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Tuesday, 26 September, 2000, 20:20 GMT 21:20 UK
Peter Melchett: Lord of the Greens
By Bob Chaundy of the BBC's News Profiles Unit

When aristocrats come up before a court, it is all too often because they have succumbed to the temptations of the idle rich.

It is somewhat refreshing then that, whatever one's view of GM foods, Peter Mond, fourth Baron Melchett, should have been a defendant in a trial on a point of principle.

Melchett and colleagues trash a GM crop
Lord Melchett helps demolish a GM crop
As executive director of Greenpeace UK, he and 27 other fellow activists have been acquitted of charges of criminal damage after they ripped out part of a GM maize crop being grown on a Norfolk farm.

The jury accepted their defence that they took the action they did because they believe the GM crop would have polluted the environment.

It was not the first time Peter Melchett had resorted to this kind of direct action. In 1985, he tried to cut through the perimeter wire of an American air base at Sculthorpe in East Anglia as part of an anti-nuclear protest.

He famously tells of how he could hear the fragrant voice of Lady Olga Maitland crying, "Peter, Peter, don't do it. It'll ruin your career!"

In fact, it led to a career in Greenpeace that has "been more worthwhile than anything else I could have done".

Protesting against the Trident missile system
Protesting against the Trident missile system
Until then, Lord Melchett was treading the establishment path. He went from Eton, where his casual dress and manner earned him the nickname "demi-Mond", to Cambridge, where he read Law.

But a near-fatal disease of the colon prevented him taking his finals. He took an MA in criminology at the University of Keele, followed by 18 months at the London School of Economics researching the problems of cannabis addiction.

He inherited his title at the age of 25, following the early death of his father who had been boss of the British Steel Corporation.

Lord Melchett was then courted by the Labour Party. He became a Whip, a junior minister at the Department of the Environment and a minister of state for Northern Ireland under Jim Callaghan.

My background is irrelevant

Lord Melchett

By 1979, he had had enough of what he calls "the lying game" of Westminster politics. Short-termism and the obligations of toeing the party line were suffocating him.

He found space to breathe in Greenpeace, first in Japan, then in the UK, taking on his present role in 1989.

Environmentalism was not a sudden interest. As a child growing up on the north Norfolk coast, he became increasingly aware of the detrimental effects of pesticides on local wildlife.

His father taught him how to preserve hedgerows. The 890-acre Courtyard Farm he inherited is substantially organic and attracts thousands of visitors each year, principally for the flowers and for the wildlife.

Arriving at Norwich Crown Court
Arriving at Norwich Crown Court
When he became president of the Ramblers' Association in 1984, he created miles of new footpaths across it. But one group decidedly unwelcome on his land is the hunting and shooting brigade. Peter Melchett is also vegetarian and refuses to eat fish.

His arrival at Greenpeace UK ushered in a new era as he brought in management systems and equal opportunities learned from the public sector.

The man, who has ignored the traditions of the class to which he was born, has maintained the tradition of direct action with which Greenpeace has long been associated.

He is not opposed in principle to GM technology but believes any testing should be in the laboratory, not in the fields.

Unlike the direct action taken over demands to lower fuel taxes which was condemned by all environmentalists, Lord Melchett's example has been based on environmental concerns.

But both have become thorns in the flesh of the UK Government.

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20 Sep 00 | UK
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