Earth Democracy: A five-day course at Navdanya in Dehradun, India

Photo credit: Navdanya
Photo credit: Navdanya

Orla Hazra, PhD with Sister Patricia Siemen, OP, JD

The concept of Earth Democracy is an emerging global movement based on the understanding of the energetic interconnections of Earth as a living system. Both science and spirituality are teaching us that Earth is an integrated whole and that all species, eco-systems and atmospheric functions of Earth are part of a single, related community of life.

Earth Democracy proposes that each species and ecosystem comprising Earth has the right to exist and flourish, thereby fulfilling its unique role to contribute to the good of the whole- human and non-human alike. Earth Democracy posits that all members of this single community needs to participate, to have a voice, to be represented at the table whenever decisions are being made that threaten their wellbeing.

People in a wide variety of professions and institutions are adapting their practices according to this understanding including medicine, teaching, agriculture, homemakers, artists, architecture, religion and law. The shift is the result of a realization that our current ways of being together are based on a faulty perception – of being separate from one another – human and non-human.

Since the Newtonian Era, Earth has been perceived to be a machine made up of fungible parts. This perception allows Earth to become ‘objectified,’ to be used and owned, primarily for human interest. This misperception is a faulty cosmology and is the root of our ecological, social justice and spiritual alienation. Professionals reframing their practices in the legal field are naming their law and governance systems Earth Jurisprudence, Wild Law, or Earth Law.

Earth laws differ significantly from existing environmental laws that primarily focus on regulating (rather than prohibiting) pollution and treat the environment as mere property. Property law provides a “bundle” of rights for the owner but seldom addresses the duty of owners to care for (or steward) the health of the land. Under Earth laws, one of the key duties of landowners is to ensure that the property is handed on to future generations in as good health, or better, than when they took legal responsibility for it. Land ownership concepts need to flow from a systems perspective of what is needed for a well-functioning Earth, with sacred dimensions.

Current land ownership laws are not based on an integral perspective of existence. At least four streams foster an integral perspective that feed Earth law. They are the wisdoms of religious traditions, wholistic science, women’s experience, and the teachings of indigenous peoples. The interplay of these fourfold wisdoms invites conversation – and conversion that can heal humanity’s sense of discontinuity with other modes of being. It has the capacity to rekindle our sense of kinship with one another and bring us back into relationship.

Universe principles in a rice seed

Sister Patricia Siemen, OP, JD, came to India for four weeks in February 2015 to describe the philosophy and initial applications of Earth Law. Sister Pat, a Dominican sister from the US, teaches Earth Law at Barry University School of Law in Orlando, Florida, USA, and is the Director of the Center for Earth Jurisprudence.

In a five-day course titled Earth Democracy held 2 to 6 February 2015 at the Navdanya Biodiversity Conservation Farm  in Dehradun, Uttarakhand in northern India, 40 participants of all ages and countries attended the workshop.

Sister Pat provided examples where Earth laws are being adopted in Ecuador, Bolivia, New Zealand, and numerous small communities in the US. Some of these laws speak of the rights of communities to “bien vivir” – to live well. Their ordinances grant the community the authority to determine what activities promote the health and wellbeing (and the right to prohibit certain destructive or extractive practices that will harm the health of natural communities) as well. Natural communities are given the right to exist and flourish as well, with the right to be represented in court, if necessary.

She also proffered consideration of three scientifically observable principles underlying the 13.7 billion year story of our Universe. They are its abundant diversity, subjectivity or interiority of every entity, and the experience of communion or attraction embedded within the Universe.

An example of these principles is evidenced in a rice seed. The seed demonstrates abundance and diversity as there are hundreds of different types of rice across the planet. There is an innate wisdom within the seed (its subjectivity and interiority) as it internally knows to set down roots, reach to the light, and grow to the sky, and become a rice stalk, again making seed and adapting its species within its bioregion.

Earth Jurisprudence protects the seed’s interiority by legally objecting to genetic modification that destroys its integrity and can even terminate its ability to reproduce itself. Stopping GMO tampering and infertility processes require communities of concern to organize protest against chemical interventions in those bioregions where it is occurring. As people defending the rights of nature and the integrity of creation, we must ensure the seeds’ diversity and abundance for future generations.

