Letters | Sunday, 20 September 2009

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Michael Falzon barks up the wrong trees

Last Sunday it was time for the big guns to get going – time for former minister Michael Falzon to take on the NGOs with “The greening of Lawrence Gonzi”. No surprise here; it was expected that he had to ‘scream’ (using this verb is de rigueur for the anti-crusaders), sooner rather than later. As the title he gave to his piece indicates, green is not his favourite colour; indeed, it seems that he still has to be convinced that green is a five-letter word, not a four-letter one.
Mr Falzon was cleverer than his colleagues in this anti-crusade; his broadsides against the NGOs were sort of muffled with a consideration for a ‘silly and short-sighted’ lot of tree-huggers. He must have been surprised to find that on the same day, in another paper, all the letters to the editor on the same issue bashed Mr Calleja and that he, Mr Falzon, was the only one, for reasons not difficult to deduce, to try to salvage him.
But why are the ‘entrepreneurs’ he and Mr Calleja mention, if they exist at all, really so hesitant to go ahead with their projects? Could Mr Falzon give us an outline of one of these projects we are likely to oppose? We might even put their minds at rest. NGOs have never taken on entrepreneurs and investors; they only oppose those MEPA decisions which are not according to policies, those which generally favour speculators and predators.
NGOs have never opposed a project without giving very considered reasons for their opposition. Is Mr Falzon in favour of all developments in Outside Development Zones? Does he consider MEPA regulations and plans a collection of jokes and the MEPA auditor a charlatan? Does he think the EU’s Habitats Directive, list of Natura 2000 sites, indications of SACs (Special Areas of Conservation), and so on, are so much mumbo jumbo?
Mr Falzon cleverly keeps his insinuations and accusations on a vague, generalized level. Honesty demands otherwise: he should name the instances and the cases when NGOs have “done more harm than good”. Was it in the St John’s Cathedral case, which he labels as a ‘fracas’ and ‘infamous’? This will allow everybody to understand better who the NGOs are; and where he himself stands. Perhaps he would do well to declare his interests.
Mr Falzon says that the Prime Minister ‘cowers’ when Astrid Vella or Lino Bugeja open their mouth. Yet he knows full well that the NGOs have won only a couple of their ‘battles’, that most of their appeals have gone unheeded and that they are not at all satisfied with the MEPA Board’s decision (or whoever really took it) regarding the Bahrija case (which they intend to pursue to the end).
For the record: back in February it was the Ramblers’ Association (RAM) that first drew MEPA’s attention to the fact that works, involving heavy machinery, were taking place illegally in the Bahrija Valley (Mr Falzon seems to have forgotten that Bahrija valley, is a Natura 2000 site, that management of these sites is funded by the EU). We did not have the faintest idea, nor did it interest us to know, who was behind the project. The Labour Party took the matter up, revealing the name much later. That did not change things for us at all. Some PL supporters and MPs joined our protest, as did Dr Alan Deidun; and we are only sorry there weren’t more of them from both sides. No, Mr Falzon, people know very well there is no political motivation from the NGOs’ part in this or in any other case. There are certainly political implications in our actions, but these are not of our creation.
Mr Falzon wants people to believe that there was political motivation in the Bahrija case because the NGOs did not speak up in “a large number of similar cases”. The reason is actually very simple: as he says, NGO activists are “a few hundred” and cannot be expected, nor is it their duty, to track such cases. If Mr Falzon makes this list of similar cases public and NGOs still remain passive, then he might finally have some real grounds for attacking them.
But till he does so everybody will be entitled to regard Mr Falzon’s insinuations about the NGOs as petty, political, malicious mudslinging, devoid of any substance. It will also be highly interesting if, together with this list, he tells us why he has kept silent about these cases for so long.

Michael Falzon’s article last Sunday was a window through which one could see the value he places on the rule of law and the rule of might. Mr Falzon’s writing can be summed up as follows: MEPA (Gonzi) has issued dodgy permits in the past. The Bahrija application is also a dodgy one. Therefore MEPA (Gonzi) should issue the permit and not quake in fear of a bunch of tree huggers.
Whether the NGOs put up a valid, substantiated protest is neither here nor there. Planning regulations, Case Officers’ reports, and the Auditor’s report are all incredibly absent from Mr Falzon’s reasoning. It all boils down to power and to hell with regulations, (and this from an architect). Mr Falzon kindly concedes the NGOs the democratic right to protest, but that is as far as it goes. Following that, MEPA (Gonzi) should exercise their power and if similar permits have been issued in the past, why stop now? And for whose benefit is this total disregard for the democratic process and the goading of Dr Gonzi to personally influence MEPA? For the benefit of speculators who, poor souls, are shying away from throwing money into the economy because their projects might be shot down by the NGOs.
And here’s the fallacy of Mr Falzon’s argument, one that is currently being bandied about in the press: it is not the NGOs that put a halt to certain developments, what power do they wield to do this? They merely prod the relevant authorities to follow the regulations they themselves drew up.
Before reading Mr Falzon’s article I thought that Malta’s economic slowdown was due to the global recession, a fall in imports, a drop in tourist arrivals, a high inflation rate, and high labour costs. Now I know better, it is the fault of those dratted NGOs.


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