Sociologist, Local Councillor, Activist from Malta

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

KEA: A new expression of radical environmentalism in Malta

he following article originally appears on Social Movements - Malta and Beyond, and provides my reading of the Kamp Emergenza Ambjent.

“We will stay here until we feel that our message has been heard and understood”.

This was the gist of the activists who formed the Kamp Emergenza Ambjent (Environment Emergency Camp - KEA), last weekend in a 36-hour activity spearheaded by Moviment Graffitti with the participation of other activists.  20 tents were set up, and around 30 activists were active in a colourful and lively atmosphere.

The activity was organized at Castille Square, right in front of the Prime Minister’s Office. Just like the new parliament building down the road, the newly-embellished square is already having its fair share of political activities and actions.  In its older format, Castille Square had also been subject to a 6-day hunger strike on the Portomaso development back in 1997 (Briguglio, 1998).

When the activity started on Saturday morning, KEA called on the government to scrap plans for the private university campus on land outside the development zone at Żonqor Point, to desist from building a fuel depot in Ħas-Saptan, to withdraw a legal notice that regularises illegal constructions and to abandon the initiative for a race track on Outside Development Zone land (Times of Malta, 2016).  Maybe one can now assume that KEA will be organising direct action on these particular issues.

Did KEA’s action last weekend have any impacts? This is a mixed bag.

If one looks at external impacts of social movements (Giugni, 1995), one can say that KEA did not manage to achieve neither substantive impacts (none of their demands have so far been met, and it is highly doubtful that such actions will stop the development projects they referred to); nor procedural and structural impacts (Malta’s environmental governance has not been effected by the action, and I have good reason to believe that Police were instructed to ignore the action). On the other hand, KEA had news coverage and thus managed to have some form of sensitizing impact, though there were plural interpretations of the action. Some welcomed it as a badly needed breath of fresh air amid political erosion, others said that despite the good intentions, the timing was out of context, whilst others considered it to be a stunt from the usual radicals.

Perhaps the strongest form of impact achieved so far by KEA, assuming that it will continue with its activism, are internal impacts (Giugni, 1995), which are very important for movement building and culture. These have to do with movement identity and organization. My reading of the initiative is that KEA managed to strengthen networking among certain activists who opt for the more radical  direct-action type of identity. Though this is not likely to have substantive, structural or procedural impacts, it is likely to give a strong sense of belonging to radical environmentalists who are dissatisfied with more moderate environmentalism. Such environmentalism can give a spectacular sense of visibility to environmental issues.

Indeed, KEA’s facebook page quotes one of last weekend’s activists, whose testimonial sums this up very neatly. In the activist’s words:

"I am so happy and so proud to have been part of this small project. We have been dreaming, meeting, thinking, arguing and organizing for long months for an activity that lasted 2 days. Since our first meeting when someone recalled his dream of the action, we have come a long a way – the results will not show right now – but I believe that we have started to sow some seeds that will hopefully grow into something bigger. Up till a few hours ago, we thought it impossible to occupy Castille square without suffering legal consequences, the hassles of going to court etc. Now, it seems we have pushed the limits of possibility a little bit further – we have experienced it, and we have shown that it can be done, and that when we come together the impossible becomes possible. We have started to cultivate a small culture of resistance.
From my involvement in helping organizing Rock Ambjent to the actual camping over the weekend, we have met people who can relate to the cause we believe in. Bands have played for free, people donated equipment, drove miles to fetch missing guitar cables, designers from abroad designed logos over skype, lawyers gave their advice for free, video editors edited videos, people contributed food to the camp, hundreds of people came to show their support, and sign our petition and a million other small but very important things. Let's not take these experiences lightly. A lot of people have come forward without anyone trying to convince them to contribute. I think it's a big achievement, considering the depressing state of general apathy in Malta. Let's nurture and widen these new connections that we have made. They build on the trust that we have between each other. They are the things that can make things happen.
Let's continue to make connections with other organisations and individuals who are fighting the same fight. In Malta everyone seems to be doing his own thing. We seem to think that the thing we are involved in is the most important one. In reality, all of them are important. We might not agree with the different agendas of organisations/individuals out there, but still there is a lot of important work being done. Front Harsien ODZ, Friends of the Earth, FAA, etc are doing very important work – we need to find each other, to unite and foster trust and connection, and keep on building on it.
Another important aspect of the camp and the process of organizing that interests me is the fact that there were no people taking over the whole process. Everyone gave his/her bit, and there was space for everyone to make his voice heard and act accordingly. It is only natural that people look up to more experienced activists for guidance etc, but still, space was created where everyone involved could do his/her own thing. We made sure that different people read press releases, and that there was no one face who represented the whole activity. We lived a few hours of utopia, with everyone contributing in his/her own way – a state where for some time everything seemed possible. It was real democracy in action. We laughed, we argued and fought, we contributed or took a step back when we felt like it – but no one felt left out – everyone did what they wanted to do on his/her own terms. We should make an effort to keep it that way.
Many thanks to everyone for this great experience. Will they listen to what we have to say? Will the natural beauty of Zonqor be destroyed forever? As the great Joe Strummer said, the future is unwritten. But even if we lose Zonqor, and the many other open spaces awaiting their fate, even if we lose all the battles we are fighting...we would still have a beautiful story of love and resistance to tell to to each other and to our children. Dare to join us in this adventure."

