Founded at the height of a post-war construction boom, at 55, NGO Din l-Art Ħelwa’s role as guardian of heritage is as important as ever. Its president, Alex Torpiano, says the environment is finally being viewed as a serious political issue. 

At over half a century old, Din l-Art Ħelwa is far from throwing in the towel.

The NGO has throughout its storied tenure worn many hats: conservationist, guardian, educator and, more recently, vigilant lobbyist for Malta’s natural and built heritage.

Founded in 1965 by Judge Maurice Caruana Curran, just one year after Malta’s independence, there were already concerns then that the rapid industrialisation of the island would pose challenges to its heritage sites and rapidly shrinking open spaces. So from the very beginning, lobbying and conservation were woven into the NGO’s functions.

“People with foresight were worried that, unless we were careful, we could risk losing a lot of things and places with heritage value,” professor Alex Torpiano, executive president of Din l-Art Ħelwa, says.

“Development then was considered to be accelerating at a high rate. Development now is much faster and more intense, so this concern has remained.”

According to Torpiano, the challenge remains in making a convincing argument for a balance between socio-economic interests and environmental ones.

“The biggest problem we have is cultural.”

“We’ve come forward a lot but the biggest issue is this mistaken political conviction that we have to sacrifice the environment or culturally sensitive places to get the economy going.

“Our role now has evolved into getting the government and the public on board, that this is not a correct model, that we can have a thriving, good quality of life, with a reasonable standard of living, while preserving what we have in terms of natural environment and preserving other aspects of cultural life.”

The increase of environmental NGOs over the years is a good sign for Torpiano, noting that Din l-Art Ħelwa’s message over the years had not fallen on deaf ears: people and civil society feel ready to take active roles in safeguarding the environment.

“The beauty of civil society is that it exists and governments can no longer see their role in absolute terms, that they are in charge and, therefore, know best. This is a passé model. Many other countries have gone beyond that and it is our role to continue to push for it.

Our role now has evolved into getting the government and the public on board

“Having said that, over the past two years, I have noticed a change in discourse from politicians. I think the environment is being viewed as a serious political issue. Our politicians are certainly saying the right things. Now is the time to start putting those principles into action.”

The other key pillar of Din l-Art Ħelwa’s work, the conservation and management of sites, runs entirely on the enthusiasm of volunteers and the benevolence of benefactors who keep the organisation afloat.

“We currently have guardianship over 17 sites and in 55 years have restored 41. There are also a number of sites that we don’t have guardianship over that we still look after in partnership with other entities. In that sense, we’re always asking for help. Many volunteers are needed to keep these sites in good condition and open for visitors.”

COVID-19 has not left the NGO unscathed either. While the pandemic saw a number of volunteers housebound due to vulnerability, the closure of the sites and subsequent lack of footfall has dealt a blow to donations that keep its more ambitious projects afloat.

“In all frankness, money will always be a big issue and this year has been particularly bad. The income from the sites depends on visitors and the income from visitors depends on tourists. Without help, certain things can never move forward,” Torpiano says.

“At the Red Tower, for instance, one of our most popular sites, restoration was on the cards for years but the funds were never adequate. It was thanks to the MTA’s intervention that the funds were found.

“We engage professionals to do all the work required. We also have part-time professionals who monitor planning applications and keep us updated on what proposals may be undesirable in terms of heritage. We defend those all the way, sometimes even up to court. It’s costly and it adds up.”

With a view to the future, Din l-Art Ħelwa is always on the lookout for sites in need of proper care and management, having just completed restoration on the white tower in Armier and been awarded guardianship of another two sites, a medieval chapel known as Tas-Sanċir in Rabat and the last surviving timber ‘Australian’ bungalow.

Torpiano counts the priceless sites that were saved from ruin as the NGO’s biggest success stories, including a number of chapels such as Our Lady of Victories in Valletta, Our Lady of Annunciation in Ħal Millieri and St Mary’s chapel in Bir Miftuħ.

“The state they had deteriorated to, these sites in particular, it was incredible to see them come back to life.”

And among its failures?

“Perhaps not managing to do enough to change certain decisions,” Torpiano says.

“Sometimes we can only react, but it does feel like a failure, having to react instead of successfully educating as to why the decision is wrong in the first place. That’s culture. I don’t know if it’s a failure but it’s certainly part of the problem.”

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