‘Promises, Projects… Political Will’

Good morning everybody, it falls to me to address you today, designated sixth executive president of Din l-Art Helwa. Following five brilliant executive presidents is a daunting challenge, but I have been fortunate enough to have served under them all either as volunteer, communications officer, vice president: First my dad, Judge Maurice Caruana Curran, founder president, inspired, courageous, a man of total integrity, still today passionate about his country. Professor Bonanno, with his grasp of our country’s history and archaeological legacy, Martin Scicluna, brilliant strategist with razor edged power of persuasion who succeeded in obtaining guardianship for our properties. It was during his time of office that Din l-Art Helwa pushed for the Heritage and Environmental Acts to be passed and they came about. Martin Galea, environmentalist through and through, who lobbied hard for legislation for a national park just before the last election, and won, that was perfect timing. Lastly Dr Petra Bianchi, calm, insightful and determined, an unshakeable negotiator who has led the discussions for us to be given the Church of Our Lady of Victory. All have shaped this country’s thinking on cultural heritage and certainly mine to bring it to where it is today earning Din l-Art Helwa the high esteem in which it is held by all.

46 years of courage and commitment tempered with wisdom to do what is right for our country. I am determined to bring continuity to that. My own take on it, is that it a matter of national and personal pride to save what is uniquely ours from ignorant abandon and speculative destruction. I am fiercely protective of it, not only so we set ourselves apart from the rest of the world and to safeguard our quality of life, but also because heritage is an essential buttress to our economy through tourism. And simply because we love what is ours.

I am sure you all join me today to thank all previous presidents and Councils, and thank Petra, not just as President but also as Director for four years, Din l-Art Helwa is sorry to lose you. We all wish you every success in your new role. We are absolutely confident that while your leaving is a huge loss to us, it is a huge gain for Malta.

It is particularly exciting for me to take over in such a momentous time for heritage in Malta. There is much happening and much promised in the preservation of our beautiful buildings and of our landscape. I believe it fair to say that after decades of bad housekeeping by successive governments, there is recognition that our cultural and natural heritage is essential for a sustainable economy. While it will not bring the overnight wealth that has lost Malta many of its gracious buildings and beautiful natural spaces, it will continue to yield its fruits for generations. I do feel a huge sense of pride when I see the tremendous work being done on our fortifications and our beautiful palaces. It is a joy to see Fort Manoel almost complete, to drive into Valletta and overnight see the fine lineaments of St James Ditch revealed as work progresses on the City Gate. I can only look up with awe at the reinstatement of the bastion at Biagio steps, these are truly amazing jobs by very skilled, professional teams and I am proud to be part of this generation of Maltese at this time.

With Malta being one extraordinary open air museum, it is also one that houses over 400,000 inhabitants and over a million tourists a year, all who impact in one way or another on our urban and natural environment. It is no mean task therefore, for the administrators of our country, to be able to balance all that. To manage without bowing to political and economical pressures fairly, efficiently and wisely needs political will, shrewd business acumen, good management and much foresight. While I cannot claim to have answers to the many issues that beleaguer heritage, I do have a number of questions and hope Din l-Art Helwa can be part of the solutions. I will talk today of incentives for heritage funding, saving Valletta and Grand Harbour, the need to regenerate our countryside and to establish a marine strategy. No new issues therefore but ones that are more pertinent now, because the solutions for them are long overdue.

Having lobbied for years for heritage to be given financial support, we now hear daily about just how much European funding is going to benefit the sector, but are we thinking now of the continued support needed when the European money goes dry in a couple of years? What happens then, to continue the work underway now, to ensure these promises are not just pre election flashes in our national pan?

From our side, DLH continues to play an important role with our restorations and upkeep of our properties, with funds we earn alone, through the generosity of many sponsors, and with our hard working volunteers. I thank them all. But Government would do well to be long sighted and grant further tax incentives now for businesses and also for private citizens who wish to invest in heritage related work. Recognizing the huge potential of today’s corporate social responsibility programmes for the community, government should recognize such funds will go some way if they could use NGOs like ours as a funnel. This year sponsorship has helped us restore important national monuments and works of art: The Great Siege, Queen Victoria, Mattia Preti’s St Francis Xavier amongst others. We will be taking on sites of national importance shortly: Our Lady of Victory, Mistra Battery, the Roman Cistern at Il-Kaccatura, We will take part in the Mattia Preti 4th centenary celebrations with high profile restorations of this artist’s early work at Malta International Airport. We will lobby so that further financial incentives to the private sector will assist our sponsors to be recognized so they come forward more readily.

