Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Sustainability Buzzword

(Art:'Into the Vague' by Jeremy Mann)

Times of Malta 30 June 2015

Sustainable development has become one of the buzzwords of our times. The term is used and articulated by different sectors of society, ranging from politicians to popes, from environmentalists to energy providers, from sociologists to speculators and from businessmen to biologists.

Optimistically speaking, the term has now become so mainstream that we can only hope for a brighter environmental future. On the other hand, one can argue that the term is interpreted in so many different ways that it has lost all practical significance.

Whereas Green politics have never, so far, been a dominant form of policymaking, sustainable development has been taken up - at least in rhetoric - by all sorts of policymakers in different countries, including national governments, local councils and transnational bodies from the EU to the UN. Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment is the latest big news in this regard and this is most welcome.

Originally coined by the Brundtland Commission within the United Nations in the mid-1980s, sustainable development was defined as “development which meets the need of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. It was meant to combine social, environmental and economic priorities. Thus, economic development which brought about environmental degradation or social inequality was not deemed as being sustainable.

Sustainability was meant to encourage different social sectors to work together for the common good. On the other hand, critics point out that some antagonistic interests cannot be reconciled. For example, they argue that no green sugar coating will make fossil fuel industries sustainable.

Besides, the common good can be in peril where short-term self-interest prevails. The case of boreholes in Malta is a case in point. These might provide water for users, however, the end result is degradation of groundwater which can eventually become unfit for use.

The common good can however be promoted and protected through education and through direct political action.

The recent protest organised by Front Ħarsien ODZ – the largest of its kind ever held in Malta – represented a clear call for the protection of the common good against ODZ development.

Some believe that sustainability is best reached through markets as, for example, the price of a scarce resource will go up once it becomes more limited, thus discouraging consumption. Others have less faith in markets and believe that we require widespread moral obligation to protect nature. Others still believe in more effective policymaking and enforcement.

Some believe that sustainability can be obtained in modern industrial society whereas others believe that capitalism is in itself the greatest source of unsustainability, due to waste producing, overproduction and overconsumption, which increases inequality and environmental degradation along the way.

Sustainable development can also be framed within a context of opportunities and risk. We are living in a world characterised by new opportunities in so many spheres, yet, at the same time, we are also facing risks that we ourselves are creating: climate change, terrorism, precariousness, pollution, you name it.

In this context, gone are the days of simple solutions and rock solid certainty. Instead, we reflexively navigate through such risks – some of which are unintended – by attempting to manage them in the best way possible. For this to occur, a vibrant and democratic civil society is required, thus enhancing social interaction, dialogue and trust and moving away from top-down authoritarianism or fundamentalism.

Currently, sustainable development is also being linked to the circular economy concept. For example, the European Commission states that by late 2015 it aims to present a strategy “to transform Europe into a more competitive resource-efficient economy, addressing a range of economic sectors, including waste”.

The European Commission says that our economies have used a “take-make-consume and dispose” pattern of growth. Instead, a circular economy considers waste to be a resource. Resource efficiency is given prime importance and green jobs are created in the process.

Malta is expected to support this EU-driven policy process but can we say that Malta has good examples of circularity? There are some encouraging examples. Waste management has improved, though we are European laggards. Sewage treatment has helped bring about the cleanest seawater in Europe.

But, surely, in other areas, Malta has more of a cowboy economy. Think of the construction industry. Though there are some good performers, the general picture leaves much to desire.

The industry is often characterised by decision-making processes which favour developers over everyone one else, by very poor enforcement mechanisms and by a lack of transparency. And Malta is getting worse by the day.

The result is endless construction, governments promoting ODZ development, damaged infrastructure, endless dust, pollution, shabbiness and cementification. In the meantime, vacant properties and abandoned sites continue to cry out for use and regeneration. Hardly a case of sustainability, I must say.

Friday, June 26, 2015

EUObserver.com : Malta protesters try to save green lung

Biggest-ever Malta protest on environmental topic (Photos: Lara Calleja)

By Antoine Borg Micallef
Valletta, 23. Jun, 18:52


Thousands of Maltese people flocked to the streets of Valletta on Saturday (20 June) to challenge the proposed construction of a private university on virgin public land.

Organised by a newly established movement, the Front Harsien ODZ (Front for the Protection of ODZ), protesters marched through Malta's capital in a bid to sway prime minister Joseph Muscat to stop development of a pristine stretch of land measuring 90,000 square metres.

