Out of Africa

Alex Briault is known to many Longridge and district pet owners through his work as a locum vet, but he has also been one of the main movers in a campaign which is having influence on a global scale.

GROWING up living partly in Africa and partly at a public school in Devon gave Alex Briault a practical insight into the inequalities which exist in the world.

Life in newly-independent Zambia, where his father was a vet and college lecturer, was great for young Alex.

He recalls: "It was an exciting time. When you are a child you accept such things as walking safaris in the bush, with the possibility of a leopard round the corner or a snake... it's very different to living in Lancashire."

His African adventures helped to sow the seeds for his lifelong interest in development and related issues which he continues to champion.

Recalling his African childhood, Alex, 42, says: "I saw the Third World at first hand. I was interested in the contrast between the beautiful country with its biodiversity and the happy-go-lucky people, but also the poverty compared with what we are used to seeing in this country."

In those early years he became conscious of companies making millions from the Zambia's copper industry - while most of the population was on the poverty line.

"In Britain we had North Sea oil, and everybody benefited. In Zambia there was a lot of money to be made, but it was not going to the people who had the first claim to it," he says, adding a contemporary comparison with oil-rich Nigeria, where there is also great poverty.

In the late 1970s, the increasingly volatile security situation in Zambia, caused largely by the influx of guerillas from neighbouring Mozambique and Rhodesia, prompted Alex's father to decide to return to Britain, where he obtained a new job with the Ministry of Agriculture at Barton Hall.

Although the family, whose distinctive surname can be traced back to their Huguenot origins, settled at Barton, Alex was now a full-time border studying science A-levels at Blundell's School, Devon - having decided around the age of nine that he wanted to follow his father's profession.

A "gap" year prior to university saw Alex at Whittingham Hospital Farm, near Longridge, working with the animals, and people with emotional and behavioural problems.

He, along with many other people in the area, has strong views on what happened at Whittingham since then.

"The people could get a lot out of being so close to the animals. It was a crime that the place was later shut down," he said.

After five years study at Liverpool University, where he occasionally rubbed shoulders with another, older, veterinary student called Bruce Crowther, he qualified and began a six-year stint with Pearson and Thompson vets on the Leachfield estate at Garstang.

That brought him into contact with numerous farmers throughout the Garstang and Bowland area as he worked with their cattle, sheep and pigs.

It also helped him realise the vital link between local farmers/food producers and local communities.

Alex was environmentally aware long before it became fashionable or the Kyoto Agreement was even dreamt of.

Being thoroughly conscious of issues such as sustainability, global warming, threatened eco-systems, bio-diversity, and the need for equitable world trade, etc., he decided to take time out to do some serious studying of the vitally related topics, spending a year doing a Masters degree in Human Ecology at Edinburgh University.

After his Edinburgh studies his ambition was to work part-time as a vet and part-time in environmental education.

The environmental education side of things did not quite work out - though his growing involvement in Garstang Oxfam and eventually his taking on the chair of the town's Faitrade steering committee falls certainly within that category.

That period, in the early 1990s, coincided with his support for the Garstang Oxfam Group which had been founded by his fellow vet Bruce Crowther, the unassuming Garstang campaigner whose efforts in promoting Fairtrade have become legendary.

Alex said: "It was a meeting of minds. What Bruce has is a great deal of determination and drive and ambition. He is good at getting people to do things and getting rid of inertia and complacency - I am not good in any of those things!"

He adds: "I already had well formed views on development issues and felt the work of Oxfam was vital."

Throughout the 1990s the Oxfam group went on to spearhead the charity's efforts to improve awareness of Fairtrade matters, and the difference individuals and communities could do to improve the lot of Third World producers.

Traders in Garstang were won round, and many of them agreed to stock Fairtrade-designated products, particularly tea and coffee, and to use such products in the workplace. Churches and the town council also voted to use Fairtrade tea and coffee.

Talks with the Fairtrade Foundation about Garstang becoming a Fairtrade town resulted in the formation of Garstang Fairtrade steering committee, with Alex as its first chairman (a post he has held until recently).

The group was evangelical about their efforts to promote Faitrade awareness and Garstang was named as the world's first Fairtrade town in 2001 (with the road signs being erected in February of that year).

Commenting on the growth of the consumer consciousness of Fairtrade Alex said: "It grew slowly then the volume of trade started to get to a level where people took a real interest, including the supermarkets."

The Fairtrade campaign has since been embraced by many major store chains, the number of products has multiplied, and now there are more than 100 towns and cities throughout the UK which qualify for the title Fairtrade community (meeting similar critieria to that which made Garstang the first).

Alex believes Garstang has acted as a focus for Fairtrade campaigning around the world - including places as far afield as Canada and Japan. And he points to worldwide press interest in the town, and numerous media articles, as proof of that.

"People are happy to see the seed of an idea which is successful. The seed in this case was planted in Garstang."

He is conscious that more work needs to be done, particularly in explaining to local farmers that their efforts are embraced by Fairtrade ideas.

"It's ridiculous importing lamb from New Zealand when we can be getting perfectly good Lancashire lamb from just down the lane. It makes sense on so many levels.

"There are many parallels between the economic problems felt by local farmers and food producers in developing countries," he said.

Interest in Fairtrade so far in Longridge has been mainly limited to a few commercial outlets, including the Co-op and the Greenhouse Health Food store, as well as a recent project by young people in the town.

While there is a growing awareness of Fairtrade issues in Longridge, there is, as yet, no specific organisation in the town championing the worthy cause.

But the project by young people at the youth and community centre, Berry Lane, and the stocking of Fairtrade products by some commercial outlets, plus the likelihood of Lancashire getting Fairtrade county status soon, is all encouraging news.

Support from traders and the town council at Garstang has been vital in Alex's campaign in Garstang, though he would like to see more active support from Wyre Council and Garstang Partnership.

He has now handed over the leadership of the Garstang Fairtrade steering group to Elaine Gisbourne, wife of Garstang's vicar Rev Michael Gisbourne, and is confident of her ability to continue to fly the flag for Fairtrade in the wider area.

"She is going to make a fantastic leader of the group - she has a brilliant attitude."

He is modest about his personal achievements describing himself as "just a part-time vet and part-time house husband!"

He does veterinary locum work for a Longridge-based veterinary business led by Andrew Hutcheson, with most of the animals he deals with being household pets.

He also works part-time for Vet Care of Leigh, near Wigan, and for the Garstang-based Arcade practice.

Life at the family home in Hollins Lane, Forton, close to the boundary of Bowland, is hectic.

Wife Tina is an English teacher at Broughton High School, while his football-mad sons Sam, 11, and George, seven, like their father before them seem to know at a young age what careers they want to follow.

Sam is interested in becoming a children's book illustrator while young George is keen on becoming the next Jamie Oliver... no doubt with Fairtrade food firmly on the menu!

l Alex will be one of the 100+ people attending the fifth anniversary party for Garstang's Fairtrade Town status at Garstang Golf Club tonight (Friday,March 10).

Special guests will be TV newsreader and Fairtrade Foundation patron George Alagiah and African mango farmers Issaka Sommande and Arsene Sourabie from Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta) in West Africa.