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MALTATODAY 4 April 2021

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NICOLE MEILAK A tiny field in Dingli is the site of contention for Malta's latest environmental struggle, and one redolent of the chasm between government's all-powerful roads ministers and the rest of the is- land's common mortals. Moviment Graffitti activists have been occupying a patch of Dingli countryside for two weeks to prevent the construction of a new road that will pass through the field. The field lies at the end of two, parallel cul-de-sacs; but Infrastructure Malta wants to join the two alleyways by a road that had been once drawn up in the 1960s, but never completed. Residents are against IM's plans. Graffitti activists Karen Tanti and Silvio Micallef are among the round-the-clock protestors who have prevented bulldozers from coming in close to the field, keeping at bay private contrac- tors tasked by IM to start works. The action itself has shown to the rest of the country the kind of teamwork employed by the growing sophistication of Graf- fitti's actions, with constant communication between all in- volved. "We alway update each other on what's going on in the three roads and alleys. As mem- bers, we try to take turns and use a schedule – since we all work, we need to plan the days in ad- vance to see who can be there," Silvio Micallef said. Karen Tanti said direct actions take a lot of work, both on-site and behind the scenes, with peo- ple writing and uploading posts online as well as promoting the work of Graffitti as it happens. "We're in constant contact with the residents of the area, keeping each other updated, as well as with lawyers and architects who help us out when needed," she explained. For Tanti, this situation isn't a matter of compromise – the works on the road should have never started in the first place, especially given that the neces- sary permits and expropriations weren't eve in place when the works started on 22 March. "It's about ensuring that certain is- sues are resolved before anything else happens," she said. Moviment Graffitti's primary demand isn't to stop works com- pletely. "We want detailed plans of the schemed road based on the local plan, so we can see which carob trees and fields will be im- pacted, works should be stopped until expropriation of private land has been resolved with the owners," he said. "Legal amendments should be made so roads planned out- side the development zone pass through a normal application process for development, and the laws regarding PA's appeals tribunal (EPRT) be amended so that it's clear that NGOs have the right to appeal against the deci- sions of the PA and the ERA." Infrastructure Malta is ex- empt from seeking permits for the construction of previously scheme roads, but Moviment Graffitti has challenged Infra- structure Minister Ian Borg and IM's CEO Fredrick Azzopardi to show up on site to defend the works themselves. According to Tanti, the request to meet on site was refused, and so the NGO suggested a neutral venue. This was again refused. "We are still open for dialogue, and when I say 'we' I mean res- idents, farmers and activists, as this road will have a significant impact on everyone involved. It's a real shame that Ian Borg did not accept to meet to help ad- dress these concerns." Silvio Micallef is one of the lat- est volunteers to join Moviment Graffitti, after witnessing activ- ists taking action in Dingli last October to stop the first round of works. Since then, he decid- ed to join the NGO as an active member. "Seeing a group of like-minded people voluntarily stand up for the rights of people and the environment encour- aged me to get more involved. Obviously I care about the resi- dents, not just because I am one, but because they are people who are impacted by this, so I felt that being both in Moviment Graffitti and being a resident gave us all an advantage in a way when deal with this issue." A judicial protest filed by three Dingli households against Mov- iment Graffitti came as no sur- prise to the NGO. "It wasn't all that surprising," Tanti said. "There are a few residents who want the road and they have every right to speak out in fa- vour of it of course. But we now have 250 Dingli residents who have signed a petition against the road, so it's clear that the road is, in the great majority, not want- ed." Tanti pointed out that Movi- ment Graffitti never claimed to be representing any residents. "We have, from the start, worked hand-in-hand with the people from the locality and we were together voicing our concerns from our own perspectives, as residents, as farmers, as environ- mental activists. When works first were attempted way back in October, the residents and farm- ers came themselves to stand with us against the road, and the same happened now in March." There have been several at- tempts at initiating a conciliatory meeting between Graffitti and the government authorities, but Tanti says there has been no con- firmation of any dates. "A meet- ing was proposed with Ian Borg, environment minister Aaron Farrugia, and Martin Saliba from the Planning Authority, as well as residents representing the affect- ed streets, farmers, and Graffitti members. The original plan was to meet on 29 March, with a time was set and a neutral venue was chosen. Everyone was on board except for Ian Borg, who had not confirmed his attendance," Tanti said. A last-minute confirmation for a 1:30pm meeting on Monday was only delivered to Graffitti at 12:15pm. "By this time, almost everyone was either at work or was not available, considering it was extremely last minute. We proposed doing it the next day, and 10:15am was the time given from their side. Everyone con- firmed and took leave, only for Ian Borg to not confirm again. We were asked for a copy of our demands which we sent out, and we were informed that Borg and IM did not want to discuss our demands with us. After that, we did not propose another meet- ing." The Dingli protests haven't been all fun and games, espe- cially with contractors. Activists stood in front of the machines to prevent works on the first day, but the contractor operating the digger manouvered it danger- ously towards the activists. "This was in full view of IM officials, and police, and nobody attempt- ed to stop him, until finally one policeman told him that it was 'better to stop'." Another worker brandished his chainsaw a bit too close for com- fort to an activist's leg, with no police or authorities intervening to stop him. Both Micallef and Tanti feel there is a lot at stake with the construction of the Dingli road. "It will cut through swathes of ODZ land used for agricultural purposes to this day. No proper exprioriation of land has taken place prior to the commence- ment of works. The residents think that the real purpose of the road is to open up more land for development. That is why a lot is at stake." 16 maltatoday | SUNDAY • 4 APRIL 2021 NEWS Graffitti's Dingli action to stop a redundant road tear into farmland is a microcosm of Malta's environmental struggle Standing tall in Dingli Graffitti activist Karen Tanti PHOTOGRAPHY JAMES BIANCHI

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