Inspiring Women - Liz Hosken
As a continuation of our International Women’s Day feature, we’ve chosen Liz Hosken, co-founder of the Gaia Foundation, as our most inspirational woman of 2019. Liz has been working on the frontline of environmental campaigning for decades and her NGO’s pioneering work has enabled many indigenous communities to reinvigorate their cultures and their homelands around the world, many of which were on the brink of extinction. She speaks to us about her work and what inspires her to continue pushing on to protect our fragile planet.
How did you come to co-found the Gaia Foundation?
I came to the UK from South Africa in the 1980s after having been involved in the anti-apartheid movement there. It was at a time when civil society was beginning to question the four decades of so-called “development” that had taken place since WW2. The environment was being carelessly destroyed, poverty was growing and things were generally getting worse with the spread of the Industrial Growth Economy.
I met others who shared the same questions I had, and we decided that a hub was needed to critique the problem in a socially and ecologically sound way and nurture viable alternatives. So, a number of us got together and formed The Gaia Foundation. Gaia is the name of the Greek Goddess of Mother Earth, as the Homeric Hymn says, the ‘Mother of All Life’. We chose the name to show that within the European psyche there is the understanding that the Earth is our mother – just as for indigenous people. It’s a reminder that we are all part of this incredibly beautiful and sacred universe.
When we started, it was a very vibrant time, and we knew if things continued as they were, our living planet, and humans as part of the web of life would end up in a real mess. But we felt very positive then, it seemed that people were waking up to what was happening. For example, the Convention of Biodiversity was being planned for in 1992, in recognition that we had to protect the biodiversity of our planet. It felt as if there was a real awakening happening, and we could contribute by standing for a paradigm shift to a Gaia consciousness that places Earth, rather than humans, at the centre of our thought and decision making processes. We felt we needed to be reminded that we are part of a bigger living Universe that we cannot control, and that we need to participate in together, rather than try to dominate. This thinking was very much at the heart of Gaia right from the start.
What inspires you to keep going?
All my life I’ve loved nature, our planet, the moon, the sun and the seasons – it’s always been part of me. I grew up on a farm in South Africa, my father loved birds and nature, so for me the drive is simply having an appreciation for the beauty and wonder of the Earth. I was horrified from an early age about the polluting of the rivers and the destruction that I saw happening to our planet-home even then, so that’s always been what has motivated me in life.
Now we see how the destructive and exploitative growth economy that’s now globalised, is affecting the planet as a whole. We’re witnessing the oceans collapsing, the Arctic ice sheet melting and forests being destroyed. We are in the midst of the ‘unravelling’ we foresaw all those years ago. So many of the social and ecological protections that our social movements have been working to establish are now being ripped apart. It’s very painful.
I really think that at the heart of our work now is how we navigate these times. We can’t wake people up, people wake themselves up, but we can help each other by creating conditions to experience ourselves as part of a living whole, and to appreciate the awe and wonder of our living Earth. I find it harder now to stay positive than I used to because of the levels of destruction. But we have to keep going and appreciate and love the beauty that is still with us. Ultimately, Nature is what keeps me going.
What defines the importance of Gaia Foundation’s work?
It’s hard to say without being immodest! Our work has always been centred around working with indigenous people; we aim to build what we call affectionate alliances with indigenous people, to walk with them to assist in reviving their traditions and to bring awareness to the dominant world, that we as humans know how to live as they do. We believe that the laws of life are the laws that we should be governed by, therefore requiring a development in our relationship with nature.
We really try to stay true to the vision of ourselves being part of a living, beautiful planet within the universe. We try to live simply, to walk our talk in the way that we work and organise ourselves. We are always trying to push the boundaries of the movement, and try to stay small and modest. More and more people are saying “Yes! We have to take care of the environment and we have to develop our relationship with nature”, but what does that really mean? And if we really do believe nature is living and we are a part of nature then how do we reflect that in the way we live and in our language and so on.
Our work is really trying speak a language in a way that awakens awareness in people, so it’s not just what we do, it’s about how we do it, and that’s very much part of our practice. I hope that shines through in the way that we communicate the universality of indigenous ways of seeing and practice. We are very focussed on how to bring the memory of how we once were into the future.
We learnt so much from the Amazon in the 80s and 90s, communities there were really on the verge of their cultures collapsing, and with our help, they started a process of dialogue between the young and the elders – sharing ancient knowledge. The young people joined because knowledge has power, because it’s about life and meaning. The communities we worked with pulled themselves back from the brink, we weren’t sure and they weren’t sure whether it was even possible for cultures to revive when there is that much lost.
