In Langscape Magazine Articles

It All Starts with Opening Our Hearts: A Dialogue about Earth Jurisprudence

June 07, 2023
Every being on Earth has both inherent rights and the responsibility to participate in the web of life.

WORDS Mashudu Takalani and Gertrude Pswarayi-Jabson | IMAGES Tim Hawkins

The Gaia Foundation is an international organization with nearly forty years of experience accompanying allies to revive biocultural diversity. Having graduated from Gaia’s three-year, UN-recognized “Trainings for Transformation,” Gertrude Pswarayi-Jabson and Mashudu Takalani are now active members of the African Earth Jurisprudence Collective, a community of practice that’s reviving Indigenous lifeways across the continent. Here, they engage in a spirited conversation about rights and responsibilities.

Gertrude and Mashudu work with Indigenous Peoples, whose attentive relationship with the world around them informs their practices with seed, medicine, and customary governance.


GERTRUDE PSWARAYI-JABSON: I will start by explaining my understanding of rights, based on the teachings that I have received as an Earth Jurisprudence trainee and now as a practicing member of the African Earth Jurisprudence Collective. Thomas Berry, the American eco-theologian and founding father of Earth Jurisprudence, wrote that “the Universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” He saw each subject in this Universe — plants, animals, water, soil, and minerals — as possessing their own rights: the right to be, the right to habitat, and the right to fulfill their role in Earth’s ever-renewing cycles. For example, a river has the right to exist, to flow freely from spring to sea without humans damming its course, and to sustain life through its freshwaters, which support us in too many wonderful ways to list. So, from these teachings, rights could be understood as intrinsic to the existence of every member of our Earth community: our brothers and sisters who walk, crawl, fly, or flow.

‘Earth is the primary giver of law. Rights stem from our lawful, ordered Universe.’

MASHUDU TAKALANI: And Thomas Berry teaches us that Earth is the primary giver of law. Rights stem from our lawful, ordered Universe, rather than from a human legal system that sees human rights as inherent and the rights of nature as an add-on. This is something that Indigenous people have long understood. For example, in South Africa, where I am from, Elders regularly perform rituals that ask permission of the Universe for their future endeavors. They can read the signs of acceptance or rejection, so are continually seeking the right to their existence and actions from Earth herself.

Mashudu Takalani

Earth Jurisprudence practitioner Mashudu Takalani belongs to the VhaVenda people in South Africa.


GERTRUDE: Yes. So Earth’s law governs participation among the communion of subjects. But because Nature is treated as a collection of objects in Western jurisprudence, it doesn’t recognize that active, participatory relationship between humans and the wider ecosystems to which we belong. Deep down in my gut I have this feeling that the moment we begin to assign rights from this anthropocentric perspective, we are automatically, in a way, denying the rights of other beings. As Thomas Berry said, there is only one law — Earth’s law — and expanding our human rights to incorporate a few other rights takes away from the essence of this greater law, which recognizes the existence of all of creation in its totality.

There is only one law — Earth’s law — and expanding our human rights to incorporate a few other rights takes away from the essence of this greater law, which recognizes the existence of all of creation in its totality.

MASHUDU: Thomas Berry was also inspired by Indigenous communities who organize themselves according to this holistic, fundamental law. They understand that when the processes by which the planet regulates herself are observed, our Earth system produces the conditions that allow all life, including us, to flourish; they can see, and sustain, this equilibrium that benefits all. Indigenous people read what is happening around them through attentive observance of the insects, the reptiles, the mammals, the moon, the sun, the stars, and the living biodiverse system they all participate in. Then they can act responsibly on this evidence, for instance, utilizing the knowledge that a certain medicine will be most potent at a particular point in the lunar cycle.

GERTRUDE: This attentive observance, spanning beings and generations, underpinned the customary governance of precolonial Africa. And that is still practiced through customs like totems today, mapping the totality of this broader web of life.

MASHUDU: There are two types of totems where I am from. The first provides a way of maintaining balance and ensures we never take more from Nature than we need; for example, if your totem is a goat, you are not allowed to kill goats. The second is a way of tracking ecosystems and acting as their guardian; for example, my totem, the lion, can communicate messages to me through dreams and visions. In 2016 my colleagues and I were in Hluhluwe Game Reserve, in KwaZulu-Natal, when three lions found us in the wilderness. We would have been scared for our lives had I not dreamed of their visit just before it happened.

GERTRUDE: I like the aspect you are bringing out, Mashudu. This is what another of our Elders, Joanna Macy, talks about when she says that human beings need to reconnect to the web of life. Because other beings in the Universe, as we know, are participating. It is only humans who have disconnected. By participating, we can re-engage with inherent rights in an authentic, Earth-centered way.

It is the responsibility of every being in the web of life to participate because participation enables the rights of other beings in the bigger system.

This is where the issue of responsibility comes in. It is the responsibility of every being in the web of life to participate because participation enables the rights of other beings in the bigger system. I am me because I am connected to the tree that grows just outside my window. Even as I sit here, the tree is participating by providing humans and other animals with oxygen. I am equally participating by providing carbon dioxide. So, it might be my right to participate in life, but I also have a responsibility to fulfill my role as an equal member of the Earth community.

And as you say, Mashudu, our ancestors understood this. Indigenous people or traditional communities have held on to this dearly, and passed it down through rituals, through medicine, and even through cooking. Different roles were assigned to members of a community, based on the participation required from humans to keep the broader web of life in good health. This is deeply embedded in African culture and their customary governance systems.

Custodians of seed.

Women were traditionally custodians of seed in Africa.


Indigenous crop varieties .