Members of public at the rally showed frustration at being excluded from the decision-making process, saying the project would destroy a green lung in the south of Malta.

They said "public land should not be used for private economic purposes" and that "the environment should not be treated as a commodity".

The controversy over the American University of Malta (AUM) project erupted in early May when Muscat announced €115 million of foreign investment for the scheme.

Within two days, the Maltese government signed a deal with a Jordanian firm, Sadeen, in a lavish event which included the US ambassador to Malta, Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, as guest of honour.

The PM said the new-build would transform Malta into an "educational hub" and "offer pluralism in the tertiary sector".

Additionally, Sadeen's representative in Malta, Thaer Mukbel, told local newspapers the project "would benefit Malta”, describing the growth potential as “crazy”.

The area earmarked for construction, called Zonqor Point, is listed as a mixture of “Agricultural Land” and “Area of Ecological Importance and Site of Scientific Importance”. It also enjoys a Maltese planning classification under which no development is permitted.

Muscat announced a nature park of around 50.6 hectares to be located next to AUM in order to assuage criticism. But environment groups say the gesture is meaningless because Zonqor Point is protected under national law.

For their part, local farmers, who are to be evicted as a result of the construction, joined the protest movement. It’s still unclear where they’ll be relocated to.

The AUM project has also ruffled feathers at the University of Malta. The same week the AUM was announced, it emerged that Malta's Education Act had been updated to lower requirements for educational institutions to be recognised as universities.

Front Harsien ODZ spokesman Michael Briguglio said he is "overwhelmed by the massive turnout" at last Saturday's protest - the biggest in Malta on an environmental topic.

He appealed to the prime minister to guarantee Zonqor Point protection and to publish details of the agreement between his government and Sadeen.

But Muscat remains keen to forge ahead despite the backlash, saying AUM benefits national interest.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Mepa vanishing act

Times of Malta, 22 June 2015

On June 15, I had the privilege of participating in a meeting of the Parliamentary Committee for the Environment, which was chaired by Labour MP Marlene Farrugia. The meeting concerned the preliminary site evaluation report of the ‘American’ University of Malta and consisted of a question-and-answer session with Mepa’s chief executive officer Johann Buttigieg.

Farrugia’s transparent and enabling style was very well suited to the transparent architecture of the new parliamentary building. However, the same cannot be said regarding the replies by Mepa’s representative when asked questions by representatives from Front Ħarsien ODZ, ENGOs, Alternattiva Demokratika and Nationalist MPs.

While I admired his calm and non-confrontational style and while I respect his role as a public officer, Buttigieg was trying to defend the indefensible during this grilling. No representative from the media-savvy Office of the Prime Minster was there to back up Buttigieg, who was tasked to assume responsibility for the Prime Minister’s brief for the ‘American’ University development. He was alone.

Some very interesting points transpired from this meeting. In my view, these render Mepa’s credibility close to zero because it is basically acting as the government’s poodle instead of behaving as environmental regulator.

We were informed that the government wanted a site specifically in the south-east and not the south of Malta. Given the size of Malta, it does not need much imagination to see what the government was pointing Mepa to given Żonqor’s geographical location.

Instead of refusing the Żonqor option, Buttigieg said Mepa accepted to consider this possibility. Mepa’s study actually recommended Żonqor as it clearly concludes that “Żonqor merits further consideration” in relation to the development of the ‘American’ University.

Mepa’s study did not adequately consider other possible sites, save for two non-starters. This is hardly surprising when it then transpired that Mepa’s own Environment Protection Directorate – which employs experts in the field – was excluded from the site selection process. What a waste of taxpayers’ money!

Buttigieg refused to inform those present who was conducting the studies on behalf of Mepa. He took full responsibility for the entire process. When pressed further, he replied that there were no sociologists, no economists, no hydrologists, no anthropologists, no transport and no agriculture experts involved. There were some unnamed planner/s and architect/s though.

This really took everyone by surprise. Anyone with basic academic knowledge knows that multidisciplinary studies are very important in policymaking processes to ensure that the subject under study is treated in a holistic way. When we are speaking about sustainable development – a term which Environment Minister Leo Brincat is so fond of – such multidisciplinarity becomes even more vital.

During the meeting it also transpired that the terms of reference for the site-selection study are not public. Hence, the main conclusion from the parliamentary committee meeting was that there were anonymous planners and architects involved in confirming a site preselected by the government. How’s this for transparency?

