Cyclone Idai, Climate Emergency and Earth Jurisprudence

Diversity is a fundamental law of Nature for anyone who has eyes to see. As one crop failed another one managed; as one bean variety failed another bean variety thrived.

Earth Jurisprudence Practitioner Method Gundidza, who works with Gaia partners Earthlore Foundation, shares first-hand reflections from the frontlines of Cyclone Idai in Zimbabwe.

Method tells us how communities and farmers have built their resilience by reviving seed diversity and Earth-centred governance systems, and why local people say the deadly storm is a reminder to reconnect with lost wisdom in a time of crisis.


Earth Jurisprudence (EJ) is a term proposed by cultural historian, Thomas Berry, to recognise the fact that the Earth is lawful and ordered – life develops and evolves according to certain patterns and rhythms which are mirrored at all levels. The lawfulness of living processes from the smallest living thing to the complex solar system is animated by life itself. Human beings are born into this lawful and orderly system.

I write this article to remember Thomas Berry and his powerful teachings on the 10th anniversary of his passing, through the story of the Cyclone Idai event in my home country, Zimbabwe.

Cyclone Idai over Mozambique. Image: NASA Aqua satellite

The world faces devastating effects of climate change, oscillating between flooding and extreme drought conditions. The balance originally embedded in the Earth and Cosmic system has been significantly tampered with. The rhythms and patterns of the Earth system have been severely undermined. The Earth has been infected with a disease and can no longer function normally. The human beings at the centre of orchestrating all this mess are those who pursue capital, things and profit at the expense of everything else.

We are in the process of enacting a 6th mass extinction, the first caused by a single species, and we too are on the devastating list of those species facing extinction. We see how human life and the lives of other species are being lost in great numbers because of short-lived, but intense natural disasters.

Cyclone Idai

One such disaster is the recent Cyclone Idai which ravaged Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe in March 2019. More than 1,000 people lost their lives to the cyclone which lasted no more than three days, and we have no idea how many other species lost their homes and their lives.

Flooding in the Zambezi Delta. Image: ESA

In Zimbabwe, Chimanimani District of Manicaland province suffered the worst devastation. My own home area, Bikita district of Masvingo province, experienced a somewhat weakened version of the cyclone and so fortunately, no loss of human life was experienced and neither was there a serious loss of other species. Some houses collapsed and a few livestock were crushed to death in the process as some kraals also collapsed. Some rivers overflowed their banks resulting in the loss of crops in gardens that were too close to the rivers. Most farmers who practised streambank cultivation lost their both their gardens and their crops to the floods.

After the disaster, I met up with groups of farmers in five different communities of Chiroorwe, Gangare, Mamutse, Masasire-Mazvimba and Mutsinzwa to reflect on the impacts of the cyclone as part of my ongoing work to promote agro-ecology, seed diversity and these communities’ ecological governance systems, which are based on the traditional understanding of their land and sacred natural sites.

The people who came together to discuss the cyclone included village headmen and chiefs and, separately, I heard firsthand personal experiences from friends who live in Chimanimani. I share here some of the most powerful stories.

Searching for survivors after a landslide in Chimanimani, Zimbabwe. Image: VoA

Drought, Flood and Seeds

More than 200 farmers in the five communities that EarthLore Foundation works with in Bikita shared how some lost and some thrived in the cyclone.  For example, they said that their sorghum crop, which had nearly dried up from the drought prior to the cyclone, together with the pearl and finger millet crops, literally rose from the dead because of Idai. The crops improved significantly in a short space of time thanks to the abundance of water.  Where before they had completely written off reaping a harvest in this farming season, suddenly hopes were revived of having a harvest, especially from the small grain traditional crops of sorghum and pearl and finger millet.

For some farmers, like Mrs Makazinge from Gangare and Mrs Chandakaita from Mamutse, the cyclone was a huge blessing. They were able to harvest the first pearl millet crop early and the soil was wet enough to let the crop shoot again and they harvested for a second time.

By contrast, some of the farmers shared that those who had grown maize lost it completely because of the severe drought just before the cyclone. Unlike the traditional small grains, which had adapted over generations to the land and its cycles, the maize not resilient enough to survive and benefit from the cyclone rains.

Other farmers shared how their jugo beans were rotting because of excessive water in the soil. Even then not all of it was lost because some crops withstood the waterlogging. All farmers shared the beautiful experience of having harvested significant amounts of cow peas.

Cowpeas. Image: Thamizhpparithi Maari

This story reflects how vital growing a diversity of traditional seeds is for a community. Nurturing this is a climate resilient strategy. Diversity is a fundamental law of Nature for anyone who has eyes to see. As one crop failed another one managed; as one bean variety failed another bean variety thrived.

As Thomas Berry says, when we revive the diversity of life, which in this case is reflected in the diversity of seed, we support and create conditions that promote the diversity of life in all its forms. Life can never be completely lost when the law of diversity is embraced. This is what I learned from the Bikita farmers, as I am telling the story first hand.

A reminder of Earth’s Laws

One village headman told me:

Water is flowing everywhere. All the streams that we had forgotten have running water; the order of the land has been restored. Yet those who were farming along the rivers found their gardens washed away. Those who had built on wetlands found their houses collapsing; those who were farming on the banks of the rivers also had their fields and the crops washed away. The cyclone brought back the original order of the land, reminding us of where people should stay, farm and graze and where not to. It happened in a violent way, but perhaps this was a good way, to be reminded of that which should be part of our daily life.  As village headmen and as the Chiefs we need to remember that if we do not abide by the law of the land, there will be consequences, as there were with the cyclone. Cyclone Idai was not friendly in some sense but it was useful for us in quite a big way. We as traditional leaders had forgotten and neglected our role in upholding the order of the land and in living according to the laws of the ecosystems, in ways we had been told by our ancestors.  Suddenly we find ourselves wanting. In some sense we say thank you to you Idai, but in other ways we say we were greatly punished.

