Fighting for long defeat | Chris Mizzi

Environmentalists have long warned about the dangers of over-development, with little visible effect but although Moviment Graffitti activist admits the present is bleak he argues that there is still hope for the future

Chris Mizzi
Chris Mizzi

I’ve always wanted to open an interview with a quote from Tolkien, and I must say the opportunity was altogether too apt to resist. ‘Fighting the long defeat’ is how Galadriel describes the epochal struggle against the Dark Lord Sauron in ‘The Lord of the Rings’. And while the stakes may have been higher in that struggle, a comparison can easily be made with the fight to safeguard Malta’s increasingly beleaguered environment. 

Certainly, it has come to resemble a ‘long defeat’. The environment may have been a pivotal battleground at the last election; but it has become painstakingly clear that a change of government has not ushered in the promised change in approach to the issue.

Then as now, the most a Maltese environmentalist can do is watch in helpless frustration, while one planning decision after another is taken with almost no regard whatsoever for the long-term environmental effects. The most recent example – in which two gargantuan development projects were approved by the Planning Authority, without even any input from the newly formed ‘Environment and Resources Authority’ – seems to take this pattern one step further. Not only were environmental objections not even raised during the PA meeting… but infrastructural and economic counter-arguments were likewise side-lined or ignored. 

Elsewhere, the Opposition party that had fought tooth and nail against the 2006 ODZ extension, was itself only too keen to extend the development zones further once in power. Apart from offering up virgin land for the construction of a private university at Zonqor Point, Muscat’s Labour administration has also redesigned the country’s entire planning rulebook to permit more ODZ development in future.

And yet, throughout all this time, environmentalist NGOs have been busy fighting their corner… with little or no visible success. When I met Chris Mizzi – an award-winning youth worker, and also active member of Moviment Graffitti – in Santa Venera to discuss this very issue, he had only just returned from an umpteenth environmentalist protest: this time, a blockade of the ERA offices.

Doesn’t it all feel pointless at this stage, however? Much larger protests had failed to halt the ODZ extension 10 years ago… this latest protest likewise seems doomed to failure. Doesn’t a point come when even a committed activist like Mizzi feels the war is lost?

“I understand what you mean. When you look at the experience of the past years, you might easily conclude that activism did not bring about change at all. But when you consider the full experience, you will realise that there were certain victories here and there. I wouldn’t say it was all pointless… There were projects that would definitely have been steamrolled through, were it not for popular resistance. The Ta’ Cenc golf course was a case in point…”

True, and one can also add Manikata and Xaghra l-Hamra to the list. All three concerned proposals for golf courses over large tracts of (partly arable) land. As such, opposition to those projects united a much broader coalition than the one that protested that morning… including farmers, residents and (speaking of unlikely allies) hunters and trappers.

On most other environmental issues, however, popular resistance never seems to get anywhere. Anyone who’s been following planning issues over the past 20 years will surely have felt a sensation of ‘déjà-vu’…   

“Yes, there is a sense of déjà vu. But I think that over the years, activism in Malta has succeeded in bringing about a certain mentality change. You can’t look only at whether an individual project was stopped or not. The sustained pressure – successful or otherwise – has up to a point forced political parties to sit up and pay attention to the environment. If it wasn’t for that pressure, I am convinced that neither the PN nor the PL would bother even mentioning the environment in their pre-electoral manifestos.”

Perhaps, but the fact that both parties now pander to environmentalists before every election does not, in itself, mean very much. It’s what happens after an election that counts… and once the campaign is over, we have time and again seen those promises fizzle out into nothing…

“To be honest, I personally see governments almost as being ‘nothing’, too. To all intents and purposes they are non-existent. They don’t wield real power. The real power is in the hands of others: that includes big business interests, but it also includes the people. Basically, any government will look to see where power lies, and act accordingly…”

On that appraisal alone, it can already be seen that the balance of power lies firmly with the commercial lobby. Doesn’t this call into question Mizzi’s earlier observation that ordinary people also wield power? There doesn’t seem to be much evidence of this in practical terms…

“Yes, that’s how it seems today. There is a reason for it, too. If you go out into the streets and ask people directly, they will all say that they are in favour of change. But if you ask them to what extent they themselves would be willing to change their own lifestyle, you will get a different answer…”

And yet, the objections to the Sliema and Mriehel projects were rooted in the same principle. Whether people like it or not, their lifestyle will be drastically affected. Sliema residents have already been told (by the PA) to ‘shut their windows’ to keep out noise and dust. And after years of inconvenience brought about by construction, they will have to face an exponential increase in daily traffic (over 3,000 cars a day), on top of considerable pressure on an already insufficient town infrastructure.

At this point, the people’s reluctance to change their own lifestyles becomes irrelevant. Those lifestyles are going to have to change anyway… 

Mizzi agrees, but quickly points out that this, too, is part of the reason for the status quo. “One of the issues we encounter as activists is that, although concerns do exist at the level of the local community, they are not extended onto a national level. People are only interested in what happens in their own backyard. Let me give you an example: when we protested against the Manikata golf course, we were overwhelmed by support from the local community. And yet, when we organised a similar protest at Ta’ Cenc, the people who supported us on Manikata were nowhere to be seen. And vice versa, too. That’s where I start asking myself certain questions. It is good that there is a sense of civic ownership at the local community level. But why doesn’t it translate into a sense of ownership at national level? Why do people not care as much for the country as a whole, as they do about their backyard? It’s all connected, after all…”

This brings us to the question of how (if at all) the prevailing mentality can be changed. Graffitti and other NGOs have been tireless in their campaigns over the past two decades, but as recent developments – including, but not limited to, the Sliema and Mriehel permits – indicate, not much has in fact changed at all.