Each day we hear of a new proposal of investment for grand scale projects: St Elmo, a hub for culture in Strait St , the rehabilitation of Dock 1, the Ximenes Battery as part of the wonderful Salina salt pan project. These promises seems a dream come true and we will hold our government to them. After years of lobbying to save St. Elmo, finally the work for this icon of military prowess is taking off. We are delighted that the wave of improvements at City Gate will soon extend to lower Valletta. While we are still studying the project, there are concerns to be voiced. The project attempts to encompass the whole area holistically, but we need to measure the impact it has on our all important Sacra Infermeria and on the fort itself. Given that the project must have a mixed use approach if it is to be sustainable, museums, retail, commercial, and tourist related activity, we caution on the style chosen and scope permitted, lest the fort lose its intrinsic military integrity and become a travesty of itself. However, we believe the days when previous administrators sunk a swimming pool into St Angelo are over and that those in charge today have acquired a more delicate approach to our cultural legacy. Sensitive execution, good taste and style here remains the key and that the programme is fast undertaken, so as to ensure Valletta is firmly in place to play its role as European City of Culture in 2018.

Then I would voice serious concern on the proposal for a new cruise liner berth extension further into the heart of Grand Harbour in front of the Custom House. This will blight the sweeping vista across to St Angelo with the obstructive clutter of cruise ship berthing. We will lobby so this main sightline across to our three cities will not be sacrificed. I would like to hope that the insensitivity that bulldozed the area’s historic fishmarket overnight in the seventies is not still prevalent. Wisdom must prevail in the choice for its location.

On the other side of the area known as Il Barriera, there are plans to demolish one of the building alongside the fishmarket and built a boutique hotel. However, there seem to be no plans in place for restoration and after use of the magnificent but badly reduced Quarintine centre, and for the Perellos Stores, some of the earliest buildings built outside the bastions. We will be doing further work on this to ensure these ancient buildings are preserved.

We do have confidence that with our cultural heritage, environment and tourism portfolios rolled into one on the capable shoulders of our most active Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco, and with the new cultural mindset he is imbuing within the Mepa board, Valletta and the long inventory of national monuments is prioritized. St Angelo is on emergency call, Ricasoli, the British Forts, built so skillfully low into the ground they cannot be seen from the air, Delimara, San Leonardo (cattle still play king at San Leonardo), this being the ‘most satisfactory of forts’ so defined by Quentin Hughes for its perfectly splayed triangular walls.

Again it will take political will and prioritization of funds, to save these treasures. However, if we could turn our focus from constructing poor quality and nondescript buildings, mostly unneeded and unfinished, (yet another 4000 are being added to stock this year ) to reutilizing and saving what we already have, this country would have enough work for a hundred years. Hence our resolution on quality and purpose of building.

Turning to the good news for the environment, Salina, Eco Gozo, 34 Natura 2000 sites. These are indeed priority. We will shortly see these projects transmute into concerted action and with NGOs being given increased opportunity to be involved in their future management I hope their experience and advice will be heeded so these areas are given to people who have scientific and management skills, but also ones who really care. With our dwindling open land and ramshackle state of our countryside, putting every square inch back in order after decades of abuse, is going to take some doing. From our part, we at DLH are proud to contribute with the regeneration of the Mediterranean maquis at Foresta 2000, Mellieha. This year is the International year of the Forest and we need to take action that protects our biodiversity and reduces carbon footprint. Malta’s track record on this is still very lagging. Yet, it is incredible to think that with our partners, BirdlifeMalta and the Ministry for Rural Affairs, we have planted over 20,000 trees in this area in such a short space of time and self propagation of the site is indeed underway. We must also mention our other public spaces like the Msida Bastion historic garden, Ta Braxia which are kept pristine by our volunteers. But we can be doing so much more on this score if bureaucracy did not slow our energetic pace.

