Stop politicizing the environment

The Maltese government, under both Nationalist and labour administrations, has consistently championed the cause of spring hunting ever since the early 1990s, when it first became an electoral issue. And as we are witnessing with the MEPA reform, it would appear that both parties are equally keen on placating a well-heeled development lobby.

This week the Nationalist Party submitted a parliamentary motion calling on the government to expropriate a plot of land adjacent to the Ta’ Hagrat temples in Mgarr, after the Malta Environment and Planning Authority approved a development permit for the site a few weeks ago.
At face value, it is not difficult to disagree with the PN’s objections to the proposed 96-square-metre development, a mere 10 metres away from an irreplaceable UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As rightly pointed out in the motion, Malta’s responsibilities under the UNESCO Convention of World Heritage in 1972 preclude any development that may threaten the integrity of such sites. Even without this consideration, it is unconscionable that a megalithic temple that has been standing for around 4,000 years should be in any way threatened... least of all by a permit issued by the national agency responsible for the preservation of the environment and cultural heritage.

Under the circumstances, expropriation against compensation to the owners would be an entirely adequate response to this situation. Government would do well to heed this advice, and to approve the motion in parliament.

At the same time, however, the PN’s stance on this particular issue itself points towards the source of the problem. It was the Nationalist government that had revised the local plans in such a way as to make this development possible in the first place. From this perspective, the PN’s objections come across as opportunistic. One is obliged to enquire why the same party never objected at the time the permit was issued, and why it waited until a change in administrations before making its opposition to project known.

Similarly, one is reminded of objections to the same revision to the local plans from the Labour Party when still in opposition. The PL had endorsed popular protests against the controversial extension to the development boundaries in 2005. Yet now that it is in government, it has itself embarked on a series of similar reforms.

All the same, the Nationalist Party is correct in its present views, even if for all the wrong reasons, just as Labour had been correct when the shoe was on the other foot. And the Ta’ Hagrat permit is not the only example of an ostensibly environmental concern that has been hijacked by political considerations.

On Friday, a coalition of environmentalist organisations lambasted the recent MEPA reform, arguing that it merely concretises an existing situation that places developers beyond the reach of the law. Of particular concern was the relegation of the newly-formed Environment and Resources Authority to a single vote on the MEPA board: an abdication, the NGOs said, of MEPA’s original remit to protect the environment.
As Prof. Edward Mallia, of Friends of the Earth, put it: “Development and planning have always had the upper hand at MEPA.” The MEPA reform has served to strengthen the developers’ hand further, at the expense of environmental concerns.

Even outside the immediate sphere of MEPA, there are strong indications that the environment is being made to play second fiddle to political considerations. The situation with regards to spring hunting is a classic case in point. Successive governments have fought to secure a controversial derogation from European law, to permit a limited, controlled spring hunting season for two species: Turtle Dove and Quail. With each successive spring, however, there are widespread reports of illegal hunting, and despite a recent increase in the logistical capabilities of the police to enforce hunting laws, the situation has not been satisfactorily brought to book.

On the contrary, the police have used these powers to arrest Birdlife activists (allegedly for filming illegal activities), and the fact that one ALE enforcement officer also insulted these activists in crude terms also underscores the fact that members of the police force are biased in favour of the same activities they are supposed to police.

This all points towards an uncomfortable reality at the heart of all environment issues in Malta. When faced with a choice between properly enforcing environmental protection, and placating a specific lobby group at the expense of the environment, the authorities of this country will invariably opt for the latter.

The Maltese government, under both Nationalist and labour administrations, has consistently championed the cause of spring hunting ever since the early 1990s, when it first became an electoral issue. And as we are witnessing with the MEPA reform, it would appear that both parties are equally keen on placating a well-heeled development lobby which is understood to make significant cash contributions to both parties, in a country where political party financing is still not properly regulated.

In so doing, both Nationalist and Labour Parties have ultimately placed their own private interests ahead of the nation they supposedly exist to serve. Perhaps they should be reminded that the scope of their existence is not merely to maximise their share of the vote, and to attract the greatest number of undeclared financial contributions.

They are also supposed to be committed to the national interest, and are bound by international treaties and conventions (not to mention Malta’s own Constitution) which make environmental protection a topmost priority.

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