Environmental educator, and subtle speaker of truth to power
Roger Hammond, who has died after a short battle with cancer at the age of 56, was an environmental educator for whom ‘environment’ meant everything, and ‘education’ meant leading people from darkness. He trained as a teacher in Birmingham, and then rose swiftly to become head of science at a large secondary school. He was meanwhile involved in setting up the Urban Wildlife Group and enrolled for a doctorate in plant sociology, acquiring knowledge that would one day give rise to many native hedges and wildflower meadows. He left the school sector in the mid 1980s to became Director of Education at the Earthlife Foundation, which was then pioneering an integrated conservation and development programme around Korup National Park in Cameroon. When Earthlife collapsed in 1987, Roger and his education team created the Living Earth Foundation to continue its work. The link with Cameroon survived this transition, and gave rise to Living Earth Cameroon, which continued to excite, interest and satisfy Roger until the weekend of his death.
Under his care and guidance, Living Earth thrived and innovated at its base in London and far beyond. One of Roger’s consistent principles was to try to steer the powerful towards more subtle and compassionate ways of thinking and behaving towards the weak and the environment. Applying this, he led Living Earth into pioneering relationships with companies in the extractive industries, ones based on dialogue around the transformation of their business practices rather than on noisy campaigning or quietly taking their money. A long partnership with Shell resulted, which intrigued both sides enough that they were able to explore new fields of corporate responsibility and ways of doing business. Much was achieved, and Shell certainly listened, although whether they always heard enough is open to question. But Roger never gave up on them, and a suite of new initiatives arose, including work to restore civil society in the Niger Delta after the Abacha tyranny in Nigeria, social performance workshops in Indonesia, and the evaluation of carbon conservation options in Malaysia.
Roger’s interventions often resulted in irreversible change. In 1992, he inspired a group of young Venezuelans to carry out an environmental education project with local teachers, community groups and authorities in the Lake Valencia region of central Venezuela. Funding from the EU followed, and in 1996 the project team created Fundación Tierra Viva. Twenty years after Roger’s initial push, this is now one of the leading Venezuelan environmental NGOs, successfully managing dozens of projects across the country. And in 2005, he convinced senior Shell managers of the need to properly engage local stakeholders so as to avoid social and environmental problems in the gas and oil sector on Sakhalin island in the Russian Far East. After two eight-month programmes bringing together local authorities, the oil and gas industry and community groups, a Sustainable Development Department was established at Sakhalin State University in 2007, with valuable initiatives continuing there to date. Roger’s work with the oil industry also led to his long-term engagements in the North Slope of Alaska, in Qatar, and in Iran. He meanwhile managed to create space in his life and travel schedule to nurture ideas, networks, people and institutions in Mali, Uganda, Wales and Wiltshire.
Consulting the oracle of a Goddess in Nigeria, Roger learned that the best way to practice environmental conservation was “to understand the history of the people”, and in building this understanding he immersed himself fearlessly in cultural experience, in the process once nearly sacrificing his testicles to a sacred eel in Indonesia. His other guiding principles focused on making the powerless more powerful, through self-organising, learning and taking charge of their own lives, and facilitating the expression of all forms of creativity. He had impeccable taste in everything from fossils, wines and paintings, to fabrics, music and people. He was bogglingly sociable, and his networks and dinner parties legendary. His imaginative questioning of all assumptions, by anyone, anywhere, eventually left most of us realising that our opinions had undergone some kind of sea-change, that our beliefs had merged with Roger’s to become new discoveries. Then he would pick up the spoons and rattle out a stirring rhythm, or perform the March of the Matadors with a yak’s tail. His deep interest in music led eventually to the love of his life, his wife Sonia, a professional cellist. Observing and supporting the rest of us through our turbulent relationships, Roger bided his time and picked his own partner with precision and luck, and for the next ten years demonstrated how to build and maintain a successful marriage by paying attention and sharing.
Far more a doer than a writer, Roger left us suddenly with innumerable good ideas but without a legacy of text to help us make sense of the world as he saw and experienced it. Instead we can look at the people whose spirits he channelled over the years – the likes of Oliver Caldecott, Gregory Bateson, A.R. Wallace, R.F. Burton – and triangulate with the individuals he cherished, the careers he nurtured, the institutions he founded, and the trees he planted, as well as those now capturing carbon in the woodland burial ground at Gladestry, where his body is dissolving back into the Biosphere. He leaves a flickering storm-bank of memories for everyone else to try to understand. Biographies will follow, but meanwhile there is a sense that many lives have been touched, puzzled and enriched by this extraordinary man. As a Taoist and shaman, with an invisible sack on his shoulder for carrying mysteries, where Roger is now is anyone’s guess, but there are many who hope it isn’t too far away.
Roger John Hammond, environmental educator, born London 25 August 1956; married Sonia; died Powys 16 September 2012. See obituary notice in The Independent here.