To date, the government has also refused to publish its agreement with Sadeen, the developers of the ‘American’ University. Does not the public have a right to know whether the government has any obligations with Sadeen and, if yes, what they are? Once again, transparency is experiencing a vanishing act.

Finally, those of us present were consoled by Buttigieg’s promise to declare which sites Mepa is now studying in its upcoming site-selection process. There are 100 of them, we were told. But let us not be too optimistic.

The Environment Planning Directorate, ecologists, sociologists, economists, hydrologists, anthropologists, transport and agriculture experts are not involved in this exercise. We are forced to have faith in the phantom architect/s and planner/s who are loyally following the government’s brief, which, apparently, is based on an agreement the government refuses to publish.

All in all, last Monday’s meeting confirmed what 21 NGOs stated earlier during the day: Malta’s environment is under institutional attack. The Mepa regulator has effectively metamorphosised into a handful of phantom planners reporting to the CEO who, in turn, reports to Prime Minister Joseph Muscat.

In the process, the environment, which is supposed to be a public good that belongs to us all, has become a commodity that is auctioned for the benefit of the few.

It will be unfortunate indeed if Muscat’s government will be remembered in the history books for lack of transparency and a frontal attack on the environment. But history can also be written by those who are active to defend the common good. And the voices of such persons and groups are growing louder.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Making History from Zonqor to Beyond - The Front phenomenon

(also available in Maltese at: http://mikes-beat.blogspot.com/2015/07/il-fenomenu-tal-front.html )

The #savezonqor protest by Front Harsien ODZ on Saturday 20th June, 2015, made history for various reasons.

First, because this was the biggest-ever autonomous protest organised by civil society without interference from any political party, big or small. Estimates state that there were between 3,000 and 4,000 people who literally filled up Republic Street, Valletta, something which is usually only achieved by major political parties or trade unions, who rely on their mass-membership. And judging by dwindling attendances recently held by the latter, the #savezonqor protest was even more significant. Besides, the last great protest on environmental matters, held under the previous Nationalist administration some years back, attracted around 500 people – and it was considered a success.

Second, because Front Harsien ODZ represents a new phenomenon in Maltese politics, whilst celebrating the best of activist tradition inherited from previous years. The Front builds on environmentalism which goes back to the 1960s, which became more militant from the mid-80s onwards in terms of environmental protest, and which uses the strategic inclusion of successful campaigns such as the Front Against the Rabat Golf Course at the turn of the century. The Front enjoys the support of over 30 organisations. It does not intend to replace them, but rather, to act as an inclusive, non-sectarian, non-partisan force through which all organisations can work together.

Representation in the front is not based on one’s affiliation, and activists respond solely to the Front. Everyone is welcome to join the Front, but decisions are taken in a horizontal-democratic manner, and activists do not report back to other organisations. Some activists are seasoned campaigners with over 20 years of activism. Others have been active in the past few years, and yet others are newcomers to the new wave of civil society activism. Some members are local councillors, others are journalists, others academics from different disciplines, and others include students, activists and citizens with a strong interest in the environment and the common good. The Front now has to ensure its autonomy and resist the temptations of co-optation.

Third, because the Front is not characterised by internal bickering, petty-partisanship or primadonna politics. To the contrary, all activists have an important role to play, and the Front uses multiple platforms for its activism. From social media to protest, from media debates to memes, from networking to grassroots activism. The Front captures the moment of non-party political activism, in a context of greater environmental consciousness, and under a Labour Government which is increasingly non-transparent, arrogant and mercantile in its politics of selling the common good.

Ultra-partisan apologists are doing their utmost to play down the immense effect of Front Harsien ODZ. They are ignoring the rise of Maltese civil society at their own political peril. This only gives more incentive to Front Harsien ODZ to speak up against the usurpation of Malta’s environmental and public domain.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Civil Society supporting Front Ħarsien ODZ

Front Ħarsien ODZ, set up to safeguard our ODZ sites such as Zonqor point from being developed, has come a long way since its launch. The front, a people's movement, is open to all those who endorse our aim which are purely environmental, and seeks to be as open as possible to individuals. We've extended our invitation to non governmental organisations, platforms and cooperatives.

The front does not seek to duplicate the efforts or undermine efforts which are already in place. On the other hand, it brings these efforts together. FHO aims to provide a platform that is intersectional and welcomes various individuals and groups from all parts of society.