The path of revival is like a basket re-weaving itself back again, the strands start to come together as you become more conscious. For example, you revive the range of agricultural seeds that you lost because you were told that they were useless for modern farming practices, and as you bring them back you start having greater harvests because they’re better adapted for climate change, so you suddenly have more food, and then you start building back your traditional grain storage, but you need the skills to do that so then re-learning happens, and then you need the reeds to build the grain stores, then you realise that the wetlands have been destroyed and you need them because you need the grasses… so all the elements start to weave back again. It’s a very beautiful process. It’s not us dictating to them though, science has proven that if you work with your body and help it to re-balance itself it can start to heal itself, and that’s really how I see this work with indigenous communities; once they have overcome the colonisation assumptions that they are ‘bad’ and ‘backward’ and they build on their confidence, then the self-healing process and the rebuilding begins. Their capacity to discern what is harmful grows and they have the power to make choices that they hadn’t had before. A critical outcome is land preservation, for communities to regain their ancestral land and to protect their sacred sites; this regenerates the whole ecosystem, and that’s absolutely vital, because without that they won’t be able to deal with climate change, and the impact of climate change will be much worse. For this to happen the lost knowledge needs to come back to the communities, it’s critical that these communities govern themselves and train the next generations how to live in harmony with their territory.
What have been some of the highlights of running the Foundation?
We had our training on the ground in South America – especially in the Colombian Amazon Rainforest. There we worked with indigenous people and Gaia Amazonas, an independent but like-minded organisation to ours in Colombia to re-weave their biocultural basket. That’s where we learnt the methodology which led to each of the different cultures reviving their way of life, developing ethno-education and ethno-health, which is part of their cosmology, and then negotiating with government for the recognition of their collective land rights; for them to govern their own land according to their traditions, which are so much stricter than any western environmental laws.
Eventually we managed to secure an enormous 26 million hectares that is now under autonomous indigenous control. It’s still the biggest contiguous area of rainforest area officially protected by indigenous peoples. Almost the entire Colombian Amazon is now protected – that’s one third of the country. It was an amazing achievement that we were part of, but the elders’ work was at the core. There are always challenges of course, but the foundation is there and the forest is still protected, which is the most important thing.
For me the success in Colombia was the foundation and the highlight of my journey. I was already rejecting so many Western ideas, but it was the unlearning of those and learning of how indigenous thinking works and how cultures can survive that has given all of us a lot of hope and experience of what is possible… we have since brought people from Africa over to Colombia to experience that work first hand, and when they got back to their own countries they began to find their own elders to learn from. What was exciting, was to find that all that we learnt in the Amazon exists in Africa too and that was really the inspiration for taking the work to Africa. As in the Amazon, the elders in Africa understand law as following the laws of the Earth and not laws created and imposed by humans.
What’s your reaction to this new wave of world leaders who seem to advocate a denial of climate change existing?
It’s really hard to deal with right wing leaders who deny climate change exists because they are fanatics. It’s been a big wake-up call for many of us, and I didn’t imagine this would happen – that at the very time when things are really falling apart, we have the emergence of these very reactionary ways of thinking and people coming into power. It’s absolute denial. It’s a very dangerous situation and it’s something we talk about a lot, but we don’t give up hope. This is a reaction of a system in crisis. We need to continue to protect what we can. One can’t engage with these types of narcissistic minds, the more attention you give them the more they grow. Ghandi spoke of withdrawing our power from systems of violence and proactively building alternatives. Communities on the front line of this violent system, and those working with them to defend their land, are standing up to this power and are really suffering for it. There are more and more assassinations of community leaders who are defending their land, which is so hard to deal with. We still need to do all that we can to support those defending their land on the ground, because they are the immune system of planet.
As a female working on the front line of environmental conservation, have you ever experienced any difficulties?
I’ve never faced direct difficulties due to the fact that I’m a woman, but there are more subtleties around discrimination. These are the kind of power games that can happen with males and the way I’ve learnt to deal with this over the years is to really face it, not to ignore it and not to bury it. When I find this behaviour I either work with it and through it, if we can together, or pull away. What I find is if there is a real difference in values between those we work with closely and ourselves, then we cannot work together. And I have learnt to be strict about that. Life is short, this work is urgent and we need to get on and do the work.
One of the ways we learnt from our friends in the Amazon is the importance of building what they call ‘affectionate alliances’, which means clarifying what draws you together, your common values and vision. Keeping that affectionate alliance is critical because you can’t pretend affection to a cause. When you are bonded by the same value system that builds energy, you can face difficulties together, if you’re not, when difficulties come, you’re torn apart. I’ve been very fortunate that I have not had many aggressive confrontations.
Which moments have made you the most proud?