What more can therefore be done in practical terms? Is there any long-term strategy directing environmentalist NGOs at the moment? 

“Ultimately, the idea behind activism is to raise awareness; and through raising awareness – by attracting more people to voice their concerns – the message keeps growing until it becomes too loud to ignore. And I know what you’re going to ask next… because I ask it to myself all the time. I’ve been active in this scene for around 20 years now, and all that time I’ve asked myself when that moment is actually going to come…”

That is, admittedly, the question I was about to ask. But it has another dimension: with so much damage now being done in such a small (and therefore vulnerable) environment, there is a chance that when this great moment of awareness finally arrives – if it ever does – there may be nothing left to actually safeguard…

Mizzi does not, however, share my pessimism on this point. “Things are changing, albeit slowly. Perhaps too slowly, for people who expect change to come about from one day to the next… but one thing that gives me hope is the input we are getting from young people and children. I think that is where the mentality is changing most…”

This change, he adds, does not necessarily arise from any difference in educational or institutional approach. “When you look at our educational system, it is still lacking in leadership and character-building. Children must follow a syllabus which is very academic in nature. Lessons themselves tend to be instructional, in the sense that children are taught to pass exams. Critical thinking is still lacking in the curriculum. There needs to be an overhaul of the system… but even within this system, with all its faults, we have still seen a culture change…”

As an example he refers to hunting and trapping. “It wasn’t so long ago that children would go out trapping for robins, for instance. It was a widespread culture only a few years ago, but it doesn’t really happen anymore…”

Similarly, the hunting situation as a whole has clearly improved, from the days when there weren’t even any hunting laws to enforce (i.e., before 1980). This is indeed hopeful, but when it comes to other areas of environmental sensitivity, it is debatable whether we can expect the same level of improvement. To return to the construction and development sector – and one could extend the argument also to the fisheries sector, which is once again causing an environmental stink (literally, this time) – there are economic considerations that simply do not apply to hunting or trapping.

There is (let’s face it) a deep-seated tendency to value construction on the basis of its contribution to the economy. And to be fair, it doesn’t come only from business or political interests: the population at large also traditionally perceives property as a reliable investment. Even tourism – another stable of the local economy – relies heavily on the construction of new hotels, new facilities, and so on. 

It seems that Malta, as a nation, has never hit on any real alternative to building as a means of generating wealth. Doesn’t that also mean that we are permanently condemned to lose more and more land to unbridled development in future?

“I think we need a new vision, definitely. To come out of a situation, you have to create another situation as an alternative. There’s no point in telling someone not to play football, unless you give him a basketball court instead. Ultimately, I think it goes back to the core issue of our identity as a nation. We have been independent for just over 50 years now, but in all that time we have never really sat down and held a discussion about what direction we actually want to go.

“In fact our economic ideas haven’t really changed at all since then. After independence from Britain, there was a mad scramble to industrialise – to attract foreign investment from here and from there – and all these years later we are still doing the same thing. If you look at the projects that have been approved, they are mostly aimed at foreign buyers. The type of development may have changed, but we’re still stuck in the same economic rut…”

Meanwhile, all efforts to lift ourselves out of this vicious circle have so far failed… as is perhaps evidenced by the suggestion of a ‘new’ tactic (‘new’ in relative terms… it had been used, to some effect, in the distant 1980s): a boycott of companies involved in the aforementioned projects.

This proposal has divided public opinion... lending weight to Mizzi’s earlier point that people may want to achieve change in theory, but may be less willing to inconvenience themselves in the process. But what is Mizzi’s own opinion in the matter? Does he consider a boycott to be an appropriate response? 

“On principle, I agree 100% with the idea of a boycott. And when we discussed it at Graffitti, there was general agreement there also. But one must tread with caution. A boycott is a powerful tool if used properly… but there has to be a clear and consistent campaign, a functional strategy, if it is to succeed. The last thing we would want is to organise a boycott that would be ineffective. That would not only defeat the purpose, but might also rob us of another tool at our disposal…”

I suppose this brings us back to the original question. The fact that we are talking about a boycott at all, only confirms that all other strategies have so far failed. People have time and again proved powerless against the vested interests of Malta’s political-industrial complex. Wouldn’t they be justified in considering the environment to be a lost cause?

“No, I think it’s the other way around. People are not giving up; and they’re not powerless either. I think they are only just beginning to realise how much power they wield. It goes back to the efforts at Ta’ Cence, Tal-Virtu and elsewhere. I have been to consultation meetings where hardly anyone showed up. But in those cases, hundreds of people came to the meetings, to the extent that they needed police at the door. That’s when you realise how much power the people wield. Are we winning the fight? At present, no. But can it be won? I think that’s a different question.”