Towards radical ecological democracy
The granting of Observer Status to the African Biodiversity Network by the African Commission, a journey walked with other partners, is a new dawn for the African communities. Simon Mitambo, ABN’s Regional Programme Coordinator, speaks about the gains of the recognition and protection of Sacred Natural Sites, ancestral lands and the traditions that have protected and sustained them for generations as noted in Resolution 372.
Radical ecological democracy is slowly gaining root in Africa. This differs dramatically from the conventional representative democracy that dominates the world. It is a democracy where indigenous peoples and local communities in Africa are asserting their rights to decision-making by using local citizens’ assemblies, ecological responsibility and livelihood sovereignty. Some communities are recalling their clan governance system and customary laws and their ancestral responsibilities to protect their territory and cosmology. They have started to revive and document their customary laws to secure legal recognition of their traditional governance system to protect their sacred natural sites and ancestral lands. Rather than relying 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. This is to re-establish indigenous seed diversity, food sovereignty and to strengthen customary governance systems derived from the laws of nature. Nature is their primary 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. This is supported by a growing body of international instruments and initiatives, together with a 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 from the community level. 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 African 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, for example, the Endorois case in Kenya, in which the African Court confirmed the value and importance of the Endorois’ traditional rights to their land and culture. Since then, a growing number of tangible cases of reviving and asserting legal recognition have emerged.
Passing of the African Resolution ACHPR/Res. 372 (LX) 2017
ABN, the Gaia Foundation and partners 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 (SNS) formed the basis of a new resolution, presented by the Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP) and adopted at the 60th Ordinary Session of the ACPHR in Niamey, Niger. The resolution was applauded as signalling a new chapter in Africa’s acknowledgement of SNS, ancestral lands and the traditions that have protected and sustained them for generations. Its successful passage was cause for celebration as it represents an important step towards the decolonisation of African legal systems and conservation practices, by strengthening recognition of 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, revitalizing and valuing of her cultural and natural heritage. Resolution 372 embraces this vision and highlights the centrality of sacred natural sites in protecting and supporting the relationship between peoples, land, spirituality and culture, especially for traditional and indigenous peoples and local communities. It underlines the importance of customary governance systems for ensuring ecological integrity, community cultural, ecological and spiritual values.
Through the resolution, the African Commission acknowledged the critical role sacred natural sites play in protecting African ecosystems and realizing African people’s rights to their form of economic, social and cultural development in the rights of nature. 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 recognizing and protecting their collective and individual rights, beliefs and practices about SNS, 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 human-centred modern western law. 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. These systems connect communities in a deep and spiritual relationship with the biodiverse ecosystems of their ancestral lands.
We call upon African governments to support such emerging initiatives to counter threats to the continent’s most precious ecosystems and revive ways of life that restore the relationship between communities and their lands and waters after centuries of colonial harm.