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International Sustainability: Natural Resources and Biodiversity - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:39 pm on 4th November 2019.

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Photo of The Bishop of Peterborough The Bishop of Peterborough Bishop 4:39 pm, 4th November 2019

My Lords, I too welcome this debate and the Prime Minister’s commitment to increased spending in this area. I also take note of, and agree with, the slight fear and concern of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, that some of the money for this important work will be taken out of what ought to be spent on the relief of poverty and direct aid.

Three weeks ago I was in Israel, leading a pilgrimage looking at many of the sites mentioned in the Bible. One thing I came across that I had not seen there before but which was pointed out to me by various people was the fallow field—fields kept idle for a year to let the earth rest. I learned in geography lessons in my state county primary school around 1960 or 1961 that it was an important principle not only to rotate crops but to let the earth rest—in other words, not to squeeze everything out of it. I later discovered that this is part of the biblical teaching about the sabbath: not just that people and animals are to rest but that the earth also needs rest and recreation. That is why some farmers in Israel still practise that principle.

Fallow fields and crop rotation used to be the norm in this country, letting the earth rest and be refreshed. Some of that is coming back, despite the intensive farming we have learned in recent decades. Much of that farming has been very useful and important, helping to feed our country and other countries. I do not question scientific method or all the scientific resources we can find being brought to bear on farming. It is right and proper, but not if we lose the basic principle that the earth, like its inhabitants, needs time to rest and recover when it has been used. Otherwise it will be abused.

Caring for the earth is part of the Church’s mission. It is one of the five marks of mission enunciated and taught by the worldwide Anglican communion. This principle predates concerns about global warming, though it is part of addressing them. It is about our belief that we should be stewards of this planet: for God, for creation and for future generations. We are called to be gentle with the earth, kind to it in the same way that we are called to be kind and gentle with one another. Yes, we need to make the earth as productive as it can be to feed people and for various other reasons—that is fine; but productive while still being healthy and self-sustaining. It is a basic principle that lies behind much else that has been discussed today.

For my final point—I do not wish to speak at great length—I acknowledge the help of my right reverend friend the Bishop of Durham, who would like to have been here today but could not. He knows Rwanda very well. He told me of a north Rwandan village community project: collecting cow dung into an enclosed slurry pit to produce gas from which families can cook and light their homes in an area with no mains electricity. Their children can now study at night, in a country which has 12 hours of darkness every day. This is a small-scale project, which could be put at risk by some of our modern large-scale ideas about limiting the numbers of cattle as we try to care for the earth. Although large-scale cattle herds can undoubtedly be environmentally detrimental, in developing countries owning one cow can be an important way for a family to climb out of poverty: fertilisation for the soil, milk for the children, study for the teenagers. We have to hold this question of development and ecological futures alongside that of poverty.

I urge those working on our environmental investments, which I gladly commend and welcome, to recognise the contexts of poverty, support small-scale projects as well as larger ones and ensure that larger-scale projects do not exacerbate small-scale poverty.