In my article last week, I argued that the Żonqor development controversy had the unintended consequence of giving further momentum to the Maltese environmental movement within a post-hunting referendum context.
It is pertinent to analyse factors related to mobilisation against overdevelopment.
If one looks at economic factors, Malta is characterised by mutual dependency of the State and land developers. Developers make profit through construction and generate employment, multiplier effects and revenue to the State while the State provides the conditions to enable this process.
At times, this happens in a relatively sustainable way, however, at other times, such development is speculative and has too many negative impacts.
When available land becomes ever scarcer, the latter might be more common. And tiny Malta is no exception, even though, paradoxically, this island has many vacant properties. One wonders if and when this economic bubble will burst.
The Labour government’s performance in this area has been tragic. Rather than acting like a responsible guardian of sustainability, it is in fact behaving like a merchant through the commodification of land, using a logic that is similar to that adopted in the cash-for-citizenship scheme.
Development amnesties, development in ODZ areas, changes in local plans and similar policies and decisions all show a lack of sensitivity to environmental concerns. When one thinks that things cannot get any worse, the public gets to know that the worse is yet to come.
Unfortunately, Environment Minister Leo Brincat, who, otherwise, is able to make fair, researched and sensible statements on other matters relating to sustainability, is disappointing when it comes to land development.
Malta is progressively losing more open spaces and this is having a negative snowball effect on the quality of life, air quality, infrastructure, traffic and citizens’ rights to enjoy the public domain.
Can disenchantment lead to effective mobilisation with respect to specific development proposals?
With regard to the latter, I believe the Nationalist Party’s proposed Public Domain Bill deserves support from all those who have the environment at heart. So do sensible proposals by different organisations for more sustainable planning and development, giving due consideration to social and environmental factors apart from the economic.
I believe the Labour government’s approach to the development of land is a potential recipe for political implosion. Cracks are already appearing and the local council election results, particularly in localities in the south of Malta, provide insightful indications.
Economic arguments that are being put forward to allow certain types of development are not as popular as they were, say, a decade ago. It is not only the usual environmental warriors who are expressing discontent towards overdevelopment but also an increasing number of sensitised common citizens and politicians. And, as the 2013 general election has clearly demonstrated, an increasing number of voters are ready to switch to another party, albeit for different reasons.
Joseph Muscat might be underestimating the widespread disenchantment towards his environmental policies. This ranges from clear environmental factors, such as increase in pollution, lack of open spaces for children to enjoy and widespread construction, to the feeling that some interests are decisively more equal than others. The government’s talk of balance, meritocracy and transparency has suffered a great blow in this regard.
The interesting question, however, is whether disenchantment can lead to effective mobilisation with respect to specific development proposals.
By effective mobilisation I am not only referring to those who militate in environmental NGOs and the Green party, important as they are, but also to the wider civil society, which also includes the major political parties and the Church, among others. This consideration is of great importance as past experience has shown that the more successful environmental campaigns reached out not only to environmental activists but also to other sectors of Maltese society.
Examples of successful campaigns in this regard included the Front Against the Rabat Golf Course, the opposition to a car park and shopping centre in Qui-si-Sana garden, the campaign against a cement plant in Siġġiewi and others.
In all cases, one could find a myriad of residents, local communities, environmental NGOs, Greens, some members of Parliament and others such as local councils and other civil society representatives.
Environmental activists – moderate and radical - were catalysts, yet, the support of others provided solid legitimacy to each successful cause.
Hence, campaigning against overdevelopment in Malta should embrace support by ‘institutional sponsors’ from major political parties and from organisations that are not strictly environmentalist.
Sectarian, partisan, puritan and patronising attitudes do not help the environmental cause when it comes to campaigning to safeguard a specific site against overdevelopment. Nor do ideological antipathy or discourse which treats the adversary as some caveman. To the contrary, discourse on the specific development proposal, without overloaded statements that can detract support, can only widen the reach of each campaign.
Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.