Mashudu and Gertrude are working to revive Indigenous crop varieties and the responsibility of caring for these varieties within communities.


For instance, I know that you and I are both passionate about seed. Women were traditionally custodians of seed in Africa, so seeds connect me to those in my ancestral lineage who have performed the role of growing seeds, selecting seeds, saving seeds, and talking to seeds to keep seeds alive while they sleep in the granaries. This responsibility is a memory that I have, as a descendant of the grandmothers, the mothers, the aunts that have passed before me and participated.

MASHUDU: The VhaVenda people, to whom I belong, are allocated responsibilities by the ancestors or the Creator. My mother is a traditional healer, and her role involves specific dances, or specific rituals, which are performed using some of the seeds that custodians are responsible for providing — in this case, small grains that we call millet, which are also turned into a traditional beer.

Mashudu with her mother.

Mashudu with her mother, a traditional healer, in Venda.


Or, for example, we could talk about the custodians of our sacred natural sites. They are responsible for performing different rituals as a way of expressing our gratitude to the more-than-human and ancestral beings. They might be honoring the gifts of rain or a good harvest. Just last week, a community I work with phoned me to say that they are about to perform a marula ritual, in appreciation of wild foods. (The marula is a fruit-bearing tree in South Africa.)

GERTRUDE: And if the people with those responsibilities didn’t participate? Then the whole Earth community would lose out on the gift of that individual. For me, this participation is exactly that, a gift; we are offering our gifts to the web of life, in return for the life-sustaining gifts that Nature offers us.

Assigning legal rights or responsibilities within our Western system risks losing the essence of this beautiful relationship. It’s an idea that Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about in relation to another aspect of the Western system that divides rather than unites — property law: “From the viewpoint of a private property economy,” she writes in Braiding Sweetgrass,

“the ‘gift’ is deemed to be ‘free’ because we obtain it free of charge. But in a gift economy, gifts are not free. The essence of the gift is that it creates a set of relationships. The currency of a gift economy is, at its root, reciprocity. In Western thinking, private land is understood to be a ‘bundle of rights,’ whereas in a gift economy land has a ‘bundle of responsibilities’ attached. . . . In that transformation, the relationships become as nourishing as the gift. There is a shared celebration of abundance, and there is justice.”

Communities across Africa.

Communities across Africa, accompanied by members of the African Earth Jurisprudence Collective, are reweaving their relationship with the land.


MASHUDU: As members of the African Earth Jurisprudence Collective, we are helping communities revive their relationship with the land by remembering and recognizing their customary law — whether that is practiced through how they save seed, how they farm, or how they heal or restore sacred natural sites.

GERTRUDE: For me, there is also this issue of people perceiving “law” as big words, complex articles, endless clauses, and so on. But with customary law, it is simple. It is even understood by children! And that is because it is a lived law, embedded in our day-to-day lives from an early age through stories, song, or dance.

MASHUDU: As a young woman, traditional dance was one of the ways I could express my love, respect, and appreciation for the VhaVenda culture. Participating in a local dance group was what brought me to the EarthLore Foundation, where I work now!

We are helping communities revive their relationship with the land by remembering and recognizing their customary law.

GERTRUDE: And passing on customary law in this way reflects the essence of the law itself: it is alive and not set in stone or written on paper. Other qualities of customary law include things like compassion and empathy in understanding how other beings feel and act as members of a complex system that is beyond human comprehension.

MASHUDU: There is also the quality of accountability: there are consequences for not performing the responsibility you have been chosen for.

GERTRUDE: Yes, our roles enact but also enforce the law. Here in Zimbabwe, customary law is being revived by communities I work with, and one thing that makes me happy is hearing them talk about how they are holding each other accountable. For instance, they are curbing deforestation because customary law says you cannot just go into the forest with an axe and cut down a tree. And this law is known by everyone because, from the very onset, there is a relationship created between humans and trees, as equal members of the Earth community. This also connects our experience in Africa with the stories we hear from our Elders in the Amazon, where Indigenous people recognize the spirits of all living beings. So, of course, one would not just take an axe to another being. When we see people destroying lives — cutting down trees, defiling water bodies, mining mountains — for me it’s a sign that those people have lost their way. They have lost those qualities that make us human.

We need to take this decolonized approach to the subject of rights and responsibilities and only begin to define it once we humans are really living as humans. Only when there is true connection to, compassion for, and communion with the Earth community, can we begin to authentically participate without it being a checkbox exercise to fulfill Western ideals.

MASHUDU: Yes. Rights and responsibilities, from an Earth Jurisprudence perspective, can only be understood when one has an open heart.

GERTRUDE: Plus a willingness to unlearn and relearn in our minds. But yes, it really all starts with opening our hearts.

Watch Earth Jurisprudence Explained.

Watch animation videos about decolonization from the African Earth Jurisprudence Collective.


Customary laws are embedded in Indigenous cultures through stories, song, and dance. Watch the animation video Rhythm of Reconnection, in which Mashudu tells her story about returning to her roots. Video: African Earth Jurisprudence Collective, created by Tim Hawkins for The Gaia Foundation.


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Mashudu Takalani.

Mashudu Takalani is a program facilitator for the EarthLore Foundation and a member of the African Earth Jurisprudence Collective. She enjoys working closely with Elders as she accompanies communities in recovering Indigenous knowledge and practices across South Africa and Zimbabwe.


Gertrude Pswarayi-Jabson is the country coordinator for the Participatory Ecological Land Use Management (PELUM) Zimbabwe. She is a member of the African Earth Jurisprudence Collective and passionate about the revival of African traditions, practices, and spirituality.

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