Maltese festa enthusiasts and their battle for open space

LONG READ | 1,224 words: Solidarity and community organising enabled festa enthusiasts to curb development of open spaces for a number of times. But how long will community spirit safeguard the remaining open space, if popularity of festa declines?

Photos by Ray Attard and Chris Mangion
Photos by Ray Attard and Chris Mangion

Much is being spoken about the barbarism of construction industry in Malta. Every day brings new announcements of yet another ODZ development, accompanied by the photographs of more immaculate historical buildings awaiting destruction. Sadly, this steadily increasing flow of devastating news drowns in hysterical finger-pointing and slowly guides the public to the final stages of grief: Unless the public debate is injected with a portion of sober analysis and stories of ongoing successful resistance to this state of affairs, the anger will soon be followed by outright resignation and apathy.

The struggle to safeguard the remaining open spaces from being turned into concrete jungle is led by a number of communities, however, the news of their achievements do not always reach the broad public. The diverse community of festa enthusiasts remains among the keenest to resist the assault on open space. Their experience sheds light on the changes the Maltese society is going through as well as the possibilities of successful resistance to overdevelopment.

Festa — the vibrant celebration of life which puts Malta on the world map — has been facing tough challenges for over a decade. Festa as we know it requires open space because firework manufacturing and letting off are regulated by a specific legislation which stipulates the safety distances, measured from an inhabited area of at least 99 residents. For the firework factories, the safety distance is a minimum of 183 meters. The distances for letting off are 60, 100, 150 and 200 meters, depending on the diameter of the fireworks.

Jeremy Dalli, one of the organisers behind Lija’s reknowned feast, is deeply concerned about overbuilding. “Our fireworks factory,” he says, “has been around for the past hundred years. The past 10 years have been a challenge, mainly due to the construction. Permits are given to construction projects too close to the fireworks factory. Not only this situation causes a perpetual trouble to our own application for launching of fireworks, it is clearly a hazard for the newly planned inhabited areas.”

Mario Zammit, a volunteer of Santa Maria Mqabba feast, shares the same concern. He laments the negative impact of overbuilding on social cohesion. “Whenever buildings come too close, firework factories and displays are forced to find other open spaces. This creates tension between the residents of different localities.” This issue is too familiar to the festa enthusiasts around Malta.

In urban densely populated areas, the feasts are being squeezed out of existence. Santa Venera, whose both previous firing locations have been built up, is likely to lose its community celebration in the near future. Stanley Azzopardi, one of the festa organisers, fears that this fate awaits the majority of Malta’s towns and villages. “In the past 25 years, the rapid decrease of space due to urbanisation does not let us launch larger fireworks. Currently, we have to opt for smaller fireworks, however, if the development of open spaces continues, the firework display will perish.”

Nonetheless, there still remains hope. Solidarity, community organising and collective lobbying can halt the decline of festa and its indispensable firework displays. Community spirit, festa’s most precious aspect, can also be its saviour. Festa would not be possible without the cooperation between the enthusiasts, the farmers and the residents. “We receive a great support from the Lija farmers,” says Mr Dalli appreciatively. “They are regularly approached by developers with offers to sell the land, but they decline in order to preserve their fields as a firing site.” Solidarity from the local farmers and their commitment to the festa proved to be game-changing: The farmers from elsewhere, who are not involved in the Lija feast and whose fields are located in the vicinity of the firing site, are willing to sell their land for development.

The cooperation between the band clubs, the residents and the local council has won a few battles. Lija community, with the support of the local council, organised a successful protest to ensure that no tall apartment blocks are built in the village core. Another achievement of Lija festa enthusiasts was to curb the plans of Birkirkara bypass extension. There are more examples of these significant victories. Jonathan Mifsud, a volunteer at Santa Maria Mqabba feast, recalls a success, brought by the joined efforts of the two rival band clubs, the local council, and the local NGO of Malta’s locality he preferred not to name. The organised, collective objection to the PA prevented construction of a villa on an open space which was used as a firing location.

Unfortunately, the strength of community support, which enabled the successful opposition to the new developments, might wear thin in the near future. All interviewed festa enthusiasts admitted they are being looked down at more and more frequently. Overall, festa activism is becoming less appreciated. “We are being criticised for being backwards,” says Mr Dalli, adding that “without the support from the community, festa has no future.” Mr Zammit pointed out that the community is becoming less bound and less committed to support one another. Those who decide to settle in the rural areas and who flee from the overdeveloped towns like Swieqi or St. Julians, where festa is not prominent, often criticise it and are less likely to lend their support to the struggle against development.

Hose Borg, a volunteer at Sliema’s St. Gregory the Great feast, echoes these concerns. “I hear people saying that we don’t care about anything except festa but this is not true. In fact, we are deeply worried about construction. It affects our lives directly because our lifestyle is inseparable from the festa.” Mr Azzopardi notes that the fireworks are often accused of having a negative environmental impact, but many critics tend not to differentiate. He added that a firework display is temporary, whereas the structures which are built on the firing sites are permanent and their impact on environment is far more grievous.

In speaking of the most effective future strategy to combat the development of open space, all festa enthusiasts were unified. “The majority of band clubs are facing same problems but, unfortunately, we lack cooperation with each other,” Mr Borg lamented. “Small feasts would have had more power to defend its firing location from construction, if they were part of the Federation of the Fireworks Factories. That way they could negotiate with the authorities on better terms,” asserted Mr Azzopardi. He also suggested that a way to empower the festa would be to acquire the status of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. It would allow the firing locations to be protected by the international regulations and kept as open space. “At some point, Dr Godfrey Farrugia was actively backing this proposal but since then its priority has been given less importance.”

Lija firework enthusiasts also believe that joining forces with other clubs and making new allies is the way forward. “During the election period, politicians usually pledge their support to the festa, promising that no fireworks factory will be closed. But the truth is that the factories, the shows and the festa will decline anyway, if the development of the surrounding fields persists.” The fireworks enthusiasts are open to discussion with the environmental NGOs. “We certainly need more dialogue,” Mr Dalli affirmed.

This article originally appeared in Isles Of The Left

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