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Blinded by a pro-business vision | Alfred Baldacchino

Environment policy has been sacrificed in the name of short-sighted greed. Alfred E. Baldacchino, a former assistant director at the Environment Protection Directorate, outlines how this was achieved

raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo
21 June 2015, 10:00am
Alfred E. Baldacchino (Photo: Ray Attard)
Alfred E. Baldacchino (Photo: Ray Attard)
These are challenging – if a little depressing – times to be at the forefront of environmental issues in Malta. Yesterday’s protest in Valletta may have been sparked by a single planning decision – to sacrifice 150,000 square metres of arable, ODZ land for the construction of a university campus – but lurking in the background were growing concerns that the country is slowly but surely dismantling its environment protection infrastructure.

Evidence for this was provided by none other than the CEO of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA) at a parliamentary committee meeting last Monday: when he candidly admitted that the report authorising the selection of Zonqor Point for this project did not include any input from the Envrionment Protection Directorate (EPD).

Alfred E. Baldacchino was present for that meeting, as he has been present for practically every environmental challenge to face Malta in recent years. I meet the former EPD assistant director at his Attard residence, and find him still re-living the arguments of Monday’s animated meeting. 

Before turning to his complaints about the site-selection process, let’s talk a little about the site itself. Zonqor Point. Protestors were indignant to hear the place referred to by defenders of the project as a ‘wasteland’ and ‘dumpsite’. What is the significance of this area for people like Baldacchino?

“My comments on the use – or rather, abuse – of this area are mainly based on the negative social and environmental aspects of this project. Because you cannot focus only on the social or environmental aspects; they go hand in hand. One might also add commercial aspects… but not on their own. Unfortunately, however, during last Monday’s discussion the project was being looked at just from a commercial point of view. And this is an official view of the project, by the competent authority: MEPA, which is still the authority responsible for the environment. And although the commercial returns, on their own, may be good, one cannot just ignore the social and environmental aspects. Because obviously, such a project will have externalities: hidden costs which eventually society and the environment will have to pay. Both socially, and ecologically…

This “greed”, he adds, has completely eliminated all social and environmental considerations from a decision which was taken almost as an obsession to develop this area. 

“I like to base my arguments on the electoral manifesto of ‘the movement’. I won’t call it a ‘party’, because in my opinion, presently, it would be an insult to the Labour Party and to the concept of socialism. This is not a socialist party. It is a movement… in fact, the government never refers to itself as socialist. To use an environmentalist analogy: this is a socialist party genetically modified into a far right, capitalist movement. This is shown by the various decisions being taken, and also by the help it gets from official entities which are supposed to be qualified and responsible for the management of social and environmental matters…”

One indication was the simple fact that MEPA went ahead and chose Zonqor Point without any basic studies or impact assessment exercises.

“The impact on society there, which has not been taken into consideration, is enormous. This area is the only open space, the lung, of this part of the island. Yet according to the electoral manifesto, ‘open spaces would be increased for the benefit of the people, from an environment and well-being point of view’.

“Great. Agreed. Now, if such an area already exists… why go against this direction, and propose development which will negatively impact society? The loss of that area will have social repercussions from a recreational and educational perspective, as well as from the point of view of science and ecology. Even commercially... because we also have to consider that the environment also has its commercial value. Development is not the only commercial activity…”

Another area where the government has departed from its pre-electoral pledges directly concerns the environment.

“We were told that ‘the environment would be given its full importance, and separated from MEPA so that it can function better in the interests of the people’. Agreed. In fact, I said I agreed with this before. But how is it being implemented? The environmental director is currently in limbo… no longer under the responsibility of the minister for the environment: he has no say whatsoever. He falls under the responsibility of the Prime Minister. And not only is the directorate rudderless, its officials not knowing whom they’re answerable to – they don’t have a director – but the latest blow to the environment is that when MEPA presented an official report to the government, it was a report without any input from the EPD…”

The EPD’s role would normally be to assess projects from both an ecological and also an infrastructural point of view. Baldacchino stresses that a serious decision on a project like this could not have been taken without this information. 