Over the last few weeks Front Ħarsien ODZ has been endorsed by a large number of organisations, and this is growing. These include:

Moviment Graffitti, Alternattiva Demokratika, Friends of the Earth, Flimkien Għal Ambjent Aħjar, Integra Foundation, Partit Komunista Malti, The Critical Institute, ADŻ- Alternattiva Demokratika Żgħażagħ, Why Not? Greenhouse - Malta, Gender Liberation, Jesuits Community, Kopin, Ramblers, Birdlife Malta, MOAM, Moviment Kattoliku Studenti Universitarji (MKSU), Kunsill Studenti Universitarji (KSU), Theatre Anon, Koperattiva Kummerċ Ġust (KKG), Friends of Marsascala, Organisation Friendship in Diversity (OFD), Students Philosophical Society (SPS), Aditus, Youth for the Environment, Platform of Human Rights Organisations in Malta (PHROM), SDM, Drachma, Earth Systems Association, Żminijietna and Nature Trust Malta.

Other organisations and groups that are endorsing Saturday's protest include: Din l-Art Ħelwa, artists academics, Labour MP Marlene Farrugia, Labour Whip Godfrey Farrugia and the PN parliamentary group.

We would like to remind the public that the upcoming protest and the Front are non-partisan and peaceful, open to each and every person who believes that ODŻ sites such as Żonqor should not be built up, and to protect our natural heritage now and for the future.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Shifting Political Landscape?

The Times of Malta, 15 June 2015

A year ago, Labour appeared to be invincible. After the landslide victory in the 2013 general elections, it went on to crush the Nationalist Party and the Greens in the European elections and Joseph Muscat seemed to be on his way to a long-lasting premiership, along the route of Dom Mintoff and Eddie Fenech Adami.

The relatively stable economy inherited from Lawrence Gonzi’s Nationalist administration kept doing well and Muscat’s government was establishing itself as a progressive reformer in terms of civil rights and social policy: from LGBT rights to universally-accessible childcare. Not-so-positive aspects of the new Labour government were easily overshadowed by the feel-good-factor of Muscat’s honeymoon period.

Then, the Manuel Mallia controversy struck from out of nowhere, to be followed by a downward spiral of controversial policies, bad governance and broken electoral promises.

It became increasingly evident that the Tagħna lkoll slogan was a play on words. Instead of turning a new page symbolised by meritocracy, a universally-accessible public domain and the common good, the Labour government seemed to act like a feudal landowner, raising questions whether land and favours were being parcelled out to the inner core and to the drivers of electoral obligations.

Now there is never a dull day under Labour. Daily news headlines explain who benefitted from which decision, which environmental policy was going to be dismantled and other surprises.

Labour’s overconfidence and arrogance is what one would usually expect after two legislatures, not just two years.

In the Maltese political game, Labour does its utmost to defend its stance by comparing itself to the previous Nationalist administration. This defensive strategy will win applause at coffee mornings and at staged public meetings but will not impress the significant niche of voters who feel no particular urge to vote for the same party in subsequent elections.

The recent local council election results give substance to such an argument. Indeed, the Nationalist Party managed to halve the difference compared to the previous round of similar elections and now seems to be moving out of its defeatist resignation that was so evident a year ago.

Given Labour’s self-inflicted political descent, the PN has a field day in pointing out examples of bad governance. This does not absolve the PN of past experiences, however, the discerning voter can make his own comparisons without the need of partisan preaching.

In such a context, the PN has two and a half years to show that it has redeemed itself from the reasons which cost its 2013 defeat and that it can really revive itself as a government that promotes stability, well-being and a decent quality of life.

Simon Busuttil has everything to gain by presenting himself as a calm, moderate, dialogic leader to voters who are shunned by the strong-man populism and condescending sarcasm of Muscat.

The prevailing political situation also offers a limited window of opportunity for Alternattiva Demokratika – the Green party. AD is very often a catalyst as regards various policies but political effectiveness is also about image, charisma, strategy, resources, grassroots activism, media, mobilisation and other factors such as the reflexivity of voters.

So far, floating voters have preferred to switch from one major party to the other, believing it is a safer bet for voters’ aspirations. In a scenario of increasingly reflexive and discerning voters, electoral majorities can go as quickly as they come.

Floating voters may choose the safest party, switchers might choose the party which they believe satisfies their immediate needs and new voters might be less inclined to follow family tradition.

Besides, one should also take account of voters who traditionally vote for a party but feel let down when it is in government over what they deem to be favouritism to new rent-seekers and opportunists. And I hear that there are quite a number of such disappointed Labourites.