Back to my reading of KEA’s camp. I think that KEA can also be interpreted as forming part of the radical wing of the environmental movement, which has been spearheaded by Moviment Graffitti since the mid-1990s. At times, Malta’s moderate and radical environmentalists worked together and were successful (such as the Front Kontra l-Golf Kors between 1999 and 2004 (Galea, 2011)), and at times the two wings parted ways. Yet, these two wings have a symbiotic relationship which results in an ongoing ‘creative tension’ (Carter, 2007) between them. 

Social Movement research has also shown that the ‘radical flank’ at times helps to give more legitimacy to the more moderate and mainstream wing of a movement, by making it appear more ‘reasonable’ for dialogue with authorities (Goodwin and Jasper, 2015).

It would be interesting to see whether KEA will work with other organizations, and vice-versa, and how. For example, Front Harsien ODZ – itself formed in 2015 – has so far managed to reconcile different environmental wings, despite contradictions and challenges. It has also dialogued with political parties, something, which judging by KEA’s initial statement, the latter does not seem very keen to do. Still, if one looks at successful environmental campaigns in Malta, cooperation between civil society organizations and political parties has been very important (Briguglio 2013, 2016), amid a context of strong bipartisanship (Boissevain 1993; Baldacchino & Wain, 2013)

As Chantal Mouffe  (2013) puts it,  though extra-parliamentary struggles are valuable for enriching democracy, they cannot provide a substitute for representative institutions. It is therefore necessary to provide a synergy between different forms of intervention. In Mouffe’s words

‘Instead of opposing extra-parliamentary to parliamentary struggle, thereby eschewing the possibility of common action, the objective should be to jointly launch a counter-hegemonic offensive against neo-liberalism’ (127).

KEA’s action adds another colour to the rainbow within Malta’s environmental movement - rich with opportunities, challenges, risks and contradictions. This fabric is what makes the movement so lively and vivid.


Baldacchino, J. & Wain, K. (2013). Democracy Without Confession. Philosophical Conversations on the Maltese Political Imaginary. Malta: Allied Publications.

Boissevain, J. (1993): Saints and Fireworks – Religion and Politics in Rural Malta. Malta: Progress Press.
Briguglio, M. (1998): State/Power: Hiltonopoly (Unpublished dissertation).Malta: University of Malta.

Briguglio, M. (2015). ‘Ten Years of Malta’s EU Membership - The Impact on Maltese Environmental NGOs.’ Reflections of a Decade of EU Membership: Expectations, Achievements, Disappointments and the Future Occasional Papers, No. 7, Institute for European Studies (Malta).

Briguglio, M. (2015). ‘Ten Years of Malta’s EU Membership - The Impact on Maltese Environmental NGOs.’ Reflections of a Decade of EU Membership: Expectations, Achievements, Disappointments and the Future Occasional Papers, No. 7, Institute for European Studies (Malta).

Briguglio, M. (2016):  Strengths of Civil Society, Times of Malta.

Carter, N. (2007): The Politics of the Environment – Ideas, Activism, Policy. 2nd Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Galea, P. (2011): Collective Action Frames and Social Movements: The case of the ‘Front Kontra l-Golf Kors’. (Unpublished dissertation). Malta: University of Malta.

Giugni M. (1995): ‘Outcomes of New Social Movements’, in Kriesi, H., Koopmans, R., Dvendak, J. And Giugni, M. (1995): New Social Movements in Western Europe, pp.207-237. London: UCL Press.

Goodwin, J. and Jasper, J.M. (eds.) (2015): The Social Movements Reader – Cases and Concepts. Malden: Blackwell Publishing.
Kamp Emergenza Ambjent:

Mouffe, C (2013): Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically. London: Verso

Times of Malta (2016);

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