Mepa: The missing link

Tuesday, 22nd April 2008

Alfred E. Baldacchino

Without any doubt, Malta needs an authority, better still authorities, responsible for environment and planning so that the interests of the Maltese community are safeguarded from exploitation and Malta’s international responsibilities are honoured. A professional authority will also help Malta to mature and to find its rightful place with other nations in the international sphere. However, such an entity has to have a vision, a direction and an understanding of its obligations. It has to have a will to achieve these aims. From the ever-increasing public criticism and the irregularities that are continuously being uncovered, it seems that Mepa is not exactly in line with such a vision, such understanding and such accountability to the Maltese community. It lacks such fervour. Ironically enough, such a blot on Mepa’s image started with the “merger” of the minuscule Department of the Environment and the mammoth Planning Authority in 2002. Such a “merger”, which carried with it heavy international environmental responsibilities, mainly as a Member State of the European Union, was an onus which the top brass at the Planning Authority were never au courant with. They were not equipped with the technical and scientific background to handle it. And I am afraid to say that the majority of Mepa boards still aren’t. Nonetheless, Mepa is the Competent Authority for the EU environmental acquis. The cracks became chasms as time passed by, especially when the new Environment Protection Directorate was left without a director for about four years, leaving the headless directorate to wander in a rather hostile environment. Words, which still reverberate in my ears (for example: Forget the environment, it is development which dictates the environment here; we do not need scientists, we need geographers; why worry if an endemic lizard becomes extinct, it is just a lizard), uttered in the corridors of Mepa do not do any credit to a supposedly Competent Authority on the environment. To this day I still cherish with increasing satisfaction the names that were bestowed on the Environment Protection Directorate: “environmentalists”, “fundamentalists” and “officials who lose precious time playing with marine turtles, dolphins and wild flowers”. These are all responsibilities and obligations arising out of Malta’s accession to the European Union, and other international legal treaties, for which this blessed Mepa is the Competent Authority, and the non-adherence to which amounts to EU and other international infringements. This “us and them” complex within Mepa is resulting in a rift that contributes to discontent and loss of motivation in the dedicated staff who do not feel that they belong to such an important but divided organisation. Some have left because of this syndrome. This has rendered the authority much weaker in the face of the ever-increasing and more specialised international obligations, not least those of the EU.

Stephen Farrugia, a former director of planning at Mepa, wrote (The Times, April 10):  “It is pertinent to point out that the previous Environment Protection Department and the Planning Authority empires have always been to a greater or lesser extent in continual turf wars with each other. This situation, that still persists within Mepa, is to me one of the great demotivators in sustaining healthy working relationships between the two directorates“.

The “merging” of the Environment Protection Department with the Planning Authority was a mistake: The two are not compatible and those who argue in favour of such “merger” do so because it is easier to manipulate the scientific reports of those who are considered as an appendix. When the mentality of such a Competent Authority stoops so low in its environmental “lack of knowledge” (and the above are just a few simple examples) then it is no wonder that the Environmental Protection Directorate has been reduced to the Cinderella of Mepa, dictated by Planning Authority officials who have no scientific or environmental management and planning qualifications, with the exception of the odd one or two.

If it weren’t for, or what is left of, the hard work of the dedicated professional and scientific staff previously forming the backbone of the Environment Protection Department, the list of eventual infractions of the EU environmental acquis would be much, much longer. This unfortunate situation was recently validated in a concrete way (pardon the pun). The lack of awareness of Mepa’s obligations, both national and international, led to the approval by Mepa of development applications in Special Areas of Conservation for which Mepa itself is the Competent Authority on an international level. These permits infringe the EU Habitats Directive, which lays down clear obligations with regard to developments in Special Areas of Conservation, such as those in Dwejra, Gozo and Mistra Bay. Mepa may have the best qualified middle management personnel in the country. But the lack of an equivalent qualified professional and scientific top brass sitting in the top echelons of Mepa boards and committees reinforces Bjorn Bonello’s (another ex-Mepa employee) comments on Mepa (The Times, March 27) and “displays blatant mockery of the planning system and the people’s intelligence” besides frustrating the technical and scientific staff. Furthermore, if Mepa still regards itself as the Competent Authority of the EU environmental acquis, its top echelons have to be closely familiar with Malta’s international obligations and responsibilities, the more so when their decisions carry with them financial and political implications at EU level. Hijacking the Environment Protection Directorate makes the crisis more acute and can only benefit one or two individuals before the community is asked to dig deep in its pocket.

