How to Stop Ecocide

Reading Time: 18 min


Jojo Mehta is a force of nature. Her connection to the Earth was inspired by her Mother, a songwriter and poet, whose inspiration emanated from an emotional and spiritual connection to land. 

“I think of her as a kind of English/Celtic Indigenous voice, and the kind of music she writes is largely from the English folk tradition.” 

Jojo grew up swimming in the waters of her Mother’s environmental worldview, in the beautiful landscape of Stroud, a small town in the Cotswolds in the south west of the UK. “Of course, as a teenager, I couldn’t wait to get to the city and jump into life”, so her 20s and 30s were centred in London, working in travel, design and manufacturing, along “a meandering path… with a common thread of communication”. At 32 she got married, and her husband suggested moving to the countryside so their kids could grow up with a connection to nature. 

“We moved back to this area that I grew up in, this beautiful area of the Cotswolds and I remember having this moment, it was actually in our garden not far from Stroud, and I had this experience of reconnecting with this land. I realised it meant something to me, it felt like home, not just physically, but energetically… I remember feeling a deep sense of commitment: whatever the focus of my life moving forward, it would be in commitment to this land.”

Over time, Jojo has strengthened and deepened the connection with her homeland.

“I find that grounding myself quite literally on the ground every day is fundamental to my wellbeing. If I’ve been away, and I travel quite a bit, I can’t wait to get my shoes and socks off and get into the garden and connect directly with the land, and doing that every day, there’s this real sense that grows over time of the cyclical nature of the seasons, and also becoming aware of how that rhythm is now slightly off and potentially becoming more so. I mean I watch the cycles of what the plants and the trees are doing and sometimes they’re now doing quite unusual things. But it’s that sense of responsiveness to the cycles of nature and connecting to that is very deeply stabilising, it feels really important, it feels like a meditative practice.”

Jojo Mehta, with her back to the camera, stands in her garden in Stroud.
Jojo grounding in her back garden.

It was during those early years of living back in Stroud, committing to and connecting to that land, when Jojo’s life began to shift.

“I had become what we might call an armchair activist, you know, I’d be signing petitions and sending letters to parliamentarians, but there was a moment about ten years ago where that shifted to another level, when I got up out of that chair and went okay, boots on the ground, I need to get involved in this. It was actually my Daughter who was the catalyst. I had started to learn about fracking, hydraulic fracturing, which is an incredibly polluting way of bringing oil and gas from deep in the ground. It was already being practiced in the US, and there was consideration of bringing the technique over to the UK, and I was very upset about this when I discovered what it was. Not only was it incredibly polluting, it wasn’t even productive or economically viable and it just seemed like such a bad idea on every possible level. 

“I remember talking to my friends and family about it, and my Daughter, who was five at the time, just burst into tears and said, ‘Mummy if they’re poisoning the ground they must know they’re poisoning themselves, you have to call them and tell them to stop or they’re going to die.’ And it was in that moment, I was thinking my five year old understands this, why do we all not understand this? It feels so intuitively obvious. And there was a call to responsibility there, responsibility in the sense of response to her and thinking about her. If this is the world that she’s growing up into, if I know that this is happening, how, as her Mother, can I not do something about it? I remember saying at the time, ‘I don’t know how much difference it will make, calling this big company, they’re not going to listen to me’, and she said ‘but there must be someone you can talk to. She said maybe you could speak to the voting man.’ She called him the ‘voting man’ because I had explained what that system was in fairly gentle terms…

“We had recently been to the local elections, and she and her brother had been doing cartwheels around the ballot box. On my daughter’s suggestion I then ended up in this conversation with our local elected parliamentarian, our MP. And this politician did that politician thing of avoiding my questions, and I remember coming out of that meeting thinking that is never happening again, I’m going to research and inform myself so that I know exactly what I’m talking about and I can’t be fobbed off. So you could say a determination crystallised in that moment. 

“I started researching, I started writing leaflets, I started giving talks, I started organising demonstrations and surveys and all of this more active work. And it was through that work that I met this remarkable pioneering lawyer, a barrister, Polly Higgins.”

Polly Higgins was another force of nature. She had already been working for several years advocating for the criminalisation of the worst harms to nature or “ecocide”, as she called them.

