An environmental rebirth

It would seem that an unintended consequence of the Zonqor controversy was to place the environment back at the forefront of the national agenda

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

This Saturday’s protest against the proposed development at Zonqor point represents a milestone in the history of the environmental movement in Malta.

The organising body, ‘Front Harsien ODZ’, was set up only a month ago, and is already supported by 21 non-governmental organisations. Environmentalists have in fact managed to build up a broad consensus against the proposal, one which transcends the notion that concern for the environment is limited only to a handful of activists, or to any particular social milieu.

Today’s discourse regarding the environment has broadened to include a national conversation which centres on the ODZ (‘outside development zone’) theme. Virtually unknown by the populace until only a few years ago, the acronym ‘ODZ’ has now become a familiar part of the country’s daily vocabulary.

Ironically, it would seem that an unintended consequence of the Zonqor controversy was to place the environment back at the forefront of the national agenda, and give a new lease of life to an environmentalist movement that was previously dormant.  

This may well be an indication that the Muscat administration may have misjudged the popular mood, and certainly underestimated the possible reaction of civil society, following the result of the Spring hunting referendum in May. 

If the government’s idea is to test civil society’s ability to mobilise its forces, and resist the current policies which encourage land-grabs in ODZ areas, next Saturday’s protest will provide it with an answer. The fact that environmentalists have felt confident enough to face the risk is itself an encouraging sign.

But even a huge turnout in Saturday’s protest is no guarantee for long term success… as indeed it was not when large crowds protested against the proposed ODZ extension in 2006.  

This in turn points towards a latent weakness within the budding environmentalist movement. Reacting to popular opposition, the present government has already succumbed to the strategy of portraying environmentalists as ‘enemies of progress’. Even more regrettably, it has sought to drive a wedge between the protesters and the people of the south of Malta: who are anticipating to benefit from a trickle-down effect of the wealth created from such projects. 

In view of this strategy, environmentalists must take pains to combat the misconception that their constituency is limited only to the affluent middle classes… a perception that is mostly due to the fact that educated and relatively well-off people are the most likely to value quality of life, while the working class tends to be more concerned with bread and butter issues.

One way environmentalists can combat the perception that they are “elitist” is by emphasising the importance of open spaces and the access to the countryside as a source of free recreation for the masses, in a society where everything is for sale.

In fact, apart from the farmers who may lose the land they have tilled for generations, those who stand to lose the most from this development are the people who live in the vicinity, and who regularly frequent this site… i.e., the same ‘people of the south’ whom the project is supposed to benefit.

This sentiment was expressed by Desiree Attard, the Labour deputy mayor of Marsaskala (also a Front Harsien ODZ activist), in a recent interview with MaltaToday.

“Zonqor is my childhood and it is the childhood of many other Marsaskala residents,” she said. “We walk there and we swim there. It is so insulting when you hear that this is a dumpsite or that it is ugly... it is not just an ODZ site: it is a beautiful place.”

Moreover, as highlighted by the The President’s Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society, exposure and access to green spaces could have a wide range of social, economic, environmental and health benefits. On the other hand, opening areas in the countryside for development also means more traffic, more cars, more pollution, and ultimately a lower quality of life.

Ultimately, the whole economic argument is that development should be contained within the existing development zones… thus protecting what little remains of the unspoilt landscape, which in turn contributes to the beauty that makes Malta an attractive place for investment in the long term. 

Sadly, however, the present administration seems hell-bent on taking Malta in the opposite direction. Apart from proposing a large swathe of ODZ land for development, it has also significantly watered down existing regulations to safeguard the environment, through a series of reforms aimed ostensibly at “reducing planning bureaucracy”.

Saturday’s protest therefore represents an opportunity for the growing environmentalist movement to take a firm, collective stand against a misguided national development strategy that is likely to impact the quality of life for the worse. 

But if the government decides to press ahead by invoking a populist argument for economic growth – as it has done to date – then environmentalists are in for the long haul in the battle for hearts and minds. 

The government, too, stands to lose out in the equation: it risks losing the sheen of respectability and decency which had helped it win the 2013 general election with a vast majority.

One therefore hopes that common sense will prevail, and that the government will reconsider this proposal for the benefit of all concerned.

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