The joys and pains of documenting change

From Gonzi to Muscat, chronicling the environmental destruction at the hands of Maltese governments has been a mix of joy and pain

This is part of a series of articles celebrating 20 years of MaltaToday

For the past 14 years MaltaToday has been my second home, a place where I can put pen to paper to document and analyse the changes taking place around us. For in the space of 15 years Malta has changed a lot. It has moved fast from a conservative laggard which censored artists and toyed with the entrenchment of the criminalisation of abortion in its Constitution, to introducing divorce, same-sex marriage and having a more nuanced debate on abortion. It also changed physically… with 119,000 new dwellings being approved between 2000 and 2018, as building zones were extended and new policies facilitating the unrelenting land-grab by speculators were approved. Documenting all this has been at times uplifting but also painful and frustrating.

The detached lucidity and ‘pessimism of the intellect’, essential for correct analysis, often conflicts with the boiling passion from my activist days. Yet it is this productive tension which probably drives me on with my colleagues in our bid to present a picture of reality which informs but also encourages critical thinking.

Given my history in the green movement it was only logical to find myself stepping into the shoes of Julian Manduca, a friend and mentor in both environmental activism and journalism, who left us prematurely three months after I joined MaltaToday. His last article published posthumously, dealt with new height polices permitting extra floors in town centres, a theme which I found recurring in the planning stories I have followed in the next decade.

Julian’s untimely death coincided with plans to develop a golf course in Xaghra l-Hamra, land reclamation studies and the finalisation of local plans, three themes which dominated my first year at MaltaToday. The revelation that a drinking water protection zone was located beneath the proposed golf course at Xaghra l-Hamra went a long way in nipping the project in the bud. MaltaToday was also the first to report the termination of leases on agricultural land on the site of the proposed golf course. Less than two years later the project was aborted and the area was converted into the Majjistral natural park. This inaugurated a new tradition of using parks to greenwash governments with a bad environmental track record, but it also represented the end of the golf course pipedream. Thankfully the subject was never re-exhumed by future administrations. But Gonzi’s land reclamation idea, shot down in studies it had commissioned, was resurrected by Labour in 2013.

While there are enormous similarities between the two building booms, the one presided by a Nationalist government in the 2004-2008 period and the one presided by a Labour government after 2013, took place within a different media context. Back then, environmental awareness was still emerging. The pale blue middle-class was still swayed by the narrative of progress, which they were more willing to shed after 2013. Neither was the environment a priority for other media. MaltaToday was a forerunner in reporting environmental and planning issues.

But 2006 represented a watershed as mobilisation against the new development boundaries and local plans gained momentum. MaltaToday was at the forefront in establishing who was really benefitting from the addition of pockets of land to the development zone. I remember spending two consecutive nights cross-referencing pending planning applications with each ‘rationalisation’ plot.

I also unsuccessfully raised the issue of the legality of the new local plans with the European Commission due to the absence of a Strategic Environment Assessment, a legal requirement that applied to plans approved after 2014. The banal excuse given to exempt Malta from this requirement was that the process had commenced before 2014 – it thought me the important lesson of stop perceiving the EU as a knight in shining armour, rushing to rescue the Maltese environment.

MaltaToday was also at the forefront in scrutinising business interests behind road projects proposed in the Gonzi era. One case in point was developer Silvio Debono’s interest in the proposed new road network passing right behind the Ghadira nature reserve, bringing the beach closer to the newly approved DB hotel outside development zones in Mellieha. The roads project was later scrapped.

The construction waste problem associated with mega-projects was also an issue we tackled back then. In 2009 MaltaToday revealed how the government had knocked off €3.3 million from a €4.5 million tariff that Albert Mizzi’s MIDI plc had to pay for construction waste dumped at sea between 2001 and 2006. The waste bill was discounted on the basis of a decision taken in 2001, according to which the dumping fee for construction waste at sea was to be equivalent to that on land. The MaltaToday probe had established that more than a million tonnes of construction waste was deposed by MIDI in an offshore “spoil ground” located northeast of Valletta harbour. Ironically 10 years later, the government is still considering dumping more waste in this spoil ground as a temporary solution to the problem.

