Andrew Lees - 20 years after his last mission to Madagascar

| 31st December 2014
Local flora in Anosy.
Local flora in Anosy.
This day 20 years ago one of Britain's most committed and effective environmental campaigners died trying to save a coastal forest in southern Madagascar from mining, writes Yvonne Orengo. The world has been a poorer place without Andrew Lees - and his fears for the Petriky forest and local indigenous communities have been proved all too close to the mark.
The local communities are telling us their stories - do we have the ears to listen and the courage to act as Andrew showed us 20 years ago?

Twenty years ago today I sat with my sister through new-years-eve waiting for news.

On the other side of the planet her partner, Andrew Lees, had walked into Petriky forest in southern Madagascar alone, carrying 30 kilos of filming equipment, and missed his flight home.

Andrew had gone to the Anosy region in the far south east of the island to film and research a proposed Rio Tinto mine which would destroy rare coastal forests to extract ilmenite, a mineral that yields titanium dioxide, a whitener used in toothpaste, paint, and sunscreen.

At the time, Andrew was Campaigns Director at Friends of the Earth UK with a track record of successfully campaigning against projects that were not only degrading fragile environments but also toxic and destructive to indigenous people.

Acutely aware of the international track record of the multinational mining giant in other countries, Andrew feared for the unique biodiversity and the isolated Antanosy people.

He wanted to know what they thought about the proposed mine and to see for himself the island of extraordinary beauty that he had dreamt of visiting since a boy.

A 'Top 50 Environmentalist' of all time

A naturalist and botanist, Andrew studied at Cardiff University and quickly entered the environment movement as a volunteer for FoE in Norfolk, his home.

One of his first successful campaigns was to protect the Halvergate Marshes in the Norfolk Broads from being drained. He went on to fight many high profile campaigns, including toxic waste dumping in Africa, and famously took the British government to court to lobby for improved water quality in the UK.

In January 1995 Jonathon Porritt called him "simply the best campaigner in this country", and in November 2006 he was nominated by the Environment Agency as number 43 of the 100 top green campaigners of all time.

Andrew was a passionate and rigorous investigative campaigner, much loved by the press who could rely on him for well-researched, solid stories. Though never a very public figure, those who met him never forgot him. He had a way of connecting with people, which made him a highly effective community activist.

Before he went to Madagascar he took a short film of his home in London, his partner Christine, and "the world I live in''. He was asking people on the other side of the planet to open up, to share their lives and truth with him. He wanted an equal footing.

These are the last images of Andrew. He never returned from Petriky forest on New Year's Eve.

The local communities are telling us their stories - do we have the ears to listen and the courage to act as Andrew showed us 20 years ago?

We never saw him again.

What did emerge from hours of film footage and recordings, recovered from his possessions when his body was finally found, was that local people living on the proposed mine sites knew nothing of the huge project heading their way.

Andrew's visit was the first they heard of what was to become the most rapid, life changing development of their region in millennia.

Two decades after his death, were Andrew's fears well founded?

Present in Madagascar since 1986, Qit Minerals Madagascar (QMM) is the Canadian subsidiary of Rio Tinto. Once it secured the necessary permits and fiscal agreements to mine in1998 - a deal that in a worst-case scenario gives the Malagasy people just 3% of revenue - work began in 2006.

After Andrew's death shook the environmental movement and precipitated a week of national media coverage about Madagascar and the mine, Rio Tinto posited that littoral forests in southern Madagascar would all be gone in 20 years, thereby justifying their extraction.

But two of the forest areas targeted for mining are still largely intact (St Luce, Petriky) contrary to Rio's projections. Heavy logging has decimated forests in the foothills to the north of Anosy, but the biggest scar on the coastal landscape is the mine itself.

Currently dredging its first site in Mandena the company claims 113 hectares have been rehabilitated with fast growing exotics for fuel. Satellite images indicate large expanses of open, disturbed areas, raising the question whether the rate of restoration is keeping pace with mining and QMM's environmental commitments.

Moreover, local activists claim that legal mine boundaries are being transgressed or expanded. Again, aerial imagery suggests that the required 80-metre buffer zone around the lakes in Mandena may have been encroached, reworked or renegotiated, flouting national environmental laws and international standards (Arrêté interministériel nº4355 /97).

Rio also promised that their QMM operation would bring jobs, much needed development and poverty reduction to the Anosy region. However, the sudden influx of foreign workers and intense economic activity caused the cost of living to spike, especially housing prices and food commodities, which impacted heavily on the most poor. Prices never deflated, not helped by the recent national political crisis.

Poverty is measured in more ways than World Bank statistics. In Madagascar, loss of land and forests, considered sacred by Malagasy people, put the community at risk by denuding them of livelihoods, identity and their spiritual base.

