Botanist's life taken by land he defended

Richard Dowden was in Tolanarno, southern Madagascar, when the body of Andrew Lees, who had been working there for Friends of the Earth, was flown fro m the remote port to Antananarivo, the capital, yesterday. Mr Lees's body was f ound by a local fi sherman.
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There is a dark stain in the pale sand of the forest floor where he died.

In a way, it was that patch of earth that Andrew Lees died for, and he may have left his mark here more lastingly than the stain in the sand. His death may draw more attention to the plan to mine this beautiful and unique stretch of coast than any campaign he might have mounted when alive.

Although Lees entered Madagascar as a tourist, it is now no secret that he was gathering information for a campaign to stop the mining scheme. His disappearance gave rise to suspicion that he had been murdered. Foul play is now being ruled out and an initial post mortem suggests he may have collapsed from exhaustion or a heart attack. He was 44 years old.

His body was found face down in a small clearing not far from the edge of the forest that is about 10 miles west of Tolanarno, but almost a mile west of where the search was being conducted. None of his possessions had apparently been touched. The position of his body was revealed by a local fisherman, Soja Farelahy, who told the police where to find it as they were about to mount a shoulder-to-shoulder search through the dense forest.

Mr Farelahy confirmed that the villagers had known it was there for some time but were too afraid to go near it or report it. The Malagasays in this area are renowned for their respect and fear of the spirits of the dead and life is ruled by many taboos.

Among the search party were Mr Lees's fiancee, Christine Orengo, a biologist, and Jonathan Kaplan, a friend and colleague. The decomposed body was brought by police to Tolanarno and will be flown to Britain tomorrow.

Death seems alien to such a stupendously fecund and beautiful place, but locals say the forest is evil. They say Lees was the third person to have died there recently and inexplicably.

Standing above the forest where he died, Mr Farelahy and Manes Adelson, the taxi-driver who was the last person to see Lees alive, told me what had happened. Imagine you are at Beachy Head but, instead of chalk downs stepping down to the sea, there are huge rolling sand dunes covered in thorn scrub and eucalyptus. Behind is a tropical Snowdonia with massive mountains soaring into the clouds. In front is the vast blue of the Indian Ocean sweeping the huge bay in surf. Behind the beach is a large lagoon a nd between the bottom of the dunes and the lagoon is a dense jungle, less than a mile wide, but almost impenetrable. It was in this dense forest that Lees died.

Since mid-December he had been surveying and filming the area and had visited the forest at least three times. He was booked to return to London on New Year's Day.

Taking a camera tripod and other photographic equipment, he had gone for a last look on New Year's Eve. Mr Adelson drove him the 15 miles along the twisting rough track to a point just above the forest.

"He did not speak much on the way," said Mr Adelson. "But I noticed he was perspiring a lot and drinking all the time.'' Lees had suffered a diaorrhea attack during the day and had not eaten.

He left Mr Adelson at around 5pm, telling him that he would be back in an hour, and striding off down the steep dune towards the forest. Lees was an energetic and single-minded man who would not have allowed a stomach upset to stop him working.

"I waited one hour, an hour and a half, I blew the horn flashed the lights and shouted, but no one came,'' said Mr Adelson. "Then I drove back to town and told Mr Aziz who runs the taxi company. With two others we went back to the area and waited until 3am, shouting and flashing the lights.''

On New Year's Day, the police were notified, but since it would be difficult to lose one's sense of direction in such a small area, it was still assumed that Lees would emerge from the forest and walk back to town.

Mr Kaplan and Dr Orengo joined the search party on Thursday and by then the police had involved the villagers in the surrounding area in the search.

By Friday, some 200 people were helping the search. On Saturday, they were begining a shoulder-to-shoulder search of the forest when Mr Farelahy approached the police commissioner and told him where the body was.

Mr Kaplan, who is a qualified but non-practising surgeon, said that the body was lying face down, undisturbed and that Lees's equipment - including his tripod in a bag on his shoulder - was cradled under his head. "There were no signs of external injury and in the later post-mortem examination I could not see a wound, but the body had burst through pressure of decomposition. It is 40 degrees during the day,'' said Mr Kaplan.

The post-mortem examination declared death by natural causes. Mr Kaplan said: "The possibility is that dehydration in that heat plus carrying 15 kilos of equipment was too much. I think he collapsed through cardiac malfunction. He was probably dead when he hit the ground.''

Despite Lees's death, Friends of the Earth is now expected to mount the campaign against mining in the area. The company which is due to start mining next month is called Qitfer and is believed to be a wholly-owned subsidiary of Rio Tinto Zinc.

The company intends to mine the sand dunes for titanium oxide which, among other properties, provides the whitener for toothpaste. The company is reported as saying that it can return the coastline to its pristine state after mining.

Dr Orengo, who was too distressed and exhausted to talk at length, said: "I hope at least that Andrew's death will now stop the mining. That's what he wanted. That's why he came here. That should be his memorial.''

Tributes, page 3

Obituary, page 12