Marine biologist Alan Deidun has resigned from the Environment and Resources Authority board after more than five years representing NGOs. He speaks to Sarah Carabott about his frustration as he failed to bridge NGOs’ aspirations with the results achieved by the entity.

The resurfacing of a dirt road on a Natura 2000 protected site in Comino was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Alan Deidun.

An environmental activist for decades, Deidun joined the ERA board when the authority was set up in 2016, after MEPA’s environment and planning functions were split. He insists that no one ever exerted pressure on him from inside ERA, and that constraints always came from outside.

“In Comino, ERA’s arm was completely twisted. ERA was pressured to grant an environmental permit so that the Gozo Ministry contractors, who had started the work without such a permit, could undo some of the damage they had done to the site.

“It was a fait accompli. Getting a modified environmental permit was a way of legitimising what they did by getting the blessing of ERA. Similarly, a lot of authorities use ERA to greenwash their projects, using the authority as a convenient scapegoat.”

More recently, ERA again found itself with its back to the wall when asked by Infrastructure Malta to grant permission for the removal of two 70-year-old ficus trees in Triq in-Nutar Żarb, Attard, making way for a new road that had been green-lighted by the Planning Authority.

When ERA asked for an alternative that would save the trees, IM insisted this was the only solution for road safety – something that fell outside of the ERA’s remit. “Most people outside of ERA, including NGOs, do not understand the highly regulated context within which ERA functions.

“ERA does not have much room for manoeuvre: there are protocols and procedures it has to follow, while its mandate is very specific,” he said, adding that the public was often delusional about what ERA could and could not achieve.

“While the setting up of ERA was a step in the right direction, its opinion is often ignored by the PA. The PA is the big brother who calls all the shots.”

Compared to the PA, ERA is toothless, as all it can do, unless development is being proposed on Natura 2000 or scheduled land, is provide recommendations, he said.

Among others, Deidun is suggesting amending the law to make sure an environmental permit is required before considering the issuing of a planning permit, rather than the other way round.

There have been instances where developers go to ERA for an environmental permit to be able to uproot trees, when this same uprooting is already covered by a planning permit on condition that new ones are replanted elsewhere.

Deidun, who believes trees are used as a disposable currency, admits that during his tenure on the board, there were instances when it felt awkward to be representing NGOs, as that seat felt redundant.

What could make ERA stronger?

Deidun believes ERA’s representative on the planning board should have a qualified veto when it comes to environmental issues, such as development on ODZ.

ERA board proceedings should also be open to the public in the same way that the Planning Authority board meetings are.

“This would not only make ERA more transparent, since its decisions impact everyone’s quality of life, but critics will also understand the context within which the authority functions, and they will understand how much its hands are tied.

“Critics would finally understand not to take aim at ERA, but rather at the system that is preventing the country from having the autonomous ERA that it deserves.”

How can we get an autonomous ERA?

“I don’t think that Malta, in the foreseeable future, is ready for a truly autonomous ERA,” Deidun says.

An autonomous authority would probably take a dictatorial stand and declare a stop to all ODZ development.

“We live in a democratic country where politicians are elected by popular vote… a truly powerful and autonomous ERA would be highly unpopular.”

According to Deidun, at the end of the day, people get the ERA they deserve by electing politicians responsible for the legislative and structural context within which ERA functions. 

At the same time, several citizens are themselves landowners, and therefore potential developers.

“Some years ago, ERA scheduled a zone in Tal-Wej, Mosta, an area that is very important for its biodiversity, including its rockpool habitats for rare species.

“Landowners in that same area are now asking for the removal of the scheduling because it limits the potential development of their land,” he points out.

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