Friday, June 26, 2015
EUObserver.com : Malta protesters try to save green lung
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.