It’s never ‘too late’ to save Gozo | Julia Camilleri

This week heralded the emergence of ‘Ghawdix’: the first environmentalist NGO to focus specifically on Gozo. But as founding member (and PRO) JULIA CAMILLERI explains: the threat comes not just from development; but also from a mentality that is ‘unconnected with nature’

Għawdix's Julia Camilleri. Photo by James Bianchi
Għawdix's Julia Camilleri. Photo by James Bianchi

In recent months, concern with the environmental degradation of Gozo seems to have reached an all-time high. To quote just one public figure (out of several): MEP Alfred Sant recently said that Gozo is ‘at a crossroads’, and that ‘if we continue like this, there will be nothing left to save’. Do you agree with that statement? Or is it already ‘too late to save Gozo’?

The way I look at it: there is no fixed point, after which it becomes ‘too late’. If you go to a doctor and get diagnosed with a disease, he might say: ‘You have this or that chance [of recovery]’ But whatever the chances, doctors will always try to save you. They will never say: ‘Forget it, bye…’

So for me, there’s no such thing as ‘too late’. You have to always keep trying. We saw this happening in Malta, for instance; we saw how people there said, ‘It’s too late, it’s too late’. And yet, the situation keeps getting worse; and people still complain about it.

So had we taken action at some point in the past, we could have prevented a lot of environmental destruction in Malta. And I feel that we are now at the same point in Gozo: people here are realizing that they are not happy with how things are going; with all the changes that are happening around us.

And already, there is a common thread of people who say: ‘What can we do? Gozo is already ruined.’ We see this in online comments, and we hear people saying it in the streets. And OK: you can sit at home, saying ‘It’s too late’; you can complain about it to your friends, and on Facebook. But you can also try to do something.

And you never know: sometimes, ‘doing something’ works. It is true that we read about new cases of environmental degradation almost on a daily basis; but sometimes, we also read about how certain development projects are, in fact, stopped because of public pressure…

… a case in point was the announcement, this morning, that works on the Balluta ferry terminal have been stopped due to protests…

Precisely. So even the smallest of these victories against development are a light in the darkness. They give us hope. I don’t want to sound too idealistic… but, given the choice between sitting at home and saying ‘it’s too late’, and at least trying to do something about it: I would choose the latter.

Because it all accumulates, you know. Even just talking to people, even the small actions that you do every day… it all adds up, in the end.

And besides: there is still a lot of Gozo that has remained unspoilt. I’m almost scared of saying that, mind you. Because a lot of damage has already been done; and the balance [between construction and environmental protection] is already way skewed, as it is. I’m not happy about how things are in Gozo at all. That is in fact the reason why we started this organization.  

But it is definitely not ‘too late’ to save what’s left…

At the same time, however, overdevelopment is not really a new issue for Gozo. While it is true that certain recent projects seem to have gone overboard… the reality is that places such as Xlendi, Marsalforn, and others have long since lost their original character to development. So why is there such a lot of resistance, precisely now?

I honestly don’t know what’s so special about this moment, that made people suddenly ‘wake up’. Because people have, in fact, been aware of the issue for years. My father, for instance, used to spend his summers at Marsalforn. I remember him showing me photos of how it used to be, and how much of it had changed… long before the more recent developments.

But the difference, I suppose, was that before, we didn’t necessarily view those changes as a ‘bad thing’. We might have said ‘xi kruha’ [How ugly] at seeing certain apartment blocks going up – my own favourite part of Marsalforn, for instance, is Għar Qawqla… and when flats were built almost overlooking the beach, I remember my parents saying: ‘What a shame… look how far they have built’, etc.

So I think that a lot of people in Gozo have this frustration, and have had it for a while. What has changed, however, is the sheer frequency with which we see projects nowadays: projects which are completely ugly; which completely disrespect the surrounding area, and the well-being of people living in that area. It’s just increased so much…

That, at any rate, is how it feels from my perspective, as a 20-something year old living in Gozo today. Maybe it was always like this, but I was too young to notice it before. But I do feel – and this sentiment is shared by other members of the organization, and by a lot of people in my generation – that the situation, right now, is ‘full on’.

It’s as though Malta – including Gozo – is doing well, in a lot of areas… but at the same time, our daily life is full of frustration. It’s full of complaining. And no one wants to live like this. No wants to live, moving from one construction site to another…

A lot of people certainly seem to have ‘woken up’ to the environmental threat, of late; but there is a flipside. Many Gozitans still argue in favour of development, on the grounds that it represents ‘progress’; or because it would be unfair to deny permits today, when so many were dished out in the past. Isn’t there some truth to that?

I don’t deny that is a very complicated situation to navigate. My parents, for instance, live in Kappuċċini, at the far end of Victoria. Ours used to be one of the last houses, on the edge of open fields. Now: our house was built on what was once a field. Surely, then, our neighbours have the right to build their houses on fields as well…

But… at one point, you have to say: ‘Stop, enough’. And when we say that; when we complain about overdevelopment… people turn to us, and say: ‘It’s Ok for you to object, because you’ve already built your house’. And I completely understand that. Our parents’ generation needed to build, for their families to grow. There was nothing, at the time; and they built their houses out of nothing.

