Interview | Sunday, 13 December 2009

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Rambling on a minefield

Environmental NGOs like Lino Burgja’s are walking on a political minefield by exposing land-use cases involving top politicians. Can they take the heat?

Back in 1968, Lino Bugeja bought half a tumolo of land in a green area in Tal-Isqof in Marsaskala for an annual payment of €14. Forty-one years later, former PN president Victor Scerri tried to discredit the octogenarian environmentalist by making this land deal public during TV programme Xarabank.
Visibly hurt by any insinuation that he does not practice what he preaches, Bugeja still cannot fathom what relation exists between the Bahrija case and the land he owns in Marsaskala.
“When I bought the land I was perfectly aware that this land was located on a green area, so I never applied to develop this land… Are we going to attack everyone who owns a piece of land which is in an Outside Development Zone (ODZ)? What relation exists between this and the Bahrija case?”
He draws a political parallel between his case and that of Victor Scerri.
“Unlike Scerri I always followed the Prime Minister’s dictum that an ODZ is always an ODZ and that there should be no tolerance towards ODZ development, as I never applied to develop the land in question. Neither did I apply any pressure to have it developed.”
But had Victor Scerri not been a political figure, would the Bahrija development have generated the same outcry by the environmentalist lobby?
Bugeja’s reply reveals that environmental organisations were very much aware of the explosive political implications of this case, to the extent that they agreed to hold the protest after last June’s MEP election.
“Had we really wanted to politicise this issue, the Bahrija protest would have been held before and not after the European elections.”
Moreover when his organisation first reported this case to MEPA in February, Bugeja was not even aware that Scerri was involved.
“At the time, we suspected that the government was developing some water catchments as we knew that this area is so protected that one cannot even touch it.”
But while insisting that his organisation has exposed several cases of abuse in which politicians were not involved, Bugeja insists that as a politician Scerri should have known better.
“As a politician he should have been more sensitive. One does not have to be an academic to understand that any development in this place would scar the area. As one of the leaders of a major party, he was duty bound to set an example.”
MEPA has only revoked Scerri’s latest permit, thus, he is fully entitled to carry out his development. Doesn’t he have every right to proceed with this development?
Bugeja replies by questioning the legitimacy of any development in that area by quoting a declaration made by former Environment Minister George Pullicino in 2005.
On that occasion, Pullicino declared that “MEPA is robust enough to provide important countryside areas as Bahrija and Fomm ir-Rih from insensitive development” and that “in any case, up to now not even an outline application for development has been submitted to MEPA.”
Pullicino was reacting to a Nature Trust protest in Bahrija after the Eliza company website had advertised villas in Bahrija.
“Either Pullicino was not in control of the situation, or he was not even informed because Scerri had already applied for a permit in that area,” says Bugeja.
He describes Scerri’s persistence in applying for one permit after the other as a manifestation of ‘Oliver Twist Syndrome’, his way of describing the habit of developers of always asking for more after getting their way the first time.
“He first started asking to restore the building. The case officer told him no. The permit was refused. He applied again and the permit was issued. He applied again to demolish the building and rebuild it. The case officer said no but the DCC issued the permit. This was not enough. He asked to enlarge the footprint. Now MEPA has revoked the last permit.”
The Ramblers Association turned down an invitation to participate in TV programme Xarabank, arguing that it does not participate in programmes dealing with political issues. They also said that they would have no problem participating in a programme discussing the environment. But isn’t land-use a political issue? And how can one avoid discussing politics in any discussion on the environment?
Bugeja justifies his absence from the programme by insisting that the theme for which his organisation was invited to discuss was specifically that of political resignations.
“What has our organisation to do with political resignations? This was the theme of the programme as can be proved by the correspondence which has been published. We are not interested in his resignation. We never asked for his resignation.”
Bugeja insists that he has no problem participating in any programme discussing the environment or the Bahrija issue. That is why he participated in other programmes discussing this issue.
Neither does he have any problem facing Victor Scerri on TV, though he makes one qualification: that Scerri is not accompanied in any such programme by his architect Robert Musumeci.
“Just as I do not bring a consultant with me, he should not come with his consultant either.”
Bugeja justifies his stand, insisting that he is not prepared to engage in a legalistic discussion. “I am a law abiding citizen but I have always hated legalisms. I have never entered a court in my life… I cannot stand legalistic arguments.”
Bugeja is also skeptical of the success of any MEPA reform as long as applicants and architects look for loopholes in an attempt to find a way to conduct developments in areas where no development should take place.
“We need to reform ourselves as a nation before reforming MEPA. We need more self-regulation. It seems to be inherent in us to find loopholes around laws. One should never seek a loophole through which one can get away with destroying the environment, which belongs to us all. Architects and lawyers should put the national interest before their personal interest.”
Lino Bugeja is fully aware that civil society activism is a thankless task in the Maltese political minefield, recalling how badly he was treated by the Labour government in 1973 despite being praised by the same party for his anti-colonial stance in the late 1950s.
