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The Countess of Mar is a long-time campaigner against the use of organophosphate pesticides
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New series CAMPAIGN HERO: Countess of Mar

Tom Levitt

1st November, 2010

In the first of our new fortnightly series getting the low-down from leading campaigners, we interview Margaret Mar, a victim of organophosphate (OP) poisoning, who has dedicated most of her life as a peer to campaigning on behalf of other victims

Known as ‘the sheep dip lady' by other peers and MPs she has persistently questioned a generation of government ministers to acknowledge the link between the use of organophosphates (a strong pesticide) by farmers and ill health. Until the early 1990s it was compulsory for farmers to dip their sheep in OPs to protect against sheep scab disease.

Thanks in part to her hard work the majority of OPs have now been taken off the marketplace and safety labels and directions on use are on all products. However, the government still refuses to admit a link between long-term, low-level OP exposure and ill health.

Campaigners put this down to government and industry fears over compensation claims from the farming community. The widespread respect for her campaigning was shown when she topped the House of Lords election over which hereditary peers would retain their seats.

We got her views on what makes a successful campaigner.

Corporations: work with them or against them?

I think they need to be checked so presumably that's against it. I'm having a go at Monsanto and GMs at the moment. I hate Monsanto.

What's the best way to motivate people?

I think personality has a lot to do with it and being accurate with it. Sagacity and veracity. Wisdom and truth. It is very important.

What is the best way of reaching politicians?

Writing to them. Again you've got to be careful with facts, no hysteria and keep it short - politicians can't read more than one side of A4. That's a battle I have the MEPS. Marshall your thoughts before when you're meeting someone face to face

What to avoid when campaigning?

Being aggressive. You've always got to be courteous to people - aggression doesn't help - no matter how badly you feel about something you have to be cool, calm and collected.

What about direct action?

I think quiet protests yes but avoid confrontation or violent protests. I think you will be respected in the long run. You can protest but as soon as you start getting blood around the place people don't want to know.

It's important to recognise when you're in a battle that you can win. On the other hand if there's something that is hopeless, save your energy for something that you can do. Don't waste your energy on a battle that you cannot win.

Some things you can stand by on principal which doesn't affect other people very much. Energy, I found for my own personal point of view, is a very important asset and you've got to conserve it. I could be taking part for example if someone asked me to fight this family allowance but you're not going to stop the government cutting family allowance.

I made an exception for OPs because people have been made sick by it and we could stop other people from suffering. People without family allowance aren't going to be that deprived.

What other campaign has caught your attention?

I'm also campaigning for people with CFS/ME - illnesses with unspecified symptoms and severity fluctuates. They get short shrift from the medical profession - it's a bit like the Gulf War veterans. There are all sorts of things that could cause their symptoms so I have an understanding. To be told it's all in your head is not what you need. I've got to win that battle and get recognition from government departments and the health profession.

What campaigns should individuals get involved in?

Anything that affects their lives and the lives of other people - certain situations are important to change.

Who is your campaign hero (past or present)?

When I first came into the house in 1975, a long time ago, there was a lady called Baroness Burton of Coventry and she came to me and she said to me do you mind if I give you a bit of advice. She said specialise my dear. At that stage I was only 35, the youngest woman in the House of Lords for 11 years - there were only 16 women.

I watched her operating and she stopped the airline cartels. I watched how she did it. They were all fighting each other to keep ticket prices high and she won. That's why you get flybe and Ryanair. I watched her all those years ago and took a leaf out of her book.

Do you have ideas for 'campaign heros' we should be talking to? editorial@theecologist.org

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