Obituary: Michael J. Eden

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The Independent Online
Michael John Eden, geographer: born Brenchley, Kent 10 December 1936; Lecturer, Bedford College (later Royal Holloway, University of London) 1964-94, Senior Lecturer 1994-98; died Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire 11 January 1998.

Michael J. Eden was a concerned environmentalist long before such a title and role became fashionable. His work on tropical ecology and land management in Venezuela, Colombia, Guyana, Brazil and Papua New Guinea established him internationally. He was also well-known for his forays into remote sensing (viewing the Earth from satellite images) in relation to the evaluation of tropical land cover and management practices.

Eden was an experienced and proficient field worker in tropical regions. He was Leader of the Geographical Magazine Hovercraft Expedition to Amazonas in 1968, Scientific Leader of the Colombian Amazonas Expedition of 1977, and a member of the Royal Geographical Society's Maraca Rainforest Project between 1985 and 1987.

His book Ecology and Land Management in Amazonia was published in 1990. Reviewing it in the Geographical Journal, Professor Nigel Smith concluded that it was "the best book on Amazonian development available".

Eden was appointed to a Lectureship in the Department of Geography at Bedford College, London, in 1964, where in those early years he contributed to teaching on first-year climatology, aspects of geomorphology and Latin America. In the courses that he taught subsequently, on tropical ecological systems and tropical forest ecology and management (he remained at the college, through its various incarnations, until his death), he captivated a generation of undergraduate students.

Michael Eden was born in 1936, the son of a Methodist minister, whom he outlived by little more than a year. Following his schooling at Kingswood School, in Bath, he undertook National Service as a Pilot Officer in the Royal Air Force before going up to Christ Church, Oxford, in 1958 to read Geography. He worked as a soil surveyor attached to the Water and Power Development Authority in West Pakistan before taking an MSc at McGill University. His thesis was published in 1964 as The Savanna Ecosystem: Northern Rupununi, British Guiana - the first publication in the McGill Savanna Research Series. Whilst undertaking this field project, he also served as the Director of McGill's field research station in British Guiana (now Guyana).

Eden was the quintessential English gentleman, kind, dignified, self- effacing, and with a dry sense of humour which took a while to decipher. He came into his own when in the field in the tropics, or at one of the many meetings of Commonwealth geographers which he arranged or attended. Far from the conventions and restrictions of institutional life, Mike Eden let slip his very private persona.

His workshops were always academically productive, and led to the publication of his two major works, Sensing and Tropical Land Management (1986) and Land Degradation in the Tropics (1996), both co-prepared with Professor John Parry.

As for his teaching, Eden instructed from first-hand experience. Clear and lucid, he exemplified the traditional virtues of the university educator. He was unequivocal in stressing that he could not see how anyone could persist in university teaching unless they had a lasting commitment to communicate successfully with students.

Eden preferred the humid tropics to what he regarded as the increasing aridity of university administration. When he did undertake administrative tasks, he did so with quiet efficiency. From 1979 to 1988 he was a devoted Treasurer and European representative on the Committee of Manage-ment of the Commonwealth Geographical Bureau.

After major surgery for cancer some five years ago, Eden came full circle to research once again in Guyana. He was examining the sustainability of silviculture in the country's interior. Last May, he organised and chaired a successful one-day meeting on land development issues in Guyana at Royal Holloway, University of London. He had commitments and plans for ongoing research when his brain tumour was diagnosed.

- Robert B. Potter

Letting slip his private persona: Eden in the field in Guyana, 1993 Photograph: Rob Potter