LETTER : Andrew Lees was a local hero

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The Independent Online
From Mr Nick Mayhew Sir: Your generous coverage of Andrew Lees's tragic death and his concerns in Madagascar has been very welcome. His obituary (9 January) by Richard D. North was, I thought, particularly evocative of much that was so special about him.

However, Andrew would have been sorely troubled by some of your more recent reports. First, Richard Dowden largely couches the question of whether or not Rio Tinto Zinc should mine for titanium dioxide in Madagascar in terms of our consumer demand for the stuff (11 January), and then Richard North misrepresents much of what Andrew stood for, along with many of the key environmental issues that his work in Madagascar has raised ("Less forest but less poverty, too", 12 January).

Andrew certainly saw the potential for getting us to "think globally" via a greater understanding of the origins of assorted commodities; he reckoned that such insights could, in turn, empower people to "act locally" in a well-targeted way. However, Andrew was also keenly conscious of the capacity of big corporations - especially through advertising, disingenuous PR and so on - to cover their tracks and mislead consumers, and thus to maintain an unsustainable demand for their products.

Therefore Andrew had severe doubts about the efficacy of "green consumerism". He was always far more interested in enabling people to "act locally" closer to home, where there was more at stake and where the people directly affected (by a particular industrial operation, say) had greater access to "the truth". This might have included the profound value of a particular ecosystem, or the assorted details and pleasures comprising the ways of life under threat, or the "facts" that the industry was trying to conceal from a wider world.

Andrew went to Madagascar to record the views and perspectives of the local people, and to communicate to them Friends of the Earth's knowledge of the likely repercussions of a mining operation in their backyard. This should be seen as an act of international solidarity and an attempt to empower others rather than being branded by Richard North as "fundamentalist" and representative of gross "eco-colonialism".

Of course Andrew was a romantic - but he was also profoundly aware of the tightrope of contradictions he was treading. He was certainly no "purist". Perhaps Andrew's burden was that he had so much to give. And the fact that we now all have so much to learn - and do - is our problem.

Yours etc.

Nick Mayhew London, NW5

12 January The writer is a former campaigns co-ordinator for Friends of the Earth