Work at Majistral Park which we manage together with the Gaia Foundation and Nature Trust, should have progressed so much further, but bureaucratic interference has slowed it all up. After three years there has been no political will to prevent vehicular access, restrict hunting and evacuate encroachers so that the national park can be truly a national park. While this is being sorted, can I dare to contemplate another potential promise: will government have the will, as it did at the eleventh hour before the last elections, to extend legislation to protect more of our north west, so beautiful with its rugged coastline and pristine waters? Our vision is to have a protected area stretching from Cirkewwa to Buskett and down south to Wied iz Zurrieq. This encompasses a large portion of what is left of our countryside, land of breathtaking beauty, ecological importance and rich in cultural landscape. The space allotted to Majistral Park is but a token to a proper national park. We want parliamentary protection extended to these wider areas for the enjoyment of all. We must solve the issue of accessibility to public spaces, proper delineation of recreation spaces, of limited vehicular traffic, the removal of closed trails so all of us who love the countryside can enjoy them without harassment or fear. There must be more education and action to eradicate dumping and vandalism. The promise of the long awaited Enforcement directorate of Mepa, when in tandem with the Environment protection directorate, will play a massive part to putting our house in order. Without this reform, we are first class citizens, living in a third world environment.

Which brings me to my last point on pledges and promises. With our dwindling country spaces, I must underline the importance of protecting our marine and coastal environment. Malta still has not declared its marine strategy. Sadly we have been found lacking. However, there are studies being drawn up and again NGOs are being involved to lend their expertise. With the pressures brought about by constant urban development, our quality of life is only saved by the ever surrounding beauty of our sea and proximity to the coast. Yet while much of our coastline is compromised, the quality of our seas and of our fragile marine ecosystem can still be saved. We need to have a marine management programme urgently established, a fishery policy declared and enforced to ensure that magnificent marine animals such as bluefin tuna do not go extinct on our watch. We wish to see its harvesting and ranching abolished. They are heinous activities that are short lived and bring economic gain to but a few. The scientific data is there, and interpreted to benefit the powerful. It is disgraceful that our own government leads the lobby in Europe along with few others to maintain this activity when this species could be sustained long term if its fishing was restricted to traditional methods. However, on the good news side, Malta is active in aquaculture research and has had some success in tuna hatching. We would like to see more resources given to such promising projects. If successful, they can save the wild stock from extinction and provide alternative source of revenue. This is backed by our resolution for the preservation of marine ecosystems of today.

Marine spatial planning, of which we will hear a lot moving forward, will be essential if our beautiful coastline is to be used to provide lucrative boating facilities without destroying our bays and seabeds. Yes, there are checks and balances, but it needs guts and political will to bring about change. Sadly politicians worry first about their short term popularity and their financial balances, then about doing what is right long term for their country. We hope that the DLH forthcoming Fisheries Conference being organized for March with some important key note speakers will provide an interesting debate and some solutions. And I sincerely hope my foreboding about extinction will be proved wrong!

My list is long but gives clear direction to where our energies should be placed over the coming year. To recap, prioritise built heritage, Valletta and Grand Harbour, the countryside, our marine environment and financial incentives to motivate and harness the private sector so NGOs can be more proactive. We must remain confident all will be tackled by government, we just have to insist they do it harder and faster before more of Malta’s beauty and uniqueness is lost. With the sterling work of volunteers such as yourselves we will do our part by acting and leading by example. I will wrap up by saying just how much you all bring to the country, mostly work that goes unmeasured but must be recognized, at least in this forum and with our members.

This is my first address and it comes in the European Year of Volunteerism, I wish there was time to mention all of you, wardens, custodians, volunteers, historians and researchers, archivists, architects, photographers, writers, restorers, technical experts. Together with our small office group, you make our mission possible. You really are a wonderful team and it is a privilege to work with you. I hope to spend much time with you in our properties as that is where it all happens and where ideas are born so we can further their upkeep and enhance our visitor experience. All of you as volunteers bring huge wealth to our society, I conclude by saying I am humbled by the work you do that goes beyond the call of duty. Malta is all the richer for it and on behalf of Din l-Art Helwa, I thank you. SIMONE MIZZIEXECUTIVE PRESIDENT DESIGNATE26th February, 2011