It can’t be easy being José Herrera. His job is to steward the conservation of landscapes, rural heritage, wild plants and animals, and so on, even as the government he is a member of goes about stewarding their destruction. I suppose some sympathy is in order.

Or maybe not, because Herrera’s function seems to be to greenwash the ungreenable – an interesting take on the job title of ‘Environment Minister’. Which is why last Monday found him busy rooting for land reclamation at a meeting of Parliament’s environment committee.

Now anyone with half a brain knows exactly why the government is so keen on land reclamation. First, because the country is running out of space where to dump the obscene glut of construction waste generated by an industry that knows no restraint. Second, because a new piece of land by (or on) the sea would make a lovely out-of-season gift to that industry. It does tend to reciprocate with gifts of its own.

Herrera had other ideas. He assured us that land reclamation would be the most ecological thing since the six days chronicled in the Book of Genesis. As reported, he was in no mood for rest. When a Xgħajra resident suggested that dumping waste into the sea might not be the greenest of actions, Herrera told him that the loss of a sea view was the world’s smallest violin. He too, he added, had suffered, as the gardens and fields around his house were bulldozed and replaced with ugly blocks.

I had to read that bit twice. A sea view is a relation between people and their environment – the very thing that an environment minister ought to value, that is.  That he went on to tell the residents of Xgħajra that they must suffer as other people had done is astonishing.

The Birżebbuġa event was particularly nuts. It was all about trees, with not a tree in sight

But back to greenwash. Having dismissed sea views, Herrera played his ace. Land reclamation, he said, was really all about the environment. That’s because it would save (real) land from development. Besides, the bulk of the reclaimed land would be planted over with forests and given over to ‘environmental activities’.

Good thing Herrera isn’t the Minister for Logic. If the new land will be mostly forested, and if we can rule out treehouses, how exactly will it save elsewhere from development? And why should we imagine that reclaimed land will be treated differently to the natural variety?

Herrera’s answer to the second question was that, as long as he was in power, we had his assurance that any reclaimed land would not be built over. Now let’s take Herrera’s word, and let’s say he is 55 and will retire as Minister for the Environment at 70. That gives us a full 15 years of ironclad assurance. Which is nice.

There are other things, too. I seem to remember that, in the wake of the controversy over the American University at Żonqor, the government had set up a national (and natural, and so on) park not a mile from Xgħajra. It went by the poetic name of Nwadar. I really can’t see how odes to nature and dumping rubble into the sea are consonant.  

Never mind, because our Thoreau-for-a-week was not done yet. A couple of days after the parliamentary committee meeting, Herrera showed up in Birżebbuġa flanked by Konrad Mizzi, Owen Bonnici, Julia Farrugia, and what seemed like the rest of the Cabinet. Once again, the occasion was forests.

It’s clear that, on the environment, the Labour government is in damage control mode. I don’t mean that damage control, but rather the election campaign kind. Why else would a troop of government ministers show up to announce an afforestation project of sorts?

Konrad Mizzi got to speak first, Lord grant me patience. He mumbled something vague about 8,000 trees, a campsite, and happy families. Which meant there was nothing much left for poor sidekicked Herrera to say when his turn came. So he too mumbled exactly the same thing about 8,000 trees, a campsite, and happy families.

In the politician’s world, trees have a funny way of being in the right place at the right time. These days, when I see politicians planting trees or saying they intend to do so, I run a mile. It usually means all else has failed.

Cynical? Not at all. In the last 15 years or so we’ve seen the development of what we might call a rhetoric of trees and tree planting. It’s not just the reclaimed islands that will be heavily forested. Herrera himself once said he wanted buskettini (‘mini-forests’) all over the country. Readers who do not fancy living in a Rousseau painting needn’t worry. It’s rather a Lowry, and dropped from a great height at that.

The Birżebbuġa event was particularly nuts. It was all about trees, with not a tree in sight. Unfazed, Herrera went on about how endemic – I think he meant ‘indigenous’, but that’s a minor slip for an environment minister – trees would soon blanket ‘the South’ and radically transform the quality of life of the people living there.

I wish all of this was actually funny. Instead, people like Konrad Mizzi and José Herrera make me want to take to the trees and never set foot on the ground again, just as Calvino’s baron did in the story from which the title of this piece is borrowed. 

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece


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