Still, even the least environmentally-friendly governments have come to realise that there are limits, something which may be happening to Joseph Muscat now as happened to Lawrence Gonzi before him. Gonzi’s ‘ODZ-is-ODZ’ commitment was never clear-cut but represented a change of heart, which resulted in new policies forbidding the regularisation of illegal ODZ development. Ironically this was one of the policies scrapped by Labour after 2013. Yet just months after the 2008 election, we published a promise he had made away from the cameras to regularise the Armier squatters. High-rises at Mistra and Fort Cambridge were also approved in 2009 in the absence of any policy, a year after Gonzi was returned to power. A year later the DB Group’s hotel in Ghadira was approved outside development zones.

Despite these recurring hiccups some timid steps forward were made, including the appointment of full-time PA boards replacing the part-time boards composed of architects who found themselves taking decisions which impacted on past, present and future clients. As a result of the slowdown in construction after 2009 the environment started to slip from the list of public concerns.

Analysing the ramifications of the divorce referendum and the PN’s crisis of hegemony after 2009 became a more interesting and pressing task. So was Muscat’s rise, confirmed in polls for which I was responsible at the time. While largely receptive to the winds of change, MaltaToday was also among the first to take Muscat’s ambiguous environmental plans to task, along with his hawkish talk on migration, before he was elected.

It was no great surprise that the first two years of a Labour government kept me busy delving into new plans being concocted to open new possibilities for building contractors and developers, and often drafted by committees composed of poachers-turned-gatekeepers. It was thanks to MaltaToday’s vigilance that an attempt to grant anonymity to anyone (including speculators) proposing changes to local plans and other plans was later aborted by the PA itself.

The onslaught of new policies, including one facilitating the development of ODZ petrol stations and others allowing hotels to rise above height limitations, were initially met by general complacency as the government continued to enjoy its honeymoon, which was also marked by remarkable achievements in the civil liberties and social policy.

It was the Zonqor development which represented a turning point for the environmental protest movement just weeks after a close miss in the spring hunting referendum. For us at MaltaToday it was natural to question land deals which saw successive governments selling land at a pittance to private interests. When back in 2007 MaltaToday was practically the only media outlet to raise questions on the Smart City land deal, the animosity of government officials was palpable. Yet the scale of the initial development proposed at Zonqor in a memorandum of understanding with the Sadeen Group, took many by surprise, triggering a wave of anger among environmentalists, which eventually led to a national protest in which I personally took a leading role. This led to the downscaling of the Zonqor campus and a conscious effort by the PN to co-opt environmental concerns despite a poor record in office.

Despite concessions on the environmental front, with government indefinitely postponing changes to the local plans, the anger among a segment of non-partisans continued to grow following the Panama Papers revelations. Yet looking back at what happened in the rollercoaster of events between 2015 and 2017 stands out as a lesson in the short-circuiting of justified anger by overriding political realities.

The unfolding of events provided lots of fodder for political analysis on my part, even if the heightened polarisation, the institutional paralysis, and the constant raising of stakes by the Opposition – even by serious but often unsubstantiated allegations – made the task more arduous, painful and sometimes impossible. This toxicity of this climate was further amplified by the brutal assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia and the dynamics it unleashed.

For me it was a life lesson in the risks posed by Manichean narratives which pit good against evil in a highly toxic partisan environment. This climate not just undermines journalistic rigour by weaponising it, but also erodes a wider consensus for good governance, environmental and social justice.

Thankfully over the past year we have seen a more serious attempt to channel justified anger on environmental issues in more inclusive movements like the ‘Enough is Enough’ protest. A fair, incisive, non-partisan and nuanced journalism can contribute to an uplifting positive change by encouraging critical thought.

The liberalisation of social mores over the past decade is proof enough that Maltese society is not static. Whether the same process will be reflected in change in governance, environmental protection and a greater challenge to the dominance of big business interests remains to be seen.