Radical Ecological Democracy Gaining Root in Africa

By Simon Mitambo1)

Radical ecological democracy is different from the conventional representative democracy that dominates the world. It is a democracy where the indigenous peoples and local communities in Africa are asserting their rights to decision-making by incorporating local citizens' assemblies, ecological responsibility, and livelihood sovereignty. For instance, communities working with Society for Alternative Learning and Transformation (SALT) are recalling their clan governance system and customary laws and, with it, their ancestral responsibilities to protect their territory and cosmology. With support from the Gaia Foundation and Siemenpuu Foundation, they have begun reviving and documenting their customary laws to secure legal recognition of their customary governance system, which will in turn help them protect their sacred natural sites and ancestral lands.

Rather than completely rely on top-down national laws and interventions to protect their African ecosystems, these communities are taking the lead in reviving and enhancing their deep ecological knowledge, practices, and governance systems. They are doing this to re-establish indigenous seed diversity and food sovereignty, and strengthen customary governance systems derived from the laws of nature. Nature is their primary text and source of law.

Growing Recognition of Alternative Democracy in Africa

The understanding and recognition of the intrinsic value of customary laws have been gathering pace over the last two decades—supported by a growing body of international instruments and initiatives—together with broad acknowledgement of indigenous communities as the custodians of their ancestral lands and territories. These customary laws act to regulate human activity and provide the necessary care and guardianship towards our environment. In 2009, the African Commission made the first ruling of an international tribunal to recognise indigenous peoples in Africa and their rights as custodians of their ancestral lands. The Commission interpreted Article 8 of the African Charter to mean, “religion is often linked to land, cultural beliefs and practices, and freedom to worship and engage in such ceremonial acts is at the centre of the freedom of religion.” The Commission also interpreted the meaning of ‘culture’ as, “including the spiritual and physical association with ancestral land, knowledge, belief, morals, values, law, customs and any other practices.” A further milestone in the interpretation of the African Charter regarding ancestral lands and customary governance systems has been the Endorois case, where the African Court confirmed the value and importance of the Endorois peoples’ traditional rights to their land and culture. Since then, a growing number of tangible cases of reviving and asserting legal recognition for the same have been emerging.

It recognises that Africa’s indigenous peoples, guided by their custodians, maintain the a priori indigenous knowledge, innovations, values, practices, laws, and governance systems that connect communities in a deep and spiritual relationship with the biodiverse ecosystems of their ancestral lands.

Passing of the African Resolution: ACHPR/Res. 372 (LX) 2017

The Gaia Foundation and its partners including ABN have been closely working with the African Commission to push for the passing of the African Resolution: ACHPR/Res. 372 (LX) 2017. In 2017, persuasive and substantive arguments for the recognition and protection of sacred natural sites formed the basis of a new Resolution (ACHPR/Res.372 (LX) 2017). It was presented by the Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP) and adopted at the 60th Ordinary Session of the ACPHR in Niamey, Niger. ACHPR/Res.372 has been applauded as heralding a new chapter in Africa’s acknowledgement of sacred natural sites, ancestral lands and the traditions that have protected and sustained them for generations. Its successful passage has been cause for celebration as it represents an important step towards the decolonisation of African legal systems and conservation practices by strengthening Africa’s pluri-legal systems. The African Charter, which guides the African Commission and its resolutions, calls for the decolonisation of Africa’s legal system and for the revitalisation and valuing of her cultural and natural heritage. ACHPR/Res.372 embraces this vision and highlights the centrality of sacred natural sites in protecting and supporting the relationship between people, land, spirituality, and culture—especially for indigenous peoples and local communities. It underlines the importance of customary governance systems for ensuring ecological integrity as well as cultural, ecological and spiritual values.

Through ACHPR/Res.372, the African Commission has acknowledged the critical role sacred natural sites play in the protection of African ecosystems and in the realisation of African people’s rights—including the right of peoples to their own form of economic, social and cultural development. The resolution goes further than promoting human and peoples’ rights in Africa—it represents a convergence of rights and responsibilities. It calls for the just, equitable and effective participation of indigenous peoples and traditional communities in the recognition and protection of their rights, beliefs and practices in relation to sacred natural sites as well as customary laws and governance systems. It calls for the recognition of custodian rights, the right to religion and cultural beliefs, the right to healthy ecosystems, and the rights of nature.

The resolution draws its lineage from the diversity of African cultures and a priori, or customary laws—which have been undermined since colonial times—rather than from the modern and human-centric western legal system. It highlights the role of custodians, custodian communities and their ancestral responsibilities to the land. It recognises that Africa’s indigenous peoples, guided by their custodians, maintain the a priori indigenous knowledge, innovations, values, practices, laws, and governance systems that connect communities in a deep and spiritual relationship with the biodiverse ecosystems of their ancestral lands.

The African Earth Jurisprudence Collective, alongside six partners working with communities in six African countries, is working to demonstrate how custodian communities are striving to protect their sacred natural sites and to revive or strengthen their customary governance systems, thereby showing the way for implementing the resolution ACHPR/Res.372 on their own terms.

We call upon African governments and the world to support such emerging initiatives to counter the threats to the continent’s most precious ecosystems and to revive ways of life that restore the relationship between communities, their lands and their waters after centuries of colonial harm.

Simon Mitambo is an Earth Jurisprudence Practitioner and Co-Founder of the Society of Society for Alternative Learning and Transformation (SALT). He is currently the Regional Programs Coordinator for African Biodiversity Network (ABN).