Times of Malta, 14th March 2008 – Much has been said lately about the Dwejra boathouses. There were those who wrote out of genuine environmental interest and those whose aim seemed to be only to damage the environmental NGOs and the unity they have lately achieved, which has led them to prevail in issues such as Xagħra l-Ħamra, Ramla and others.

I have decided to write now as I did not want to act like some others who seem to enjoy using this issue as part of a political agenda or simply try to pose as purists when, in reality, their only target is to destroy the environmental movement in Malta.

The Dwejra Heritage Park project was not an easy project to handle, I confess. The area is filled with stakeholders, many of whom are in continuous conflict with one another.

One has to keep in mind that already two other attempts had been made to get EU funding to save Dwejra – and failed! Nature Trust (Malta) too had a try and did its best to present a good proposal to the EU and, our attempt being successful, we managed to secure a good grant.

Here I must highlight the fact that the project was not only about the boathouses, as some tried to say, but also included the restoration of rubble walls; the restoration of habitats; the creation of a marine protected area; the setting up of a visitors’ centre; studying ways to slow down the Azure Window’s erosion process; traffic management for the area; the setting up of information panels; stopping the removal of fossils and prompt law enforcement; restricting hunting and trapping in the area designated; and dealing with the nine quarries in the area in order to stop dumping, more degradation and pollution for the surrounding villages.

All the above tasks cost close to €500,000 to implement, and lots more funds are required to bring this project to completion.

The conflicts have been so great that the public consultation process took longer than what was expected; instead of a few weeks, the process took months. Finding a balance among all stakeholders was the most difficult experience I have ever gone through in my 36 years working in the environment.

Nature Trust (Malta) has always been against illegal boathouses and always will be. During the consultation meeting there were persons present, such as those who wrote to condemn the boathouses, yet not one of these even bothered to raise an objection.

The only other NGO that gave us support was Din l-Art Ħelwa. Here I must thank this NGO for its never-ending support and expert work in our islands. At least we had someone alongside to fight the battle with us.

As an NGO we will continue to lobby against such structures. However, in this case, one has to view Nature Trust (Malta)’s decision within the general context of the project. Had it stood its ground in refusing to sanction the boathouses, the risk would have been of losing all the mentioned projects, as the Life grant would have been lost due to further delays in the implementation of the project. EU funding programmes are very strict on time frames, and delays may mean the loss of a funding opportunity. Furthermore, the probability would have been that the area would not have had another conservation opportunity as the boathouses saga would have remained there for many years to come, upsetting any plans for a restoration project.

One has to keep in mind that government after government was afraid to take action against illegal boathouses in Malta. Today, all still stand and they will most probably remain there, no matter who is in power!

Had Nature Trust (Malta) acted otherwise the risks would have been two: either of losing the grant to carry out a holistic project if we had refused to come to an agreement with the management board, or, if by a miracle the board would have agreed to remove all boathouses, the land owners of these boathouses – due to these being built on private land and not public land – could have gone to court and stopped the project altogether until the matter was sorted out after a good deal of years would have elapsed. Neither Dwejra nor the grant could wait for years and degradation was engulfing the site fast. In the meantime, more illegal boathouses would have mushroomed.

As an NGO we had to consent to a compromise on the issue of the boathouses, at the same time ensuring that the authorities would take action to stop new ones. It was a matter of Nature Trust (Malta) and Din l-Art Ħelwa trying against all odds to save the day.

Thanks to the Dwejra project and the balance reached, today the site offers more information and more possibilities for rambling, while enjoying more controls on activities and more conservation measures. Had not a holistic approach been taken, all this would not have been possible. Nature Trust (Malta) is now moving towards trying to get Dwejra declared a Unesco World Heritage site.

It is easy to be a purist and fight, but then this country would end up getting nowhere, with our natural heritage going to waste just because no one is willing to reach a compromise.

Being on the Mepa board is not easy for an environmentalist; in fact, at times it feels very much like a lone voice in the desert. In no way do I think the authorities will have a hold on NGOs if they participate in such boards.

We need NGOs to keep the flag flying in the hope that more environmentalists will be utilised in Mepa so that the true balance between environment and development – sustainable development – may finally be struck. Until such time, the fight at board level will be to continue trying to stop the mad mega projects being proposed, such as at Mistra, Ħondoq ir-Rummien, Ta’ Ċenċ, the Mistra Village, golf courses and marinas and any other such other projects that developers and politicians may dream about.

It will not be easy, I admit! But sitting pretty and just criticising others will surely not save our natural heritage. Dwejra had too much to lose had the project not gone through and opened the way to much-needed conservation. It was an issue of losing the arm to save the body. Otherwise, the infected arm would have killed the entire body.

Vince Attard is President of Nature Trust (Malta).