Blessed are the conservationists

Andy Atkins is chief executive of A Rocha UK, a charity that helps churches around the country protect the environment. Before working with A Rocha he led Friends of The Earth and worked with Catholic international development charities CAFOD. He was a founder of the 2005 Make Poverty History campaign. He spoke to Environment Journal about how churches can work with local authorities and other groups to promote community cohesion.

What are the key aims of A Rocha UK?

It’s important to say we have come from a conservation background. A Rocha was originally  founded in Portugal by an Anglican minister and his wife. They set up a study centre there to encourage Christians to learn about conservation. Our focus here [in the UK] is to mobilise Christians and churches in this country around the environment.

Underneath that we run two small nature reserves. One is an urban reserve, here in Southall. The other is rural and on the Suffolk/Essex border. We are trying to demonstrate with those reserves what you can do in terms of creating a good space for nature and people in the local community.

We’re also doing three other things. One is encouraging churches around the country to take the environment seriously, and make it part of their everyday Christian life. We also have something called ‘Partners in Action’ which is aimed at the large number of Christian conference centres, retreat centres in this country, many of which have sizeable amounts of land. The idea is to form an alliance with them and help them manage their land for nature and educate the people coming through about what they can do. The third thing is developing an approach for individuals and families about what they themselves can do in their own homes and neighbourhoods.

The whole purpose of this is to try to bring a much greater weight to wider society efforts to address climate change and nature degradation. My feeling is while there are solutions out there, it will need whole sectors to come on-board if we are to accelerate change. What we would love to see is the churches fulfil that mandate and make a significant contribution to wider civil society efforts to tackle the environment.

Why is it important that Christians and churches take the environment seriously?

According to our reading of the Bible, there is lots of evidence that God created this [planet] and calls upon us to be good stewards of this [planet]. There’s a real imperative to look after the environment. That’s often been lost in churches over the years. We need to bring that recognition back into the normal life of the church. And secondly, right now, we really need whole sectors to push in a positive direction and that’s where churches can make a real difference. We have 50,000 churches in the UK, most of whom have buildings. There are at least three million regular church goers. What would it be like if 10% of those churches or people were regularly doing the right thing in their community? They could have a huge influence in this country, cutting carbon and creating better spaces for nature.

You mentioned churches have a huge number of buildings and physical assets. Do you think churches are aware of their carbon footprints?

I think churches are more and more aware there is something they can be doing about the environment, generally. We see a real groundswell of interest in our Eco Church programme. We have 750 churches registered their commitment on that programme to do more. As for the many specific question about how many are aware of their carbon footprint, I suspect very few. They do not have the technology to know what they are giving off, but to be fair, it’s the same for most homes.

But there must be potential for many churches to install solar panels or use renewable energy. Could a lot of them could become energy self-sufficient?

There’s huge potential for solar on churches, where they can get permission to put them on. I think one of the biggest barriers to the church moving much faster on renewable energy are the restrictions on solar panels, because a lot of these buildings are seen as heritage assets. I think that needs challenging. I just think in an age of climate change, it will do more damage to our society and our nature. Perceived unsightliness in the eyes of some versus dealing with an international, global threat – really they should not compare. We are allowing the perceived unsightliness to get in the way. I think that really needs challenging.

Do you think churches can also help other groups in the community protect the environment?

I come from an international development background. I’m very keen on community development. One of the things I think Britain is crying out for is the rekindling of community coherence, particularly with the increasing polarisation of wealth across the country. There is a real need for people to work with other people in their community. I’m very keen that as A Rocha grows in the UK, we don’t go and set up loads of local A Rocha groups. Instead we should go to the local wildlife trust and conservation team and say ‘can we help?’. I think all of that helps community cohesion and stops duplication.

There are a lot of studies about the benefits of having green spaces and nature in developments from day one. Would you like to see more developers take note and incorporate it into their designs?

There’s no doubt in our minds that more green space is good for nature and good for people, too. We don’t actually own our urban nature reserve. It’s land we lease from the local council. They have been very supportive. It was a derelict allotment, effectively. We cleaned it up, took 54 tonnes of waste out of it and it’s now a thriving patch of greenery here in Southall, with a dedicated band of volunteers. This has been a real collaboration with the local council. Sadly, with the cuts, we know the green space for budgets in many councils have been slashed. Whilst we regret that council budgets are being cut, we have to ask is there a role for local churches or other civil society groups to manage that land for the whole community? There is so much scope. It can only be good at a local level if you can get that co-operation.

Photo of Andy Atkins by JJ

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Jamie Hailstone

Jamie Hailstone

journalist

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