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Less forest but less poverty, too

Romantic environmentalism will not aid Madagascar, says Richard D North Out of 4,000 miles of coastline, the scheme may affect about 60
Andrew Lees, the Friends of the Earth campaigner, died - apparently of a heart attack - while researching the likely destruction of a part of Madagascar's forest, coastal lagoons and mangrove swamps. One result of his death is that the British me dia will be more interested in the plans of an RTZ subsidiary to mine in the region.

The Malagasy London press attache, Christina Dodwell, says these plans are by no means imminent. But she knows perfectly well that the scheme, which was already a high-profile matter (in which the World Wide Fund for Nature had always taken a deep interest), will now receive its full quota of nature-worshipping condemnation. Friends of the Earth has already said that the campaign will continue as a fitting memorial to Andrew Lees.

We should beware. Western conservationists have been developing an Ecolonialism. History seems to go that way. During the years when we were trying to develop a humane capitalism in the West, universities exported redundant socialism to the newly independent Third World. Now, just as the West gets its own environmental policies pretty well in place, our ecological fundamentalists take their redundant orthodoxies abroad.

There is clearly a role for campaigners from the West. They can, for a start, help their counterparts in poor countries to bring sensible conservationism to countries desperate to cash in on their natural resources. But the campaigners' purism of view isoften as misplaced as the gung-ho commercialism of their opponents.

I enormously admired Andrew Lees. But I seldom agreed with him, especially latterly. The truth is that I would no more trust him to give his supporters or the media the whole picture of a difficult situation in a far-off country than I would trust his industrialist opponents fully to acknowledge and mourn the damage they will have to do.

As a mining company seeks to exploit Madagascar's resources, the crucial questions that need answering seem to be these. How much rainforest does Madagascar need? How well will the Madagascar government spend its share of the profits from the mining operation (and how big will they be?). By how much would the West compensate Madagascar's economy if it agreed to forgo this piece of economic development? Does Madagascar need this development to fuel the very necessary industrialisation of its economy? Themining will take place in the poorest part of a very poor country: will the Malagasy government properly look after the people who will bear the brunt of disruption?

All but the first of these questions are about economics and policy, and they matter. From several sources one hears that Madagascar's people (mostly Christian) are kindly, sensible and intelligent. They have a new democratic government which is less tainted by corruption than most in the Third World. This is not one of those many countries run by crooks. So the answers to these questions may be mildly reassuring.

But the first question is the only one that will receive much attention in the West, and the answer in the West will be that the country needs all the forest it can keep. Andrew Lees would almost certainly have argued in those terms.

There is no truth in that, though. It is a matter of judgement. I simply beg the West to remember that if the mining destroys even as much as two-thirds of the immediately local habitat, what is left may be sufficient for all practical purposes. After all, the country has 4,000 miles of coastline, of which the scheme looks like affecting about 60. If Madagascar loses that area for a while, that may be a cost worth bearing.

I want to make a point that is very similar to the one made by Third World leaders when the West's Ecolonialism knocks their policy-making about. Andrew Lees loved the Norfolk Broads, and he was right to do so. But the silty reed-and-lily waterland he soadored was merely and crucially the result of man's mining operations - in this case for peat - over the past thousand years.

This is both a cheap and a telling shot. Cheap, because we can claim different priorities to those that applied 500 years ago. But we ought to remember that man and nature will probably make something, possibly something very valuable, from the mined area of Madagascar. And we must remember that the Third World can no more romanticise all of its terrain than Western peoples historically did. I long in all this to hear the views of intelligent Malagasy people, especially those liberal and thoughtful civil servants I do not doubt that country has (even if it could wish for many more). It's a real world out there, and Friends of the Earth's voice is not the only one we need to listen to.

The author's book `Life On a Modern Planet: A manifesto for progress' will be published on 6 March by Manchester University Press.