Earth Jurisprudence is a foundational systemic alternative for transformation towards healing our relationship with Mother Earth – an essential foundation from which to respond to the climate, ecological and social justice crises.
By Method Gundidza
With the EarthLore Foundation team, I have the privilege of working with communities in the South African provinces of Mpumalanga and Limpopo, and in the Bikita district of the Masvingo province of southeastern Zimbabwe. Together with these communities, we are reviving traditional culture, practices, ceremonies and rituals, and in so doing we are reawakening our connection to the land and our sense of belonging to the greater community of life.
Indigenous people in Africa and beyond understand how to be indigenous to place, which is to belong to a territory the way a lion does and the way a river does. For me this is what we learn when we go deep into traditional cultures: we learn that we belong.
Our work in both countries is guided by the philosophy and practice of Earth Jurisprudence. Earth Jurisprudence is a term proposed by cultural historian Thomas Berry, to recognise the fact that the Earth is lawful and ordered and all members of the Earth community are bound by the laws of nature.
The Earth has her own cycles, rhythms and patterns. Every living being and ecosystem element participates in those rhythms and patterns in their own way, whether they be a river, a laughing dove, a rock or a human. We are all participating in the greater web of life and each member of the Earth community holds inherent rights, by virtue of existence, to perform its unique role within the wider ecological community.
From an Earth Jurisprudence perspective, no one species or element of the ecosystem is dominant or central. The wellbeing of the Earth as a whole is primary.
To read the laws of nature, we need to develop a refined capacity to observe nature by deepening our relationship with place to become ecologically literate. This requires both a capacity to read the details, such as the lifecycle of a bee or a plant, as well as to see the larger context, the ecosystem and the changing seasons, in which each being exists. Understanding the detail and the interactions over space and time enables patterns to emerge, and one cultivates a sharp appreciation for our interdependence within complex living systems.
As the elders say, in this way the law becomes written in the heart, so that if we break these laws, we know we will suffer the consequences, or our children will. This holistic knowledge of the detail and the whole, learnt through observation, interaction and deep relationship, is the foundation of indigenous knowledge systems.
In Africa, there are many communities like those in Mpumalanga, Limpopo and Bikita that hold indigenous knowledge, practices and customary governance systems that inherently recognise and respect the “rights of nature”, even if they do not use the language of rights.
These land-based, traditional communities understand that they belong to the ecosystems in which they are embedded.
It is from these communities that we can learn how to live with our more-than-human relatives, restore healthy ecosystems and mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Rather than “managing the land”, they govern themselves through their customary laws to ensure that the human community does not disturb the health of the ecosystem as a whole, but rather participates with nature in a respectful and mutually enhancing way.
Our customary governance systems were severely undermined during the colonial era in Africa, however. Though African jurisdictions are “plurilegal”, with constitutions that recognise customary laws on paper, government law dominates and is derived from colonisation. In other words, our state laws are birthed from a system of domination that continues to this day.
Our modern laws objectify the natural world as “property”, “resource” or “commodity” for human use and legitimise the power of the state and business to plunder and extract from Mother Earth, aggravating climate chaos and biodiversity collapse.
Healing our relationship with Mother Earth
The rights of nature are among the systemic alternatives for transformative change identified in the Climate Justice Charter, which has been endorsed by more than 200 organisations in South Africa, including my organisation, EarthLore.
Over the past decade, the rights of nature have been recognised in the legal systems of many countries across Mother Earth, including Uganda. This pioneering trend signals a growing consciousness that other living beings and ecosystems have a right to exist, thrive and evolve, and that it is our responsibility to respect these rights.
These novel legal developments emerge from the wider international movement to embed Earth Jurisprudence within our ways of life, ethics, law and governance. Earth Jurisprudence reminds us that we live in an interdependent community of diverse beings. Many of us have forgotten this and instead have become entranced by money and power over others.
We need to go back to the basics of remembering that we share this precious living planet with so many others in the earth community and that we belong, as all our more-than-human relatives do, to the greater body of Mother Earth.
This remembrance brings us back home.
