A point of no return? | Edward Mallia

Environmental protection in Malta seems to have hit an all-time low. But activist Edward Mallia argues that there is still much to fight for

Edward Mallia (Photo: Ray Attard)
Edward Mallia (Photo: Ray Attard)

Fighting for environmental issues in a country like Malta can be a lonely and frustrating job. Inevitably, one comes up against powerful lobby groups with considerable vested interests… and experience strongly suggests that when push comes to shove, Maltese governments will nearly always cave in to such pressures, no matter the environmental cost. 

The results can be appreciated just by a cursory glance at Malta’s ever dwindling open spaces. In 2006, the former [Nationalist] government took the decision to increase the development zone by 16.6%... sacrificing an area roughly the size of Siggiewi to a spate of construction that has been ongoing ever since. 

And since winning the 2013 election, the present [Labour] administration seems to have gone into development overdrive: among other things, it has embarked on a ‘reform’ of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA) which has effectively weakened existing restrictions on ODZ development… not to mention the more recent proposal of a scheme whereby illegal developments will be retroactively ‘sanctioned’ against payment of a fine to MEPA itself.

At all points, it seems that the structures we have built up over the years for the protection of the environment are now being thoroughly dismantled. We can hardly claim to be surprised, therefore, by the recent announcement that  the government intends to develop a university campus on 100,000 square metres of arable ODZ land at Zonqor Point. For all the public outcry, this proposal would appear to be the fruition of an official strategy aimed at facilitating development at all costs, to the detriment of what little remains of Malta’s unspoilt countryside.  

Yet for all this, the environmentalist lobby has also registered a number of significant victories in the past. Controversial proposals such as a golf course at Manikata in 2005 – which seemed unstoppable at the time, given that the suggestion had come from none other than Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi himself – had to be shelved following intense popular resistance. In that particular case, not only did the golf course fail to materialise, but the area eventually became a national park instead. 

This in turn suggests that governments can and sometimes do listen to critical voices within the environmentalist lobby. Is there a chance, therefore, that history might repeat itself in the case of the Zonqor development? Can a government that seems totally deaf to environmental concerns be made to listen? 

And – more pertinently – is the environmentalist lobby shouting loud enough to be heard?

Edward Mallia, a retired astrophysicist and former headmaster, is perhaps ideally positioned to answer such questions: having been at the forefront of all Malta’s major environmental battles, past and present. 

Today is no exception. When I meet him at his Attard home for this interview, he had only just returned from a ‘consultation meeting’ with government representatives over the proposed Zonqor university.

There is a distinct note of frustration in his voice as he relives the experience. “The meeting was held the day before the signing of the ‘heads of agreement’… whatever that is supposed to mean.” 

He breaks into a hoarse chuckle. “ ‘Heads of agreement’… sounds more like ‘heads of the Hydra’ to me…”

Mallia does not disguise his scepticism regarding the ‘consultation’ that was meant to take place. Even the timing of this meeting suggests that it couldn’t possibly have had any impact on a decision that was clearly already taken. And just to underscore that what we are dealing with is effectively a ‘fait accompli’, it also transpired that the area earmarked for development was chosen by none other than the CEO of MEPA, Johann Buttigieg.

Doesn’t this also mean that MEPA is in breach of its own policies?  

“Oh, absolutely. There is no doubt about that whatsoever…” 

Buttigieg, it turns out, was also present for the meeting, and Mallia argues that his contribution seemed to confirm this perception beyond any reasonable doubt. 

“There were also two people from the environment ministry, who – as is typical of government delegations – seemed perfectly reasonable, and willing to listen. Buttigieg however just put his foot down. We presented a detailed proposal for alternative sites to Zonqor point: Fort Ricasoli, Fort St Rocco, Is-Salvatur on the edge of Kalkara… these three together provide much more space than the 85,000 square metres required for the campus. Of course, we are pushing the idea of a dispersed campus…”

What was the reaction on the part of the government delegation? Mallia shrugs. “The people representing the environment ministry were interested, and said that our proposals should be considered further. On the other side, a stony-faced Johann Buttigieg simply said, ‘No, this can’t be done’. He started to quote from the act which deals with the restoration of historic buildings. Mercifully, Astrid Vella (of Flimkien Ghal Ambjent Ahjar) had the text with her, and he was quickly shown up to be misquoting the law. In any case: the situation was all sewn up… this much was clear.”

Mallia admits that none of this was very surprising. “The truth is that MEPA is and has always been at the beck and call of the government of the day…”

In this respect, the Zonqor Point controversy seems to reflect a pattern we have long come to associate with large-scale development projects. On the pretext of attracting foreign (or even local, for that matter) investment, successive governments always seem only too willing to break their own laws. The underlying motif appears to be that anything can be justified, so long as it helps to ‘motor the economy’. 

And taking the same argument to its logical conclusion, it follows that people who oppose such projects in the name of the environment can (and will) be portrayed as ‘economic saboteurs’.

How does an environmentalist like Edward Mallia counter such arguments? Do the economic merits of the construction industry really outweigh environmental concerns? And if so, aren’t environmentalists fighting a losing battle?

“Regrettably, your description of the powers of the construction industry does not stand up to serious scrutiny. In the first place, the best economists are no longer taking the crude contribution of any activity to GDP as a good indicator of its economic worth. Aside from that, a contribution of 6-8% of GDP can hardly be described as ‘a motor of the economy’… not without any consideration of the burdens imposed on our balance of payments. For example, the huge sums we spend on importing cement…”

Mallia argues that the perception of the construction industry as ‘vital’ to the economy is misplaced and misleading. 