“I met Polly through mutual friends. She had just moved to this area (around Stroud), having fallen in love with the landscape here, and she was researching a potential case around fracking, and our friends said to her, well you need to talk to Jojo because she knows all about that. By this time I’d done all of this research and I was doing all of this work and started to do public speaking and running demonstrations, I was very active… And I think within half an hour of talking with each other, we’d realised there was a real kindred spirit thing going on. She was deeply practical, deeply committed, she was sharp as a tack, she was a fantastic barrister, but she was also hugely inspiring as a person, she had this enormous presence, she was charismatic, and when we look back, she was the absolute figurehead of this initiative.”

Polly Higgins and Jojo Mehta stand together, smiling.
Jojo with Polly Higgins.

Polly’s work was focused on this term ecocide, a legal idea that had been discussed since the 1970s. 

“This word ecocide gave people a way of speaking about the worst harms to nature, what they could see happening but didn’t necessarily have a word for, and I think that is a powerful thing. It comes from Greek and Latin, from oikos, which means home in Greek, and caedere from Latin to kill, so it means to kill one’s home. I mean we’ve obviously come to associate eco with nature, which makes it in a way even more clear that it means killing nature, but I think it’s interesting to see the origins, particularly in relation to how deeply important Earth as home and land as home is. That etymologically ecocide means to kill one’s home, I think that’s fascinating.“

Polly brought ecocide back into global discussions around environmental harm, spreading awareness of the concept through the political and legal arenas, and through Jojo, ecocide began to make its way through activist networks too.

“Polly was working as a barrister in the employment law sphere, and she was just starting to hit the big time in the sense that her career was taking off in the early 2000s, and she had this epiphany moment. She was looking out from the Royal Courts of Justice, looking over London and thinking, it’s not just my clients that need a good lawyer, it’s actually the Earth herself that needs a good lawyer. She started thinking of how to create a legal duty of care for the Earth, and that inquiry ultimately led her to this initiative to criminalise the worst harms. 

“She started off looking at various different things, like rights of nature, there was the Earth Charter — the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth — which was adopted by Bolivia, but she discovered something when she started researching international criminal law. The Rome Statute sets out international crimes and created the International Criminal Court. The treaty was signed in 1998, but before that, through the 90s when it was being developed, it was known as the Draft Code of Crimes Against the Peace and Security of Mankind, and was being developed by the International Law Commission. Polly discovered that the Draft Code originally had a clause that would have addressed severe, widespread and long-term harm to the environment. In other words an ecocide clause would have been in there, but it didn’t make the final treaty. So when the Rome Statute was signed, it included three crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes (the crime of aggression was added later), and the environmental clause was dropped without a vote. All they could find in the history of those meetings was that certain countries had stood in the way or had objected to it in discussions: the USA, UK, France, the Netherlands and, at one point, Brazil.

“This was before the school strikes led by Greta Thunberg, it was before Extinction Rebellion, the Sunrise Movement, it was before the big IPCC reports, so it was before the world really started to wake up to the climate crisis. At that time, the idea of creating an international crime of ecocide felt a bit extreme to a lot of people. Now of course it feels more like common sense, it really is starting to feel like something obvious in terms of creating a parameter that says ‘this far and no further’. And I think there has been a realisation that the intent is not normally to destroy the environment specifically, it’s normally to make money or to extract minerals or to farm meat or whatever it is, but the consequences of that level of destruction really are at the international criminal level, in the sense of the widespread, long-term, knock-on effects of destroying the planet, the destruction of multiple species is becoming much more visible and understandable now.

“So Polly submitted a potential definition to the International Law Commission and started talking about ecocide from about 2010 onwards. And in 2011 she had the opportunity to set up a mock trial in the Supreme Court in the UK, which showed that it was a viable criminal law, using the definition she was using at the time, which is not the same as the one we use now, but it was a proof of concept, if you like. And she became quite well-known for this particular route to addressing environmental harm, and that’s what ultimately brought us into conversation, when she moved to the Cotswolds and we started discussing it.”

It was from 2014 to 2017, before the formation of their foundation, that their personal work started to align.

”At the time I was involved in the anti-fracking community and local environmental protesting, but also writing and public speaking. Polly did not want to be seen as an activist, she was very much the lawyer, and I was doing public communication and more on the ground demonstrations. We were advising each other — I would be advising on the campaigning side of what she was doing, and she was advising on the legal side of what I was doing — but we weren’t publicly working together, even though we were working together quite closely. And through this work, what we realised — because it was still considered quite extreme at that time — was that funders were not that keen, it was hard for her to get philanthropic funding or foundation funding for the work she was doing.

