Tuesday, July 07, 2015
Final Farewell to Jeremy Boissevain
Jeremy Boissevain’s passing away is a loss to his many friends and colleagues in Maltese society and academia. He was one of the most renowned scholars worldwide on Maltese society and was held in great esteem by anthropologists, sociologists, politicians and environmental activists, among others.
Terms he popularised, such as “friends of friends”, “saints and fireworks” and “super saints”, the latter referring to Maltese ministers, remain as vibrant as ever.
Jeremy, the Dutch anthropologist who spent many years in Malta, had his own social networks and friends. I was lucky enough to be conversant with his name since I was a kid, thanks to my parents’ own networks of bohemian academics and other colourful personalities.
Later on, my sociological studies, environmental activism and green politics enabled me to get to know Jeremy first hand. I remember him as a kind, charismatic gentle giant, with an inquisitive and wise look.
My scholarly encounters with Jeremy had more to do with his writings on environmental conflict than with feasts and village life, though he is much more popular for his writings on the latter.
When I graduated at Bachelor’s level in sociology, back in 1998, Jeremy had taken keen interest in my dissertation entitled ‘State/power: Hiltonopoly’, which analysed the relations of power in the Portomaso development project. I myself had been fresh from activism in the field and this was of particular interest to Jeremy.
Subsequently, through my Master’s degree on Alfred Sant’s Labour Party, I quoted Jeremy’s anthropological writings for the first time. My parents’ bookshelves had a copy of Saints and fireworks (the 1993 updated edition) and his writings on political networks, patronage and so forth proved to be very useful, as did other writings of his on Dom Mintoff and Malta’s landscape.
Jeremy had kindly written a preface to this dissertation in case I wanted to publish it. This publication never took place – even though the thesis is now available online – but I kept his preface saved with pride.
My PhD thesis, entitled ‘EU accession and civil society empowerment: the case of Maltese ENGOs’ (2013), used Jeremy’s scholarly writings as one main source of reference on environmental politics in Malta.
Here, I referred to six scholarly works that Jeremy authored or co-authored. His writings on environmental activism, political patronage, on the vested interests between politics, administration and construction and on the growing environmental consciousness proved most useful.
In his works, one reads about the first environmental campaign in Malta, when Din l-Art Ħelwa campaigned for limiting the height of Hotel Excelsior (which is now ironically being complemented by an architectural monstrosity a few metres away) and about the way Labourite thugs beat up young environmentalists in a protest in 1985.
When Malta joined the EU, Jeremy believed such accession provided a new context for environmentalists to air their grievances, as was the case in other southern European countries.
Yet, he also argued that Malta kept treating public space as “a no-man’s land on which it is permissible to throw rubbish” and that a “generally weak sense of heritage... furthers the destruction of national patrimony”.
Patronage, nepotism, short-term planning and greed for quick profit were seen as major causes for the destruction of the landscape. At the same time, the tourist industry increased pressure on Malta’s landscape, infrastructure and waste management.
In 2004, Jeremy wrote that Mepa “approves projects and condones infringements that are backed by important political/economic interests”. I am sure he had to say something similar on the ‘Tagħna lkoll’ version of Mepa in 2015.
At the same time, Jeremy also noted that environmentalists were increasing their activism in a convincing way. Indeed, he referred to the successful campaign of the Front Kontra l-Golf Kors as well as other victories, such those against a leisure complex in Munxar, a cement plant in Siġġiewi and a landfill at Mnajdra.
In this regard, environmentalists were also capable of forming their own social networks through a politics from below.
Just a few months ago, Jeremy was awarded an honoris causa by the Faculty of Arts at the University of Malta and I am proud to have been present at the ceremony that was held in Valletta.
He passed away just a few days after Malta’s largest ever environmental protest, the one organised by Front Ħarsien ODZ against development at Żonqor Point.
In hindsight, as one of the organisers of the protest, I would like to dedicate this protest to him.
Without his writings and sharp analysis, Maltese environmentalism would have been poorer in the reading of symbols of power, networks and methods, which are robbing Malta of its common heritage.