It is the duty of the government to safeguard the environment. The ‘environment’ consists of our physical surroundings: the air we breathe, the water we drink, the land space we inhabit, the noise levels to which we are subjected, the sea around us and the species, nature and biodiversity that co-exist with us.
The state of the Maltese environment makes a profound contribution to the quality of life of every person living here. Eleven months ago, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s Labour government was swept into office with a firm promise to safeguard the environment.
It is the role of environmental NGOs to provide the channel through which people can make their voices heard in government decision-making and to protect and promote civil rights in the environmental field. The key lies in their power to give active verbal support to the environmental cause, to provide informed and constructive criticism, and to press and, if necessary, hassle those who have the power to make decisions affecting the quality of life of the Maltese people.
Malta is fortunate to have a number of green NGOs – perhaps the most prominent and articulate being Din l-Art Ħelwa – which conduct advocacy campaigns on the environment responsibly and constructively, never criticising without also offering solutions, and never making any political distinctions. Good green NGOs try hard to make distinctions between good and bad policies, between dysfunctional or wrong-headed government administrations, and those whose policies would be beneficial.
It should therefore be a cause for considerable government concern when a group of green NGOs – which only a few weeks ago took to the streets to protest in large numbers at the grotesque decision taken by the Board of Mepa at Mistra – return to the fray expressing deep frustration at the way talks with the government, the Opposition and the planning authority on a range of pending measures had failed to yield any positive results. The talks were described as “fruitless” and a “waste of time”. Mepa was accused of refusing to keep any minutes of the meetings held.
The issues raised are not minor. They range over the whole gamut of green concerns from the endemic threat of water shortages to the lack of action over noise. From the introduction, in a piecemeal fashion, of many wide-sweeping new planning policies affecting building heights and urban conservation areas and land reclamation, thus giving developers even greater licence to build, to a loosening of restrictions in precious outside development zone (ODZ) areas.
All of this is apparently being done without any over-arching strategic development plan to guide the policies being put in place and with a government, through its planning authority freed of any environmental authority restraint, proving deaf to any plea for reasoned discussion with those who not only care about Malta’s environmental quality of life, but also know how it can best be protected.
The green NGOs are right to be concerned. Indeed, the nation should be concerned. There appears to be a determined, but misplaced, move by government to promote even greater building development in a country already grossly over-developed, in the mistaken belief that economic growth will flow from it. It forgets, to the country’s peril, that a damaged environment will actually hold back economic growth and undermine the quality of life of its people.