Jojo Mehta sits on a panel of six people, speaking about ecocide, at the COP15 Biodiversity Summit in Montreal in 2022.
Jojo speaking at the COP15 Biodiversity Summit in Montreal in 2022.

“So in 2016, 2017, we started to put together a public campaign, because what became clear was the financial need for diplomatic work that was beginning through conversations with the Republic of Vanuatu — the Pacific Island republic that has been so crucial to creating legal avenues to address climate change and ecological breakdown. There wasn’t the funding to move it forward, for example by having people attend the International Criminal Court and other events and conferences. So this public campaign brought Polly’s and my work together, based on a legal document called the Earth Protectors Trust Fund document.

“It was based on fundraising for the diplomatic work, but Polly wanted to create something that could be used by those in the campaigning field, the activists and the environmental defenders. Effectively when you became a member of our campaign, you would put money into a fund which was used to support the diplomatic work, and there was a statement you would sign, which didn’t oblige you to do anything, it had no duties and obligations attached to it, but it was a statement that says you believe all the living beings on the planet have the right to peaceful enjoyment and existence… and that anything that severely disrupts that should be a crime. And the idea was that environmental defenders or protesters could produce this statement in court as a way of showing that the action they’d taken was not with criminal intent, but as conscientious protectors, and that was a term she coined, conscientious protectors.

“In order for this statement to be used globally in a court of law, she had to get it legalised all over the world, and nobody had ever done this before. She went to a notary in the UK, the people who specialise in cross-border recognition of legal documents, and normally you would engage them if, say, you had a house in Spain and you needed the deeds legally recognised in the UK or something like that. Polly said to them, ‘I want you to legalise this document, I want you to notarise this document for every jurisdiction in the world’, and they looked at her like she was bonkers and said, ‘why would you want to do that, no one’s ever done that’. And she said ‘just tell me, can you do it?’ And they said, ‘we can do it, but it will take us three weeks and it’ll cost you 50 grand.’ And she had just been given a big donation to begin the campaign, and she thought this is what this is meant to be used for, and she said ‘yep, okay, I’ll agree, but you need to sign something to tell me that this is a full and final settlement, you’re not going to ask me for any more money, and you will get this rubber stamped in every jurisdiction in the world.’ So they agreed to it and it actually took them ten months, and they couldn’t ask for a penny more.

“So now there’s this document that’s the fundamental financial and legal basis of this campaign, which has been validated in every jurisdiction in the world. I think there were maybe three small countries that didn’t have the administrative capacity to formalise it, but it has been used by a number of climate protesters in courts in the UK, and it was used successfully… however we ultimately realised this was not because of the document itself, but it was due to the narrative, the narrative of conscience and conscientious protectors. It chimed with the history of conscientious objectors. 

“For me, what is interesting is this interweaving of the grassroots disruptive resistance with high level political and legal discussions. One of the things that has evolved over time has been this clear sense that this law is a ‘no-brainer’, a clear and necessary step and one that has resonated through the corridors of power. I suppose we’ve been more successful than we expected, in terms of how that understanding has percolated through power structures. There are now dozens of governments discussing it. Obviously it’s not universal yet, but it’s really quite advanced considering how short the time span has been.”

2019 was a key moment in the course of the ecocide movement, when Polly Higgins was tragically and unexpectedly diagnosed with an aggressive lung cancer.

“It spread very quickly, she just thought she had a bad cough, but by the time it was discovered it was already past stage four, it was already beyond medical help, and her prognosis was six weeks. She actually only lasted a month after that. It was incredibly fast and it was deeply shocking to her community, her following, everybody, but the way Polly dealt with it was remarkable. I never saw her upset, I never saw her fearful, people around us were kind of falling apart saying ‘oh my God she’s going to die’, and she would just roll her eyes and say, ‘it’s a shame I have to snuff it for the campaign to get some attention, but if that’s the way it’s going to be’, and it was just extraordinary, it was really extraordinary.” 

It was during Polly’s last weeks that global awareness of ecocide began to expand.

“I remember the last work meeting we had was with the founders of Extinction Rebellion, who were planning that April 2019 Rebellion.” 

Just like Stop Ecocide, Extinction Rebellion was founded in Stroud — “there’s obviously something in the soil here” — and they decided to focus their April Rebellion around ecocide. 

