A field in Dingli: Malta’s all-powerful roads minister is faced down by residents

Graffitti activist Karen Tanti is one of the round-the-clock protestors who is prevented bulldozers from coming in close to the field, keeping at bay private contractors tasked by Infrastructure Malta to start works

Graffitti activist Karen Tanti (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Graffitti activist Karen Tanti (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

A tiny field in Dingli is the site of contention for Malta’s latest environmental struggle, and one redolent of the chasm between government’s all-powerful roads ministers and the rest of the island’s common mortals.

Moviment Graffitti activists have been occupying a patch of Dingli countryside for two weeks to prevent the construction of a new road that will pass through the field. The field lies at the end of two, parallel cul-de-sacs; but Infrastructure Malta wants to join the two alleyways by a road that had been once drawn up in the 1960s, but never completed. Residents are against IM’s plans.

Graffitti activists Karen Tanti and Silvio Micallef are among the round-the-clock protestors who have prevented bulldozers from coming in close to the field, keeping at bay private contractors tasked by IM to start works.

The action itself has shown to the rest of the country the kind of teamwork employed by the growing sophistication of Graffitti’s actions, with constant communication between all involved. “We alway update each other on what’s going on in the three roads and alleys. As members, we try to take turns and use a schedule – since we all work, we need to plan the days in advance to see who can be there,” Silvio Micallef said.

Karen Tanti said direct actions take a lot of work, both on-site and behind the scenes, with people writing and uploading posts online as well as promoting the work of Graffitti as it happens. “We’re in constant contact with the residents of the area, keeping each other updated, as well as with lawyers and architects who help us out when needed,” she explained.

For Tanti, this situation isn’t a matter of compromise – the works on the road should have never started in the first place, especially given that the necessary permits and expropriations weren’t eve in place when the works started on 22 March. “It’s about ensuring that certain issues are resolved before anything else happens,” she said.

Moviment Graffitti’s primary demand isn’t to stop works completely. “We want detailed plans of the schemed road based on the local plan, so we can see which carob trees and fields will be impacted, works should be stopped until expropriation of private land has been resolved with the owners,” he said.

“Legal amendments should be made so roads planned outside the development zone pass through a normal application process for development, and the laws regarding PA’s appeals tribunal (EPRT) be amended so that it’s clear that NGOs have the right to appeal against the decisions of the PA and the ERA.”

Infrastructure Malta is exempt from seeking permits for the construction of previously scheme roads, but Moviment Graffitti has challenged Infrastructure Minister Ian Borg and IM’s CEO Fredrick Azzopardi to show up on site to defend the works themselves. According to Tanti, the request to meet on site was refused, and so the NGO suggested a neutral venue.

This was again refused.

“We are still open for dialogue, and when I say ‘we’ I mean residents, farmers and activists, as this road will have a significant impact on everyone involved. It’s a real shame that Ian Borg did not accept to meet to help address these concerns.”

Silvio Micallef is one of the latest volunteers to join Moviment Graffitti, after witnessing activists taking action in Dingli last October to stop the first round of works. Since then, he decided to join the NGO as an active member. “Seeing a group of like-minded people voluntarily stand up for the rights of people and the environment encouraged me to get more involved. Obviously I care about the residents, not just because I am one, but because they are people who are impacted by this, so I felt that being both in Moviment Graffitti and being a resident gave us all an advantage in a way when deal with this issue.”

A judicial protest filed by three Dingli households against Moviment Graffitti came as no surprise to the NGO.  “It wasn’t all that surprising,” Tanti said. “There are a few residents who want the road and they have every right to speak out in favour of it of course. But we now have 250 Dingli residents who have signed a petition against the road, so it’s clear that the road is, in the great majority, not wanted.”

Tanti pointed out that Moviment Graffitti never claimed to be representing any residents. “We have, from the start, worked hand-in-hand with the people from the locality and we were together voicing our concerns from our own perspectives, as residents, as farmers, as environmental activists. When works first were attempted way back in October, the residents and farmers came themselves to stand with us against the road, and the same happened now in March.”

There have been several attempts at initiating a conciliatory meeting between Graffitti and the government authorities, but Tanti says there has been no confirmation of any dates. “A meeting was proposed with Ian Borg, environment minister Aaron Farrugia, and Martin Saliba from the Planning Authority, as well as residents representing the affected streets, farmers, and Graffitti members. The original plan was to meet on 29 March, with a time was set and a neutral venue was chosen. Everyone was on board except for Ian Borg, who had not confirmed his attendance,” Tanti said.

A last-minute confirmation for a 1:30pm meeting on Monday was only delivered to Graffitti at 12:15pm. “By this time, almost everyone was either at work or was not available, considering it was extremely last minute. We proposed doing it the next day, and 10:15am was the time given from their side. Everyone confirmed and took leave, only for Ian Borg to not confirm again. We were asked for a copy of our demands which we sent out, and we were informed that Borg and IM did not want to discuss our demands with us. After that, we did not propose another meeting.”

The Dingli protests haven’t been all fun and games, especially with contractors. Activists stood in front of the machines to prevent works on the first day, but the contractor operating the digger manouvered it dangerously towards the activists. “This was in full view of IM officials, and police, and nobody attempted to stop him, until finally one policeman told him that it was ‘better to stop’.”

Another worker brandished his chainsaw a bit too close for comfort to an activist’s leg, with no police or authorities intervening to stop him.

Both Micallef and Tanti feel there is a lot at stake with the construction of the Dingli road. “It will cut through swathes of ODZ land used for agricultural purposes to this day. No proper exprioriation of land has taken place prior to the commencement of works. The residents think that the real purpose of the road is to open up more land for development. That is why a lot is at stake.”