A new phase of environmental awareness

It is no longer just random voices in civil society calling for more awareness of such issues: the wider population is also beginning to feel the effects of our national negligence on the environmental front.

6 August 2017, 7:30am
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
It is hard to find silver linings when talking about the state of Malta’s environment these days. Though the country appears to be prospering economically, one cannot help but feel we are not progressing in equal step when it comes to protecting and preserving our severely threatened natural heritage.

This has been a dominant mantra in the press for many years now: this newspaper has since its inception called for a proper long-term development plan for the Maltese islands, with a view to creating a more liveable, breathable environment for local communities. NGOs and pressure groups have likewise consistently drawn attention to uncontrolled urban sprawl, among other factors contributing to an alarming loss of natural countryside in recent decades.

On some environmental issues there have been improvements. The quality of seawater has improved since the introduction of sewage treatment plants. Enforcement of wildlife protection may remain inadequate, but it is still a marked step forward from the situation two or three decades ago.

But we also seem to have reached a stage of critical mass-disillusionment. It is no longer just random voices in civil society calling for more awareness of such issues: the wider population is also beginning to feel the effects of our national negligence on the environmental front.

Frequent complaints about seemingly unrelated phenomena – traffic, for instance, or the inconvenience of roads blocked by building sites – may not be consciously motivated by environmental concerns... but the concerns are nonetheless of an environmental nature. It is a reality many are only awakening to now: but the ‘environment’ is about more than just trees, insects and wild flowers. It is also about quality of life: about families having enough space to divert themselves; children having safe places to play; communities having access to cleaner, greener and less claustrophobic surroundings than the ones they inhabit each day.

Yet despite being economically in a better position today to confront these realities, it appears that Malta is hell-bent on pursuing an uncontrolled hyper-development drive which ignores the needs and well-being of its citizens. Inevitably, this creates a level of discontent that is now beginning to concretise into civic action.

Since July 4, over 1,350 people have signed a petition asking the Planning Authority (PA) to turn areas such as Manoel Island, Hondoq ir-Rummien and Kalanka into public domain spaces. The initiative, started by Friends of the Earth Malta and Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar, is asking the PA to re-designate such areas accordingly, and to turn Manoel Island in particular into a national park.

This brings us to one of the few silver linings in our national environmental policies. This year, Parliament approved the Public Domain Act which empowers citizens to make such demands. One of the most important aspects of this law is that it imposes a burden on the State to protect public domain sites for future generations, safeguarding them from environmental destruction. It is also an empowering piece of legislation as it allows NGOs to suggest sites to be included as public domain sites. Significantly, it will be Parliament to eventually vote on these sites: democratising the sort of decision that is all too often taken behind closed doors.

Minister for the Environment José Herrera and eNGOs have also submitted applications for 23 other sites to become public domain. “Supporting these sites’ inclusion in the public domain means that these vast stretches of land… will be provided a further layer of protection to ensure they are not only maintained and preserved today, but safeguarded for generations to come”, Friends of the Earth said.

The broader implications go well beyond the current petition concerning Manoel Island, Hondoq and Kalanka. But those areas are in many ways emblematic of part of the bigger picture. All three are earmarked for either actual or potential future development. Manoel Island is leased out to a private consortium to build a residential/commercial complex. Hondoq is overshadowed by plans to build a yacht marina, while at Kalanka, efforts are underway to restore a dilapidated seaside hotel. The common thread concerns the exploitation of these areas for private commercial gain.  

It would, of course, be a mistake to rule out all such projects on those grounds. Commercial enterprise is not, after all, a crime; and everyone understands the importance of investment. But there is a counter-argument that cannot be ignored.

The importance of development to the country’s economic motor cannot be used as an excuse to trample over civic rights. There is room to argue that this is what happened in the case of Manoel island, where the public was unlawfully denied access to the foreshore.

In brief, decisions involving the use of such vital open spaces must be rooted in more than just commercial considerations. What about the good of the surrounding communities? The welfare and protection of wildlife? The importance of preserving what little remains of Malta’s natural landscape? Respect for our historical and archaeological remains?

Sadly, these considerations are often altogether overlooked. It is heartening, then, to see the enactment of legislation that gives a voice to these concerns. Hopefully, it will usher in a new phase in the fight for the environment.