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Interview: Andrew Leake, environmentalist

04 December 2020

‘The window of opportunity for doing something is getting so, so small, so quickly’

I’d describe myself as a person with an awareness of God’s creation and the interconnected nature of all things, coupled with a deep desire to see a restoration of humanity’s relationship with our world.

I’m based in the city of Salta, in the very north-west of Argentina, two hours’ flying time from Buenos Aires. We’re in the Andean foothills, about an hour’s drive from the tropic of Capricorn, with a population of about 1.5 million. There’s everything we need here: medicine, banks, and, before the pandemic, entertainment.

People wear masks now, and you do witness some social distancing, but it’s not strict. At a national scale, we’ve over a million cases, but there’s no real certainty of what’s going on. I can’t travel to Buenos Aires now: I’d need a travel permit and a good reason. All our close friends here have had Covid.

My grandparents came here 90 years ago, as Anglican missionaries among indigenous hunter-gatherers in northern Argentina. My father was born and grew up here. He then trained as a pastor in the UK, and he and my mother returned to Argentina as missionaries when I was aged one.

I grew up among indigenous people, and often roamed the forest with them, catching birds and guinea pigs to eat. And then, at boarding school, I mixed with kids from Argentina’s elite, who didn’t know indigenous peoples existed in Argentina. Moving back and forth between these contrasting environments provided deep insight into the country’s socio-cultural and economic differences, and made me want to protect indigenous people’s rights and protect their ecology.

I read environmental studies at the University of Hertfordshire, and a Master’s in rural social development at Reading. My doctorate focused on hunter-gatherers’ land and resource use, and was based on fieldwork with indigenous peoples in western Paraguay.

Argentina’s fascinating. It has a diverse landscape and a relatively low population density stretching from the tropics to Antarctica and from the Andes to the Atlantic. Politically, it’s a hornets’ nest, marked by corruption. Despite its natural resources, poverty has increased significantly over the past decade, and that means most people don’t see the environment as a priority. Climate change is barely spoken about, though the issue is increasingly affecting the nation’s agriculture-based economy.

Over the past 30 years, I’ve contributed to efforts supported by Tearfund UK, the South American Mission Society, and the Church Mission Society (CMS), helping indigenous organisations legalise their land rights and protect forests in Honduras and Argentina. In Honduras, we helped indigenous communities secure rights to over 14,000 sq. km of forest-covered lands. In Argentina, over 40 indigenous communities are currently securing rights to some 4000 sq. km of forest lands on the border with Paraguay.

Since 2007, I’ve led research studies for Compassion International. I work with the organisation’s monitoring, evaluation, research, and learning team. We’re assessing the effectiveness of their church-driven mission to release children from poverty.

CMS seconds my wife and me to serve part-time with the Anglican Church in Argentina, and the rest of the time with Compassion International. I’m part of CMS’s Creation Care ministry, which provides strategic support to enable Christians to better care for God’s creation — what we might call environmental mission.

That covers a broad range of initiatives, from recycling and energy saving to social action, legal action, research, helping local people protect their environments, enabling people to restore their relationship with creation as God has created it — with clean air, water, sustainable farming — restoring their well-being with the natural environment.

It’s usually a mix of desk work and being out in the field, travelling to isolated indigenous communities, listening to the concerns of leaders and church leaders about deforestation, providing them with advice and specialist lawyers. I was very much involved in public hearings of farmers’ plans, assessing the environmental impact, and providing the arguments for and against the proposals.

One guiding light is: “The truth shall set you free.” In the midst of a lot of corruption, individual and systemic, we try to shine a light on the reality of what is going on, and naming the problem for what it is.

The Catholic Church has a very strong emphasis on addressing poverty here, and we work closely with them to co-ordinate Anglican and Catholic action. You don’t see so much involvement from Evangelical Pentecostal churches because they’re more reticent about social action. Anglicans here are very small numerically, but do they have a credible voice. We’ve been respected for decades for defending indigenous rights.

The Anglican Communion environmental network links Anglicans worldwide in taking actions to care for God’s creation. We strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the earth, which is the Fifth Mark of Mission. A lot’s been achieved, but we’ve yet to maximise the global Anglican Communion’s leverage potential as a tool for environmental advocacy. There’s also plenty of urgent work we need to be doing in response to the challenges posed by climate change.

What we eat has a huge impact on our environmental choices; so changing our diet is probably the most critical entry point for individual action. Another is moving to renewable-energy use wherever possible. I was a great meat eater, but I’ve seen the effects of deforestation for cattle ranching in Argentina and the suffering of their animals. Meat consumption has gone down here, but barbecues are still the main national dish.

Growing up in a missionary family meant that I heard about the Bible and Jesus daily, from a very young age. I never experienced a sudden or radical spiritual conversion, but I’ve certainly experienced God’s guidance in my life and work.

As an introvert, I tend to wear my faith on the inside. You won’t see me jumping and clapping in a worship service, but I’ll always seek to align my work and actions with biblical teaching. I frequently fail, but the game here is getting up and moving on.

I hold a private pilot’s licence, but I’ve never had the money to become proficient; so I’d very much love to be able to fly regularly. Being able to fly provides a unique platform for environmental monitoring on a regional scale. Yes, it’s polluting, but I’m talking about a two-seater plane. We can’t have an electric vehicle here, either, but if our monitoring can prevent tens of thousands of hectares of deforestation, it is worth it.

I love the sound of insects, especially bees; also, birdsong at dawn. They are excellent indicators of ecological integrity.

Young people give me hope for the future. What Greta Thunberg did for climate change in a year off school is more than someone my age could have dreamed of doing in a decade. This new digitally savvy generation is in a strong position to influence this planet for good. We have three grown-up children: an aeronautical engineer, a lawyer, and a veterinary student.

But it’s a daily stress: the window of opportunity for doing something is getting so, so small, so quickly, and, in some areas, we have probably gone beyond tipping point.

I do experience grief for what the planet was like when I was 40 years younger. It’s surreal to hear people talk about some damaging project bringing economic benefit. It’s as if climate change didn’t exist. I don’t know if it’s ignorance or innocence, or a choice not to know. Sometimes, I wish I could be like them, and live life as “normal” despite the new tornadoes, droughts, and storms. Perhaps it’s just “creeping normalcy”, and people accept that this is the way it is.

At a human scientific level, I think we’ve lost the game: the planet will recover if the human race disappears in millions of years, but I don’t see us being able to recover, in terms of going back to weather systems that we used to experience. We’re going to have to adapt to a new norm in which seasons are annulled, and we coexist with forest fires and water shortages.

I’m not a great one for formal prayer, preferring a constant dialogue with God in my mind. When I pray, I often pray for my family, peace, justice, and social stability.

If I was locked in a church with anyone, I’d choose Richard Rohr, because of his grounded approach to a contemplative relationship with God.

Andrew Leake was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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