Times of Malta, 1st July 2008

The concept of “Gozo as an ecological island” has been around quite a while. I first heard about it some six years ago when an expatriate living in Gozo, Terence Calnan, first sounded out the idea with the Ministry of Gozo. In 2006, a team of researchers from Europe’s largest research organisation, Fraunhofer, proposed that a number of showcase innovative environment projects be set up and prototyped in Gozo – as Gozo was considered a microcosm of Malta and, indeed, the Mediterranean. The concept was subsequently taken up by the political parties, Alternattiva Demokratika and, subsequently, by the PN, the party in government.

Of course, each organisation had/has its own vision as to what Gozo as an ecological island would look like. This lack of homogeneity arises from the fact that there is no single clear definition of what constitutes an ecological island.

Indeed, there is no such term as an “ecological island” to be found in the dictionary. Thus, any discussion on the subject is bound to bring out a number of ideas as to what constitutes an ecological island, some of them being conflicting.

The term “ecological” is defined as “tending or intended to benefit or protect the environment”. So, clearly, the protection and/or improvement of the environment is central to the theme of an ecological island. Which brings us to the term “environment”, which in the Environment Protection Act includes “air, land, water; plant and animal life; any solid, liquid, gases, odour, heat, light, sound, vibration and radiation; any natural resource; any man-made development; and social, economic and cultural conditions”.

The last two suggest that human beings are also central to the environment. It follows that the social, economic and cultural well-being of the residents of Gozo (and visitors) as well as the safeguarding and protection of other things and natural resources is fundamentally connected with the “Gozo as an ecological island” concept. So, in not so many words, my view of this concept is one that brings about an improvement in the quality of life of the Gozitans without damaging the other components of the environment.

From bitter experience, we know that short-sighted economic improvement may inevitably jeopardise the social and economic well-being of the population and, indeed, of future generations. Developments must be sustainable and have a long-term perspective.

Sustainable development promotes the better use of resources, allowing us to do more with less. It also drives the search for alternatives and innovative (sometimes unique) solutions. The shift towards a more ecological way of living requires widespread awareness and acceptance by the people as to why anyone (or any government) may opt to take this path. Essentially, it requires a bottom-up approach just as much as top-down policy making. The Gozitans themselves must feel the need for Gozo to go ecological.

Once this need to re-position Gozo as an ecological island is endorsed by all and sundry (and not remain a slogan promoted by central government or political parties), ideas will start flooding in… from the construction of eco-homes from local resources, to alternative energy from sea, wind, waste, sun, to more effective and cleaner ways of mass transportation (or, indeed, one may question the need to travel), to establishing Gozo as a niche destination that does away with mass tourism and the ecological damage arising thereof. Essentially, a different way of “living” that leaves a small (if not neutral) ecological footprint.

At this point in time, although Gozo still retains much of its charm and natural resources, it is far from being “ecological” or, indeed, sustainable. Gozo’s relatively high population density of 400 inhabitants per square kilometre, although being a quarter of that of Malta, still puts it as one of the most densely populated regions in Europe (apart from cities, that is). The ecological footprint is, therefore, significant.

Moreover, it is completely dependent on fossil-fuel-generated electricity from Malta and fuel consumption is increasing at the rate of three per cent per annum, the aquifers of Gozo are being depleted and salinisation of the groundwater continues unabated due to over-extraction and Gozo’s quarries have less than 50 years supply of stone left. Much of Gozo’s biodiversity is under serious threat from anthropogenic activities and, despite the fact that more than 25 per cent of Gozo’s residences are vacant, construction continues relentlessly.

Clearly, Gozo as an ecological island must address these fundamental issues and take the initiative. The opportunity is here and now.

Mr Cremona, an engineer by profession, was the moderator at the first European Parliament Civil Forum event earlier this month with the theme Gozo As An Ecological Island.