Gaia Ancestors

Tewolde Gebre Berhan Egziabher

Dr Tewolde was internationally known for championing the rights of communities to their genetic resources. Our shared story began nearly 30 years ago, when we met at the 1995 Life Sciences conference in Malaysia. At that time, Tewolde was instrumental in resisting the push for genetically modified organisms and patents on life in Africa. Soon after we met, Gaia worked with Tewolde and his wife Sue Edwards to set-up the Institute of Sustainable Development in Ethiopia, which continues to thrive as a civil society organisation committed to agroecology, as it is called today. Together, we initiated some of the first African dialogues with environmental groups on the dangers of genetic modification and patents on life, alongside the importance of protecting community rights. Beyond Africa, we worked with Tewolde and allies to build a strong, informed group of African negotiators who could participate in developing international legal instruments to protect biological and cultural diversity. The ‘African Group’ as they were known, were a unified presence at key international meetings in the latter part of the 1990s on trade, agriculture and biodiversity. Tewolde’s formidable negotiation skills resulted in him being nominated as lead negotiator by the G77 group of developing countries, called the Like Minded Group, which took a strong stand on genetic engineering and patents on life – leading to the legendary Cartagena Protocol on biosafety. We nominated Tewolde for the Right Livelihood Award, which he received in December 2000 for his outstanding work. He was named a UN Champion of the Earth in 2006, amongst many other forms of recognition. Click here to read our tribute to Tewolde, after his passing in 2023.

Manfred Max-Neef

Known as the ‘Barefoot Economist’, Manfred Max-Neef was an acclaimed Chilean ecological thinker and long-time Gaia advisor. Manfred devoted his life to promoting alternative forms of development that truly meet the needs of both human societies and the ecosystems upon which we all depend. One of the earliest critics of growth-based capitalist economics, Manfred was a father of the emerging de-growth movement, holding that “the fundamental value to sustain a new economy should be that no economic interest, under no circumstance, can be above the reverence of life”. He received the Rights Livelihood Award in 1983, in recognition of his outstanding work. Manfred died at home in Valdivia, Chile, on Thursday 8th of August 2019. He is much missed.

Melaku Worede

Ethiopian plant geneticist  Dr Melaku Worede – or simply ‘Melaku’, as he was fondly known – was celebrated for establishing the first seed and plant gene bank in Africa, bringing together traditional farmers and scientists. Our  friendship had its roots in the early 90’s, when we met Melaku and his team in Ethiopia. They were leading the way in participatory, in-situ plant breeding that defied the elitist assumption that this sophisticated process could only take place in the confines of the science lab. Melaku knew that the most critical knowledge relating to seed diversity came from the farmers, and that to breed for resilience alongside a great many household and community needs, the crops must remain in the field where they are locally adapted. In 2012, Gaia joined GRAIN in convening technical training in collaboration with Melaku and MELCA-Ethiopia, on the use of genetics to further enhance farmers’ seed diversity. Many of the attendees have gone on to lead transformative work within their communities, with seed central to restoring food sovereignty and indigenous knowledge systems. In 2015 we made a film, Seeds of Justice: In the Hands of Farmers, to share the story of Melaku’s work, for which he was awarded the prestigious Right Livelihood Award in 1989. From the plains of Ethiopia to the halls of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome, he showed us that keeping seeds in the hands of farmers makes our food system healthier, resilient and just. This commitment to seed diversity influenced country-wide commitments from Canada to the UK – including our Seed Sovereignty Programme for the UK & Ireland, inspired by his vision. Click here to read our celebration of Melaku, after his passing in 2023.

Thomas Berry

In the late 1990s Gaia was inspired by Thomas Berry, a cultural historian who warned that civilizations which grow quickly, at the expense of their ecological foundations, will also collapse quickly. He pointed out how law, controlled by corporate interests, is increasingly used to legitimise the destruction of nature and the commons. He called for the urgent need to return to the original understanding of law as Nature’s Law. Gaia had always recognised that for most of human history, cultures across the planet had derived their customary laws from the Laws of Nature. Together with Thomas Berry, we intensified our work in promoting and recognising what Thomas called Earth Jurisprudence, as the foundation upon which human societies should reconstitute themselves, in order to realign with the planetary boundaries of life on our living planet. Thomas published a number of books, perhaps his most notable being The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (1999). Click here to read our recent tribute to him, shared on the 13th anniversary of his passing.

Brian Goodwin

Brian Goodwin was a Canadian mathematician and biologist, and a founder of theoretical biology and biomathematics. He introduced the use of complex systems and generative models in developmental biology and suggested that a reductionist view of Nature fails to explain complex features, controversially proposing the “fringe” structuralist theory that morphogenetic fields might substitute for natural selection in driving evolution. His much celebrated book Nature’s Due: Healing Our Fragmented Culture was published in 2007. Brian was a prominent advocate for holistic science and on his retirement in 1992 he took up residence at Schumacher College, in Devon. He conducted MSc courses in holistic science and used walks in the countryside to demonstrate his conviction that living organisms are shaped by “natural forms”, as well as evolution through the survival of the fittest. He was an accomplished pianist and often played the music of Schubert, his favourite composer, to his students. He passed away in 2009.

Jose Lutzenberger

A mentor, associate, adviser and close friend of The Gaia Foundation, Jose Lutzenberger (fondly known as Lutz) worked tirelessly and passionately for social and environmental justice, saying they were “two sides of the same coin.” An agronomist, scientist and outspoken activist, Lutz embodied a holistic understanding of the interconnection and unity of all life on this planet. His profound dedication and example in demonstrating how ecological and social justice is possible, led to him being considered a father of the environmental movement in Brazil.

Wangari Maathai

Gaia started working with Professor Wangari Maathai in 1985, when her organisation, the Green Belt Movement, was taking root in Kenya. Wangari challenged government projects which involved large scale deforestation, but her resistance attracted great opposition and in 1992 Wangari and a number of rural women were beaten and imprisoned. Gaia stood by Wangari and upon her release provided the Green Belt Movement with its first fax machine, opening up international communication. Wangari’s movement has enabled women across Kenya to plant over 30 million trees and improve their food security. Wangari was the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and is celebrated internationally as one of the most influential women in Africa’s history. She passed away in 2011 and her daughter Wanjira continues her work.