At a colourful ceremony blessed by elders from the Kikuyu, Maasai and Tharaka Tribes, Africa’s first ever group of Earth Jurisprudence (EJ) practitioners graduated this July.

Comprised of lawyers, educators, former accountants and civil society leaders from Benin, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, South Africa and Zimbabwe, the group have spent the last three years engaged in an immersive ‘training for transformation’ in EJ.

An eco-centric philosophy of law and governance, Earth Jurisprudence recognises that humans across the planet must govern themselves according to the ecological laws and limits of the Earth system, as indigenous peoples have done for millennia.

As many courts and governments fail to regulate, let alone stop, the destruction of Earth, a growing global movement is emerging. From Rights of Nature advocates to indigenous peoples, this movement is calling for a radical, Earth-centred transformation of our current anthropocentric legal and governance systems; a transformation underpinned by EJ understandings.

As a contribution to this movement, developed and led by The Gaia Foundation, the course in Earth Jurisprudence has been commended by the UN’s Harmony with Nature Initiative. It supports participants to decolonise their minds, work to revive Earth-centred African knowledge systems and practices, and, ultimately, contribute to the transformation of African governance from a human-centred, to an Earth-centred paradigm.


Becoming an EJ practitioner

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 in Earth Jurisprudence is the first of its kind.


Earth Jurisprudence practitioners, new students, course facilitators and elders celebrate the graduation in Nanyuki, Kenya. Photo: Hal Rhoades.


The course places particular emphasis on the importance of experiential learning. As well as spending time alone in wilderness to hone their powers of observation and connect with Nature-as-teacher, each of the new graduates has embarked upon a profound personal journey ‘back to roots’.

Returning to their rural childhood homes, the practitioners have reconnected with their community lands, elders and bodies of traditional ecological knowledge. This process has enabled the practitioners to develop new ways of understanding their identity and some of Africa’s strengths and struggles.

“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. This course reveals Earth-centred laws and ways in which our traditional cultures recognise the rights of other beings in Nature. Human beings are part and parcel of creation. When we recognise the rights of other beings in the web of life, to be, to enjoy their habitat and participate in evolutionary processes then we can begin to address these crises,” says Dennis Tabaro, a former accountant turned EJ practitioner from Uganda.


EJ in practice at the grassroots

Putting new skills for reviving traditional knowledge and governance into the service of communities, during their three-years of training the practitioners have made great strides.


Traditional seed varieties, including millet, used to bless the graduation. Photo: Hannibal Rhoades.


Method Gundidza, for example, has been accompanying his childhood community of Bikita, Zimbabwe, to revive traditional knowledge and practices for climate-changed times.

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 cultures. One thing the people of Bikita have done is revive resilient local varieties of seed, including millet, finding that some elders had kept ‘lost’ varieties alive.

“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”, says Method.

“But in this last growing season, after a series of dialogues, 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.”


EJ in practice on the world stage

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.


Sabella Kaguna, one of the sacred natural site custodians involved in advocating for their protection across Africa. Photo: Hannibal Rhoades


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 traditional African communities – and their related custodial governance systems.

The graduates were prominent participants in the UN Harmony with Nature Initiative’s 2016 global dialogue on Earth Jurisprudence. Presented at the UN General Assembly last September, this initiative is raising the profile of EJ as a paradigm that must underpin the UN Sustainable Development Goals if they are to succeed.

According to Dennis Tabaro, another pressing task for the new practitioners is to play a leading role in growing and strengthening the African EJ movement.

“There is a big task ahead of this group. We are talking about nothing less than the transformation of our societies in terms of thinking and our worldview, and that means bringing many people with us”, says Dennis.

The practitioners will now act as mentors to the next group of EJ students. Hailing from Zimbabwe, Benin, Senegal, South Africa, Ethiopia and Uganda, the new group will now begin their EJ journey as the graduates deepen their own work for transformation.

Meet the Earth Jurisprudence practitioners

At their graduation ceremony, each of the new Earth Jurisprudence practitioners shared a few thoughts on the course, traditional culture and their own commitments.


The EJ Practitioners. From top left, left to right: Mersha Yilma, Method Gundidza, Dennis Tabaro, Appolinaire Ousso Lio, Fassil Gebeyehu, Simon Mitambo.


Meet the practitioners here, in their own words:


Fassil Gebeyehu, Ethiopia. A member of the African Biodiversity Network Secretariat:

“We are all born barefoot lawyers for the Earth, but as we grow 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 very much embedded in nature. This course has helped me to become myself again. Now I am a barefoot lawyer by birth and by training.


Method Gundidza, South Africa and Zimbabwe. A former accountant working with Earthlore Foundation:

“People face many challenges in practicing traditional cultures that help conserve nature and barefoot lawyers supporting the revival of these systems face the same challenges. People say this is witchcraft, they say this is not modern. This is a big challenge we face in talking about indigenous knowledge, spirituality and how the Earth system works. But when we see nature in the way these traditions teach us, this is what is going to bring us life for future generations.”


Oussou Lio Appolinaire, Benin. Community leader and head of GRABE-Benin:

“I am now beginning a new life with a new philosophy that orientates me to come back to the Earth and work with communities who still know how to respect the laws of nature. Our task is now to work with the new generations, to work for future generations, and stop breaking these laws.”


Mersha Yilma, Ethiopia. A student and long-time supporter of community knowledge revival with MELCA-Ethiopia:

“The course really teaches you to look at the world differently. To learn from Nature. And when you sit and observe Nature, you learn more and more about how this world works. This is the basis of our traditional knowledge… After this course, I am ready to defend the rights of communities in my own country and the rights of our Mother Earth now. We have created a foundation and the next step is to grow from here.”


Simon Mitambo, Kenya. Educator and General Coordinator of the African Biodiversity Network:

“This course has been a great help in my work to accompany my community, who are bringing the indigenous knowledge and culture of the people back to life. We have learnt about and been able to experience the diverse cultures of Africa and to connect all of these experiences of revival together to build our movement.”

 Dennis Tabaro, Uganda. Former accountant and community dialogue facilitator with NAPE-Uganda:

“One of the most powerful things this training has helped achieve is to give elders a space to come together and make their knowledge visible to others, especially the younger generations. Cultural leaders, community leaders and even some people in government are embracing EJ.”


This article was originally published in Eco-Instigator, a publication of Health of Mother Earth Foundation, in September 2017.