In September 1958, he turned down the Vittoriosa Historical Society’s request to present a speech to commemorate Victory Day after being informed that the admiral or vice-admiral were going to attend the ceremony. Bugeja decided not to attend. “I decided not attend as I wanted to be part of the non-violent movement for freedom from the shackles of colonialism.”
This act earned him the praise of the Labour Party. “The Birgu section of the Labour Party even sent me a letter to thank me, expressing their admiration for my courage.”
What Bugeja did not expect was that a Labour government would evict him from his hometown. “I was immensely hurt when in 1973, just because I had a small summer house in an isolated and cold place ironically known as Siberja in Wied il-Ghajn, I had my house in Birgu requisitioned by the government. My family had to move to live in that desolate place. My wife, who actively participated in Birgu’s parish, had to walk two miles to the nearest church…”
But Bugeja is proud of Malta’s achievements as an independent nation.
“The major change I saw in my life is that in mentality…the way Malta managed to prosper despite the departure of the British army and also of major British companies like Lloyds or Barclays. Some were afraid that Malta was going to the dogs. Instead we had a new dawn. This gave the Maltese the push to struggle on. We grew up mentally as we stopped being subjects.”
But Bugeja still harbours respect for some of the traditions instilled by the colonial authorities. One of these was the role the British played in fostering athletics and sports and the ensuing rivalry between Maltese athletes and athletes serving in the British services.
“Athletics were important at that time because of the rivalry with the British army. When Lino Bugeja won, he did not win for himself but for Malta against the combined services.”
This healthy rivalry between Maltese and British athletes also attracted huge attendances for sporting events.
“They used to bring their best athletes from places like Tripoli and Nicosia to compete against us.”
Lino won his first 400-metre race in a competition organised by the Dominican friars in Birgu after being encouraged by Father Ambrose Darmanin who also served as chaplain to the army.
In 1951, he represented Malta in the first edition of the Mediterranean games in Egypt in which he competed in the 400 and 800-metre races alongside George Bonello Dupuis, who later served as Nationalist minister.
At that time, Bugeja’s life revolved around sports but he still managed to pursue his academic studies and interests in history and culture. “It is through rambling that I managed to combine all these different aspects of life for it keeps me physically active while still cultivating my interest in culture, education and history.”
The Rambler’s Association was founded four years ago not only to cultivate an appreciation of the countryside but also “to offer a better quality of life through an activity which does not cost anything while educating people to appreciate something which belongs to all of us.”
And what makes rambling in Malta special is the fact that history and culture pervade the Maltese landscape.
“In countries like Scotland where I lived, one just sees stretches of green rarely encountering anything of historical interest. Here one can find cart ruts, stone shelters (girna), statues and way side chapels.”
For Bugeja, the best place to explore on a Sunday walk in Malta is one around Wied Liemu, Ta’ Baldu, Tal-Qattara and Is-Simblija in Dingli.
“We start our walks from the Carmelite church which already existed in 1418, then we walk to Wied Liemu and then we go to Ta’Baldu.”
Ta’ Baldu contains various archaeological and rural remains. Beneath several farmhouses are a number of caves one of which incorporates a system of irrigation with water gushing from a spring. The date 1629 is inscribed on one of the walls. Nearby, a string of rubble walls of excellent workmanship rise up to five metres.
“In 1665, it was described by Gian Frangisk Abela in his Descrizione di Malta as the most beautiful place in Malta.”
Still, the Rambers Association has repeatedly denounced that at Ta’ Baldu, several pathways on an area scheduled by the planning authority - have been landscaped with hard stone and several entrances barred by means of iron gates. Most of the caves also have had an iron gate fitted barring access to the public.
Furthermore, few people are aware of these landmarks.
“I regularly give talks in schools which are followed by walks in these places. But even when I visit schools in towns in the vicinity of these landmarks… few people have an idea that these places exist.”
One of the long-standing campaigns of the Ramblers Association was to secure access to Fomm ir-Rih.
In October, the Ramblers Association praised parliamentary secretary Dr Jason Azzopardi’s historic breakthrough in reclaiming a sizeable tract of relatively unspoiled land, including over 4km of shoreline, in Fomm ir-Rih.
“I appreciate Jason Azzopardi’s hard work on this issue, and we also welcome the fact that he has presented a bill in parliament to secure access to these places. But it is far from an easy task, for this requires enforcement. We need to harshly penalise people who block access to public land.”
But don’t people have a right to enjoy their private property?
“I am not a communist as I believe in private property, but I also firmly believe that the public has a right to access places of high landscape values. That is why Europe has freed itself from feudalism and is giving rights to the common citizen by recognising such areas as a common heritage…One has every right to own a property but one has to secure passages giving access to these sites.”
He refers to the Qlejja tal-Bahrija, where one can enjoy splendid views of the Ta’ Cenc cliffs and which includes 14 Bronze Age silos.
“Why is access to this area blocked by a quarry? At least there should be a passage from where people can pass without damaging agricultural land.”
How can things change?
“We believe in people’s power. Only when we organised mass protests did things improve. It was only after national protests like the one against the Ramla development that the authorities started moving.”

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