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Gaarú The growing African Movement for Earth Jurisprudence

A new, uniquely African hope is emerging to counter threats to Africa's most precious ecosystems...

Africa’s most iconic ecosystems, from the Okavango Delta to Uganda’s Great Lakes are facing new threats. But a new, active and uniquely African hope is also emerging to help navigate a better future for the continent and all her Peoples and species.

Launched on African Environment/Wangaari Maathai Day 2021 Gaia and partners are delighted to share Gaarú, a new short film documenting the emergence and growth of the African Earth Jurisprudence (EJ) Collective.

Made up of dedicated African Earth Jurisprudence Practitioners, this collective is working alongside local and Indigenous communities to realise African alternatives to the destructive western development model that has laid waste to communities, cultures and living ecosystems on the continent.

Together, they are reviving and re-valorising ways of life that defend and restore the relationship between Africa’s peoples and her lands, waters and forests after centuries of colonial harm.

The meaning of Gaarú

EJ Practitioner Simon Mitambo shares the meaning of Gaarú.

"Gaarú is the name for a cultural institution or group in my community of Tharaka, Kenya. The Gaarú is concerned with teaching the laws of Nature to members of the community.

"To become part of the Gaarú, Tharakan people had to go and spend time living in the wilderness, to learn and be connected to Nature.

"People swore an oath of allegiance to Gaarú. Known as the 'Mutheega wa Gaarú', this oath committed the Gaarú's members to keeping the laws that govern Nature in Tharaka; to defending Nature and the knowledge that was important to the wellbeing of the community.

"Gaarú stands for this closeness to nature; for a concern for all life."

Trainings for Transformation

Earth Jurisprudence is a way of being still, noticing and reconnecting with nature.
EJ Practitioners and Tharakan elders take part in a ritual to greet the morning, Kenya. Photo: Ben Gray.

Hailing from across the continent, Africa’s new EJ Practitioners have all undertaken a transformational, UN-recognised, three-year training process facilitated by The Gaia Foundation and the Siama Programme.

Blending together African and Western methodologies of experiential learning, wilderness experience and desk study, the Earth Jurisprudence Course encourages participants to reconnect with their rural roots; to find healing and identity in Africa’s deep traditions of ecological knowledge, governance and spirituality.

Practitioners-in-training explore the movements and ideas emerging for systemic change, from degrowth to the Commons. Through advocacy trainings, they learn strategies and methodologies for accompanying communities to revive their Indigenous and Earth-centred cultures. And, with guidance from the Siama Programme, they have the opportunity to immerse themselves in traditional African cosmology and pre-colonial customary governance systems in which the Rights of Nature are embedded.

Around the planet, the Rights of Nature movement is making headlines as citizens and lawyers seek to recognise Mother Nature's right to exist, to thrive and to evolve within Western legal systems.

In an African context, the Rights of Nature are predominantly realised through the recognition of customary laws and the revival of holistic ecological governance systems, rooted in sacred natural sites and ancestral territories. These original, pre-colonial laws are not rights-based but rather relationship-focused, governing human communities to live in respectful reciprocity with the ecosystems to which they belong. The law (and lore) is discerned from the land and passed down orally from generation to generation, in the form of story, song, ritual and custom, forming a holistic system of ethics and practices rooted in the laws of Nature and through maintaining an intimate relationship with our living planet.

This understanding - that laws are alive in the language of Nature, and that wise governance involves managing human behaviour, rather than managing Nature - is at the heart of Indigenous governance systems, and is the foundation of the Earth Jurisprudence Trainings for Transformation.

“Having taken part in these trainings, I now feel an active member of the community of beings ready to contribute to reweaving the web of life in this crisis-ridden world" says Cameroonian Earth Jurisprudence Practitioner, Samuel Nnah Ndobe.

What is Earth Jurisprudence?

Gaia's Director, Liz Hosken, explains the basic tenets of Earth Jurisprudence in this short video.

In the Earth Jurisprudence training course, participants explore Earth Jurisprudence as the underlying philosophy which recognizes a different source of law from that of the industrial world, where Nature is the primary text from which human laws should be derived, and from which the Rights of Nature arise. This requires us to decolonise our industrial conception of law and draw inspiration from the understanding of law within the cosmologies of Indigenous communities whose laws are derived from the Earth, not the hand of the human legislator.

Trainings for Decolonisation

Gaia’s Trainings for Transformation equip practitioners with participatory tools to work with communities to protect and revive ecosystems.
A Tharakan elder from eastern Kenya holds up traditional dried gourds, a crop that was lost to his community until recently. Photo: Ben Gray

Despite many centuries of colonisation and post-independence internal repression, many African elders and communities on the frontlines of struggles to protect vital ecosystems are still the custodians of ways of life that respect and care for Nature, and the practical knowledge that makes this possible.