The next two and a half years might also be characterised by historical moments that might further shift the political landscape.

Labour might turn for the better, possibly through an effective reshuffle and a sober strategy of political humility. Labour might realise that non-core voters are more important than rent-seekers who are only there when the sun shines.

The PN will obviously try to show that it is the best bet to move Labour out of power and AD will hope for an increased level of distrust of mainstream politicians.

But there might also be other significant moments. For example, citizens’ social movements and vocal forces on the left and right might well find their place in this country too. Saturday’s protest by Front Ħarsien ODZ can be a good gauge of non-partisan citizen mobilisation.

Pardoxically, the ‘movement’ concept that was used by Labour in 2013 might also be used against it in 2018.

No theory can, however, predict such political moments because the future is never written in advance.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Publication of paper on Bird Hunting Referendum in Malta

My paper "The Bird Hunting Referendum in Malta" has been published in the international peer-reviewed academic journal 'Environmental Politics' (Routledge)

The paper can be accessed at:


Reference: Briguglio, Michael (2015). The Bird Hunting Referendum in Malta. Environmental Politics, Vol. 24(5), pp.835-839
DOI: 10.1080/09644016.2015.1055880

My academic publications list can be checked out here:


Thursday, June 11, 2015

Where were the Front activists in the past? A reply

To those ultra-partisans who seem to adopt selective memory in asking Front Harsien ODZ core activists where we were years ago, I reply that many of us, such as James Debono, David Pisani and myself have been active in many environmental campaigns since the 1990s, some of which were successful.

Others are younger but have been active for some years and yet others recently took the brave step to be active to save what is left. Others are still in time to be active to protect the environment, a common good which has no party-political or financial affiliation.

Incidentally two of my 3 sociology theses- (State/Power: Hiltonopoly, BA Hons, 1998, and EU accession and civil society empowerment - the case of Maltese ENGOs, PhD, 2013) - as well as academic papers and dozens of newspaper articles which I have written deal with environmental politics, so I invite the skeptics to check them out and find ample documentation on this.

One can find related articles in my blog, and academic papers/theses through the following link: https://malta.academia.edu/MichaelBriguglio

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The ODZ Social Pact

Times of Malta 8 June 2015

A socio-political satire by Wayne Flask, Sibna ż-Żejt, was recently performed at the Manoel Theatre. The audience was entertained by the situations in a concrete-laden dystopia in Malta, in the year 2036. Oil is found under the Addolorata cemetery, fuelling a series of tragi-comic events.

Till the end of the play, Joseph Muscat is politically invincible and attempts to adopt increasingly monarchical attitudes, resting on the support of mega-land developers. The Nationalist Party splits, AD is long gone and critical intellectuals are seen as dangerous individuals. This democratic suffocation eventually provides for Muscat’s political implosion, giving rise to an authoritarian reaction.

Whether Muscat will be Prime Minister in 2036 is subject to debate (!), though I think that serious shortcomings in governance, transparency and environmental consciousness are being underestimated by today’s over-confident Labour government.

This might provide for political implosion earlier than one thinks. Labour should keep in mind that when the Nationalist Party lost the 1996 and 2013 elections the country’s economic performance was not the main reason why voters changed the government.

Some recent statements by Muscat are clear examples of such over-confidence. For example, some days ago, he told the press that he could not understand all the fuss being made about a proposed cruise terminal project in an ecologically-sensitive part of Gozo, after the ‘erroneous divulging’ of internal information by a company interested in developing the site.

Only some days before, Muscat joked that the farmers at Żonqor can be transferred to St Luke’s Hospital, in Guardamangia. Apart from being in bad taste, this statement showed little empathy with the social attachment farmers have to their agricultural way of life.

The Żonqor issue is, however, symptomatic of a trend that is even more worrying than Labour’s overconfidence.

I am referring to the ‘anything goes’ attitude with respect to land development. For example, the government is showing no concern for the ODZ concept, rendering land to a bargaining chip in a casino-like context of development.

Beyond the legalities of ODZ status, in my view there is a stronger meaning to ODZ and here I share similar views to my colleague and fellow columnist Mark-Anthony Falzon.

ODZ has a socially-constructed symbolic meaning of a cross-generational social bond. ODZ represents a pact between current and future generations, between the agonistic camps in the politics of the environment.

By agonistic camps I am referring to adversaries who play the political game but respect the rules and each other through vibrant, civil, civic engagement. This concept was proposed by political theorist Chantal Mouffe.