Can we revive this thinking in our minds and hearts and inspire the next generations? Can we begin to see things in a relational mode rather than in an extractive mode? In a reversal of the capitalist model, which plunders and destroys nature, might we instead choose to nurture our Mother Earth, who nurtures us?
This moment of planetary unravelling of life is a manifestation of consistently breaking the laws that govern life. I believe that Earth Jurisprudence is a foundational systemic alternative for transformation towards healing our relationship with Mother Earth – an essential foundation from which to respond to the climate, ecological and social justice crises.
Nurturing diversity, strengthening resilience
Diversity is a fundamental law of nature for anyone who has eyes to see. Thus we work with communities to bring back as much diversity as possible within the wild and cultivated land. Together we search widely for the seeds of indigenous plants which have been cultivated for generations in these ancestral territories and are diverse, nutritious and resilient to climate extremes.
And we protect the wild places so they can regenerate.
The more diversity we nurture, the more resilient we become in the face of climate change. We do this by creating the conditions for all beings to thrive by respecting the rights of nature in accordance with a community’s customary governance systems. These systems are holistic and govern all aspects of life, from food-growing and seed-saving to spiritual practices and the protection of sacred natural sites and ancestral lands.
The seeds we seek out are inextricably connected to the wider landscape. For instance, millet and sorghum are used for rituals that honour the land and protect the sacred natural sites from deforestation and other destructive human activities. I share more about the revival of seed, land and culture in Bikita in this short animation.
Natural climate solutions
As the Climate Justice Charter affirms, nature has her own solutions to climate change and this informs our work with sacred natural sites – places of spiritual, cultural and ecological vitality in the ecosystem. We recognise them as “no-go areas” for human activity, with the exception of the rituals carried out by their custodian communities.
We have found that when left undisturbed, ecosystems are able to return to thriving health.
We also accompany communities in the restoration of agroecological practices. This includes working together with farmers to leave some of the land fallow on a rotational basis to restore health and fertility to the soils and provide habitat for our wild relatives.
Nature has the capacity to rebalance if given the opportunity, and yet it is not to say that we humans do not have a contribution to make. Of course, one of the contributions is to restrain ourselves, but we can also make active efforts to enhance or to assist nature to rebalance. Indeed, this is precisely the vision of Earth Jurisprudence: the restoration of a mutually enhancing human-earth relationship, inspired by the ways in which our ancestors have lived with the land for millennia.
For instance, the communities we work with make composts and limit erosion through the digging of swales and contours, and practice holistic grazing and rainwater harvesting techniques to develop resilience to the drought-and-flood cycles intensified by climate change.
The African Earth Jurisprudence Collective
We do not do this work alone. EarthLore is a founding member of the African Earth Jurisprudence Collective, a community of dedicated Earth Jurisprudence practitioners from across East, West, Central and southern Africa, working closely with The Gaia Foundation. Together, we accompany local and indigenous communities to take the lead in reviving and enhancing their deep ecological knowledge, practices and governance systems.
Inspired by the approach of indigenous communities in the Amazon, African communities across the continent are restoring sacred natural sites and associated rituals, re-establishing indigenous seed diversity and food sovereignty, and strengthening customary governance systems derived from the laws of the Earth.
Through our community of practice, we are able to share learnings as the work unfolds in different contexts, and provide mutual support as a number of communities on the continent chart their own journey of revival.
For instance, we are all closely following exciting developments in Uganda, where district-level recognition of customary laws has coincided with the enshrining of the rights of nature in national law.
I have had the honour of accompanying communities in their rainmaking rituals. The elders will say, “The rain is invited. It is invited by our rituals. It is invited by our land. It is invited by our trees and our rivers.” For me, the revival work of the communities, accompanied by the African Earth Jurisprudence Collective, is like inviting the rain.
Through the revival of traditional, ecologically enlightened practices and ways of life that respect the rights of nature, we are inviting the Earth to rebalance. Our hope is that other communities will be inspired to join us on this journey towards a life-sustaining, thriving future.
I really believe that this is the work of our time in the face of climate and ecological collapse, and it has never been more urgent.
This article was published in the Daily Maverick on 7 March 2022