by Simone Mizzi

Fifty years ago, on July 9, Din l-Art Ħelwa was founded with the aim of saving our nation’s heritage, our open spaces and natural environment. Today, 50 years later, Din l-Art Ħelwa’s volunteers are still working tirelessly to uphold these values.

Our mission, “to protect Malta’s beauty in the towns and villages, in the countryside and by the sea”, still stands true, even more vital now than before.

Malta’s built and natural legacies have always been used as commodities to stimulate the economy and generate wealth but today there is much less as open spaces dwindle and only rare pockets of our traditional architecture remain.

There is increased threat from the higher aspiration to wealth and much haste on the part of the authorities to allow people to attain it, as can be evidenced by the speed with which the government relaxes one development and construction policy after the other.

It was volunteers who established Din l-Art Ħelwa 50 years ago when conservation was still virtually unheard of. Over 50 years and with the dedication and power of their example, Din l-Art Ħelwa volunteers have saved some 40 historic monuments and landmarks from abandon and neglect, such as Comino’s St Mary’s Tower, The Red Tower and Our Lady of Victory church, in Valletta. It was volunteers, too, who helped to save two areas of outstanding natural beauty such as the Majjistral Park and Foresta 2000 in Mellieħa.

As long as there are those who love Malta, these examples will have been saved forever, for everyone. The organisation holds 17 of these historic places in trust and guardianship from the Church and from the State, managing them for the benefit of the nation.

Volunteers with Din l-Art Ħelwa give their time generously to this cause, each year amounting to some 38,000 hours of free work in contribution to the economy.

Sponsors and members help to raise precious funds and some €1.5 million alone have been raised in the last three years to save the Delimara Lighthouse, now completed, and Our Lady of Victory church, which is nearing completion.

It has been proved that every euro invested in heritage generates a ratio of 26.1, a return on investment with long-term impact that no other industry can boast of.

Volunteers at Din l-Art Ħelwa are hands on. They bring different skills to the preservation of heritage and the natural environment, all doing what they love best. They may be architects, archaeologists, archivists, artists, bankers and business persons, cooks and cake makers, computer experts, conservators, environmentalists, engineers, fundraisers, historians, keepers of graves, lawyers, lecturers, music lovers, tourist guides, researchers, odd job persons, photographers, scientists, writers and so much more, which may not come to mind.

Both brain and brawn are needed to save the places we love.

Volunteers at Din l-Art Ħelwa have worked with one successive government after the other and politicians change as their fortunes wax and wane. We are constant.

Over five decades we have always been there. By working together we have proved we can save, protect and find new uses for neglected historic buildings and preserve places of natural beauty for time immemorial.

Today, more than ever before, heritage all over the world is under increasing threat from conflict and environmental degradation but where it is threatened by bad planning, that is a self-inflicted hurt that we can and must avoid. When bad planning is intentional, then this is a tragedy and a crime.

It would be amiss of me as outgoing president of Din l-Art Ħelwa and on behalf of the organisation, not to thank you, our public, the media, our sponsors, members and all lovers of Malta, for all the support you have extended over these 50 years, while remaining mindful of those heritage lovers and activists who have come before us and those who will certainly come after. And, of course, our volunteers. Without you we could not have achieved.

It has been a privilege leading Din l-Art Ħelwa for the last four-and-a-half years as it reached its 50th anniversary, celebrating this momentous year as well as mourning with you during the still fresh loss of our beloved founder-president, Judge Maurice Caruana Curran. It has been an honour to lead during such a challenging time for the environment when our work remains even more vital.

And now, on with the next 50 years. Keeping a big mouth open is the job of an honest citizen. We have much to do and, with your help, we will do it.

Simone Mizzi is outgoing president of Din l-Art Ħelwa.