The natural park carrot for the ODZ university stick

Finding themselves on the receiving end of Joseph Muscat’s carrot and stick strategy poses an existential dilemma for environmental NGOs as the twin prospect of a natural park and an ODZ development loom

One major dilemma environmental NGOs are facing is whether to embrace the new national park proposed on 500 tumoli of land which is being concurrently proposed with the development of 90,000 square metres of outside development zone (ODZ) land located in the Zonqor area of  Marsaskala. 

In a mildly worded statement issued yesterday, following a meeting with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat on Monday, environmental NGOs made no reference to the proposed natural park but limited themselves to proposing various historical forts in the Kalkara-Zonqor stretch as an alternative to locating the campus on undeveloped ODZ land in the Zonqor area.

From the very start Joseph Muscat has been keen on twinning the proposed natural park with the proposed campus by announcing the two developments on the same occasion in a speech delivered on May Day. 

This suggests that the natural park is not being proposed as an end in itself. 

In fact the impression given so far is that the natural park is being proposed as a means to an end. The end in this case is even more development.  

Muscat also said that just as environmentalists stand to lose from the development of some ODZ land developers also stand to lose from the proposed natural park.

In reality both the natural park and the ODZ campus are being proposed on land which according to existing rules cannot be developed. 

As such, the natural park will not extend the area where no development can take place – so developers will be losing nothing.

The fact that the park will be part financed by the Jordanian-owned American University can be seen as a crude attempt to greenwash an ODZ land grab.

NGOs are faced with the dilemma of whether to embrace a new park which is linked with an ODZ development in its vicinity. Moreover if they get involved in the park’s management NGOs may well end up being financed by a university whose campus is located on ODZ land. 

On the other hand, as pointed out by NGOs, the foreign university which prides on its partnership with the Chicago based Catholic De Paul University, may be embarrassed by involvement in controversy with environmentalists.

“As a university that prides itself on having ‘more than 45 specialised centres and institutes focused on addressing social justice issues’ DePaul University must surely not want to be associated with such a serious national injustice”, the NGOs said. 

The site selection game

After confirming that 90,000 square metres of “unused” agricultural land have been identified as the preferred site for the new campus, the government has hinted that it will be considering alternative sites in the south of Malta.

In reality the government was very quick in confirming claims made by AD that the new campus is to be located in the Munxar area of Marsaskala.

But while both the Prime Minister and Environment Minister Leo Brincat have opened up to environmentalists, the Labour party’s media are raising the expectations of Marsaskala residents by highlighting the trickle down impact of the huge project.

It remains unclear how the site selection process will be conducted, which sites will be considered and what role NGOs will play in the process.

There are three ways a site selection exercise can be conducted.

One option is that of assessing the potential of alternative sites as part of the EIA for the preferred site. This was the process used by the previous government when assessing the environmental impact of the Sant’Antnin recycling plant.

Another option is to ask MEPA to conduct an ad hoc study to find an ideal site for the development. This was the method used to identify a site for a proposed golf course by the previous government after the Verdala golf course was turned down in 2004. 

Yet another option would be that of asking an ad hoc committee appointed by the government to assess the potential of different sites. In this way the government would be able to involve different stakeholders. 

Replying to questions by this newspaper on Wednesday MEPA confirmed that a preliminary site assessment has already taken place and has concluded that the proposed site is acceptable.  Alternative sites will be assessed within the Environment Impact Assessment for the preferred site (iz-Zonqor).


A double-edged sword for NGOs

Involvement by environmentalists in any site selection process offers them the chance to appear constructive and gives them the rare opportunity to influence decisions.  

But they risk venturing into an area which falls outside their expertise and to step on murky political grounds where they might end up serving in the role of ‘useful idiots’. 

Much depends on whether Muscat is hell bent on going ahead with the new campus on ODZ land and is only interested in green washing his choice, or whether he is sincerely open to suggestions by NGOs in a bid to regain the green credentials he lost in the spring hunting referendum.

By participating in a site selection exercise, NGOs would have to accept that the outcome could be one which they do not desire.  

In so doing they may end up legitimising a process which may either crown their effectiveness or expose their irrelevance.   

In their statement NGOs have indicated that they have accepted the principle that the new university has to be built somewhere. What will NGOs say if the alternatives they are proposing are deemed not to be feasible?