This story clearly reflects the recognition that we humans are subject to the laws of Nature. When we break these laws, we suffer the consequences, or our children do.  This is deeply comprehended by indigenous traditions, as these stories show.

And a greater scale, this moment of planetary unravelling of life – due to climate change and ecological breakdown – is a manifestation of consistently breaking the laws that govern life.

Vodopády Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Photo: Pavel Špindler

Contours, cows and ghosts

The communities’ reflections continued.  One woman, Mrs Gaiko, reflected on how, by observing the nature and contours of their land and planning their living and farming accordingly, her family had avoided the worst impacts of the cyclone:

If we had not dug this contour next to our garden and if we also hadn’t dug that big contour at the bottom of the mountain, surely all these homesteads would have been washed away by water. We wouldn’t be talking about our garden any more. There wouldn’t be any garden to talk about. All our borehole equipment, vegetables and fences would have been stripped away. We are really grateful that we did this work. We didn’t foresee how useful these contours would be because we dug them in extremely dry conditions and it was very difficult to dig these contours.  But now we see how useful it is that we did this work together as one community in Chiroorwe. We urge other communities to do the same; we urge farmers to do the same in your individual fields so that we don’t have water running everywhere. Water is not to run on the surface unless it is in the river. Water is to flow underground because this is what the soil likes.

Whilst the responsibility for the climate crisis lies mostly with industrial and colonial nations and fossil fuel corporations, it is nations of the Global South now facing daily choices about how to adapt and build resilience to climate change events like Idai. And where Mrs Gaiko’s story shares wisdom for how to do this, others are not looking to the Earth for guidance.

Mr Buckson Muchini of TSURO Trust in the heart of Chimanimani shared the story of a traditional leader from Ngandu, where a local council’s failure to take account of the landscape helped exacerbate disaster.

The Chief of Ngandu, who had resisted the local council’s taking over the Ngandu area to make it a residential area, recounted this chilling story to Mr Muchini:

The Chief told the rural District Council in no uncertain terms that the area was never inhabited. It was a lowland area and traditionally his people had not settled there. In defiance, though, the rural District Council went ahead to designate that land for residential purposes against the advice of the traditional leader. When Cyclone Idai came, all the houses in that place were submerged and nearly all the people living there died. As we speak right now the spirits of those dead people continue to hover around and area is difficult to walk in at night because of ghosts. It is haunted. Now the rural district council is going back to the chief to ask if he can perform a ritual to pacify the spirits of the dead and of the land to allow them to rest so that the area may have peace and life can be back to normal again. The chief continues to refuse to perform the ritual as he says that he told them and they never listened. This is how they are paying back for their defiance and their failure to respect the traditional ecological governance of this area works as he explained. We don’t know if the Chief will be persuaded to perform the much-needed rituals to ask the ancestors and the spirits of the land for forgiveness so that the spirit of those who died may rest in peace and thus those who live today may live peacefully.

Mr Muchini also shared how the cyclone washed away all of the beehives in Ngandu. These great pollinators and other increasingly endangered insects were drowned. May the bees’ souls rest in peace wherever they are.

Honey bee. Photo: Daniel Schwen

One elder from Chimanimani also shared her story about the cyclone.

Our cattle went up the mountains to graze before the cyclone came. The boys tried in vain to drive them down and they eventually gave up and left them on the mountains. I warned everyone that in my memory when cattle behaved like this, it was a signal of heavy rains coming. I together with my family left Chimanimani and went to Mutare to stay there and wait for the heavy rains to pass. My fellow villagers took me for an old archaic woman who dabbled in ‘witchcraft’ and had too much pride and they did not heed my reading of the signs. As it came to be, my cattle and family were all saved from the effects of the cyclone.

Earth Jurisprudence

Thomas Berry writes about how Earth Jurisprudence is inspired by reading from Nature herself, understanding her language and her signs, and from Indigenous traditions who derive their customary laws from reading Nature’s laws.

This week we celebrate the legacy of Thomas Berry on the anniversary of his passing, a decade ago. He insisted that Earth Jurisprudence was the correct term for recognising the Earth as the primary text, the source of law.  As we share these sad stories, we remember that Thomas Berry foresaw that such dramatic climate change events are inevitable while the dominant industrial growth economy persists.

Eco-philosopher Thomas Berry.

Thomas Berry was prophetic. He called us to shift from our current human-centred thinking to an Earth-centred understanding of who we are, as an intrinsic part of Mother Earth.

As we do this, we are inspired by indigenous communities who are rooted in this perspective – as these stories reveal. We celebrate his passing on with sadness but also with the joy and gratitude, that he reminds us, awakens us, to how our living Earth System works, and that we need to comply with her laws if we are to leave our children a viable future.

May his soul rest in peace.


This story is part of a week exploring ‘Earth Jurisprudence’ – the most important philosophy, cosmovision and set of transformational practices you’ve probably never heard of- and Earth philosopher Thomas Berry. 

Follow us on social media using @GaiaFoundation  #EarthJurisprudence and #ThomasBerry10. 

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