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Duke of Edinburgh defends Madagascar mine

The Duke of Edinburgh stepped into the dispute over Madagascar's unique ecology this weekend, saying that the dangers of opening up a new titanium oxide mine under a dry littoral forest had been "blown up" by Friends of the Earth.

Andrew Lees, the environmental group's campaigns director, died in Madagascar on New Year's Eve of a heart attack while he was investigating the mining project, proposed by Rio Tinto Zinc. In January a campaign against environmentally destructive mining was launched by the group in Lees' memory. "The controversy over the mining has been blown up out of proportion," said Prince Philip, speaking to the Independent on the record after a five-day visit to Madagascar that ended on 19 March. The trip was conducted in his capacity as president of the World Wide Fund for Nature.

The Duke said that the local WWF office in Madagascar had been "slightly embarrassed" because its British director, Robin Pellew, had signed an open letter to the Madagascan President, Albert Zafy, opposing the opening of the mine.

"The thing was blown up by Friends of the Earth in the UK," Prince Philip said. "It was rather critical of the whole system. It didn't go down frightfully well, which was rather unfortunate, because it was not the position of WWF International. Those sort of things happen."

The proposed mine has been attacked by British environmentalists on the grounds that it would endanger more than two dozen species of plants and animals unique to the forest. A wholly-owned subsidiary of Rio Tinto Zinc called Qit is planning to mine three coastal areas in southern Madagascar to produce 2 billion tons of titanium dioxide over the next 40 years with an investment of at least $350m (£220m). "It's an area which is not environmentally frightfully significant. I gather it's marginal," the Duke said. "If you're an absolute purist you might say if possible, don't [mine]. If you were fairly pragmatic you could say it's actually not going to do any significant damage, provided its done in a particular way."

The WWF spends 6 per cent of its budget, $6m a year, and employs 400 people to help save the ecology of Madagascar, unique home to many animals and 3 per cent of the world's plant species. Prince Philip said the best way to help the environment was to make the people who live there realise it was in their interest to do so. "If you fly over Madagascar, it looks exactly like a huge animal bleeding in the sea. All the rivers run red and make matters worse because they clog up all the coral reefs, which are largely fish-breeding areas," he said.

The massive soil erosion was just one problem more important than the proposed mine, Prince Philip said. Another was population growth, doubling the number of inhabitants every 25 years. A third was that Madagascar, with no planes or ships, could not defend its over-fished marine reserves. A fourth was traditional cattle culture.

"They convert whatever money wealth they have into cattle. If they get more cattle and there are more people, they'll have to acquire more grazing land to put the cattle on. As a lot of the land is not at all fertile, they then encroach on the forest," he said. "One of the primary objectives of the WWF is to try and prevent this incursion of cattle and burning into national parks and protected areas. That programme has been quite successful. But the fact is that only 2 per cent of Madagascar is actually protected." Rio Tinto Zinc, co-sponsor last week of a new Queen's Scholarship for South Africa, says it can mine the titanium oxide and then put the sandy-floored forest back.

Many environmentalists dispute this claim and believe that eco-tourism would be a better substitute as a way of developing the area.