The power of perseverance | Claire Bonello

Malta faces an onslaught on the environment: a systematic wipe-out of ODZ areas, intensive urban sprawl and looming high-rise. But activist and eNGO lawyer Claire Bonello tells Matthew Vella that perseverance is why the green lobby is not going gently into that good night… and that a silver lining has come through with the Public Domain Act

Claire Bonello
Claire Bonello

The Planning Authority is dishing out permits like pastizzi, the government is meeting developers with Dubai and public land is being privatised for peanuts. It almost feels like the environmental lobby could just pack up and go home…

We’re not going anywhere. We’ll continue to stand our ground precisely because this is our home. If things are getting worse, we don’t throw in the towel, we find other ways of protecting our country, our health and wellbeing.

Environmental NGOs are adapting and exploring different ways of overcoming the challenges presented by the construction chaos and the lack of enforcement in all spheres. We’re being pro-active not just protesting. We’re suggesting mechanisms and laws that can provide solutions: from constitutional amendments to ‘environmental action clinics’, to exploring blockchain for sustainable purposes.

Yes, but what are the gains to be won in this ‘construction climate’?

We persevere for several reasons. In the first place, if we have been betrayed by a political class too beholden to the construction lobby, this is not a good enough reason to betray ourselves and future generations.

Secondly, it’s an undisputed fact that the present rate of untrammelled development is not contributing to the wellbeing, health, comfort or convenience of Maltese people or visitors. Leaving aside how ‘fugly’ everything looks. The unbridled and unregulated building, pollution and unsustainable practices are leading to a state where traffic congestion is turning every foray outside the house into a frustrating ordeal; pollution is detrimental to our mental wellbeing and the lack of open spaces where to practise sports and outdoor activities is turning us into a sick, obesogenic society.

We’d be masochists to accept that this is as good as it gets. Of course it has to get worse before it begins to get better. But we’re here for the long haul.

Fighting words indeed. But how do you respond to the premise that the environmental lobby suffers more defeats than wins?

It’s not the lobby that’s losing out. It’s the whole country. If you can’t sleep at night because of unregulated noise pollution, is that the green lobby which is suffering? If the sea is full of gunk, are not the families who can’t have a refreshing swim suffering? If even more open spaces continue to be given to the chosen few (and they are very few), it is families who can no longer enjoy simple, free recreation who are hurting.

These people, men, women, children, deserve a decent quality of life without being forced into being perpetual consumers buying air and light and life and space.

People are losing out to the commodification of everything, even air…

This reminds me of a conversation I had with one of the politicians I like. I was railing at the totally unfair granting of a massive beautiful unique tract of land to a company (it was a government-granted concession but I consider it to be theft by another name) and he jokingly called me a communist. But I don’t think that’s correct. It is whole communities who lose out with commercialization, overdevelopment and giveaways of public land. These are real people losing out – not some abstract tree-hugging lobby.

Even with strongest of protests, developers have had their way…

There have been times when the voice of reason has triumphed and the whole country has benefitted. A case in point is the golf course saga. At the time, golf courses seemed to be a given but civil society put up a strong and united front and eventually the government of the day agreed that it would be a water-sapping idea and shelved it.

Similarly – when another commercialised space was proposed instead of the George Bonello Dupuis garden in Sliema, civil society resisted the idea and for 10 years we’ve had a garden instead of yet another mall. That’s 10 years of open air and a bit of greenery for our kids to enjoy.

Resistance was not futile. It was fruitful.

And as my favourite columnist Molly Ivins used to say “the fun is in the fight”. Or “keep fightin’ for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don’t you forget to have fun doin’ it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin’ ass and celebratin’ the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was.”

Developers, and ordinary people, argue that construction must take place to turn the economic wheel… how do you counter the anti-business accusation?

On the contrary – we believe in business – good, efficient, sustainable, high-quality business and not this pillaging of our natural resources without a single thought about others. Everybody has the right to do well and to succeed but not at the cost of others.

It comes across better in Maltese “Kulhadd irid jiekol – imma had m’ghandu dritt jithanzer”. I mean – let’s get real – developers are gobbling up ODZ land for petrol stations and fast food joints. This is not economic survival, not even a faint attempt at balance. It is a kind of gluttony.

Labour’s re-election has pretty much sealed the unwritten consensus that people voted for development all the way…

An election is not a referendum. People voted the way they did for a variety of reasons and it would be absurd to consider their vote to be a deliberate vote to destroy their country – to shit in their own nest – so to speak. So let’s get that out of the way.

Also – look at the people speaking up in favour of keeping Malta green – there are the ever consistent exponents of Alternattiva Demokratika, the eNGOs and several Labour exponents too. Gzira mayor Conrad Borg Manché fighting for people’s rights to full and permanent enjoyment of Manoel Island, the indefatigable mayor of Qala, Paul Buttigieg, managed to keep Hondoq ir-Rummien pristine and unbuilt for over 17 years, the Labour mayor of Pembroke Dean Hili is also leading the council in objecting to an application to develop a huge swathe of green land in Pembroke. In beleaguered Marsascala, the deputy mayor and civil rights activist Desiree Attard constantly pushes environmental considerations and land use issues to the forefront. Labour MEP Miriam Dalli is very active in promoting sustainability issues. 

This is not to say that PN exponents and other entities are not pro-environment. I mention a few examples which I know of personally – the Sliema Local Council has the thankless job of battling the slum-ification of the town. They do a lot with the resources they have. The PN mayor of Valletta Alexiei Dingli has helped us eNGOs trying to uphold Valletta’s UNESCO status in the Townsquare high-rise appeal. Upholding environmental values cuts across party lines. But we have to do away with this misconception that Labour politicians are all crazy construction acolytes. To misquote Sting “I know Labour supporters love the environment too.”

Still – you’re talking about individual Labour councillors and supporters. What about the Cabinet? Planning laws have been changed simply to favour developers. Where’s the law and policy that defends the environment?

Here’s where we come to the silver lining. Yes – planning legislation has been rendered totally unfair (and we know who’s responsible for that). But credit where it is due. One of the first things Environment Minister Jose Herrera did on being appointed was to have the so-called Public Domain Act made law.

This groundbreaking legislation provides for the designation of territory and property within the Maltese Islands as public domain. Essentially this means that public domain sites are to be preserved in their nature and form. One of the most important aspects of this law is that it imposes a burden on the State to protect public domain sites for future generations, safeguarding them from environmental destruction.

It is also an empowering piece of legislation as it allows NGOs to suggest sites to be included as public domain sites. Parliament will eventually vote on these sites.

So we strongly encourage people to support the approval of all the sites by Parliament. This could be our last chance to save Kalanka Bay in Delimara or the stretch of beaches along the Sliema coast or Comino or Manoel Island. It’s very easy to do this either by sending an email to the Planning Authority on [email protected] or by post or by signing Friends of the Earth online petition on by the 11 August.

This is the time to act. It’s useless being complacent or defeatist. Utilising this piece of legislation is a step forward. More will follow. Because as someone once said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

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