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MT 18 September 2016

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14 I'VE always wanted to open an interview with a quote from Tolk- ien, and I must say the oppor- tunity was altogether too apt to resist. 'Fighting the long defeat' is how Galadriel describes the epochal struggle against the Dark Lord Sauron in 'The Lord of the Rings'. And while the stakes may have been higher in that struggle, a comparison can easily be made with the fight to safeguard Malta's increasingly beleaguered environ- ment. Certainly, it has come to resem- ble a 'long defeat'. The environ- ment may have been a pivotal battleground at the last election; but it has become painstakingly clear that a change of government has not ushered in the promised change in approach to the issue. Then as now, the most a Maltese environmentalist can do is watch in helpless frustration, while one planning decision after another is taken with almost no regard what- soever for the long-term environ- mental effects. The most recent example – in which two gargan- tuan development projects were approved by the Planning Author- ity, without even any input from the newly formed 'Environment and Resources Authority' – seems to take this pattern one step fur- ther. Not only were environmental objections not even raised during the PA meeting… but infrastruc- tural and economic counter-argu- ments were likewise side-lined or ignored. Elsewhere, the Opposition party that had fought tooth and nail against the 2006 ODZ extension, was itself only too keen to extend the development zones further once in power. Apart from of- fering up virgin land for the con- struction of a private university at Zonqor Point, Muscat's Labour administration has also redesigned the country's entire planning rule- book to permit more ODZ devel- opment in future. And yet, throughout all this time, environmentalist NGOs have been busy fighting their corner… with little or no visible success. When I met Chris Mizzi – an award- winning youth worker, and also active member of Moviment Graf- fitti – in Santa Venera to discuss this very issue, he had only just returned from an umpteenth en- vironmentalist protest: this time, a blockade of the ERA offices. Doesn't it all feel pointless at this stage, however? Much larger pro- tests had failed to halt the ODZ extension 10 years ago… this lat- est protest likewise seems doomed to failure. Doesn't a point come when even a committed activist like Mizzi feels the war is lost? "I understand what you mean. When you look at the experi- ence of the past years, you might easily conclude that activism did not bring about change at all. But when you consider the full experience, you will realise that there were certain victories here and there. I wouldn't say it was all pointless… There were pro- jects that would definitely have been steamrolled through, were it not for popular resistance. The Ta' Cenc golf course was a case in point…" True, and one can also add Man- ikata and Xaghra l-Hamra to the list. All three concerned proposals for golf courses over large tracts of (partly arable) land. As such, op- position to those projects united a much broader coalition than the one that protested that morning… including farmers, residents and (speaking of unlikely allies) hunt- ers and trappers. On most other environmental is- sues, however, popular resistance never seems to get anywhere. Any- one who's been following plan- ning issues over the past 20 years will surely have felt a sensation of 'déjà-vu'… "Yes, there is a sense of déjà vu. But I think that over the years, activism in Malta has succeeded in bringing about a certain men- tality change. You can't look only at whether an individual project was stopped or not. The sustained pressure – successful or otherwise – has up to a point forced political parties to sit up and pay attention to the environment. If it wasn't for that pressure, I am convinced that neither the PN nor the PL would bother even mentioning the en- vironment in their pre-electoral manifestos." Perhaps, but the fact that both parties now pander to environ- mentalists before every election does not, in itself, mean very much. It's what happens after an election that counts… and once the campaign is over, we have time and again seen those promises fiz- zle out into nothing… "To be honest, I personally see governments almost as being 'nothing', too. To all intents and purposes they are non-existent. They don't wield real power. The real power is in the hands of oth- ers: that includes big business interests, but it also includes the people. Basically, any government will look to see where power lies, and act accordingly…" On that appraisal alone, it can already be seen that the balance of power lies firmly with the com- mercial lobby. Doesn't this call into question Mizzi's earlier ob- servation that ordinary people also wield power? There doesn't seem to be much evidence of this in practical terms… "Yes, that's how it seems to- day. There is a reason for it, too. If you go out into the streets and ask people directly, they will all say that they are in favour of change. But if you ask them to what extent they themselves would be willing to change their own lifestyle, you will get a different answer…" And yet, the objections to the Sliema and Mriehel projects were rooted in the same principle. Whether people like it or not, their lifestyle will be drastically affected. Sliema residents have already been told (by the PA) to 'shut their win- dows' to keep out noise and dust. And after years of inconvenience brought about by construction, they will have to face an exponen- tial increase in daily traffic (over 3,000 cars a day), on top of con- siderable pressure on an already insufficient town infrastructure. At this point, the people's re- luctance to change their own life- styles becomes irrelevant. Those lifestyles are going to have to change anyway… Mizzi agrees, but quickly points out that this, too, is part of the rea- son for the status quo. "One of the issues we encounter as activists is that, although concerns do exist at the level of the local community, they are not extended onto a na- tional level. People are only inter- ested in what happens in their own backyard. Let me give you an ex- ample: when we protested against the Manikata golf course, we were overwhelmed by support from the local community. And yet, when we organised a similar protest at Ta' Cenc, the people who sup- ported us on Manikata were no- where to be seen. And vice versa, too. That's where I start asking myself certain questions. It is good that there is a sense of civic owner- ship at the local community level. But why doesn't it translate into a sense of ownership at national level? Why do people not care as much for the country as a whole, as they do about their backyard? It's all connected, after all…" This brings us to the question of how (if at all) the prevailing men- tality can be changed. Graffitti and other NGOs have been tireless in their campaigns over the past two decades, but as recent develop- ments – including, but not limited to, the Sliema and Mriehel permits – indicate, not much has in fact changed at all. What more can therefore be done in practical terms? Is there any long-term strategy directing environmentalist NGOs at the moment? "Ultimately, the idea behind ac- tivism is to raise awareness; and through raising awareness – by at- tracting more people to voice their concerns – the message keeps growing until it becomes too loud to ignore. And I know what you're going to ask next… because I ask it to myself all the time. I've been active in this scene for around 20 years now, and all that time I've asked myself when that moment is actually going to come…" That is, admittedly, the ques- tion I was about to ask. But it has another dimension: with so much damage now being done in such a small (and therefore vulnerable) environment, there is a chance that when this great moment of awareness finally arrives – if it ever does – there may be nothing left to actually safeguard… Mizzi does not, however, share my pessimism on this point. "Things are changing, albeit slow- ly. Perhaps too slowly, for people who expect change to come about from one day to the next… but one thing that gives me hope is the input we are getting from young people and children. I think that is where the mentality is changing most…" This change, he adds, does not necessarily arise from any dif- ference in educational or insti- tutional approach. "When you look at our educational system, it is still lacking in leadership and character-building. Children must follow a syllabus which is very aca- demic in nature. Lessons them- selves tend to be instructional, in the sense that children are taught to pass exams. Critical thinking is still lacking in the curriculum. There needs to be an overhaul of the system… but even within this system, with all its faults, we have still seen a culture change…" As an example he refers to hunt- ing and trapping. "It wasn't so long ago that children would go out trapping for robins, for instance. It was a widespread culture only a few years ago, but it doesn't really happen anymore…" Interview By Raphael Vassallo maltatoday, SUNDAY, 18 SEPTEMBER 2016 Governments don't wield real power. The real power is in the hands of others: that includes big business interests, but it also includes the people. Basically, any government will look to see where power lies, and act accordingly POWER Fighting the long defeat BOYCOTT One must tread with caution. A boycott is a powerful tool if used properly… but there has to be a clear and consistent campaign, a functional strategy, if it is to succeed

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