[WATCH] Environmentalists have no place in the big parties; they end up compromising’

He tried contesting the European Parliament election with the Nationalist Party but today, marine biologist Alan Deidun believes environmentalists have no place in the big parties. He sits down with KARL AZZOPARDI to talks about environmental destruction, collective hypocrisy and land reclamation

Alan Deidun (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Alan Deidun (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

Environmentalists have no place in the major political parties because to get elected they will end up having to compromise on their beliefs, academic Alan Deidun believes.  

“The way the political system was designed, if you stick to your principles, you will become unelectable,” he says. 

The marine biologist had tried his luck in 2009 when he contested the European Parliament election as a Nationalist candidate. Having received more than 3,000 votes on the first count, he doubled his votes before being eliminated on the 20th Count. It was not a bad run but one, which put Deidun in constant tension with his own party. 

That election was the first and last time Deidun dabbled with party politics, insisting that environmentalists attempting to function within the big parties will have to compromise on their beliefs. 

I sit down with Deidun in the aftermath of the Mosta trees debacle that saw the local council reverse its decision to uproot and transplant 12 ficus trees in the main square after public outcry. 

Deidun says it is good that public pressure forced the reversal of the Mosta council decision but warns there is a lot more destruction which is happening away from the public eye.  

“We do not realise that in Outside Development Zone (ODZ) areas, a lot of trees are being cut down, and a lot of land is being destroyed because of our very permissible regulatory system,” Deidun insists. “The battle to save those trees may have been won, but we are losing the war.” 

He believes the Labour and Nationalist parties are to blame for the upsurge of environmental destruction for the sake of development.  

“The PN extended the development zones in 2006, and it was one of its deathblows, but Labour learnt its lesson because it knew that if it extended development boundaries again, it would receive backlash and so it did the same - but by stealth,” Deidun says.  

He says Labour’s 2014 amendment to local plans have led to the situation where people are using “unbelievable” excuses to develop rooms and buildings in areas which don’t make sense. 

“Labour did not extend the areas allowed for development, but if you qualify for certain criteria such as: If you can prove people used to live in the building; if you are building stables; if you are building a structure for animal husbandry; you can build a structure. We now have farmers selling their land to people who are using it for recreational purposes,” he says. 

“Nobody from the big parties can go against the developers’ lobby. When the political parties say ODZ is ODZ, I take it with a pinch of salt because neither of them truly means it,” he argues. 

The environment’s destruction, he adds, is also a result of having a toothless environment authority, with proposed reforms never being carried out.  

“We have heard promises of the Environment and Resource Authority (ERA) getting a veto on the planning authority board, but this never happens,” he says. “Minister after minister has proposed this, but it never materialises.” 

He is also cautious when speaking about land reclamation as a solution to the country’s environmental destruction. 

“We also must ask why we are reclaiming land. If we are reclaiming land for social reasons, where the whole country will benefit, I think that is justified, but if we are doing it to build a hotel, or a yacht marina, I don’t think it’s worth it,” he says. 

The following are excerpts from the interview.  

What is the biggest threat to ODZ today? 

Small-scale development, and it is a flood which NGOs cannot handle. You have thousands of applications approved every week and it is impossible to keep up.  

The Environment and Resource is objecting to all these kinds of developments, but nothing happens. We are always told that ERA will be given the veto, but this never materialises. It will remain in the shadow of the Planning Authority, and I don’t see things changing. 

There is the phenomenon where we complain about the uprooting of the Mosta trees, but God forbid someone tries to stop my development… 

I call it collective hypocrisy. The trees in the Mosta square are there, and don’t bother anyone, but if I inherit a field where I can build on, I apply for a development immediately. We are becoming dependant on something that is breaking us… 

Do environmentalists have a place in the big parties? 

In 2009 I would have thought so, but today, definitely no. You can never change the party. I may be pessimistic here, but I had a taste of the political life, and those six months opened my eyes.  

No matter how many good proposals you have, you will lose or change some of your principles. The way the political system was designed, to get elected, if you stick to your principles, you will become unelectable.  

You have two choices: either stay with a party, stick to your principles and use the platform to deliver your message and become unelectable, or try to get into a position of power and enact change, but you must compromise on your principles. 

Land reclamation is proposed as a solution to counter the pressure placed on ODZ. What are your thoughts? 

It depends where you do it. We have reclaimed land in Malta before – Msida, the Freeport, Marsaxlokk’s hard standing facility, but all in ports. In ports, the ecosystem is already impacted... Outside ports the currents have a major impact, and we shouldn’t treat the sea the same as land. On land, the area you are working on is affected, but in the sea, the footprint and spill over is much wider.  

If we reclaim land in Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq, the coast along the Eastern side of the islands will be impacted as a lot of fine sand is scattered. We don’t have good practice in this sector.  

People will argue that other countries like Dubai, Holland, and Singapore have all reclaimed land, but one has to see how they use their sea compared to us. We use it for diving, swimming and fishing. It is the last frontier... We also have to ask why we are reclaiming land. If we are reclaiming for social reasons, where the whole country will benefit, I think that is justified, but if we are doing it to build a hotel, or a yacht marina, I don’t think it’s worth it. 

You also need the material to reclaim land, and despite what we think, we don’t have enough as you need a big mass at one go, not little by little. We would probably need to go for a major project which can generate that much material.  

There are a lot of question marks. If the where and why are answered, then we can discuss the possibility, but the locations in Malta are few.