Times of Malta, 5 February 2011

The environment? It is everything that is not I,” said Albert Einstein when asked to define it. Everything we breathe and all we see, the environment is where we are. It brings us the food and water necessary for life. It is our countryside and it is our sea, those precious recreation grounds of both the rich and the poor. It is the streets we walk in and where we live. It is the good, the bad and the ugly around us, everyday of our lives.

It is no mean task the new Malta Environment and Planning Authority bears on its shoulders if it is to defend and improve all this. Mario de Marco has done well to start its reform by finding the best people possible to shoulder this grave responsibility if Malta is to retain what is left of our environment, the “everything that is not us”.

As this new super watchdog Mepa equips itself with a culture change, so its responsibility becomes graver. It has to make good the mistakes of previous planning authorities that allowed the destruction of centuries of cultural landscape, gobbling up land and erecting non-descript buildings with no context or respect for time. It has to make up for our beautiful lost architecture now buried forever below Magħtab.

It has to continue to guard all that is uniquely ours from ruthless speculation, defend it from the unwitting and protect it from the effects of our smallest day-to-day human activity, which, no matter how well regulated and policed, will always leave its mark.

It has to try and roll back the horrendous tide of ugliness and poor quality that has swept over us, flattening in a few decades so much of our unique and gentle architecture. With a style poised somewhere between Europe and North Africa, ours is a priceless blend not found elsewhere and what is left of it must be saved.

The new Mepa must have the wisdom to halt the continuous rise of senseless blocks that spring up in the middle of the countryside, of poor quality construction mostly left unfinished, the demolition of beautiful buildings and our streetscapes, the decimation of age old trees. It has to regulate how we use our seas, relocate the fish farms that mar our few swimming spaces with their filthy slurry and stop the unlawful use of land.

This new Mepa has to have the guts to not curry favour for the powerful and be just with those who don’t have political clout. With the election looming, it has to be fearless in standing up to those who elected it.

Since its foundation in 1965, Din l-Art Ħelwa charged itself with “assisting the state in its mission to safeguard and protect our cultural assets, our architecture and our landscape”. It has worked unflinchingly ever since to raise awareness, to resist mistakes to the point of making itself unpopular, its officials being called “public enemy no. 1” when opposing the first demolitions of the Sliema front.

It has led by example by rolling up its sleeves and, armed with just a prayer and a song and the generosity of its numerous supporters, has saved almost 30 of Malta’s heritage sites from total abandon.

When Mnajdra fell and the government was charged to enact the long awaited heritage and environment laws, Din l-Art Ħelwa was there and it will continue to make its voice and measured opinions heard with the style that has earned it the respect of everybody.

It welcomes the efforts of all who work for the environment and collaborates with other NGOs and local councils. There is no competition in the protection of the environment. It is not a question of who has done it better, nor of who has done it first, nor of who will do it fast, or last. The state needs assistance to make our world a better place. It needs NGOs like Din l-Art Ħelwa to lead in civic society, to question, challenge and educate. There can be never enough hands at work if we are to save what is left of this unique “blend Malta”.

So with Mepa evolving, it may become even more dangerous because it will know how to argue, to reason and to convince but it is hoped the new culture within it will find in favour of heritage and of the environment. New issues should be pre-empted before they even occur but, with a huge backlog of unresolved problems, many of political naissance, some difficult decisions will need to be taken.

Whatever the case, Din l-Art Ħelwa will be there watching the watchdog regulator with its volunteering spirit to confront, advise, help and support and, if necessary, to battle for what it feels is right for Malta if it is to remain the beautiful land it still is.

Malta can afford to lose no more.


Simone Mizzi is vice-president of Din l-Art Ħelwa