by Petra Caruana Dingli

Environmental NGOs have lobbied to participate on government boards for donkey’s years. This even caused disputes in Parliament recently, and was one of the triggers for the resignation of Marlene Farrugia from the Labour Party.

Farrugia and the Opposition pushed for three NGO representatives on the boards of the new environment and planning authorities, while the government only wanted to concede one seat on each board.

After all this furore, last week five leading environmental NGOs staged a protest by refusing to nominate a member on the Climate Action Board. On the surface, this might seem like an inconsistent approach. How can one lobby for years to have a seat, and then refuse to occupy that seat?

That was the whole point. These NGOs have always been willing to sit at the table, to make their voices heard, to contribute, or to act as watchdogs of government entities. They are adamant about their right to participate.

Their refusal was a protest. If anything, going against their own long-standing desire to participate highlights the symbolic significance of their action.

Their protest letter, published last Sunday, was very strongly worded. It listed current environmental concerns, mentioning the “Zonqor debacle”; unnecessary high-rise buildings; song-bird trapping permitting hugely inflated catches; and new policies facilitating building outside the development zones.

They also cited the side-stepping of policies to facilitate land reclamation; illegal boathouse shantytowns; and the ongoing “Montekristo charade”.

They insisted that the parliamentary debate on the MEPA separation “completely exposed the hollowness of Government’s commitment to the environment.” This is all very serious and is about much more than climate change.

Turning their backs on the Climate Action Board did not mean that NGOs are not willing to co-operate at all. On the contrary, they were desperately trying to draw attention to the fact that they are consistently ignored.

If evidence of this were needed, it is easy to find. Their views on the new Rural Policy, the new planning and environmental laws, or the site selection for the so-called American University of Malta, were largely not taken on board.

Apart from anything else, this means that hours of voluntary work and discussions go down the drain. A pointless consultation process is extremely exasperating.

So it is hardly surprising that the NGOs feel side-lined. Their refusal to join the Climate Action Board was intended as a common stand to demonstrate their frustration.

The government’s response was that the protest was misplaced as it had nothing to do with climate change. What? Did it really not understand that this was a protest against a general lack of commitment to environmental priorities?

If that is the case, I think it is a gross miscalculation about the feeling on the ground. I have seen the levels of irritation and resentment rising among people who are concerned about the environment. The temperature is steadily going up, month after month, and I don’t just mean the global climate.

Years of tightening and polishing of environmental regulations and policies, achieved after countless battles, sweat and effort, are being dismantled. It is like a ball of wool has been dropped and is rapidly unravelling as it rolls down the hill.


This is part of an article published in the Sunday Times of Malta on 17 January 2016