The Forest is Life:

Reviving Benin’s Sacred Groves

Introduction by Carlotta Byrne

Words by Appolinaire OUSSOU LIO

Illustrations by Tim Hawkins

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This article is part of Issue #13

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We are living through multiple, intertwined crises - from climate change and biodiversity loss to gross inequality. The cultural historian Thomas Berry believed the roots of these crises lie, ultimately, in a crisis of our imagination; in the story we tell ourselves about who we are and our place in the world. This is perhaps why, for many, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of the industrial growth economy.

Berry reminded us that civilisations which grow rapidly by destroying their life support system, collapse rapidly too. As a philosopher, he proposed that we transform from a human-centred to an Earth-centred way of seeing and being in the world - from breaking to complying with the inherent, living laws and limits of life on our planet. This is what he called Earth Jurisprudence. Our planet, as Berry said in Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community, is "a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects". These subjects - plants, animals, water, soil and minerals - exist in a dynamic relationship to one another, within a living, self-regulating system. This jurisprudence considers humans an inextricable part of nature.

The present international legal system is, in large part, based on a jurisprudence developed during the industrial era to serve colonists, industrialists and corporations. This western jurisprudence is anthropocentric, considering humans to be separate from and superior to nature, which is simply something we can use or abuse without consequence. As a result, the laws stemming from it have been used to legitimise nature's destruction. To comply with Earth’s laws, we must know Mother Earth. This requires us to relearn eco-literacy after generations of disconnection from nature.

Earth Jurisprudence is the guiding principle underpinning Indigenous customary governance systems, cultural traditions and cosmovisions that have sustained communities for millennia. Indigenous Peoples who organise themselves according to these fundamental ecological laws still demonstrate a deep-rooted relationship with Earth, despite the industrial onslaught.

Embracing Earth Jurisprudence means continually decolonising our minds from the destructive stories we are fed daily by corporate powers and political interests. Staying conscious can hold us steady in turbulent times, bring clarity in the midst of confusion, and build bridges between species, races, religions and generations.

The Gaia Foundation runs a unique, UN-recognised course for African leaders who are reviving Indigenous lifeways. Graduate Appolinaire OUSSOU LIO is a founding member of the African Earth Jurisprudence Collective, a community of practitioners across the continent. Using holistic methodologies such as elder-centred community dialogues and eco-cultural mapping - learnt from Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon - they are accompanying local communities on a journey of decolonisation, by remembering and enhancing their Indigenous knowledge, practices and governance systems. This work is a testament to the fact that alternatives to our dominant industrial growth economy already exist.

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