News | Sunday, 14 March 2010

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Hundreds attend Valletta environment protest

Despite the pouring rain, a good 500 demonstrators – environmentalists, members of heritage organisations, and aggrieved residents and expatriates yesterday marched down Republic Street to protest on a mishmash of issues: the lack of environmental law enforcement, the plans for a roofless theatre in Valletta, hunting, groundwater extraction, planning encroachment in outside development zones, air pollution and the Freeport extension in Birżebbuġa.
The demonstration was organised by several environmental and heritage lobbies, including Flimkien Għal Ambjent Aħjar (FAA); Birdlife Malta; the Ramblers Association; Graffitti; Greenhouse; Nature Trust; Friends of the Earth; and the Malta Organic and Agricultural Movement. Officials and members of Alternattiva Demokratika and community groups including the Birżebbuġa environmental action group, and FUQ (Fondazzjoni Ulied Ħal Qormi) were also present.
Reminiscent of the clarion call popularised by GWU boss Tony Zarb, leftwing protest group Graffitti’s banner read ‘Issa Daqshekk’ (Enough now); while others bore placards reading ‘Lip service does not pay the environment’ and ‘We can only play fortissimo and never the Piano in a roofless theatre’ – referring to Renzo Piano’s plans for the old opera house ruins. Neatly designed placards issued by the organisers said ‘Legality now’, ‘Stop illegal hunting’ and ‘Enforcement now’.
Halting the crowd at the Great Siege monument, the over-enthusiastic Ramblers Association honorary secretary Alex Vella uttered into the microphone: “We’ll be attacking the law courts now,” but then turned to the police and said: “I’m joking, officers.”
In the background, using a generator-powered sound system dragged along in a supermarket trolley, Graffitti members spun punk and ska music as demonstrators blew into plastic whistles.
“We weren’t expecting this much people when we saw the rain this morning,” Alex Vella said. “We’re not fair-weather sailors, the authorities are. We are ready to suffer for our environment and for the interest of the community – even though the environmental authorities tend not to, despite having the law on their side. Law should be applied equally. All we want is for the environmental laws to be respected and enforced.”
Vella moved on to condemn and praise the MEPA reform at the same time. “Now that MEPA is being reformed, abuse is still going on at an even faster pace,” he claimed.
Getting the environment parliamentary secretary’s name wrong the first time, he praised the work of a “Mark de Marco”, but after he was corrected by fellow environmentalists he clarified his statement: “We are happy with the work being carried out by Mario de Marco, but permits are still being issued abusively.”
FAA coordinator Astrid Vella was rational in her address, arguing that in their failure to enforce, the lawmakers themselves are breaking the law.
“Despite the rain, attendance today is greater than the first and the second rally,” she said. “Our campaigns are in favour of health and the environment.”
Vella expressed FAA’s concern on air quality, saying that pollution levels in Malta are “unlawful and breach EU regulations”.
She said the protest was also organised to make a statement against the widespread extraction of groundwater that is depleting the island’s water table.
“We also oppose the lack of proper consultation that was made regarding the Valletta regeneration project. How long have people been saying that a roofless theatre in Valletta does not make sense because of the rain? Isn’t today’s weather a good enough indication?”
Outgoing Ramblers president Lino Bugeja said the protest marked “an important day in the history of our nation.”
Making an analogy with the Great Fire of Rome, Bugeja said: “Malta is burning down while parliament is deliberating,” urging faster progress in the conservation of nature after “we have seen an environmental tragedy take place before our eyes over the past 50 years.”
BirdLife Malta executive director Tolga Temuge was concise when taking the stand. “The law should be applied to all in equal measures. Government is urged to stop being weak with the strong and strong with the weak.”
At this point, the Ramblers’ Alex Vella took centre-stage again to chant an out-of-tune rendition of the John Lennon song ‘Give peace a chance’, tweaking the lyrics to ‘give law a chance’. Vella urged the crowd to join him in the chant “so that we can be heard from parliament”.
After Vella’s short-lived musical performance, Chris Mizzi from Graffitti concluded with an appeal: “Words alone change nothing. It is with our votes that we can take proper action.”

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