Dear Joseph, natural parks are not bargaining chips

The Prime Minister plays a deceitful game by using a natural park in the south as a bargaining chip to justify a campus outside development zone that will accommodate 4,000 persons. NGOs should call his bluff.

Joseph Muscat and his environment minister, Leo Brincat, who so far has shown no will in standing up to the Labour administration’s pro-development, pro-business bias.
Joseph Muscat and his environment minister, Leo Brincat, who so far has shown no will in standing up to the Labour administration’s pro-development, pro-business bias.

Joseph Muscat wants to accommodate a foreign private concern by allocating 90,000 square metres of pristine ODZ land for the development of a campus for 4,000 students. The environmental impact on land use, services and infrastructure required to accommodate so many people in the countryside has yet to be assessed. But it seems that a decision has been taken to present a planning application on an ODZ site in Munxar, near Marsaskala.

Muscat says that this development “does not pollute” – ignoring the fact that construction contributes to more traffic, dust and other pressures on the country’s infrastructure.

But his greenwash comes in the proposition of a natural park for the south, a development he even says is inter-related – quite the surreal balancing act – suggesting that developers stand to lose from this natural park.

In reality Muscat is being deceitful. Both the natural park and the ODZ campus are proposed on land which according to present rules cannot be developed. The natural park will not extend the area where no development can take place. Developers will be losing nothing.

Muscat sees the natural park as a means to an end. The end in this case is even more development.

But the proposed campus will take away a piece of land that presently cannot be developed.

The natural park is a Machiavellian plot to co-opt opposition and greenwash yet another private development. What Muscat says is that a natural park can only be considered as a way of compensating more development. It is unthinkable for him to propose a natural park as an end in itself. In fact he sees the natural park as a means to an end. The end in this case is even more development.

Muscat yesterday hinted that MEPA may consider alternative sites for the campus. But government should have considered such sites before, and not after presenting an application on a particular site. In fact I cannot but smell a rat here.  Is the government proposing an outrageous site to minimise opposition to the development on a less sensitive site? 

Therefore if Muscat is serious on finding alternative sites, he should stop considering a site which is clearly unacceptable and commence a transparent site-identification process within the development zone. At this stage he should commit himself to exclude all ODZ sites.

Perhaps the ideal solution would be that of having the campus interspersed in different locations within the development zone. And that is what environmental NGOs should expect from him: a clear commitment that any such development will be limited to land which has already been developed or which is within development zones.

Malta has lost too much of its environment already. It is no longer the time for “balance”. It is no longer the time for compromise

Malta has lost too much of its environment already. It is no longer the time for “balance”. What we need is a government which is biased in favour of the environment and not one which seems to be a carbon copy of PN governments at their very worst. We need to extend the zone where no development can take place and not extend building boundaries again. It is no longer the time for compromise.

For environmental NGOs, Muscat’s indecent proposal is a test of their integrity. If they really stand for something, they should tell Muscat that they will refuse any collaboration on the proposed natural park until he excludes any development on ODZ land.

If Leo Brincat is incapable of standing up for the environment, it is clear that he does not have what it takes to be environmental minister.

If they accept any involvement in the administration of the new park without securing any commitment against ODZ development, they would simply be playing Muscat’s game. It is Muscat who tied the development of the new campus to the natural park. If ENGOs accept any role in the new proposed park, they would be giving their blessing to the campus project. On the other hand if the government shows good will by exluding the development of a campus on ODZ sites, they should support this initiative.

The Minister for the Environment Leo Brincat also faces a major test. Malta still lacks the environmental authority promised by Labour. The Environment Directorate within MEPA has been without a director for the past two years, (with MEPA chairman Vince Cassar serving as acting director). The whole policy edifice is being dismantled to accommodate more and more development. Brincat can no longer evade his responsibilities. If he is incapable of standing up for the environment by refusing to use a natural park as a bargaining chip to assuage opposition to ODZ development, it is clear that he does not have what it takes to be environmental minister.

But Brincat can make a difference. He can propose an alternative path. He can take it upon himself to commence studies to find a site for the campus development which is  located within development sites or  on a site which is already developed and does not require extensive infrastructural works like new countryside roads. If he can do this he will earn our good will again.

It took decades of struggles by environmentalists against previous governments to establish the principle that ODZ is ODZ. That is why ENGOs must draw the lines on this issue.

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