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Interview: Hylton Murray-Philipson, farmer, conservationist

09 July 2021

‘Destruction in the Amazon is the suicide note of mankind’

I remember flying to Normandy when I was five years old, nose pressed to the window, searching for God behind the clouds. My nose has remained pressed to the window ever since.

My spiritual life runs through everything I have done. Along the way, I have had powerful experiences with Amazonian shamans and received great insights through Buddhism, but I feel happy to have come home to the Church of England.

I was always conscious of being a link in a chain, trying to leave things in better shape than that in which I found them. My grandfather was MP for Twickenham, and it’s extraordinary what he achieved before dying at the age of 31. I’m now 62, and conscious of having had exactly twice his innings.

I always knew that I was going to inherit the farm where I grew up, in Leicestershire, but it was so heavily in debt that, when I left university, I had to generate cash outside farming to save my home. I also wanted to travel the world at someone else’s expense; so I became a merchant banker.

Defending my career as a banker, I’d say that no one would have heard of the Good Samaritan if he hadn’t had a fiver in his pocket. Money isn’t the problem; it’s what you do with it that counts.

When I worked in the City, I’d go to St Paul’s for quiet reflection at lunchtime. I’ve sung hymns from Ancient and Modern while bumping along on a flatbed truck in the Amazon. I’ve had two visions of heaven, and the love of Jesus came to me when my life was hanging by a thread last year. It’s a bit like “Footprints in the Sand”: Jesus has been by my side wherever I have gone.

After a couple of years doing credit analysis in a City basement, I was looking for an escape route. Amazingly, when I suggested opening an office in Brazil, the head of the international division said: “Great idea. Get on with it.” I was 23, and took on the ninth largest economy of the world, single-handed.

While I was in Rio, to keep the bank at bay, the farm was intensively farmed, with short-term profitability being the only definition of success. Encouraged by government and EU policies to produce as much food as cheaply as possible, hedges were removed, ponds were filled in, gateways widened, and grassland put to the plough — all in the name of efficiency and progress.

When I returned, I found that, after 25 years of constant arable cropping, organic matter had fallen dramatically. There were fewer worms and fewer farmland birds; we began to suffer soil erosion; and blackgrass was invading the cereals. The farm felt literally exhausted, the goodness wrung out of it.

This went against my biblical sense of stewardship. I asked myself the question: “What sort of ancestor do you want to be?” as I felt we were essentially robbing the future for the present. My bones told me this was wrong, and we had to change direction.

We’re now on a journey to restore life to the soil through regenerative agriculture, heading towards the Garden of Eden: balance, harmony, and happy co-existence with the rest of creation. I’ve reintroduced rotational grassland and livestock as agents of restoration, given up ploughing, and adopted min till [minimum tillage]. I’m restoring ponds and creating new ones. I’m experimenting with agroforestry, and we’ve planted over 20,000 trees so far.

I was lucky to embark on this journey when farming received support from Brussels. Post-Brexit, British farming is in crisis. Subsidies are being reduced to zero over seven years, and farming is going to have to reinvent itself to survive. This will involve public money for public good, as well as companies’ wanting to go carbon-neutral, purchasing carbon credits based on the ability of the soil to sequester and store carbon, if it’s treated right.

The opportunity to do something better than the Common Agricultural Policy is undoubtedly there. Time will tell if we are able to seize it.

I went to Tibet with my parents when I was 27. I was deeply moved by the suffering of the Tibetan people, and I later became involved with the Dalai Lama’s struggle for self-determination. I once asked His Holiness whether I should become a monk. He said: “No! If everyone who is ‘good’ goes into a monastery, there would be no good people left in the world. The world needs good bankers, politicians, doctors, and farmers. Your place is in the world. Go out and do your work.”

That conversation, coupled with the birth of my first son, made me think about the state of the planet that we’re leaving for the next generation. That was 1997, the year of the Kyoto Protocol.

As a history student, I see climate change in a historical context. Before the Industrial Revolution — when mankind fast-forwarded development by unlocking the energy of fossil fuels — the level of carbone dioxide in the atmosphere was 280 parts per million. When I was born, in 1959, it was still only 310. Now it’s 420. The limit beyond which we should not go is 450, and it’s increasing by three parts per million per annum. We’ve consumed most of the planet’s carbon budget in one lifetime, and on current trends we have ten years before we pass the point of no return.

The best, most immediate and cost-effective thing is to stop tropical deforestation. If we go electric in the UK, if China stops using coal-fired power stations, and if the US goes carbon neutral by 2050 — and yet we lose the Amazon, we’ll have won some battles, but we’ll lose the war.

So, in addition to storing carbon in the soil in Leicestershire, I’m chairman of Global Canopy, the Oxford-based think tank for tropical forests. Destruction in the Amazon is the suicide note of mankind. The Amazon produces the rain that waters the south of Brazil; so it’s even against the interests of the agri-business that promotes it — but ignorance and short-termism still triumph.

I served on the committee of Patriarch Bartholomew’s organisation Religion, Science and Environment, and helped organise the symposium on the Amazon. It was one of the highlights of my life. Ten boats chugged up the Rio Negro with live broadcasts on the ten-o’clock news back home. We had Catholic cardinals; James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool; Marina Silva, the Brazilian Minister of the Environment; and brilliant scientists and environmentalists. Seeds sown there ended up influencing the Pope’s environmental encyclical Laudato Si’.

There’s a powerful connection between the diseaseCovid — that attacked my lungs, and the dis-ease — ignorance, greed, and corruption — that’s attacking the lungs of the world, the Amazon.

Being hospitalised with Covid showed me health is wealth. Everything else is a detail. I was on the receiving end of so much love from the nurses, friends, and family all over the world. I’ve recently been blessed with a very special woman coming into my life. I can hardly believe my luck.

Since my wife died, five years ago, home has revolved around my boys, Jim and Luke. Lockdown gave us the chance to spend uninterrupted time together — a huge blessing after the dramas of intensive care. I’ll never take anything for granted, ever again. Simple things are often the best: the design of a daisy is exquisite; and nothing beats toast and marmalade. We skate on thin ice, and every day is precious. You often don’t appreciate things until suddenly they’re gone. Like freedom of movement, or, God forbid, the Amazon.

I love the sound of waves lapping on the shore, and pebbles being dragged down with the backwash. Wooosh . . . in, shhhhhh . . . out. It reminds me of the time in hospital when I couldn’t get the next breath.

Time in nature is so healing. No power on earth can stop the English spring springing into life. Resurrection, every year.

Hylton Murray-Philipson was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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