It is critical to say that Earth laws also ensure the sacred interiority, abundance and communion of each human child to live and flourish. Earth Democracy includes human and non-humans alike as we all live in a single community of life. Humans, and future generations, need to be able to be surrounded with fertile seed and land so as to feed themselves now and into the future.

Sister Pat said, “Our world’s indigenous and tribal peoples knew this wisdom of the seed. Their women were protectors of the seed. Unfortunately, Indigenous Peoples globally continue to be systematically displaced from their lands so as to serve the needs of the dominant industrial paradigm. We need all people to recognize our interconnectedness. We need to manifest the three principles of the Universe in our lives and to apply self- constraints within our own professional institutions so as to honor an Earth Democracy.”

Engaging with the Jesuits and their ecology ministry

Workshops were also undertaken with Robert Athickal, SJ at Tarumitra, a Jesuit UNEP bioreserve and ecoliteracy centre in Patna and at the School of Philosophy and Religious Thought at the University of Madras.

In Mumbai, Dr Prashant Olalekar, SJ, Director of the Department of Interreligious Studies at Saint Xavier’s College coordinated the workskhops and hosted by Saint Andrew’s College, Wilson College, Saint Xavier’s College, and Saint Pius X Seminary in Goregaon. The Trial of Adam, a skit written by Re Olalekar set the framework on the importance of addressing the dysfunctional denial of our interconnected existence and performed by students from Saint Andrew’s College and seminarians at Saint Pius X who are members of the All India Catholic University Federation (AICUF), a student organization the Jesuits started in 1924. Many Jesuit schools in India have an AICUF branch.

Sister Pat asked the gathered seminarians to consider their future leadership and pastoral roles and asked them, “What is our theology of the sacredness of Earth – human and non human – as reflecting God’s presence in all?”

Growing Earth law movements aligned with Earth Democracy

In her presentations, Sister Pat spoke of the growing “Rights of Nature” movement that is aligned with Earth Democracy. Examples of laws successfully adopted can be found at the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature and other successful legislation can be seen at the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. There are initiatives taking place in Europe as well that are supporting an Earth Democracy approach such as the Earth Law Alliance.

The adoption of the Ecuador Constitution in 2008 included constitutional protection for Nature and states that “nature has the right to exist, persist and regenerate.” People can now bring actions on behalf of rivers, forests, ecosystems – in the name of the natural entity. The Villacabamba River was the first Ecuadoran – and global – case to uphold the right of a river to flow in 2011. In 2012, New Zealand provided the rights of personhood to the Wanganui River. In that case, the New Zealand government appointed two guardians of the river: an Iwi tribal representative and a government representative.

Throughout Sister Pat’s presentations, she cautioned that even though some Earth laws are being adopted, it does not mean that all environmental violations will cease. It takes significant cultural, administrative, and judicial change to support the enforcement of these laws. However, laws are now in existence and can be used to prevent environmental and community degradation. These are seeds of change for the future. We must awake and respond quickly to the reality of our interconnected existence. It is a major shift in perspective for most of us. As people of faith, we have moral and ethical responsibilities to protect the integrity of Creation.

The future is in the hands of our younger people. They are the ones who will lead us into new ways of building an Earth Democracy and protection of the sacredness of Earth. Sister Pat gave the example of a student who recently completed the “Be the Change: Awaken to Cosmic Compassion” course at Saint Xavier’s College fostering integral consciousness. The student’s research paper traced links between GMOs, pesticides, biodiversity loss, and Indian farmer suicides. As a result of her awakening, the student participated in the Earth Democracy course at Navdanya and is now organizing a petition drive protesting the recently approved GMO trials in the state of Maharashtra.

This is the power of awakening to our interconnected existence. It is steps like this that will grow the Earth Democracy movement and sustain the sacredness of Earth.

Sister Pat Siemen (in blue) with Dr Orla Hazra
Sister Pat Siemen (in blue) with Dr Orla Hazra

To learn more about these concepts, local resources, and programmes fostering integral understanding and cosmic compassion, please contact Father Prashant Olalekar, SJ, PhD at Dirs.xaviers(at) and Orla Hazra, PhD at ohazra(at), who are both with the Department of Interreligious Studies at Saint Xavier’s College Mumbai.


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