“We were looking at a rebrand at the time, because we initially started the campaign under the name Mission Lifeforce. It was a little bit Star Wars-y, a bit activist in that initial vibe, but we realised the message needed to be far more obvious, it needed to do what it said on the tin, and that’s when it became Stop Ecocide. And I remember sitting in Polly’s garden and we had this meeting with one of the founders of Extinction Rebellion, and we looked at each other and realised we’ve got to do that rebrand right now haven’t we? And those were the last weeks of Polly’s life, they were incredibly intense as I was one of the few people that she felt able to see, so I was spending several hours a day with her, I was also running the campaign and I was organising this entire rebrand, so it was an extraordinarily intense. 

“But I remember that last week when she was dying, she was in a hospice, and I remember her watching the week of the Rebellion unfold on her computer, looking through social media, and we had these placards saying ‘Stop Ecocide’, which have now popped up in demonstrations all over the planet. It was the first time she had seen that message she’d dedicated the last ten years of her life to, it was the first time she’d seen it on the streets, and it was all across London, and that was just such a poignant thing. I remember her turning to me and saying in her beautiful soft Scottish accent, ‘oh Jojo, it’s all going to happen now’. And she was right.

A group of protestors gathered in Stockholm, holding "Stop Ecocide" placards.
Protestors holding “Stop Ecocide” placards at Stockholm+50.

“When she passed, some of the community around her had been afraid the work would die with her, and actually the exact opposite happened, so many people got in touch with me as her closest associate and said ‘what can we do to help, how can we make sure that this work continues?’ And this became an extraordinary milestone in the journey of the work, because it was the beginning of the connectivity, of this gradually growing collaboration that has been an absolutely key characteristic of how we’ve driven this conversation. What we’ve realised is that the different sectors, the different arenas in society, the more they connect the faster the conversation grows, so that’s a big part of how we do what we do. 

“For example, we now do a lot of events in big international conferences and we always work with many other organisations, so there’s this collaborative sense of people bringing their own piece of the puzzle and linking it to this law that creates a foundational piece that supports everything, because this whole concept of criminalising the worst harms to nature, it’s not in competition with any other environmental campaign, it supports all of them. If you want to save the koalas it supports you, if you want to reduce massive plastic pollution it supports you, it’s supporting all of these different areas. It is a unifying concept.”

As awareness of ecocide spread, it became necessary to strengthen its definition.

“There have been a number of different definitions of what people mean by ecocide. Various lawyers at different points in time have come up with a definition, including Polly, and we used her definition for the campaign for some time. But there’s a difference between a lawyer saying I think it should be a crime and it should look like this, to something that is acceptable and credible at the political level, where a government will take it seriously and move forward with it. So the biggest, most significant milestone in all of this was the creation of a proposed international definition of ecocide, which was convened by our foundation in 2020. 

“We were approached by some parliamentarians from Sweden who asked if we could commission an international drafting panel for a consensus definition of ecocide, so that these Swedish parliamentarians could credibly take it to their government and say, can you put this forward as an international crime at the International Criminal Court, you know, can you actually propose this? It was a brilliant context that gave us the ability to approach top lawyers from around the world and invite them into this drafting project. 

“So by late 2020, we were gathering a group of lawyers, and for the first six months of 2021 they had this drafting project. It was during lockdown, so it was all done online, and in retrospect, there’s no way we could have afforded to do it if it hadn’t been, because it would have meant bringing people from all over the world to one place. We had people from different geographical places, it was ethnically and gender diverse and it was also legally diverse. We had humanitarian lawyers, criminal lawyers, environment lawyers and climate lawyers, and after six months they emerged with a genuine consensus.

A screenshot of the Zoom call for the third session of the Independent Expert Panel for the Legal Definition of Ecocide, in April 2021.
The third session of the Independent Expert Panel for the Legal Definition of Ecocide, in April 2021.

“The definition we ended up with is less than a page long, it’s really concise with the core of the definition being one sentence, because it was designed to be submitted for the Rome Statute as an international crime. So ‘For the purposes of this statute, ecocide means unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there’s a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.’ It is a straightforward definition that’s strongly based on prior legal texts, so it has precedent, which is important for it to be taken seriously by both lawyers and politicians. It is also able to be understood by you or me and by pretty much anybody, and it has had an amazing reception in the media, it has had an amazing reception in politics, it has really catalysed governmental and parliamentary level discussions around the world, and it has been absolutely key in moving this forward.”

