Sunday, June 14, 2009

Be Agents Of Change

From The Star: Christian conservation organisation A Rocha brings people of all religions together in saving the planet. (By Soo Ewe Jin)

Ghillean Prance: ‘We will only achieve the major changes needed in our lifestyle if it is backed up by religions".

FOR prominent British botanist and ecologist Prof Sir Ghillean Prance, nothing excites him more than to be able to get his hands dirty in the field.

He has been even busier since his retirement and was recently in Malaysia to contribute accounts of two plant families (Lecythidaceae and Chrysobalanaceae) to the Flora of Peninsular Malaysia, two species produced by the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM).

During his two weeks here, he did field work in the forest reserves of Johor and elsewhere, and also spent considerable time at the FRIM herbarium.

Despite his busy schedule, the former director (1988-1999) of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, Britain, managed to attend Sunday service at a church in Petaling Jaya, which he declared to be one of the highlights of his trip.

Prance, a devout Christian, is currently the president of Christians in Science, a British organisation of scientists, teachers and science students concerned with the dialogue between Christianity and science.

Come October, Prance, who was knighted in 1995 for his contribution to the environment, will be appointed the chairman of A Rocha International.

He speaks passionately about A Rocha, a Christian conservation organisation founded by Peter Harris in 1983 which now has a presence in 18 countries.

“Since A Rocha is growing rapidly I am aware that this will take a major commitment of my time. However, A Rocha’s work is so important, especially in today’s climate of environmental destruction,” says Prance.

Peter Harris, founder of A Rocha, a Christian conservation group.

“An important part of A Rocha’s work and indeed, that of many environmental organisations, is to help people realise the serious nature of the environmental crisis and that it is God’s creation.

“The crisis is hitting hard now as food and fuel prices rise and it will get worse unless we take stronger action soon. An organisation like A Rocha can help because of its firm ethical base based on the teachings of the Bible. I feel that the growth of A Rocha is a sign of hope in a deteriorating world. A Rocha brings Christian hope to the issues in a most positive way.”

Prance feels the environmental crisis is so great “we need people from all religions to respond.”

“The people who have a moral ethical and spiritual dimension to their lives are more likely to approach the enviromental problem in a positive way. We will only achieve the major changes needed in our lifestyle if it is backed up by religions,” he says.

“The growth of interest by the religions of the world (including Islam) is a sign of hope. However the change won’t come easily and we will need to work hard to be agents of change, and be equipped with the necessary ethics and morality needed to make such a change.”

Harris, in a separate e-mail interview, explains that the organisation “is a practical response to the urgent need to reconcile the way we live with a sustainable future for the wider creation.”

Prof Sir Ghillean Prance with Norsham Yaakob from FRIM, with whom he is working on the Barringtonia.

“Through carrying out community-based conservation projects we wanted to encourage the world’s Christian communities to see how caring for the environment is a natural, and indeed central expression of our faith,” he says.

“We also wanted to encourage people concerned about the environment to discuss not just what they do, but why they do it. Missing that discussion has led to many misunderstandings between people who then take different sides on questions that they could agree on. No one actually wants to wreck the planet!”

For Harris, the mission began with a field study centre in Portugal in the early 1980s. The centre was set up for research, education and advocacy work, and it hosts a multi-cultural community of people with a wide variety of environmental interests.

Since the mid-1990s that model has been taken up all around the world, and A Rocha projects appear in towns and rural areas, in very poor communities and some wealthy ones, all striving to show what sustainability can mean through a huge variety of different programmes.

Today, A Rocha has a presence in Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Ghana, India, Kenya, Lebanon, Netherlands, New Zealand/Aotearoa, Peru, Portugal, South Africa, Switzerland, Britain and the United States.

Prof Sir Ghillean Prance crossing the bridge to the entrance of Emergency Trail at Endau Rompin, Johor.
There is a growing awareness of environmental and conservation issues these days. Malaysians have seen An Inconvenient Truth and are now also hit hard by the rising fuel prices.

People are talking about living simply and saving for their future but not many are able to connect conservation issues, the preservation of habitats and wildlife, to the real issues that they face each day.

Harris agrees. “It is the connections that have gone missing. We simply don’t see how our daily choices – what to eat, how to get around, how to design our human communities – impact the world around us directly.

“In many places, biodiversity is rapidly diminishing and people are impoverished because those in the developed world don’t care how we ‘get’ what we believe we ‘need’”.

Harris believes that organisations like A Rocha (the name is Portuguese for The Rock) can help by making those relationships real – through the natural association of the church throughout the world, through understanding that God cares about these things, through education and right living ourselves.

Prof Sir Ghillean Prance with Norsham Yaakob from FRIM, with whom he is working on the Barringtonia.

Like Prance, he also believes in getting people of other faiths involved as well, and cites the work of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation ( as a good initiative.

Although A Rocha is relatively young compared to other conservation organisations, it has done its part to hold back damaging developments on the Alvor estuary in Portugal over the last 20 years; restore some of the Aammiq wetland in the Bekaa valley – one of Lebanon’s last remaining wetlands; and work for the creation of a 28.32ha country park in a particularly polluted and unpromising area of London, not far from Heathrow airport.

“We’ve also been glad to see hundreds of schoolchildren in Kenya get funding for education through our ASSETS (the Arabuko-Sokoke Schools and Ecotourism Scheme) programme,” says Harris.

For Harris and Prance, there is no denying that environmental consciousness has grown over the years and people understand the significance of protecting the environment.

Their Christian faith propels them forward in this regard.

As Prance, who also worked on The Eden Project puts it, “In all my travels and scientific expeditions, I see God’s handiwork everywhere.”

“The future would be frightening if not for the hope that faith can bring and the change that it could cause in environmental behaviour.”

For more about A Rocha, visit

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