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Interrogating and Reconceptualizing Natural Law to Protect the Integrity of the Earth

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A foundational task for preserving the integrity of the earth is preserving its ecology of knowledges (de Sousa Santos 2008). For centuries, what has passed for universal knowledge has really been a localized and quite parochial form of knowledge: Western culture. Our ability to preserve earth's integrity is now deeply compromised by our reliance on this one form. For Westerners, the first task for preserving this ecology of knowledges is the critical interrogation of our own culture. In this chapter, one part of that interrogation is explored – an excavation of the conception of Natural Law that forms the basis of Western jurisprudence, human rights liberal democracy and international law particularly as it is exemplified in the work of John Locke. Locke's conception of Natural Law, I argue, suffers from a conceptual distortion and diminution of possible imaginaries derived from its being the only form of knowledge recognized as such by those who became the conquerors. At its heart, we also see that it is based on a relation of conflict and coercion – the right of property. The Western conception of Natural Law is contrasted with a more holistic version of Natural Law, rooted in a deep understanding of the earth system and exemplified in the knowledges of Indigenous peoples and in a variety of religious traditions going back centuries. A process of deep civilizational self-reflection is called for.

The Kogi people, modern descendants of the ancient Tairona civilization of the high Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta range on the coast of Colombia, occupy a unique eco-system. They call their mountain, “the Heart of the World,” because it contains every different climate on earth. Isolated for centuries high up in the deep folds of this 17,000 foot mountain, the Kogi are the only indigenous people to have survived the destructive impacts of the conquista and the subsequent modernizing forces of capitalist development with their culture intact, and they see themselves as guardians of the knowledge that is necessary to save the earth from immanent destruction. In recent years they have sought through emissaries to send messages to us, the “younger brothers,” about the dangers facing the earth community and what will be necessary to save it. The Kogi, like all Indigenous peoples, are the canary in the mine. They are asking us to quit our chatter and to listen. The Kogi priests, or Mamas, are trained from birth through a process of rigid sensory deprivation, and esoteric teaching, so that when they emerge into the world at the age of about 20 they are filled with wonder and awe at the beauty and diversity of the living earth which they had never seen up to this point and are motivated to serve as its protectors.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2010

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  • Democracy, Ecological Integrity and International Law
    Democracy, Ecological Integrity and International Law is the latest product of research by the Global Ecological Integrity Group (, an organisation that has been meeting annually since 1992 to discuss scientific, philosophical, political and legal aspects of ecological integrity. This collection examines various aspects of governance from the standpoint of integrity: from democracy, to forms of Native governance, from globalization and neocolonialism to specific human rights to food, water and climate.
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