There is so much to be proud of, but perhaps the thing that makes me most proud is when I witness the transformation in people’s confidence to be true guardians of nature. Often when we first meet indigenous communities they do not feel confident to be who they are because they have been traumatised by people telling them they are backward or practice witchcraft. So when they become confident custodians of the land, or of seed diversity, when they feel that they can take back their ancestral responsibility for that land and those seeds, it’s a very beautiful thing to see. That keeps me going and brings me huge joy. Together we are building back our true nature – lovers of our Mother Earth!
Another proud moment was in our work in Africa. The Amazonians had made it clear to us that sacred sites are critical to protect across the entire planet, because they are like acupuncture points in the body of the Earth, revitalising her. As we explored working with communities in Africa and found it was the same for them – the notion of compiling the common sacred sites laws across different cultures emerged. We then developed a report that we took to the African Commission. Amazingly they quickly passed through resolution that sacred sites and ancestral lands in Africa should be protected by their custodial communities. This was such a proud moment because we’re talking about recognising the ‘Laws of the Earth’ here, not human made laws, which we are familiar with in the dominant worldview. We call this understanding of Earth’s laws ‘Earth Jurisprudence’ – it’s a completely different legal philosophy, recognising that the laws of the Earth are primary.
After more than a decade of work across seven African countries we found that it really is possible to make change happen, and I hope we will see even bigger shifts in consciousness in the future.
How do you maintain a healthy work/life balance?
That’s a challenge! And it’s an ongoing struggle, or rather practice, to take time for myself. As a movement, we advocate spending time every day with nature, to reconnect. I am really lucky to be near Hampstead Heath, which is my saviour when I’m in London. So for me that means going for a run, visiting my elder tree friends along my route, nurturing my relationship with the natural world wherever I am. It’s a very gratifying practice. And I try to stay healthy, I watch what I eat, don’t fill my head with trivial political gossip, and detox from tech regularly and so on. Also, this work that we do isn’t a job, it’s a way of life, you’re doing it out of our passion and love for the Earth and also for the people who we work with, who are friends as well as colleagues. And for me it’s about justice for all, not only for humans.
When I start my day connecting with nature it really helps to centre me in the reality of life’s living systems. When we connect with nature it helps us to walk our talk, to find a way within the modern, crazy machine-demanding world to have time to reconnect, detox from tech! It’s important to find time when you aren’t driven by machines, not just in your personal life, but in the way we work as well. Machines interrupt our thinking, and particularly when working with elders in indigenous communities, they don’t like machines as they believe it disturbs the spirit. I believe this too.
Do you ever have time off?
I try but it’s hard! I try to make sure I cut off at weekends but I’m not very good at it! The counter side to your life being your work and your work your life is that you’re living it all the time, night time and weekends… it’s vital to take time out but unfortunately it’s my weak point. I guess it’s because I love my work, it’s not a chore. It’s just a lot!
What are the most important lessons you’ve learnt during your career?
I’ve learnt so many lessons, the most important for me is how to really listen. It’s so important to watch our habits of thinking, we need to be open to the possibilities of how we live in life-sustaining ways. Another lesson is how to avoid being rigid and ideological. We need to decolonise our minds. We are so caught up in the dominant belief which is a superiority complex, thinking we can control life in response to the mess we have created. We cannot find a solution to the crises with the same thinking that created the mess. Humility is needed.
It can be hard to be fully present, to listen and explore ways that are proportionate to this moment of the great unravelling, as Joanna Macy calls this time – with humility. This requires agility of mind and an openness, so we need to create space for the mind to listen. We close up when we become habitual, fearful, or we think we know – so it’s really important to practice fluidity and humility I think. The other thing is that I’ve had to learn is how to stay positive, even in these times, which is essential in our work.
Finally, are there any other female visionaries that you admire?
Joanna Macey has been and is a special mentor for me. She has written many wonderful books, one is called Coming Back to Life, The Work that Reconnects. Now in her 90s, she speaks of working to still our minds and to open our hearts. She has done amazing work developing processes for people to reconnect with life, to come back to life, and maintain gratitude for the life that is. I really encourage people to explore her work and do her exercises.
Jules Cashford is also a special mentor for me. She has taught me an enormous amount about being conscious and the perennial wisdom that connects all traditions in one mind. She is a great inspiration in her way of showing the universality of our diverse cultures. And she is a great scholar and eclectic in her understanding, having written many books, including The Goddess Book, Moon Book and many others.
And of course there is Vandana Shiva and Wangari Maathai and many others less well known, including the women I work with in the communities who are a huge inspiration to me. There are so many, but these are some.
Learn more about the work, efforts and vision of Liz Hosken and the Gaia Foundation here : https://www.gaiafoundation.org/