I feel morally obliged to write this, not only to distance myself from such obscenities, which are having an irreversible negative impact on the environment and on dedicated technical and scientific officials within Mepa, but also to give weight to the Prime Minister’s declaration on the need to reform Mepa, which declaration is also one of the Nationalist Party’s electoral pledges. The Mepa reform has to take in consideration the engagement of scientific professionals among its top brass. The Environment Planning Directorate’s voice has got to be heard and be equally as strong as that of the Planning Directorate and not be stifled, silenced or ignored. It will then be possible for the professionals and scientists sitting on Mepa’s boards and committees to be able to conscientiously evaluate and pass judgement, instead of branding the scientific input as “the work of fundamentalists”. Everybody who has the good of the country at heart eagerly awaits such an urgent reform in the hope that, when all the comments have been taken on board, it will not result in just a change in colour of the sheep’s clothing.

Mr Baldacchino has been involved in the protection of biodiversity since 1970, both with local and foreign NGOs and also as a civil servant for more than 30 years, mainly occupying managerial positions within the Department of Environment. For the last five years before retirement he was assistant director at the Environment Protection Directorate, Mepa.

3 Responses to Mepa: The missing link

  1. victor says:

    Alfred, your contribution towards nature is much appreciated by many who share their thoughts over your concern . Even some are disappointed to the fact that you seem to be anti nationalist . They ask ,will he be the same when the PL are in government ? Try to seperate yourself from sounding politically sided as that would increase your credibility towards the subject . Keep up the good work . I do send your material to all my contacts and none has disapproved of your sightings towards nature .

    • Victor,
      Many thanks indeed for your posting. I do appreciate your comments.
      Unfortunately the mentality in this country of ours is that if one criticises any social entity, whether this is political, religious, commercial or even a non-government organisation (NGO) one is quickly labelled as an ‘enemy of the state’ or as ‘one who wants to challenge the organisation”. It is this mentality which is undermining the development of our democratic country. I have experienced this all my life and I believe that now I am immune to such thinking.
      I have been involved in environmental matters since 1970. Since then I have made a lot of friends from all quarters of society: political, religious, legal, educators, and the men in the street. They all agree with my principles. Talking of principles, one has to keep in mind that one is not paid for one’s principles, but rather one has to pay for publicly professing them. I have been through thick and thin, times have changed, political and other national leaders have come and gone, but my principles never changed and never will. Changes of faces do not change my principles by any means.
      As an aside, regarding the comment ‘anti Nationalist’, allow me to point out that my writings and comments are in line with Government promised policy on the environment, this being an “environmental pillar”. My principles are also reflected in Government’s official publications, for example, the National Environment Policy. And above all, they are also embedded in the obligations arising out of Malta’s membership to the European Union.
      I hope that this will put the minds at rest of those who showed some ‘disappointment’ on my principles. Persisting in such disappointments, I am afraid to say, is more a parochial rather than a national interest. I have always and will always accept to speak to anyone who would like to speak to me on my principles, irrespective of colour or creed; although I regret to say that this is not the way I have been treated.
      Victor, I have been guided in life by words of world statesmen, not politicians. One such statesman is Martin Luther King. I would like to share his words with you and other readers of my blog, and would also be glad if you pass them on to your contacts:

      Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’
      Expediency asks the question,’Is it politic?’
      Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But,
      Conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’
      And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but one must take it because one’s conscience tells one that it is right. –

      Martin Luther King, Jr.

      I have never had any troubles with my conscience.

      Thanks again Victor for your positive comments and for giving me the opportunity to express my position in a more clear way. I honestly hope that this will dispel any ‘disappointments’ of your acquaintances, and will also strengthen your contacts who find no disapproval in what I write. This is not a personal crusade, but one which can benefit all Maltese, especially future generations, of whatever political belief, IF the present and future political masters, who have and will be trusted with the management and administration of our country, have the national interest at heart, this can be achieved.
      Please do not hesitate to write and comment again if you do not fully agree or do not completely understand my reasoning. In the meantime thanks once again for your, and your friends’ appreciation of my writings.

      • victor says:

        thanks Alfred for making yourself and your inner principles as clear as ever . Please do accept the fact that I can’t speak for you to my contacts . This should nevertiless rest their minds for good . Perhaps a good idea would be as they claim to praise also things done right like governmental flowering in all villages and towns . That way one sees a balance . I will post your personal declaration to all my contacts even those abroad like Australia and new Zealand . You see your good work goes over the other side of our planet .
        Take care Alfred .and God bless your efforts towards a better environment in the Maltese Islands .I am sure that the coming generations will approve of your dreams .


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