Botanist tried to warn Malagasays of mining dangers

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The Independent Online
Andrew lees, the environmentalist who died here last week while researching the activities of a mining company, discovered that many local people were unaware of its plans for a titanium dioxide mine and confused about its implications.

People who helped him with his research said yesterday that he had conducted extensive interviews with villagers and fishermen whose lives will be transformed by the plan to mine some 60 miles of coastline over the next 40 years.

One local helper who prefers to remain anonymous, said: "Many local people were confused. They did not know about the mine and they were confused by Andrew's questions. Those that did know said that the mining company had promised them a school and a hospital and a "gift' for the village but they were concerned that the company might not keep their promise. Very few were aware of how it would change their lives.''

As news that Mr Lees' body had been found spread in the area, people expressed sadness and sympathy. Some had got to know him but others were puzzled by this energetic `tourist' who strode around the forest and engaged local people in earnest discussions. He had been generous in giving gifts to local people and one woman I spoke to said she was sure he had been killed for money because someone thought he was rich. The initial post mortem suggested he had died from natural causes and the local police do not suspect foul play. His body is due to be flown home tomorrow for burial in Britain.

Meanwhile the mining project that he was investigating and hoping to block on environmental grounds, appears to be going ahead. The government of Madagascar signed a letter of intent on 17 november to allow Qit-fer, a wholly owned subsidiary of Rio TintoZinc, to go ahead with the excavation of sand on three sites near Tolanaro to extract titanium dioxide and other heavy minerals. they plan to mine 600,000 tons a year and the project could last until 2035. a factory and a jetty will also be built at a cost of almost £500m (five hundred million dollars). The govern ment has a 20 per cent stake in the project which it hopes will bring much needed foreign exchange into its impoverished treasurey.

What it will do to this remote and backward region is unclear. mr Lees had obtained statements and documents which showed that an estimated 5,000 people in about 12 villages will be affected by the plans to mine the beaches, dunes and lagoons. Qit says it will employ about 300 people and a further 1,000 will benefit indirectly. A social and economic survey was begun in 1989 but qit has declined to publish it saying it was incomplete and needs updating. Critics of the scheme say that Qit does not like it s conclusions and are seeking to revise them. They also expressed shock that the government has allowed the scheme to go ahead without a proper economic survey.

Most of the local people depend on subsistance fishing and farming the lagoons for prawns and shell fish. Mining will disrupt and almost certainly destroy the lagoons and it will remove more than two thirds of the litoral forest from which the fishermen obtain wood for houses, boats and fuel.

Suggestions that the unique and fragile environment can be "restored'' are scorned by environmentalists. "A complete farce'' one said yesterday. "At best there could be a mono culture - trees for wood fuel or something like that but not the forest as it is now.''

Proposals have also been put forward to show how the region could develop through agriculture, forestry and eco tourism. but everyone is agreed that mining the beaches will destroy tourism, particularly eco tourism.''