Earth Jurisprudence Principles and Story of Origin

The seed of Earth Jurisprudence began germinating in 1999 when Thomas Berry published ‘The Great Work’ calling for a radical transformation of the dominant conception of law and governance systems, for the wellbeing of the whole Earth Community. This lies at the heart of our role, as the multiple crises we now face globally are due to the dominant industrial system systematically breaking the laws that govern life.

To explore the philosophy and practice of recognising Earth as the primary source of law, Gaia facilitated a series of dialogues with Thomas Berry and some outstanding visionaries and advocates from Africa, North and South America, Asia and Europe. Statements and declarations emerged, notably the Airlie and Botswana Principles of Earth Jurisprudence (EJ).

Exchange visits to the Colombian Amazon enabled African civil society leaders to learn how indigenous people have been reviving their traditional ecological knowledge and securing legal recognition for the ancestral lands. This inspired the formation of local and community-led organisations across Africa, committed to reviving customary governance systems rooted in Earth Jurisprudence. Gaia also encouraged communities in Europe to revive customary governance – such as Kalix fishing community in Sweden.

Over two decades, a network of learning centres and courses emerged to share the principles and practice of Earth Jurisprudence, such as Ngwenyama Lodge in Botswana, the Ethiopian Civil Service Training College, the Greenbelt Movement in Kenya, Fundacao Gaia in Brazil, and the Center for Earth Jurisprudence in Florida, USA. Gaia used its own learning centre for talks and workshops on Earth Jurisprudence, visited schools and universities, co-hosted a series of Wild Law conferences with the UK Environmental Law Association, and ran short courses on Earth Jurisprudence at Schumacher College. Through exposure to these events, informal discussion groups emerged in Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa, Ghana and Benin, and Gaia began to support the growth of an African Earth Jurisprudence movement.

Since the mid-2000s there has been growing recognition of Earth Jurisprudence in law and policy too, such as the Ecuadorian Constitution which recognises the legally enforceable Rights of Nature, the 2010 Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, a proposal for a United Nations’ Crime of Ecocide, and a series of Rights of Nature Tribunals organised by the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature (GARN). Working with partners in South Africa, Ethiopia, Benin and Kenya, legal recognition has been secured at local and district level for sacred natural sites and communities’ customary governance systems, while in Uganda we are jointly developing a Rights of Nature precedent.

Trainings for transformation have taken the philosophy and practice of Earth Jurisprudence to indigenous communities and civil society groups across Africa; and a second cohort of African change-makers are engaged in Gaia’s three-year Earth Jurisprudence training course. We have even put Earth Jurisprudence on the UN agenda, with commendations for Gaia’s training of Earth Jurisprudence facilitators and the growing African Earth Jurisprudence movement, and being actively involved in the UN’s Knowledge Network for Harmony with Nature.

The Principles of Earth Jurisprudence

Earth Jurisprudence is founded on core principles.  These principles serve as a code of ethics to guide our personal, professional and collective practices.

The following principles are distilled from the practice of indigenous communities, and discussions in numerous forums over 20 years.  An international retreat for practitioners of the Global Alliance of Community Ecological Governance (CEG) further explored these principles and practice. These principles help re-member – that is, restore the memory we have lost.

“It is our responsibility to make these principles the foundation of the new legal system all over the world. The time has come when human laws and Earth laws must be brought together.” (Thomas Berry, Rights of the Earth, 2002)

To transition towards a mutually enhancing presence on Earth, these principles need to be embedded in human governance systems, particularly law, education, economy and religion.

Wholeness – Earth is a single community webbed together through interdependent relationships. No living being nourishes itself. The well-being of each member of the Earth community is dependent on the well-being of Earth. The interest of the whole takes precedence over the interests of individuals.

Lawfulness – The Universe is lawful and ordered. Earth is the primary giver of law, human law is a derivative. Humans can only discover, not make, Earth-centred law.  Earth Jurisprudence recognises life is sacred with inherent value, and Earth has limits – her many gifts, such as water, minerals, land, biodiversity, are finite.

Duty of Care – Humans have responsibilities to care for all members of the Earth Community and maintain the integrity and well-being of the whole Earth Community and future generations.

Rights of Earth – Earth is a living, self-regulating being, with intrinsic value. “Every component of the Earth community has three rights: the right to be, the right to habitat, and the right to fulfil its role in the ever-renewing processes of the Earth community.” (Thomas Berry)

Mutual Enhancement – Relationships within the Earth Community are reciprocal – a cycle of giving and receiving.  For example plants and trees give out oxygen for any members of the Earth Community to breathe in, and we give out carbon dioxide for plants and trees to take in.

Resilience  – The inherent quality of all healthy living systems to grow, evolve and adapt to change and disturbance without losing their coherence.

To learn more about these and other Earth Jurisprudence principles, visit Gaia’s Earth Jurisprudence Library and Recommended Reading.

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