“The construction of a university campus for 4,000 students will have a serious impact on the infrastructure, both in the vicinity and beyond. The traffic problem, for instance. How will this development impact the well-being of the people in the area, and also the rest of the island? These have not been taken into consideration at all.

“Not only that, but the CEO of MEPA, when talking at the committee meeting, made it very clear that the environment directorate has been completely ignored. How can such a report be considered professional and holistic, how can it contribute to the well-being of the country from a social, environmental and even political perspective, when the only unit to have any expertise in this matter is completely by-passed… when its data is completely excluded from the report? Instead, the report was entrusted to somebody ‘anonymous’… because MEPA refused to name the officials who drafted it. Then we all pretend that this is a serious, professional document for the government to decide upon in the interests of the country…”

This naturally raises the suspicion that the decision to propose Zonqor Point was taken first, then all the necessary adjustments were made to the government’s environment planning policies to make it happen…

Baldacchino shrugs with a wry smile. “This report is… I’ll say it in Maltese… ‘igib il-bocca hdejn il-likk’. I don’t know the equivalent in English…”

Neither do I. But it’s a pleasing analogy for (roughly) ‘setting oneself up favourably for the next throw’ in bowls…

“And this, too, runs counter to the spirit of the Labour Party manifesto before the election,” he continues. “That manifesto explained that the ‘government would be dedicated to the protection of the environment: not because of the obligations arising from our membership in the EU; but because it is in the interest of the people… of this generation, and future generations’. How do we achieve this? By preventing the competent directorate from contributing its data – not its opinions; its data – to the final decision? I cannot understand this. I just can’t… unless, of course, the electoral manifesto has not been accepted and taken on board by the movement in government…”

Meanwhile there are other indications that official policy documents may be facilitating certain individual projects. It has been noted, for instance, that the newly revised ‘Strategic Plan for Environment and Development’ has been imbued with ministerial discretion to allow certain deviations from planning regulations “for projects of national importance”. Moreover, the document was launched at a time when the Planning Act of 2006 is no longer in force… and the replacement document doesn’t go into the same level of detail regarding implementation and enforcement… does Baldacchino share these concerns about SPED?

“In brief, I would describe ‘SPED’ as a policy document to ‘speed up’ development at the expense of society and the environment. I’m a little blunt, but that’s how I see it…”

He adds that it had already sped up the level of environmental degradation. “Although, during the previous administration, the environment wasn’t something nice and rosy, today it is far worse. Because all the legislative instruments that were there are being dismantled. The directorate exists only on paper: perhaps to honour some obligation that we have to have a directorate in the EU.

“If there were genuine interest, MEPA would have remained under the ministry for the environment, and when all the amendments had been done for the merger to take place, the environment directorate would have moved away from the ministry. But no, it was done the other way round, to accommodate development, and stifle environmental matters.”

It is this general policy direction, Baldacchino adds, that has led to this [yesterday’s] demonstration. “This will be attended by genuine socialists, genuine Labourites, genuine Nationalists, genuine AD supporters… the genuine man in the street who puts the interest of the country before the interest of any political entity.”  

At the time of our interview, the protest is still some days ahead. But already there are indications that the issue itself has (somewhat predictably) taken on a decidedly partisan hue. It remains to be seen whether the turnout will match Baldacchino’s expectations… but there is also something of a counter-protest going on, with at least one petition being circulated in favour of the project in the South of Malta.

Isn’t there a danger, then, that this issue will slip out of the grasp of all those ‘genuine campaigners’, and become just another pull on the ropes in a political tug-of-war?