From an agonistic perspective, therefore, ODZ represents a degree of social cohesion, as an out-of-bounds zone for development.

If Maltese society agrees that ODZ is out of bounds, this social pact gives even more legitimacy to the legal status of ODZ. The concept of the common good prevails over short-term partisan interests. A strong sense of reciprocity will be in place, where rights and responsibilities are intertwined.

Social pacts provide the foundations of relatively stable social settings and for the democratic development of societies which move out of political violence, zero-sum conflict and ghettoised social enclaves.

In such a context, when the government speaks about ODZ land as if it is an item for auction, the ODZ project breaks down.

Therefore, I ask if it is acceptable that the government seems to give priority to free-riding developers who seem to give little consideration to social bonds.

Is it acceptable that the government sets false parameters by promoting the idea of a reduced footprint of development on ODZ land?

This is not a compromise. A true, sensible compromise would be to carry out a proper scientific exercise in search of alternative non-ODZ land that can host sustainable development.

Indeed, by resorting to the logic of ‘anything goes’, Muscat’s government risks rendering the agonism of adversaries to the antagonism of enemies. The ODZ social pact would have been broken and Pandora’s Box would be opened.

Social anxiety due to a deteriorating quality of life could increase, where the public is kept guessing which part of Malta is next on the auction list. Free-riders would be more equal than others, making it more difficult to uphold the concept of community in Maltese society.

If the Prime Minister thinks that people simply ‘adapt’ to overdevelopment, I think that this is a gross miscalculation of social reality. People do not breathe money, children do not play in concrete mixers and families do not relax in building sites.

Going back to Sibna ż-Żejt, I believe that Flask’s dystopia will not take place, though the play provides a parable-like warning. The optimistic side of me says that we are in time to stop Malta being rendered to a permanent building site. The founding of Front Ħarsien ODZ is an example of such optimism.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

#SAVEZONQOR national protest, Saturday 20 June

Front Harsien ODZ will be holding a public protest in Valletta on Saturday 20 June. The protest will start near parliament at 10 am.

The theme chosen for the protest is Save Zonqor. The protest will call on government to abide to the local plan for the South of Malta and reconfirm the designation of the entire Zonqor area as a national park where no development is to be allowed and where the livelihood of farmers is protected.

The citizens' protest will be non partisan and open for the participation of people from all walks of life and political beliefs. The protest is being organised by the citizens represented in the front and not by political parties.

Civil society and all social and environmental NGOs are being invited to participate in this inclusive event.

Read more here:

Times of Malta

Malta Today

Malta Independent

Facebook event page [PLEASE SHARE]: https://www.facebook.com/events/1462915424001137/

Front Harsien ODZ

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Information Overload

Times of Malta, 1 June 2015

Last week, Times Talk discussed the impact of social media in society. It is very important to have public debates on issues which are very much ingrained in the everyday interaction of many people.

(Death of a Cyborg - Painting by William Bouguereau)

The social media have undoubtedly facilitated communication in today’s society but there are important challenges associated with internet usage.

Some analysts of cyberspace consider it to have produced a new utopic sphere with increased freedoms. Others give more importance to ‘dark’ elements within it, such as increased State surveillance and personal addiction.

Optimistically speaking, people around the world have never had access to so much knowledge and information. People may educate themselves, may be in constant communication with others through chats and games and may also raise consciousness on issues they hold at heart.

In the cyberspace utopia, we may construct our identity in a pluralistic sphere which isn’t monopolised by one tyrannical voice.

Indeed, the internet can be an important tool of democratisation. Messages, symbols and statements are open to negotiation by internet users who are reflexive and, thus, critically able to agree or disagree with what they see on the screen.

From a political perspective, one can refer to protests around the world which were instantly on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, such as those within the Arab Spring, Gezi Park in Turkey and the Occupy movement. In Malta, activists within different social movements, such as those dealing with sexual identity, the environment and disability, have broken quite a lot of barriers with their cyber-activism.

Bloggers are putting forward their point of view and an increased diversity of views is being exposed to the public. Mainstream and alternative media are interacting with each other and official narratives by the State are exposed to more counter-narratives and engagement.

From a pessimist point of view, however, there are various aspects of the cyberspace debate which merit much attention.To begin with, the talk of increased democracy, important as it is, requires engagement.

Just because bloggers, NGOs or musicians are posting their material online doesn’t necessarily meant they have guaranteed readership.