“There are at least two other aspects to take into account. The first is that construction here is clearly driven by speculative forces, hence the huge oversupply of vacant properties. Admittedly it appears that we have been able to beat the laws of supply and demand as far as prices are concerned; but a recent NSO publication showed quite clearly that a reported 5% increase in average asking prices was masking the fact that actual sales were made at about 15% less than the asking price.”

He places heavy emphasis on the word ‘less’... stressing that the value of property in Malta is actually on the decline. And Mallia adds that this is only one of the factors that undermines the traditional perception of construction as a necessary catalyst for economic growth. 

“Next there is the fact that the construction boom is sterilising large amounts of cash that could be more profitably invested in other areas, such as manufacturing. Worst of all are the following facts: the first is that the urban landscapes being created by the building boom are not only a blight on their original surroundings, but also create unhealthy living conditions.”

Taken together, these considerations will in time further devalue the properties we build today. Then there is the logistical impact of large projects on urban areas which may not be able to support the necessary infrastructure. 

“If you look at the large number of super/hyper markets in restricted areas – be they actual markets, or markets under construction, or just being proposed…” here he rattles off a list of existing or projected supermarkets in central Qormi, Imriehel (including the high-rise development proposed by Gasan-Fenech), the Mosta Technopark hypermarket opposite Hal Mann, to a projected hypermarket at Zokrija, Mosta…). “All such establishments are of course powerful magnets for cars. And all along, the industry is gobbling up a rapidly wasting asset: land.”

Our addiction to construction, he seems to be suggesting, has forced Malta into a vicious circle. More projects entail further strain on the infrastructure, with pejorative effects on traffic, air pollution, noise pollution, and ultimately the quality of life as a whole. 

At this point I cannot help detecting a note of defeatism in his outlook. Surely there are some respects in which the state of the environment has improved in recent years?  

“There has been some improvement, certainly. From the information and public awareness aspects, the local environmental situation is definitely getting better. The public in general, and the NGOs in particular, are now quite adept at digging out information from local and international sources. This ability has been particularly useful in the case of EU sources, given that our governments have a habit of sending reports to Brussels but not informing locals of their contents.”

The flipside, he adds, is that the EU has not always been the environmentalist’s dream source of information. 

“We have often asked for reports from the Environment Commissioner’s office – reports sent from here, like the annual Air Quality report – only to be told that they are not at liberty to disclose such information, while at the same time expressing surprise that our government has not informed us itself…”

But in other aspects Mallia also discerns a notable downward spiral. “From the actual state of the environment aspect, there can be little doubt that the situation is going steadily downhill. All sorts of pressures act on our eco system: that of a small, heavily populated barren rock in the middle of an increasingly stressed sea, with weather links to neighbouring land masses north and south, which often carry trans-border pollutants…”

Could it also be, however, that the environmentalist lobby itself is also gradually dispersing or weakening? Consider, for instance, the large-scale protests over environmental issues some 10 or 15 years ago: against the proposed golf courses in Manikata and (even earlier) Verdala. Or the massive outcry against the ODZ extension in 2006, for that matter. All this seems to have faded somewhat into the distance since the change in government in 2013. There just doesn’t seem to be the same level of commitment to environmental issues today. Couldn’t it be argued, then, that environmentalist lobbies have simply given up? 

Mallia nods almost wearily, as if to suggest that he has heard this line of reasoning before. 

“I would dare to suggest, however, that it is a superficial judgment of the situation. This apparent ‘weakening’ of the environmental lobby you talk about, this argument that people were until fairly recently more willing to protest, etc… it’s the sort of argument you will see on the The Malta Independent comments board under Daphne Caruana Galizia’s column… even the defeat in the [spring hunting] referendum has been taken as another sign of ‘weakening’, at least by those who had great faith in the accuracy of the MaltaToday polls…”

Mallia however asserts that this view does not take into consideration the enormity of the political pressure that was brought to bear on the campaign. 

“These arguments do not address the interventions during the campaign by the Prime Minister and the Labour Party. In one or two cases that came to my attention here in Attard, telephone pressure was exerted on voters…”

He also doubts whether commitment to environmentalist issues can accurately be measured by mass demonstrations alone.

“For a start, street protests are not the be-all-and-end-all of environmental activism. Meanwhile there is no doubt that the reforms the present government has embarked on are exerting a huge pressure on NGOs. The effort to deal with government press releases, MEPA consultation documents, MEPA Environmental Impact Assessments, the need to put in an appearance as registered objectors at MEPA board meetings… all this is severely straining the resources of even the best-equipped NGOs, leaving us little time to organise street protests every week.”

Here he reminds me that there are other means of protest that do not involve taking to the streets. 

“Josanne Cassar, writing in a recent issue of MaltaToday, coined the term ‘keyboard warriors’… from the comfort of her own keyboard, of course, not from some laptop she was carrying in a street demonstration…” 

Meanwhile, the perception of environmentalists as a dying breed does not stand up to the reality that NGOs are slowly consolidating into a much more compact confraternity. One recent example was the formation of Terra Firma, a collective of environmental NGOs which aims to put forward a united voice on green issues.

“We are making some headway with the creation of the Terra Firma Cooperative, but as yet the effective power still lies with individual NGOs. These do not always abstain from selfish moves, to the detriment of the broader community. All the same, despite mounting pressure I see no sign that we, the NGOs, are going to break, or that the environment has reached a point of no return.  But I may be wrong, being merely mortal…”

Ever the philosopher, Edward Mallia leaves me with a few choice pearls of literary wisdom.

“As for my own personal mood, if it is of any interest, I can refer you to two texts. Psalm 23: ‘For though I should walk in the midst of the shadow of the valley of death, I shall fear no evil…’ And the final stanza of William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’: ‘I shall not cease from mental strife, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, Till we have built Jerusalem…’, etc.”