“One has to keep one’s feet on the ground, and accept the fact that a percentage of the electorate on each side of the political giants – I would say around 35-40% – are the type who would be shown a circle, and told it is a square… and they applaud the speaker for telling them that. It’s a ‘square circle’ mentality. And the fact that there is a petition going around applies to this mentality. The same thing happened in the Spring hunting referendum. For me, this is just a declaration of political failure by a government that says it listens, but then doesn’t hear. If there is a genuine interest in good governance, the electorate has to be part of the decision. Otherwise, one can only conclude the decision has been forced onto the electorate…”

And yet his own example sounds ominous. The Spring hunting referendum went on to be won by the hunters, in no small part thanks to the involvement of party politics…

“Yes, but the political intelligentsia of this island, whatever colour flag they wave, will get the message from that referendum. If they really are intelligent, that is. It was a very strong message. Despite the political intervention to achieve a ‘yes’ result, the intelligent electorate did not heed both parties’ stand on the issue. 49% voted against party lines. So for the politicians, the result is worse than it would have been had people been left to vote without political influence. I would assume the politicians will realise that the floating voters – the ones who realise that a circle is round – can think and act for themselves.”

At the same time, those defending the project (politically-motivated or not) also argue that the ‘South’ of the country has traditionally been neglected and abused over the years; and that projects such as this represent a turn-around in the area’s economic fortunes. The project itself is being touted as an example of ‘sustainable development’. Does he agree with the ‘sustainable’ part… and, short of this type of large-scale investment project: what would an environmentalist propose for the economic regeneration of the South?

“Thank you for bringing up the word ‘sustainable development’. That’s a buzz-word today. Before ‘the environment’ was a buzz-word. Now it’s ‘sustainability’… which is used by some politicians in a way that doesn’t make any sense, and only shows that they don’t understand the meaning of the word. ‘Sustainable’ means that the activity undertaken ‘will not be detrimental to future generations, in their use of the same resources in the same way as they are being used today’. But no politician would intend to define what he means by ‘sustainable’…”

All the same, by opposing individual projects such as the proposed Zonqor development, the environmentalist movement in general often opens itself to the charge that it doesn’t see sustainability in any form of development whatsoever. Is there such a thing as development which is ‘sustainable’, according to Baldacchino’s definition? 

“I am not against commercial activity in any area, even in the area under discussion. But one has to take into consideration whether the commercial returns in the short term will outweigh the negative social and environmental impacts in the long run. The hidden costs, the externalities of the whole project… these will have to be borne by future generations. For example, I was quite surprised to hear the MEPA representative at last Monday’s meeting declare that this project will generate jobs for the people of that area… as, for example, cleaners.”

He gasps in mock surprise. “When you think that in the past, the Labour Party had tried to eliminate dependency on foreigners, because we had become a country of ‘cleaners’ for foreign interests… are we going to revert back to offering jobs as cleaners to foreign projects? It was quite surprising to me. This project was supposed to kick-start economic activity in the south. How? By providing cleaning jobs to people in the area?”

At the same time, however, we must also concede that cleaners do exist: and some of them might actually appreciate the chance of extra work…

“OK, fine. But how are we going to raise the living standard? Again, this is part of the commercial argument, and why you can’t exclude the social aspect from it. What is the government doing to raise the cultural standard and improve quality of life in the area? It’s offering menial jobs that, today, most people don’t want to do… And who said there’s no other type of commercial activity that can take place in an area which has so much historical and ecological value? You could have genuinely sustainable, eco-friendly activity, generating jobs without ruining the area… educational activities, for example. One natural asset we have, and which is being completely ignored, is the geographical position of the island which can attract tourists on the basis of the historical attractions we have. But this is not accepted, because it doesn’t give as immediate, high returns as development…”

He argues that this, too, forms part of the reason for yesterday’s protest.  “People are disappointed with the way their environment is being ignored, for a blinded pro-business vision. It’s good to have a pro-business vision, don’t get me wrong. But not a blinded one. Not at the expense of society and the environment…”