There may be too many articles, too many songs, too many tweets. While this does expose readers to increased sources of knowledge, it may also result in less focused readership, thus rendering the art of reading to a trivial scan of one-liner headings by individuals who are immersed in their own bubble.

One may also refer to unreliable sources, false identities and misinformation. For example, should one replace expert medical advice with online medical solutions?

Within the political sphere, one cannot doubt the sensitising impact of cyber activism as in the examples I mentioned above. However, this does not guarantee political success. Democracy activists in Egypt, Turkey and Hong Kong know something about this.

State repression through the internet has become common despite the latter’s democratic potential. For example, activists may be constantly surveilled, traced or hacked. A repressive State may also do its utmost to censor ‘undesirable’ media. And big business – which has a huge role in cyberspace - may opt for increased profits rather than increased pluralism.

Some argue that the social media may result in social fragmentation and the ghettoisation of different voices. Instead of having true community development by means of social interaction and investment in social capital, one may simply have different groups which are simply preaching to the converted. For example, in recent referenda campaigns in Malta, there were equally large Facebook pages on either side, with not so much constrictive cross-debate between them.

Hence, one should not assume that the internet provides a quick-fix solution to our problems. The Żonqor Point development controversy will not be solved by Joseph Muscat’s exercise of online consultation for alternative sites but through an ever-growing social movement against ODZ development. The climate change issue will not be solved by increased awareness through the internet – important as this is – but through clear political deals and change in behaviour.

Finally, there are the perils of internet dependency in an interplay of opportunities and risks. What happens if information systems break down in essential sectors such as energy or health?

Similarly, are human beings becoming increasingly cyborg-like, given that, for many, the smartphone or tablet seems to be an extension of the body?
Indeed, cyberspace may be a secluded source of inclusion with online peer-groups and an anti-social ‘drug’ resulting in increased isolation from significant others such as family members.

Being reflexive beings, we may decide to switch off the internet when we really don’t need it and thus be in control. In the final instance, the internet is a tool which we may choose to assist us in our personal or societal development or which we may choose to become enslaved to. I hope that the latter option does not prevail.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Interview: Malta has become a permanent building site

I was interviewed last week by The Malta Independent about the Front Harsien ODZ.

You can watch/read the interview by following this link, and read an English translation of the interview by scrolling down on this blog:

The government’s proposal to develop an ODZ in Żonqor for a university project has been the main subject of controversy over the past weeks. The ‘Front Harsien ODZ’ (Front for safeguarding ODZ) was launched last Saturday, with outspoken government MP Marlene Farrugia and her partner, Government Whip Godfrey Farrugia, joining its ranks.

The front’s spokesperson and former Chairperson of Alternattiva Demokratika, Michael Briguglio speaks to Therese Bonnici about the stakes Malta’s countryside is facing and the attitude taken by authorities.

Why did you feel the need to launch Front Harsien ODZ?

The Front was launched to have a united voice against development of Żonqor and other outside development zones. We have never seen as much opposition to one particular project. The best bet at winning a campaign is having a united front – one which is not sectoral or politically affiliated. It is evident that environmental awareness has increased - twenty years ago, the situation would not have been the same. Groups which have never voiced environmental concerns have now chosen to speak up.

The government is proposing development at a fast rate, with no transparency on proposed projects. A large group of people had hoped that environment will go up on the government’s priority list, but have been let down. The Żonqor project serves as the ultimate test.

How is it that suddenly, many are speaking up about protecting the environment?

The potential development of Żonqor is so massive that people are shocked, and realised the need to unite against it. But this has been going on for too long. The front’s aim is not only to stop this particular project but to prevent future development of ODZs. At present, the government is acting fast on the project, so we need imminent action.

To what extent is the countryside at risk?

It is evident that Malta has become a highly developed country and that it fares low in sustainable construction development. Malta has become a permanent building site – everywhere is ready to be sold. Malta’s limited size is reason enough to be cautious on development.

I’ve been involved in other environmental campaigns, not specifically about ODZ, some of which have been successful such as the campaign against developing the golf course in Rabat.

The Labour Government does not seem interested in turning things round when it comes to the environment, and therefore, a bigger and more united voice is needed.

In the past, a number of ODZ have been developed, because of decisions taken by both political parties. I have been speaking up for the environment for the past twenty years, so no can accuse me of only speaking up now.

The Opposition has strongly criticised the project. However the largest number of permits for ODZ were given in 2007, under Nationalist government. Has the issue become political football?

