MADAGASCAR: Rio's dirty washing is on show

LAST month, the British Andrew Lees Memorial Award was given jointly to aviation campaigner John Stewart and the pesticides' arch-pest Georgina Downs â€" two people who, the judges said, through commitment, enthusiasm and research, had made a significant difference in environmental awareness.

But who was Andrew Lees?

The British campaigns director of Friends of the Earth (FoE) died in southern Madagascar in December 1994. His skill lay in bringing his scientific knowledge and energy to raise awareness and mobilise public opinion. His achievements included exposing pollution and the misuse of pesticides and, in 1988, revealing the scandal of the Karen B, a ship carrying European toxic waste that he'd tracked to a tiny port in Nigeria. In 1993, the approval of the British government funds for a dam in a jungle in Malaysia was ruled illegal after Lees used footage I had shot there.

During 1994, Lees and I discussed setting up an environmental film company. Our first project was to be in Madagascar, where Lees had discovered that global miner Rio Tinto Zinc (RTZ, now Rio Tinto) was expecting World Bank funding and an agreement from the Malagasy government to start mining along the country's southern coast â€" with profound environmental and social consequences.

RTZ planned to repeat an operation it had been running for a decade in South Africa â€" strip-mining titanium dioxide. The mineral, found as black granules in beach sand, is refined into a whitener for makeup, mayonnaise and toothpaste. In Madagascar there was hardly any conservation movement, despite its remarkable wildlife; its lemurs and 85 per cent of its plants are exclusive to the island, along with 98 per cent of the reptiles and half of its birds and bats.

Lees discovered that the mandatory environmental impact assessment commissioned by RTZ had revealed 16 previously unknown plant types, with part of the mining site showing "the highest diversity of reptile life recorded anywhere in Madagascar".

All were under threat as the dredgers would suck up 50 miles of mangrove, lagoons and dune forest, displacing coastal villagers, who would lose their homes and ancestral burial grounds. We planned a reconnaissance trip, but at the last minute I was unable to accompany Lees to Madagascar, and while he was there, he disappeared. I went with Lees' partner, Chris, to look for him. We found his body in the forest; he had apparently collapsed and died of heat-stroke.

A year later, I returned to the island to make a documentary about Lees and his work. Retracing the journeys he had made along the miles of coast, I met villagers he'd spoken to, and recorded the beauty of the mangroves and lagoons threatened by the dredgers. The place where we'd found him had become a shrine. A tall rock stood there, and a post on which a zebu skull was impaled â€" sacrificed to Lees' spirit, which was considered a resident in the forest for eternity.

His death and the film generated questions in the British parliament, and, I believe, made the World Bank at least pause. But, 11 years on, Rio Tinto bulldozers are finally arriving in Madagascar.

One of the last vestiges of the island's littoral forest, an area of such rich biodiversity that in any other country it would be formally protected, is to be destroyed. Rio Tinto, mindful of the adverse publicity the proposal attracted, places great emphasis on the project's benefits: the creation of employment, conservation zones along some of the extraction route, and the building of a mining port that will promote wider economic activities, including tourism and fishing.

The company spent years studying political, social and environmental issues before committing to the $US585 million ($A790 million) mineral sands project. The mine will create 600 jobs for locals and annual payments to the Government of more than $US20 million â€" 70 per cent of the royalties will be paid to the region around the mine.

But Madagascar, among the world's most heavily indebted, poorest countries, is providing the mining land at a fraction of its mineral or environmental value. It will pay for the building of the port through a $US36 million loan from the World Bank, while the region's fledgling eco-tourism industry will vanish with the lagoons and mangrove.

Exploiting the Madagascar deposits of titanium dioxide is worthwhile because the island's poverty prevents it obtaining a true market value to make up for the environmental degradation caused by the extraction.

So did Lees fail to make a difference in Madagascar? The Libanona Ecology Centre, set up by a WWF conservationist and now run by Malagasy professors affiliated with the University of Tulear, is supported by a memorial trust set up in Lees' name. The centre has improved levels of environmental awareness.

The Andrew Lees Trust's radio project supports a rural network, broadcasting educational programmes estimated to reach around half a million, predominantly illiterate, people.

Information on the environmental consequences of the mine has increased Rio Tinto's sensitivity; even if the company's conservation and social programmes appear cosmetic, they may ameliorate the mine's irreversible consequences. And environmentalists worldwide, including, perhaps, future winners of the Andrew Lees Memorial award, will be keeping this venture in the spotlight.

GUARDIAN's Jonathan Kaplan book Contact Wounds: A War Surgeon's Education is published by Picador.

AMP Section Name:Natural Resources
  • 183 Environment
  • 185 Corruption

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