Mumta Ito, co-founder of the International Centre for Wholistic Law.
Defending Nature with 'wholistic law'
Mumta Ito is the founder of the International Centre for Wholistic Law, which aims to realign the application and methodology of law with the universal laws that govern all life. She began by telling The Ecologist how her journey began in an improbable place ...
Environmental law is a frustrating process as the law doesn't recognise nature's intrinsic rights to live and thrive.
A journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step. I started my career in law as what some may consider is part of the problem - a structured finance lawyer with the largest firm in the UK advising investment banks, multi-national corporations and governments on large scale complex transactions.
Whilst appearing to be outwardly successful by worldly standards, something within me was feeling deeply unfulfilled. This continued until my search for greater truth and meaning was ignited by an encounter with a profound spiritual teacher which left a deep impression on me.
I experienced a powerful awakening in my being, my perception changed and nothing in the world of finance and adversarial law resonated with me anymore.
I left that world and immersed myself in a life of spiritual practice and healing, training with some of the most accomplished teachers of our time, embarking on a personal journey of evolution. I thought I'd left the legal world forever - little did I know that I was about to discover a different way of holding law in our modern world.
I spent some years travelling with a pre-eminent spiritual master and humanitarian from India. In my search to find a way that I could be of service to humanity I asked her whether I should continue to look at law or change direction completely.
Whilst nothing in law resonated with me anymore, I couldn't reconcile why I had trained to the 'nth degree' in something that had no meaning for me anymore. Her advice was simple - "continue to practice law for now and when the opportunity comes to serve, just take it!"
And how long did you have to wait?
Not long at all! A few weeks later I found myself in the Virgin Islands where I was approached by a friend to assist the Chief Conservation Officer with a highly contentious environmental issue. The government had just granted planning permission to build a golf course in an area of international ecological importance.
As one of the major breeding grounds for fish in the region, Hans Creek, the subject of numerous environmental impact assessments, was not only recognised in BVI law as a protected area but also protected under the Ramsar convention recognising its importance internationally.
None of the lawyers on the island would get involved as they were afraid of opposing the government - after all, the Chief Minister himself was required by law to sign their business permits!
Also, being a small country where everyone knew each other, people were afraid of rocking the boat. The public were in a state of disempowerment and believed that they were powerless and that it was impossible to influence the government, who decided everything unilaterally.
So, I met with the Chief Conservation Officer. This was clearly an opportunity to serve, so following my teacher's advice, I took it!
The Virgin Islands Environmental Council was born. We had just three weeks to file the first environmental case in the area. This served its purpose as it prevented construction commencing - however our victory came through other means.
Due to the assumption the law makes of nature as property, all environmental issues are construed to be planning issues, dealt with by planning and administrative courts - and the only conversation that happens in court is about whether the correct planning procedure was followed.
So at best, victory in court means that the planning permission gets set aside. However, if the consciousness hasn't changed often a new application is made, with minor changes to get round the issue, which usually gets through and the development goes ahead at a later date.
This makes public interest environmental law a frustrating process as the law doesn't recognise nature's intrinsic rights to live and thrive - and that our very inter-existence and survival as a species is interdependent on this.
How did you work around that very severe limitation?
Knowing this, we didn't rely on the court to reach our objective. Having personally witnessed during my years of spiritual and healing work the transformations that can occur through working at the level of consciousness, we adopted a multi-dimensional approach to the issue.
Most campaigns are against something. We knew that we couldn't achieve a collaborative result through adopting that stance so we focussed on rallying around the shared values and identifying long term, common inter-generational needs.
We worked on transforming the consciousness of the collective through healing practices; encouraged active citizens' participation through positive role models and awareness building.
We forged relationships with key decision makers and the media and engaged in problem solving discussions that focussed on ways of increasing resilience in a way that increased the resilience of the whole; including the resilience of natural world, of which we are an intrinsic part.
Members of the local and international community came forward to support the cause, from local fishermen and women to Richard Branson and the thousands of people who visit the islands year upon year to experience its pristine natural beauty - and a movement was created.
By the time our case came to be heard, the government had changed its perspective so much that it proudly announced in its official tourism magazine that we are such a democratic and environmentally aware nation that we even have our own green NGO taking the government to court on environmental issues!
How did the case go in court?
We won in the first instance on the basis that the area was a protected area and the legislation prohibited development. Then the developers appealed this decision and the Court of Appeal judge ruled in their favour.
They said that due to a technical drafting error the area was not actually protected in law and the development could go ahead despite undisputed scientific evidence of the negative environmental effects.
However - and this is the power of the method - the consciousness had shifted so much that the Government came forward and said that not only would it amend the law so that the area is protected in the eyes of the judge, but it would also declare the area a National Park.
Also the planning permission had lapsed by then, funding had fallen through and the developers would have to resubmit a new application taking into account the new legislation. No application was received.
Those involved in public interest environmental legal work will recognise that this is an astonishingly wholistic end result!
Can you generalise from that experience?
Yes, very much so! This experience highlighted to me several things:
- the inadequacy of our modern legal system when it comes to recognising and protecting the inherent rights of our natural world;
- treating environmental cases strictly as local planning issues prevents adequate consideration of the wide ranging global implications of environmental destruction
- the power of identifying and collaborating around universal needs and shared values to find creative ways of meeting all needs that enhance the resilience of the whole;
- the power of the collective consciousness to bring about lasting change (ie. the 100th monkey effect);
- and how I am not the 'doer' in any given situation, but merely a conduit for a power much larger than myself to work through me to bring about solutions that serve the whole in the most comprehensive way, and what allows this process to happen.
I understood that all enduring change emanates from a shift in consciousness and the micro and the macro were reflections of each other.
I also thought that my learning around law was now complete and that I had answered my own question - that law as I knew it was incompatible with a world of love, peace and healing where all needs are respected and all beings valued. I concluded that it was not my place to practice law any further.
How did your journey continue?
I became a mum and moved with my family to the Findhorn Foundation Community in Scotland. Some time later, I was in a kinesiology session for a minor physical issue when I received an unexpected message.
Kinesiology is a method that taps into the intelligence of the body-mind through muscle testing - and something 'true' strengthens the muscle tension, something 'false' weakens it.
After a series of detailed muscle testing, I was told by the practitioner (who knew nothing about me) that in order to heal the physical issue, I had to initiate a project that brings law and healing together, that involves the rights of all beings; non-violent communication and that shift the paradigms upon which the modern legal system is based.
I was to do a series of meditations over a period of a month during which time I would get further clarity. Needless to say, I was in shock! But I did the meditations and a lot of insight came.
This culminated in the creation of the International Centre for Wholistic Law as a project set within the Findhorn Foundation Community - and this is now the focus of my work.
Our work is really about empowering people and communities to advocate for nature - by applying wholistic principles that encompass but also go way beyond the simple application of 'law' as it is generally understood.
To use the law effectively for environmental purposes we have to recognise it as just one element of a wider, multidimensional approach to driving positive change.
The journey of a thousand miles is well and truly under way!
Mumta Ito is the founder of the International Centre for Wholistic Law. A former City lawyer turned public interest environmental lawyer, she has toured extensively with Amma, one of India's foremost spiritual teachers and humanitarians. Mumta has also co-facilitated healing workshops around the world and set up an NGO in the Caribbean to create a peoples' movement to save an ecosystem of global ecological importance.
To find out more about the International Centre for Wholistic Law, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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