UNESCO will not save our heritage

Is democracy committing a suicide of sorts?

With everybody resorting to social media to say something they want to publicise, interesting letters to the press have become a rare occurance.

A letter published in The Times last Tuesday does make the grade, however. It was written by a Dutch businessman living in Malta who wrote from experience to the effect that if a country wants to ruin its heritage, UNESCO cannot stop it.

He was reacting to an article about the issue of an approved development permit on a site near Ġgantija Temple in Gozo. The Times investigated whether the site was within the so-called buffer zone around the temple or not. It quoted ‘UNESCO rules’ that state development cannot take place on such a site unless a heritage impact assessment has been carried out by the Heritage Committee of the country concerned.

This, the correspondent wrote, gave the impression that UNESCO’s bark was backed by some imaginary bite, when it is not. In the correspondent’s words ‘UNESCO itself does not enforce anything’ - it is up to the local authorities that have the reponsibility to preserve the world heritage sites in the country concerned. All that UNESCO could do is to remove the site from the list of World Heritage Sites.

He claimed that this is what happened in the case of a bridge in Dresden and a stadium on the waterfront in Liverpool.

Nothing new under the sun, of course - except that Ġgantija is much older than the sites he mentioned and that were removed from the heritage sites list by UNESCO.

Anyone who has been to Cairo and visited the pyramids, as I have done many moons ago, would certainly be impressed – negatively, of course – by the hotels and other informal buildings that have been allowed to be built so near to the Pyramids of Giza. Ġgantija, of course, is older than the pyramids.

Giza which is located only a few kilometers south of Cairo, was a small settlement in the beginning of the last century but has, over the years, expanded to become quite a big city today. Most Egyptian cities have seen a rapid increase of permitted buidings as well as uncontrolled and informal settlements very close to the monument area of the pyramids causing environmental and visual pollution. This happened as a result of people living in small villages in the countryside, being attracted to move to the cities for economic reasons.

In the opinion of many, the Egyptian authorities were not stringent and strong enough to resist this pressure with the result that buildings that are too near the pyramids have been accepted because now it is too late to remedy the siuation.

According to the World Heritage Centre, Historic Cairo was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1979, recognizing its ‘absolutely unquestionable historical, archaeological and urban importance.’ However, the site has suffered from neglect, deterioration, and encroachment over the years, and its boundaries and protection measures have remained unclear or lacking.

In Malta we are still in time with regards to many of our old heritage sites, even though some damage has already been done.

By protecting the World Heritage sites, we are not only preserving the past, but also enriching the present and shaping the future. We are contributing to the cultural diversity and dialogue, the scientific knowledge and innovation, the environmental sustainability and resilience, and the social and economic development and well-being of humanity. We are fulfilling our responsibility and duty towards our common heritage, and ensuring its transmission to the next generations.

But, at the end of the day, it is we Maltese who have to take the necessary action on such issues in our own country. The idea of reporting the local authorities to some international organisation – such as UNESCO – smacks of a puerile attitude, a remnant from our colonial past: ‘If you do not do this right, you will be reported to Daddy who will discipline you!’

I refrain from commenting on the permit issued for the development of a site near Ġgantija Temple in Gozo, but an Environmental Impact Assessment should certainly have been carried out during the processing of the permit.

I cannot but be surprised with the lack of action of the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage (SCH) that makes such a fuss on small inconsequential issues but then did not come up to scratch during the processing of this permit. It was only after the approval of the development permit that SCH has opened its guns full blast – as it should have done before the permit was approved.


Democracy in peril

A leader written by Zanny Minton Beddes, Editor-in-chief of The Economist and appearing in the magazine’s recent special supplement about the ‘World Ahead 2024’ refers to the danger that democracy – as a concept – is facing.

It foresees that ‘many elections will entrench illiberal rulers’ while other elections ‘will reward the corrupt and the incompetent’.

Democarcy gives a chance for anti-democratic and corrupt leaders to win elections and these elected leaders could subsequently endanger the very democratic system that put them in power. That is a problem that cannot be tackled unless voters are educated enough to put the long-term interests of their country before what appears to be their short term interest.

Since the leader was published, there has been the dramatic electoral victory of a far-right libertarian, Javier Milei, in Argentina, a success that was welcomed by far-right European poltical parties.

A 53-year-old economist, Milei promised ‘drastic changes’ to tackle Argentina’s ‘tragic reality’ of soaring inflation and widespread poverty. He also sent a message to the international community: ‘Argentina will return to the place in the world which it should never have lost.’ Make Argentina great again, I suppose!

Subsequently, the election in The Netherlands, a few days ago, has bequeathed an unexpected victory to the anti-EU far-right populist Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party (PVV) - a win that has triggered shockwaves in the Netherlands and could have reverberations across Europe and beyond. The PVV will be the largest party in the Dutch House of Representatives.

All this is happening while in the US, the odds of a second Trump term are alarmingly high.

Is democracy committing a suicide of sorts?