But now… it’s just houses, houses, houses; apartments, apartments, apartments; and we keep asking ourselves, who is actually living in all these flats? Because there is no work on Gozo. So many of us have to leave, because we cannot find work. Yet at the same time, all these new apartment blocks are going up… it just doesn’t make sense.

And people are getting angry about this now. We are told, for instance, that there is investment that needs to be done in Gozo; and yes, this is true. But ‘investment’ does not mean building only apartments. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not business-minded… in fact, I don’t understand business at all. But the way I see it: you first create jobs; people come for those jobs; and then, you build apartments to house those people. Not the other way round…

To play the devil’s advocate: a lot of these projects consist in tourist accommodation, or holiday homes for Maltese visitors. Like it or not, this is also a reflection of Gozo’s current economic climate. As you yourself put it: ‘there is no work’. So what alternatives are there, really, to construction and development? If you yourself had a free hand to design a strategic economic plan for Gozo; how would you go about it?

I have a very simple answer to that. I am a tax-payer; I pay people money, to develop plans… so it’s not my job to figure out any alternative economic vision for Gozo. In fact, it’s one of the things I find really frustrating. We are here to ask questions; to discuss; to hold our leaders accountable. We pay our leaders a lot of money, to develop these plans… this is, in fact, why we have politicians, and a public administration, in the first place.

As for myself: I’m a medical scientist, not a public administrator. I have no expertise whatsoever in how to manage a small island economy. But still: like everyone else, I can tell when things are not being done right.

And things do not feel right, at the moment. It’s not just me saying this: people are uncomfortable. People are upset. And we need our leaders to take responsibility for this situation.

So while I appreciate your question, I don’t feel it is my place to answer it. Providing alternatives is the government’s job, not mine.  And already, this organization takes up a lot of our time. We’re all very passionate about it, so that’s perfectly fine… but already, it feels like it could be a full-time job: just to ask questions, and to find avenues to discuss questions… let alone, to actually solve all the issues ourselves…

Fair enough: but that only raises the question of how your own NGO – and I could extend the question to civil society in general – actually plans to make a difference. How do you envisage the role of an organisation such as ‘Ghawdix’, anyway?

As things stand, our NGO is only four days old. Of course, we’ve been planning for a while; but we are still in our infancy. But what triggered us to found an NGO of our own is that, we see how other organisations – such as Flimkien għal Ambjent Ahjar, Moviment Graffitti, etc – do a lot of good work…  but there is such a lot of work to do.

And we also realised that there isn’t any one organisation, that is focused exclusively on Gozo. And the state of Gozo is not the same as that of Malta. It is something that requires specific, dedicated attention.

Still, we certainly do take inspiration from all the NGOs that are doing such good work in Malta… objecting to MEPA permits; finding, sharing and disseminating information; educating the public; organising clean-ups; holding events where people can connect with nature…

Because this is the thing, really: we keep talking about the need to ‘safeguard the environment’. But before you can ‘save Gozo’s natural environment’… you have to first connect with it. We have to connect with the landscape, in order to truly understand its value. And then – from that emotional connection – we can find the strength to fight.

Because there’s a lot to be fought. Developers have money, they have influence, they have motivation. What’s our motivation? We want to ‘save Gozo’, OK… but, are we connected to it?

So that’s a big part of it as well: bringing the public into connection, with that which we are trying to save. Going back to what I was saying earlier, about my parent’s generation: those people built their houses on open land… because that is how things were done, at the time. So they can relate to the needs of other people, to also build houses of their own. They can relate to the need to, say, start a family, or set down roots.

But… can they relate to the need for open spaces? Green spaces? An unspoilt, undeveloped landscape?

Probably, not as much. So what is really needed is a shift in mentality. This, I think, is the hardest challenge… but also the most important. Of course, it is still important to carry on with the daily struggle against individual developments: objecting to planning permits, and protesting against particular projects… but that’s like putting out a fire. It is something that has to be done, yes; but we also have to change people’s mentality, so that they don’t start fires as often…

In a nutshell, we need to address this problem at its roots. And the root cause is that people are simply not connected to the natural landscape. They don’t understand the value of empty, undeveloped land: otherwise, no one would ever let these things happen.

To give one example from abroad: in Berlin, there was recently the question of what to do with the disused Tempelhof airport: a huge stretch of basically open land.

They issued a public call, asking the people what they wanted to do with this airport… and overwhelmingly, the reply was: “Leave it as it is. Don’t do anything with it at all…”

Would the Maltese public do the same? Would the people of Gozo also want to leave such a massive open space undeveloped? [Pause] I doubt it. Most people, in Malta and Gozo alike, would probably think you’re mad if you even suggested such a thing…

So unfortunately, we don’t have the same appreciation of open spaces, and of nature in general, in our DNA. And we need to change that…