Sociologist, local councillor, activist from Malta

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:
http://www.independent.com.mt/articles/2015-06-01/local-news/Watch-Malta-has-become-a-permanent-building-site-Michael-Briguglio-6736136500

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.



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