A new concern is that goals set out in the 2009 Social and Environmental Management Plan (SEMP) could be re-written in 2015 as a result of the $14 billion write down of Rio in 2013, which has forced the company into austerity measures. Consequently it is uncertain if promises made to the people at the start of this project will now be met.

QMM needs more investment, not less, if it is to maintain social cohesion.

Cut backs mean cutting corners. Scaling up amplifies problems, especially if lessons are not learnt. Within a few years of start up, villagers complained about dust pollution from the mountain quarried to build the port, as documented in the report Voices of Change.

Significant losses included declines in fishing yields; damage to boats due to dangerously relocated launching sites; restricted access to vital forest resources; increased flooding due to the QMM weir; and loss of livelihood. (Oral testimonies, Anosy).

QMM already has a flawed compensation process, so poorly administered that paperwork and receipts for land and monies went missing. Villagers were not privy to a Full Prior and Informed Consent Process (FPIC) as is best practice in such situations. As one commented, "they took advantage of us because we cannot read."

Local employment is not what was hoped either. A recent demonstration by employees in October 2014 highlighted the dearth of QMM salaried posts where short-term engagements are the norm, leaving the majority of local, Antanosy employees disadvantaged and insecure.

The lack of communication and transparency in their community engagement has been an ongoing failure of the company, one Rio has acknowledged and is trying to address. Stakeholder consultation has also fallen into question.

Local platforms are not considered neutral; many NGOs and local associations have been co-opted by the mining company; others, more independent, like the established Malagasy Centre Ecologique Libanona (dedicated to Andrew's memory in 1995) face closure, unable to compete with recent international initiatives supported by QMM.

Needless to say there are significant concerns about how such issues will translate as the mine scales up into the more heavily forested and populated site of St Luce. How will local people protect their rights and hold the company to account for its actions and promises?

Voice of the community

Pushing back is difficult. Oral testimonies published by Panos London with The Andrew Lees Trust gave voice to mining affected communities in 2010. This led to the human rights law firm Leigh Day supporting a thousand villagers in a class action against Rio Tinto to claim compensation they felt was due. The action was quickly neutralised by cash payouts.

Faced with dissent, the mechanisms of paying off complainants outside formal frameworks, dividing the community, intimidating or vilifying critics and employing potential 'troublemakers' into the company have been features of QMM's modus operandi.


Local people have little to no redress. Madagascar is not known for its good governance. Currently ranked 127/177 in Transparency International's ratings the island is still reeling from a five-year political crisis tainted with extensive illegal rosewood logging and systemic cattle rustling linked to the highest levels of power.

There is endemic self-censorship in the Malagasy media which, together with weak civil society, dampens open criticism of the government and authorities. Malagasy journalists and activists fear reprisals or imprisonment, as has been the case for the most vocal protestors of QMM.

Despite such risks, civil disobedience in the form of public demonstrations and road blockades against QMM has highlighted grievances of the Anosy population over the last five years.

In January 2013, unfair employment practices, failed promises, and insufficient compensation drew protestors into a week long confrontation with mining executives, culminating in a hostage crisis at the QMM offices - extreme measures for the conflict-averse Malagasy, which suggest the company still has a long way to go to build trust.

Leading the way or whitewash?

As QMM officials position themselvelves to lead the country's extractives policy and claim their Anosy mine is an example of best practice - not just in country but in the world - the failure to monitor the project independently leaves QMM free to tell the story they want.

The local communities are telling us their stories - do we have the ears to listen and the courage to act as Andrew showed us 20 years ago?



In memory of Andrew Lees, 1949-1994. Andrew died of heatstroke whilst filming the endangered forest of Petriky in southern Madagascar.

Yvonne Orengo is an independent development communications practitioner ( and Director of the Andrew Lees Trust, a British charity set up following the death of its namesake in 1994. She lived and worked in the Anosy region for over six years developing the Trust's social and environmental education programmes. In 2012 she was awarded the MBE for her services to the Trust and southern Madagascar.

The Andrew Lees Trust was set up in Andrew's memory and commenced work in 2005 delivering social and environmental projects across southern Madagascar. In 2009 it realised its sustainability strategy and handed over to its local team, enabling them to create a Malagasy NGO with its own sovereign identity. The Trust continues to support communities in the south through its local partners who deliver education, emergency relief and good governance projects.

1. Hai-Tsinjo Consulting, CARE International, Association Action Socio-sanitaire & QMM. 2008: 'Rapport sur l'étude des conditions de vie des ménages des communes environnant le site d'exploitation d'ilménite dans la zone Mandena'.

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