So what makes this definition of ecocide so important? 

“There are two thresholds in the definition: there’s how severe the harm is and that it must be unlawful or wanton. This identification of ecocide as the most severe and either widespread or long-term harms is really important because it focuses on consequences. There’s a huge body of environmental law around the world, and it’s often in the form of regulation or administrative law, and it can be pages and pages of very specific dos and don’ts, lists of what needs to be avoided and what a particular threshold is for a certain toxin in a particular context. What ecocide does, in contrast, is it says whatever you do, in whatever arena, it should not create a certain level of harm. 

“So it avoids a lot of what happens at the moment, which is that a big polluting company will employ risk managers and legal counsels to effectively make sure they are not caught by a particular regulation, or that the compensation or penalty they may have to pay is balanced by the profit they are able to make. Whereas if you bring something into the criminal law sphere that says you can’t create this level of harm, the focus has to move, the focus has to become what do we actually need to do to avoid doing this, otherwise our bosses are going to end up in jail, and that prompts a completely different approach to due diligence. It also future-proofs the definition, so if in two years some horrific new practice is conceived of that could be ecocidal that isn’t mentioned in a list of acts, having it based on consequences covers whatever might turn up in the future, it keeps it dynamic.

“Another threshold is unlawful or wanton. The unlawful acknowledges that a lot of the worst environmental harms are already in breach of a regulatory or rights frameworks, and currently they’re simply being ignored or companies have decided it’s worth the risk. So ecocide being unlawful enhances existing laws by saying if you’re doing this bad thing or you’re not meeting these regulatory obligations, suddenly you’re in criminal law territory and that’s very powerful, it strengthens existing laws rather than cutting across them, and that’s both practically and politically important. 

“Environmental law does not usually contain strict prohibitions, and criminal law has particular prohibitions, so an act being wanton is about these two things meeting, it is a balancing act that says if what you’re doing creates a disproportionate level of harm — compared to the potential social and economic benefits of your project — and it’s reckless, then effectively that is wanton. So it has a kind of tempering effect, because there will be cases like in developing countries that don’t have the necessary regulation that some of the developed countries have, or they have really genuine pressing social needs that have to be balanced out against the environmental damage, and it creates a necessary level of flexibility. 

“I think we have to realise there are no black and white terms for environmental harm. When we build a house, I mean on a small scale we are damaging a proportion of an ecosystem, because we cannot exist as a civilisation without affecting the environment, but we have long forgotten to balance this destruction by respecting what the environment needs to mutually support our civilisation. That reciprocity again speaks to the Indigenous understanding of the natural laws of the world, and that reciprocity has been forgotten, and this is what the wanton aspect of the definition brings.”

Jojo Mehta sits at a small wooden table in her back garden, with a large green hedge behind her.
Jojo sitting in her back garden.

Ecocide is a word that is becoming increasingly influential and important to the global movement for environmental protection and restoration. It supports frontline protectors, Indigenous communities and nation states to articulate the destruction being committed by industry against our natural world. Since the legal definition of ecocide was proclaimed in 2021, the movement has advanced rapidly.

“We’ve had incredible progress. We saw this in November in the European Union with the necessary political agreement to make changes to the EU Environmental Crimes Directive, which will include cases comparable to ecocide. While they have not gone quite as far as we might like, they’ve acknowledged environmental harms need to be treated with more severity and that member states need to give them higher penalties. What they’ve given is quite a broad list of contexts in which this should happen, which isn’t comprehensive, but it is a massive step in the right direction.

“Ecocide law will protect life, it says ‘no you can’t destroy this, because if you do there are consequences’. And once again that speaks to the Indigenous understanding, when you damage Mother Earth there are consequences, it is that simple, it’s a fact. And for those cultures, it’s a fact on so many levels, it’s a spiritual fact as well as a physical fact, and it’s a fact that the whole of the world is starting to wake up to. And it’s that reality that you can’t get around. Nature is not an infinite bank of resources, we live on a planet that is a planet, it’s complete, it’s a whole, it’s not an infinite thing. And that is something that the corporate and political world are now really banging up against, they haven’t really had to before, or they haven’t felt like they had to, but that’s what’s now happening.”

Let’s trust it continues. Support Stop Ecocide to support this shift.


Anton Rivette is a writer and photographer. He leads storytelling at eco-nnect.


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