Is the government making good for its environmental errors?
From the Zonqor Point controversy to its support for spring hunting and autumn trapping, and from the use of Outside Development Zone land to the demerger of the former Malta Environment and Planning Authority, this government’s environmental credentials have taken a sound beating so far in this legislature.
But over the last two weeks the government has taken two big and decisive steps in the right direction as far as environmental protection is concerned, after three years in which it has been under constant bombardment over its perceived lack of environmental credentials.
Could this be a case of the government finally attempting to make good for its previous environmental errors?
The two cases in point are the handing over of the Salini salt pans to BirdLife Malta, which will become responsible for the management of what will be known as the Salina Reserve – the organisation’s largest land management project – and the publication on Friday of a legal notice reserving a massive stretch of land near Zonqor and beyond as a national park.
At the height of the American University of Malta ODZ land giveaway debacle, the government had declared its intention to create a national park in Zonqor alongside the campus. At the time very few people believed that the government would ever make good on the pledge, until Friday’s publication of a legal notice creating nearly a one million square metre national park.
The government also went a step further and extended the planned national park’s footprint by 44,000 square metres – 30,000 square metres of which were in the development zone and which have now effectively been turned into Outside Development Zone land.
In itself, this extension of the protected area is more than welcome news, especially after the controversy that raged after the government’s first attempt to grant ODZ land to the educational institution. Originally, the project was to award Sadeen Group, the developers behind the project, a massive 90,000 square metres of ODZ land, a size that was later trimmed down to 18,000 square metres, and to offset that it granted the institution a second campus at Cottonera’s Dock 1.
At the time, the government had described the trade-off as a ‘compromise’, which was met with no small degree of scepticism, but with the 955,000 square metre new national park – running from Zonqor point to Ta’ Barkat – that ‘compromise’ may become a little more palatable.
According to the government, the project is in line with the “government policy of prioritising environmental standards and making Malta a pleasant place to live in”.
This could very well be the case, but it could also be a case of the government seeking to mitigate the bad rap it has had over the last three-odd years for its perceived lack of concern for the environment.
Has the government finally woken up to the fact that the environmental lobby has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, and the fact that the environment cannot be left by the wayside in favour of other projects?
The government and all political parties for that matter would do well to take note of what the environmentalist have been screaming about for years on end. There was a time when their numbers were negligible when it came to the grand electoral stakes, but those times are now behind us.
The environmental lobby as a whole has grown significantly in recent years and it is only a matter of time before their clout grows enough for them to well and truly begin to set the political agenda in Malta, as has been the case in so many other countries. If their messages are not heeded, one fine Election Day, one or both of the big parties could very well be in for an unpleasant surprise.
The world over, and Malta is by no stretch of the imagination any different, the political class is quite content to preserve the status quo. It is, after all, in the establishment’s interest to retain a system that is beneficial to it, and keeping the masses as silent as possible about the real ills affecting their country. But it is only when the public makes its voice heard loud and clear and en masse that politicians will be compelled to respond.
The government, with its finger firmly on the pulse of public sentiment, has given the environmental lobby a figurative pound of flesh, or, to be more precise, 955,000 square metres of the nation’s flesh.
Whatever the case, whether the tal-Inwadar National Park has been established for political gain or out of true environmental considerations, we will not look this particular gift horse in the mouth.