Everyone has a responsibility to speak up for the environment; therefore if the Opposition has chosen to do so, then it is more than welcome. Of course, when the Nationalist Party was in government, it did not fare well when it comes to construction development, even extending the development zones. When I opposed the development of the golf course, the Labour Party, then in Opposition did not agree with the development.

It’s important to note that the Labour’s Whip Godfrey Farrugia and Labour MP Marlene Farrugia are also against the development. So is the vice-mayor of Marsascala and other people affiliated with the PL who have not yet spoken out in public – although I hope they do soon enough. The front does not belong to any political party but it welcomes every support that comes its way.

The party in opposition always seems to stand up for the environment. But that is soon forgotten after it is elected…

The front has a mandate to oppose this project and other ODZ projects. Therefore I won’t go into the major political parties’ politics. However, during elections, people vote for a political party for a number of reasons. When the electorate gave the PL its trust, one of the issues was the environment. This should serve as pressure to the PL not to ignore these switchers who voted for the PL because they thought things would change.

How will the front carry out its campaign?

The front is currently holding internal meetings to discuss a strategy, but we are not excluding anything. There are different manners of carrying out a campaign – protesting, petitions, joining more forces together to support your cause. We are not excluding anything which is within the limits of civil society.

What questions have yet to be answered by the government?

We have one appeal but many questions, mostly deriving out of lack of transparency. We are calling on the government to declare that plans to develop Zonqor site will be abolished, or any other ODZ. Many are asking details of the project and what it will specifically consist of. We’ve had information on the media, but the government has not clarified how far it will go. We’ve heard the investor saying one thing and the government saying another. What is the truth?

I urge Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to be transparent and provide all the information about the project. The debate in parliament and in the civil society should be a civil and transparent debate. If we ask for information, we should have it.

Will the front be proposing alternative sites?

The front still needs to discuss this internally. However, in my own opinion, I do not agree with the government’s decision to launch a website allowing the public to send in their proposals – that ridicules the whole concept. You can’t propose sites there and then without the necessary studies – studies that evaluate the environmental, economical, traffic, architectural and operational impact. Such studies can’t be compiled in five minutes on a website or social media.

It is good to propose alternatives, but the proposals need to be realistic and backed up with the necessary documentation. Some level of expertise should be respected - after all, environmentalists have long have been insisting that proposals for development should be accompanied by the relevant studies. The government has been insisting on having the project at the south of Malta, but I don’t think it should necessarily be the case. In Malta, 33% of buildings are vacant and the government could choose to restructure them. I firmly believe the government could find another alternative.

MEPA is acting as the judge and jury on the case. Is its role still tenable?

MEPA should not be evaluating sites it has itself proposed; the authority is there to evaluate the proposals, not to propose them. That poses a high conflict of interest and it raises a lot of questions. In a serious democratic country where there is autonomy between authorities and the government, it seems MEPA is working hand in hand with the government. I expect proposals to be studied scientifically, evaluating impact on different sector.

The government has justified the development by saying it’s for educational purposes. Is that reason enough?

When the government states that it is justifiable to develop an ODZ, it should also explain the reasons why it is justified, especially when in Malta there are alternative plots of land which have been left neglected. Addressing political meetings and launching websites is not the way to justify the project. It should give rational and scientifically based arguments. But because the government does not have the necessary studies at hand, its arguments are not backed up.

The Environment Minister has not opposed the project, and is now avoiding any media questions. What role should be holding?

I would expect the environment minister to raise questions on the project. Being fair, Minister Leo Bricat did say that ideally, an alternative site is chosen, but he did not oppose the decision by the government per se. The environment minister’s top priority should be the environment. I know Mr Brincat to make rational arguments on issues of global importance and sustainability. But for some reason, on this issue, he does not want to commit to taking a standpoint in favour of the environment.

How did the spring hunting referendum change the public’s idea of speaking out for the environment?

The referendum had two impacts. At one end, it was disappointing for the environmentalists who thought enough people would vote against spring hunting. On the other hand, almost half those who casted their vote expressed their voice to protect the environment, and this can be carried forward. However this is not just about the environmentalists. The hunters have come out against the project, as did the church, employers, the opposition, members of the PL and other members of the civil society. This movement can continue to move forth and grow stronger.

You resigned as AD chairman in 2013. Is leading the front a way of getting back into politics?

I’d rather focus on the present, but I have no intention to join any political party. I am focused on the Zonqor project and as a local councillor.