted bodies of African traditional ecological knowledge have been severely undermined. Yet they are a source of identity and strength around which communities can organise in challenging times, says Liz Hosken, The Gaia Foundation’s South African Director and co-facilitator of the course.
“The training for Earth Jurisprudence Practitioners responds to the growing realisation in Africa that the continent has a rich cultural heritage of ecologically rooted traditions. We need to draw on these to forge a viable future and deal with climate change and the scramble for land. Traditional African customary laws and governance systems are founded in Earth Jurisprudence. Africa’s heritage is her future”, says Hosken.
The newly graduated Earth Jurisprudence practitioners are working with communities in six African nations to revive and enhance their traditional ecological knowledge and governance systems, including agroecological farming practices.
Using and adapting skills developed during the three-year course, Method Gundidza has been accompanying his childhood community of Bikita in Zimbabwe, to revive traditional knowledge and practices for climate-changed times.
Recent years have brought extreme weather to Bikita. Seasons of devastating drought have been swiftly followed by flooding, profoundly affecting farming and the availability of food. According to Method, part of the problem is that people in Bikita had abandoned more resilient, locally-adapted seed varieties, like millet.
“In the past people abandoned millet and the collective millet harvest as they were encouraged by companies and the government to use so-called improved seeds and chemical fertilizers. This made the people vulnerable. Millet is a very reliable drought crop. If the rains don’t come, then at least the millet will grow and people will have food”, he says.
Through community dialogues, Method has helped bring together elders and youth, men and women, to discuss the problems they are facing and foster solutions rooted in their own knowledge. As a result, the people of Bikita have begun to revive resilient local varieties of seed, including millet, finding that some elders had kept ‘lost’ varieties alive.
“This last growing season the millet was in the fields again. Even when it was very dry and the other fields were brown, the millet was green. The people are also reviving their old millet seed storage system and the community harvest happened again for the first time in many years”, says Method.
The Earth Jurisprudence course, and the work of the graduates, is part of a wider global movement seeking to transition humanity from a destructive to a mutually enhancing relationship with the Earth.
Rights of Nature cases, campaigns to recognise ecocide as a crime and indigenous peoples’ struggles to defend their sacred territories are part of a shift underpinned by Earth Jurisprudence understandings.
“Earth Jurisprudence is the philosophy underlying Rights of Nature. Rights of Nature is really just a tool to get us to the end game which is … exercising our duty, our responsibility to live in relationship with the Earth”, explains lawyer and prominent Rights of Nature advocate Linda Sheehan, Director of Planet Pledge.
At pan-African and international levels, Africa’s first Earth Jurisprudence practitioners are advocating for Earth-centred laws and policies that support communities’ ecological governance systems.
Earlier this year, the graduates successfully encouraged the African Commission to pass a radical new resolution calling on all African states to recognise and protect Sacred Natural Sites – places of critical ecological, cultural and spiritual importance for many African communities.
The graduates were also prominent participants in the UN Harmony with Nature Initiative’s 2016 online dialogue on Earth Jurisprudence, which was presented at the UN General Assembly last September.
Building the African Earth Jurisprudence movement, the first group of graduates will now act as mentors to a new group of students embarking on this three-year training for transformation.
Hannibal Rhoades is Communications and Advocacy Coordinator at The Gaia Foundation, a UK-based organisation working internationally to support indigenous and local communities to revive their knowledge, livelihoods and healthy ecosystems.