A new article, written for the Global Tapestry of Alternatives, explores the emergence of the African Earth Jurisprudence Collective and how this dynamic group of practitioners is helping African Indigenous and traditional communities navigate towards a resilient, biodiverse future.
A new, uniquely African hope is emerging to counter threats to the continent’s most precious ecosystems and to revive ways of life that restore the relationship between communities and their lands and waters after centuries of colonial harm. The African Earth Jurisprudence Collective is made up of dedicated Earth Jurisprudence Practitioners from across East, West, Central and Southern Africa, working closely with The Gaia Foundation and the Siama Programme. Together they accompany local and Indigenous communities to put into practice African alternatives to the destructive industrial development model, helping to navigate towards a more resilient future for the continent.
Rather than relying on top-down, ‘conservationist’ interventions to protect African ecosystems, this work enables 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 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.
Central to this work is the philosophy and practice of Earth Jurisprudence, inspired by ‘eco-geologist’ Thomas Berry, which calls for a transformation from human-centred to Earth-centred cosmology, ways of living, law and governance. Earth Jurisprudence recognises Nature as the ‘primary text’ from which human laws should be derived – as are the laws of Indigenous peoples in the form of customary laws in Africa. These sophisticated governance systems have maintained the resilience of the land and its peoples over generations, governing human communities to live in mutually-enhancing relationship with the wider Earth community.
Trainings for Transformation
The African Earth Jurisprudence Practitioners are grassroots leaders and graduates of a unique, UN-recognised, three-year training process in Earth Jurisprudence, facilitated by The Gaia Foundation. Participants explore Indigenous, Eastern and Western ways of knowing through experiential learning, wilderness immersion and study, and reconnect with their ancestral roots to find healing and identity in Africa’s ecological knowledge and ancestral, spiritual traditions. The trainings are rooted in practices to deepen our relationship with Mother Earth, to enable participants to learn her laws directly and, as Joanna Macy says, to ‘come back to life’.
The course comprises an exploration of systemic alternatives, with support from the GTA and the post-extractivist movement; an immersion into traditional African cosmology with the Siama Programme; and a deep-dive into pre-colonial customary governance systems in which the Rights of Nature are embedded. The trainings also include practice-based advocacy strategies and methodologies for accompanying communities to revive their Indigenous and Earth-centred cultures, drawing inspiration from community processes developed by Indigenous peoples in the Amazon. Find out more about Gaia’s Earth Jurisprudence trainings and the remarkable people involved in our latest short film, Gaarú (12-mins).
Stories of Resilience
Graduates of the trainings accompany communities to revive the knowledge, practices and governance systems that have helped them to live in harmony with Nature for generations, restoring the biodiversity of their farming systems and wild landscapes, and building resilience to climate change:
- In Benin, villagers are restoring revered river systems and winning new legal protections for the sacred forests that play such a vital role in Vodun culture;
- In Zimbabwe, communities in Bikita are reviving millet varieties and other Indigenous crops that are more resilient to climate change and restoring wetlands and sacred natural sites in an area hard hit by drought and flood;
- In Kenya, Indigenous Tharakan communities are recalling their clan governance system and customary laws and, with it, their ancestral responsibilities to protect their territory and cosmology;
- In Uganda, the Bagungu communities have revived and documented their customary laws and have secured legal recognition of their customary governance system to protect their sacred natural sites and ancestral lands.
In the words of Method Gundidza, an Earth Jurisprudence Practitioner from EarthLore Foundation, Zimbabwe:
“The communities of Bikita are realising what resilience and food sovereignty mean to us, remembering how our ancestors lived and reaching back into the past to bring what was good into our future… There is still much to do. In the memories of our elders lies our vision for the future – a future in which Bikitans are food sovereign, secure in our traditions and resilient enough to thrive in unstable times.”
These communities are building their resilience in the context of the multiple intersecting crises of our time by deepening their roots in their ancestral territories and decolonising their minds, hearts, practices and places after centuries of subjugation. By protecting, remembering and restoring cultural pride and traditions that enhance Nature’s diversity, they are putting their worlds back together again and reweaving the basket of life. They recognise that diversity at all levels of life is the foundation of resilience. The biodiversity in our ecosystems; the cultural diversity that has evolved as peoples have adapted to different places; the diversity of seeds that generations have nurtured to cultivate the foods we eat.
As well as work on the ground, the African Earth Jurisprudence Collective is collaborating with traditional communities to play a pivotal role in practice-based advocacy for the recognition of customary, Earth-centred laws and governance from local to pan-African levels. The Collective has helped secure ground-breaking new legal precedents, working as key advocates for African Commission Resolution 372. The Resolution, passed in 2017, calls for the realization of the vision of the African Charter which affirms that African states should acknowledge her plurilegal systems – by recognising, respecting and protecting Indigenous communities’ customary governance systems and sacred natural sites and ancestral lands (2017).
The Collective also supported the advocacy of Advocates for Natural Resources and Development (ANARDE), which led to Uganda’s 2019 Rights of Nature clause in its National Environment Act, the first in Africa. Most recently, in late 2020, Buliisa Council in western Uganda passed an ordinance at district level that recognises the customary laws of the Bagungu People living near Lake Albert, accompanied by Dennis Tabaro, Earth Jurisprudence Practitioner from the African Institute for Culture and Ecology (AFRICE).
These precedents are of critical importance now, as Africa’s biological and cultural heritage face growing threats, says Liz Hosken of The Gaia Foundation, core member of the African Earth Jurisprudence Collective:
“From the Okavango Delta to Uganda’s Great Lakes, Africa’s most critical ecosystems and the communities of all species who rely on them are under threat. Customary laws inherently recognize the ‘rights’ of species and ecosystems not to be harmed, but they have been severely undermined by the model of development imposed since colonial times. It takes time to restore the potency of these laws and practices, derived from understanding the laws of the territory. We see now, after some years, that those communities leading the way are inspiring others, processes are moving faster and the precedents and regional and international support has opened the way, thanks to the work of the African Earth Jurisprudence Collective and solidarity from our allies”.
Hope for the Future
In the midst of climate and ecological emergency, social injustices and a pandemic, the emergence of a strong, pan-African Earth Jurisprudence Collective advocating for decolonised, African, Earth-centred pathways into resilient futures is a cause for hope.