Andrew Leake has spent decades mapping deforestation and land grabs in remote northern Argentina
Andrew and Maria Leake have been mission partners in the Chaco region of northern Argentina for more than two decades, monitoring deforestation and standing with indigenous people on land rights issues. Here, Andrew reflects on being in it for the long haul.
Jesus said that “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). There is a logic in that statement, particularly for those who engage in Bible translation and for those whose missional calling is to environmental advocacy and action. These interventions are often only successful over the long-haul. Ironically, one of the ways we can be aware of this is by taking a quick peek backward to see where we have come from.
If I just look at what I am doing today, especially now that Covid-19 restricts travel, it would be easy to despair. I get the sense I am doing nothing. Yet, looking back over 30 years of service, first with Tearfund, then SAMS, CMS, and more recently Compassion International too, it is abundantly clear that the fruits of our service, combined with that of many other people and organisations, have rarely been immediate. Significant fruits tend to come over the long haul.
Planting a seed that saved a forest
With Tearfund, we spent four years in Honduras. Our mission was to establish and develop a programme that would enable indigenous communities to secure legal rights to their ancestral lands and forests. We did what we could, but no land titles had been acquired by the time we left. Unbeknown to us, and some 23 years later, those claims we helped start resulted in the Honduran state ceding communal land titles to more than 10,000 square kilometres of jungle-covered territory in the region of La Moskitia. Some of our work even contributed to the creation of the Patuca National Park (3,700 km2), something we did not consider even in our wildest dreams at the time!
Land rights landmark
A similar pattern has just occurred in Argentina. A struggle of more than 50 years for indigenous land rights is only now yielding results. This process, which began with initial land surveys conducted by SAMS mission partners Bishop Pat Harris and Kevin Bewley and was often led by Anglican missionaries, has just recently yielded a high profile ruling by the Inter American Court of Human Rights. This puts significant pressure on the Argentine state to provide not only land titles but also to ensure the ecological restitution of forests degraded by cattle and illegal lumber extraction.
Finding identity in Scripture
Bible translation is another of those tasks that require a commitment to the long term. My grandfather started to translate portions of the Bible into Toba back in the late 1930s. Here again, these efforts, with support from SAMS and CMS, have yielded significant fruits only after decades of effort. The New Testament has been translated into Toba and Chorote, and the whole Bible into Wichi. Interestingly, the work around these tasks, which in the case of the Toba translation of the Old Testament is still ongoing, has also served to strengthen the recognition of indigenous languages and cultural identity within national society.
Encouragement for challenges ahead
So, a little peek over one’s shoulder now and then may not be bad if it serves to encourage us going forwards. When rowing I have often looked at the boat’s wake as a means of keeping a straight line and gauging the distance I have traveled. My sense, therefore, is that Jesus does indeed want us to commit to the long haul. He certainly does not want us to look back in terms of “going back”, but a little peek over the shoulder now and then can provide the reassurance we may need to keep going forward.