One key issue is whether the site selection process will include ODZ sites like Iz-Zonqor. For if this were to be the case NGOs may well end up participating in a process which may well confirm that iz-Zonqor is more feasible than other proposed sites.  

Moreover NGOs will have no say in determining the requirements of the new university. That is something which can only be determined by the government and the investors themselves. 

Therefore if the university needs 90,000 square metres of land, they will have no alternative but to find a site which is as big as that.

They also run the risk of proposing sites for development which may not be chosen for this investment, which will return to haunt them in the future when new developments are proposed on the very sites proposed as alternatives in a desperate bid to avoid development at Iz-Zonqor.  

The Ricasoli alternative

Alternattiva Demokratika was the first to thread on thin ice by proposing Fort Ricasoli as the site for the new university.  

The site surely has advantages – it is 70,000 square metres in area, 20,000 square metres short of the required 90,000 square metres, and is presently in an abandoned state which cries out for restoration. AD has also proposed that the remaining 20,000 square metres are developed in Smart City, a proposal which would require the consent of a third party.

By proposing a site AD has also proved that its primary aim is not that of torpedoing a development which may have a positive impact on the economy. In that it has dispelled the perception that it is a negative anti-development party.

But AD may have overstepped its role as a political party by delving into site selection, an area which requires technical expertise and comprehensive studies.  

What will happen if the government does give adequate consideration to this site? What if studies show that the inevitable consequence of accommodating a building meeting the architectural requirements of a modern university would be that of turning Ricasoli into yet another ugly development like Fort Chambray?

What if the choice is limited to over-development of a historical building and a “beautifully” landscaped ODZ development? The use of Fort Ricasoli may also clash with other interests, like those of the film industry.

On their part NGOs have so far refrained from identifying a single site and have proposed spreading the university in different buildings interspersed in historical forts in the Kalkara-Zonqor stretch. Although not mentioned Fort Ricasoli is the largest of these forts and its inclusion would be vital for the feasibility of the NGO proposal.

The problem for NGOs is whether this could also pave the way for more development in between these historical sites.

Converting old forts in to lecture rooms and halls may be impossible without embarking on major works which may result in unacceptable accretions on these buildings.   

NGOs are also insisting that access to historical sites for Maltese inhabitants is secured while at the same time accepting the principle that these forts are handed over to a foreign university. Ironically the same NGOs have recently backed a bill proposed by the PN to enable the government to incorporate these sites in the public domain, thus excluding their commercialisation.

The government has already taken a hint from the suggestion made by AD and environmental NGOs, for it is now sounding out the possibility of incorporating in the new campus development St Leonard’s Fort, which lies in the vicinity of the ODZ area already identified for the project.  

The risk of this is that as happened in the case of MIDI’s restoration of the Manoel Island fort, the restoration of abandoned pieces of heritage may be used to green wash unsustainable development in their surroundings.

Previous site selection studies

The previous government had excelled in using site selection exercises to influence public opinion, although it never resorted to involve NGOs in its game.  

In 2001 it proposed two sites for an engineered landfill; one in Birzebbugia, which was clearly unacceptable, and the former dump in Maghtab.

Another more professional site selection exercise was conducted by MEPA to choose sites where a golf course could be developed. The study identified problems with all sites which had been considered. Ultimately the government ended up overruling MEPA by proposing the Xaghra l-Hamra site, which was not even considered in the site selection exercise.

A site selection exercise was also carried out as part of the EIA for the Sant’Antnin recycling plant.

According to a report by MEPA’s audit office, the alternative sites considered were chosen by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority on the wrong premise that the Sant’Antnin plant currently covers a land area of 1.8 hectares.

In fact, the current recycling plant in Marsaskala covers an area of 4.5 hectares.

All the alternative sites identified by MEPA were less than half the size of the current location in Marsaskala.

The management of natural parks was also used as a carrot for NGOs by previous governments.

ENGO Nature Trust was involved in the management of the Dwejra natural park in Gozo, whose action plan paved the way for the approval of a number of illegal boathouses before the 2008 general election.

After ditching the Xaghra l-Hamra golf course the PN government also involved ENGOs in the management of the Majjistral park.  

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