However, due to intergenerational trauma and ongoing persecution, these custodian communities, and elders in particular, often lack the confidence and support to ensure that their knowledge and custodianship are passed on to future generations.

Gaia’s Trainings for Transformation enable practitioners to analyse the current, dominant approach to development and its origins and understand the holistic nature of indigenous cosmology. It equips them with the practices, participatory tools and methods to work with communities so that they are able to build back community identity, cohesion, confidence, decision making, and customary laws and governance structures.

Through this work elders and youth reconnect. Women and men work together in complimentary roles. Together they regenerate their resilient, locally-adapted indigenous seed diversity and food sovereignty and their sacred natural sites and ancestral lands.

This approach requires long-term commitment from both the communities and the practitioners. It takes time to break free of the dependency cycles instigated by colonialism. However, as is true of ecosystems, once the restoration process takes root, big changes can happen quickly.

The first group of Earth Jurisprudence Practitioners, who graduated in 2017, have been working with communities for more than half a decade now, with profound ripple effects.

Uganda: Supporting Custodians of Life

Our 2019 film, Custodians of Life, follows the impressive revival work EJ Practitioner Dennis Tabaro has been pursuing alongside the Indigenous Bagungu communities in Western Uganda.

“When we started the communities were afraid. They wouldn’t talk about themselves as the custodians of sacred natural sites. But now they have formed an association of custodians. They have engaged with the government to secure the recognition of their traditions and cultures, and to protect their ecosystems”, says Dennis.

Expanding influence

We need to break the cycle and the African EJ Collective is making great strides in that direction...
Zimbabwean EJ Practitioner Method Gundidza presents his work at the United Nations. Photo: Earthlore Foundation

In 2021, a second class of EJ Practitioners graduated to become fully-trained members of a pan-African network that is growing rapidly, connecting trailblazing efforts to protect, revive and restore Nature and cultural traditions that respect Mother Earth.

This second group of Earth Jurisprudence Graduates will soon become mentors to a third class of trainees, replicating traditional African learning processes, where each group takes responsibility for guiding the next one. Through the trainings and accompaniment of each group, more communities and ancestral landscapes are joining the path of revival and the work is rippling further across East, West, Central and Southern Africa.

The legal precedents and policies achieved by the Collective, are creating supportive conditions for the recognition of Africa’s plurilegal systems, as called for in the African Charter, which is part of the practice - based - policy strategy of the Collective.

The recognition of Earth-centred customary governance systems is ever more vital to enhance food and ecosystem resilience and thereby the resilience of human communities as they face climate change and related crises. These African Earth Jurisprudence Advocates are being called upon increasingly to bring their fresh thinking to the movements calling for systemic change and decolonisation.

“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 recognise 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”, says Liz Hosken, Gaia’s Director and a facilitator of the Trainings for Transformation

Successes so far for the African EJ Network...

Since its inception in 2014, and in addition to its grassroots achievements, the African EJ Collective has played an instrumental role in several critical policy victories at national, regional and international level, including:

Active hope

African Earth Jurisprudence Practitioners have a foot in both worlds. They are showing the way.
Tharakan men and women, dressed in revived traditional grass skirts and hats, dance and play music during a ritual. Photo: Ben Gray

The emergence of a strong, pan-African Collective advocating decolonised, African, Earth-centred pathways into the future is a cause for hope in troubled times, says esteemed Nigerian environmentalist and long-time Gaia ally, Nnimmo Bassey:

“We need new voices and new governance, but also to remember how our ancestors cared for this continent. How we enjoyed Africa’s gifts without exhausting her through complex, mature and intergenerational governance. These African Earth Jurisprudence Practitioners have a foot in both worlds. They are showing the way.”

With grit, imagination and Africa’s new generation of Earth Jurisprudence Practitioners in the lead, a journey from loss and repression to hope and decolonisation is possible.

Coming back to life

Find out more about EJ Practitioner Simon Mitambo's work to revive culture and nature in Eastern Kenya alongside the Indigenous Tharaka People.

Earth Jurisprudence

Watch a series of short films and interviews exploring what Earth Jurisprudence is, how it connects with Indigenous cosmologies, deepens understandings of the Rights of Nature and why it is important now.

Earth Stories

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“We are not lacking in the dynamic forces needed to create the future. We live immersed in a sea of energy beyond all comprehension.” -Thomas Berry

This interactive story was produced by The Gaia Foundation.

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