Interview with Veteran Environmentalist Edward Mallia, from Friends of the Earth Malta
Environmentalism is often considered a young person’s game. Mistakes made by past generations are usually to blame for the issues we face today and convincing anyone above a certain age to make more eco-conscious choices can seem like quite the feat. Retired academic, Edward Mallia, is perhaps an exception to that rule. With decades of experience under his belt, Edward’s analysis of current issues is firmly grounded in the historical facts which have allowed Malta to snowball to this point.
A long-standing member of Friends of the Earth Malta (FoEM) having joined in the mid-1980s, upon his return from the UK, he actively continues to campaign for the protection of Malta’s environment today. Edward explains that the NGO was known as Żagħżagħ Għall Ambient (Youth for the Environment) when he started, joking that it was ‘not an accurate description, because even then, I was not a żagħżugħ (young man).’ A point which the organisation recognised when they changed their name to Moviment Għall Ambient (Movement for the Environment) then eventually joining the international environmental network, Friends of the Earth International.
His fighting spirit was clear from the outset of our conversation when he begins recounting stories of the early campaigns he was involved in, the on-going saga with the privatisation of Ta’ Ċenċ, Gozo being one of them. Edward tells me that after the 1987 election, Eddie Fenech Adami ‘was presented with a huge idea of building a new settlement on Ta’ Ċenċ, and obviously that started us off.’ The NGO drummed up supported in the UK for the issue, ‘which made Michael Falzon lose his temper.’ Falzon, being the then environment minister, cut off access to the area in an attempt to silence the activists. He goes on to explain, ‘If we intended to go to Ta’ Ċenċ, [they] were informed so when we turned up, we would be told “I’m sorry, this is private land.”’ Undefeated, they climbed through Mġarr ix-Xini and made it in on the inside to inspect what was going on. Of course, the battle was not quite won because today there stands a hotel and a small settlement with the occasional monstrous planning proposal being submitted for hotel extensions, golf courses, the list goes on.
30 years later Malta has not learnt its lesson. Poor planning decisions continue to be made on a regular basis. Elected officials persist in the promotion of an unsustainable economic model which benefits the select few. It is easy to pin the blame on the current administration while ignoring what led us to this point. Edward points out, ‘people have forgotten that in 2006 Mr. George Pullicino decided to extend the development boundaries’ in what was known as the rationalisation process. According to him this ‘set the ball rolling’ for the aggressive over development which is being undertaken at the moment. Pullicino’s decision was only worsened with the controversial 2015-policy which allows fuel stations to be relocated from ‘unsafe’ urban areas to outside development zones. A policy termed as ‘desperately retrograde’ by Edward.
Still actively campaigning, Edward, was involved in the recent DB Group appeals process. The first hearing succeeded in temporarily stopping work that had begun on the recently approved 37-storey hotel in Pembroke. Ever the realist he admits that ‘a complete block is very difficult’ going on to say ‘everyone is sliding away from responsibility.’ He says, ‘one hopes against hope’ but with the multitude of issues going on across the island this in fact would be a small win.
Our discussion turns to the topic of transport. Edward converted a number of his personal cars into electric cars which were always powered by the solar panels on his roof. Quite proudly telling me that ‘I did give Eddie Fenech Adami a ride around in my first car.’ However, he is quick to point out that Malta’s dependency on the car, electric or otherwise, has detrimental effects on the environment. Edward describes the ‘government mania’ surrounding the widening of roads which we are currently facing. Referring to the proposed central link project he says, ‘the complete disregard of used agricultural land that is being lost. This one is going to be pretty severe. It’s all cultivated, well-watered… but that’s going to be blown to pieces. Apart from whatever they are going to be doing to the trees.’ Not one to mince words Edward points the finger to Transport Minister, Ian Borg. When faced with public outcry against the loss of hundreds of Aleppo Pines on Mdina Road, Ian Borg, tried everything in his power to minimise the PR nightmare. Flip-flopping between figures of trees being removed, asserting that they will be replanted elsewhere which according to Edward ‘shows that you’re trying to spin.’ He goes on to say ‘Ian Borg could have a coat of arms with a spinning top on it… He spins forever.’
The clear trend which emerged from my conversation with Edward is the fact that very few concrete actions follow suggestions submitted by activists. He tells me that ‘in 1995 [FoEM] published a sustainability paper’ which outlined where Malta could be doing better. ‘The point is,’ Mallia explains, ‘nothing came out of it.’ Having sat in countless rooms with elected officials, across the political spectrum, Edward says ‘I tend to shun private meetings of these sorts because you get told all sorts of weird and wonderful things but in the end nothing ever materialises.’ He has come to understand that there is no sense of accountability in behind-closed-door meetings and while it is certainly an uphill battle, ‘giving up and moving away is just not on.’
He concludes by quoting the last stanza of William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ which reads:
I will not cease from Mental Fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand;
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.
The article was written by Maria Eileen Fsadni based on an interview that she conducted with Edward Mallia.