The Duke and the forest ANOTHER VIEW Robin Pellew

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The Independent reports that the Duke of Edinburgh, in his capacity as president of the World Wide Fund for Nature International, has not opposed the proposed mining by Rio Tinto Zinc of the coastal forests of southern Madagascar. It is important to make WWF's position on this issue clear.

Madagascar faces an environmental crisis. Some 90 per cent of the island's forests have been destroyed and its rich topsoil is eroding into the sea. This sediment is suffocating the coral reefs which provide the main breeding ground for the vital inshore fisheries. With its human population doubling every 25 years, Madagascar is a microcosm of the environmental problems facing developing countries.

For this reason WWF has a substantial commitment to conservation in Madagascar. It has been working there for more than 20 years, and spends £4.5m each year. With only 2 per cent of the island under protection, WWF is seeking to create new national parks, to build the professional skills of local managers, and to incorporate environmental awareness into schools. It is in the context of this crisis that the campaign to save the coastal forests from mining must be viewed. In terms of national conservation priorities, mining is a secondary concern comparedto illegal logging, forest clearance and soil erosion. We must not allow an exclusive focus on the mining issue to detract from these other major problems. This is the point that, quite correctly, the Duke of Edinburgh has made.

WWF has strongly advocated social and environmental impact assessments before any decision on mining is made. It has also signed an open letter to the chairman of RTZ calling for a two-year postponement so that alternatives for developing the region can be explored.

In its negotiations WWF has been impressed by the open-minded approach of the government and its willingness to consider proposals for more environmentally- friendly development. It is, of course, the responsibility of the government to decide how best to manage its resources for the benefit of its people.

One option is to zone the area. The biologically rich pristine forests should be protected as a national park. The degraded areas could then be mined on condition that the areas were restored by re-establishing community-owned forests. These plantations would meet the needs of local people for fuel wood and timber, which would take the pressure off the pristine areas. The new national park could then contribute to tourism, generating long-term benefits.

It is these sorts of solutions that WWF is now exploring. Any solution must recognise the political sensitivity of the situation and must focus on generating alternative forms of income for both the government and local communities. WWF therefore believes that the best course of action is for RTZ to reconsider its decision to go ahead and, as a minimum, to agree to the two-year moratorium.

The writer is director of WWF-UK.

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