Reclaiming control over the environment

The broader aims of the protest was to raise awareness of the environmental plight of the Maltese islands

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Over the last week, a number of people representing different organisations got together for a spontaneous demonstration against overdevelopment, by pitching tents on the esplanade in front of Castile Palace, Valletta.

As usual for this type of event, the gathering was not particularly large in number. But in a country where non-partisan events traditionally attract low turnouts, it would be unwise to dismiss this protest as being non-representative of society at large.

Entitled ‘Kamp Emergenza Ambjent’, the broader aims of the protest was to raise awareness of the environmental plight of the Maltese islands. 

“Malta is by far the most built-up country in the EU, and yet new large projects that will destroy the environment are still being proposed,” one of the activists – Andre Callus from pressure group Moviment Graffitti – told the press. “The environmental situation in Malta has become an emergency, and its ongoing destruction poses a threat to the country’s future… It poses a threat to our quality of life, and our right to health, unpolluted air, and access to green spaces. We will stay here until we feel that our message has been heard and understood.”

It is certainly no exaggeration to term Malta’s environmental situation an ‘emergency’: in recent years, the country has embarked on a construction and development overdrive, and the present government has made it almost an unofficial policy to pursue the monetisation of even ODZ (outside development zone) areas, in direct defiance of its own earlier electoral promises.

Recent changes to the structure plan – which must be viewed in the context of the government’s controversial decision to sacrifice virgin land for the construction of a private university at Zonqor Point – have explicitly facilitated ‘exceptions’ to justify ODZ development. Even worse, the government itself defended the project by arguing that it would only be viable if built on ‘protected’ land… thus effectively handing a coup de grace to the entire concept of environmental protection in this country.

But the significance of this ‘Occupy Wall Street’-inspired initiative goes well beyond the immediate environmental statement implied in the slogan. Implicit in the aims and objectives is also a stand against the socio-economic dynamic that makes the continued rape of Malta’s ever dwindling countryside not just inevitable, but also up to a point also ‘desirable’. It is a dynamic with symptoms that can be seen in other areas, too. Apart from rampant overdevelopment, which is always justified in economic terms, we are witnessing the gradual monetisation of all public spaces: physical as well as symbolic.

Perhaps the most bizarre example of this mentality in action was Transport Malta’s recent decision to permit advertising on floating billboards in Malta’s most picturesque, scenic bays. This decision was hastily retracted following public outcry: a fact which, in itself, indicates that the authorities often do need to be jolted back to their senses by protests.

The fight against abusive development may have been at the forefront of the street-action; but lurking in the background is widespread discontent with the prevailing economic direction of the country as a whole. And it is a direction that enjoys the approval of the entire country’s political establishment: not just the present administration.

“We believe that both Nationalist and Labour administrations have pursued a policy of favouring the few wealthy businesspersons, contractors and developers at the expense of the environment and the general population,” Callus said. “To protect our future, we have to show that we care for the environment and that we are ready to put real pressure on Malta’s political elite.”

It would be facile to argue against the first part of that declaration. Time and again we have seen similar decisions to hand over public land for development – mostly resulting in the construction of new apartments and residential units, at a time when over 70,000 properties lie vacant – when this, from an environmental point of view, is the one luxury Malta simply can’t afford.

Despite paying lip service to environmental concerns, both parties have favoured the status quo when in power… even if they both protested against similar decisions when in opposition. But this only draws attention to the second part of Callus’ observation: the part concerning the need for public action to pressurise the establishment into change.

In a country where the two political parties have exercised a quasi-monopoly over public activism in recent years – mobilising tens of thousands of people for electoral purposes, and wielding excessive power over people’s private data, etc. – it is becoming increasingly crucial to re-establish the basic rules of engagement. No one can deny that governments of all hues have a tendency to brush off concerns when they come from ordinary citizens: people who are unhappy with the system, but who lack the means to mobilise crowds or raise awareness via conventional means.

What the powers that be might not realise is just how widespread this discontent really is. Activism such as the ongoing ‘Kamp Emergenza Ambjent’ is therefore important precisely because it reminds the political establishment of a simple truth it seems to have forgotten: i.e., that politics is actually in the service of the general public (as opposed to vice versa).

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