Cabinet ownership of the environment

October 7, 2010

Thursday, 7th October 2010

Cabinet ownership of the environment

Alfred E. Baldacchino

The first consultation phase of the National Environment Policy (NEP) held on September 17 was indeed an opportunity for stakeholders to air their differences.  The concept of the policy, the discussions and the opportunity of rubbing of shoulders was also of great help.  Such a “conflict” of ideas can only contribute to more healthy, holistic and strong decisions.

Without any doubt, the opening speech by Environment Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco was indeed a breath of fresh air.  It was a genuine speech with a vision, reaching out for support so that the NEP “can be built on the wide consensus”, an approach so much lacking during the last couple of years. Considering that Dr de Marco is a newcomer to these responsibilities, his introduction to the subject is even more welcomed.

The number of stakeholders present, who did not disappear after lunch, is one observation that shows the strong prevailing interest in the environment. Their input, comments, suggestions and constructive criticism, both during the various workshops and the plenary, are all valid.  Even when Dr de Marco’s body language showed he was a bit hot under the collar, nobody was called any names, despite the fact that some comments and criticism did not sound music to the government’s ears.

Another strong conclusion surfacing from both the workshops and the plenary was the fact that the report is compartmentalised and fragmented. There is need for a much more holistic approach and strategy. The official side (through no fault of its own) lacks the experience and some the complete knowledge of the subject matter, so obvious when faced with comments and questions from the gathering. This is the obvious result of the way the environmental set-up was mishandled over the last years when experienced personnel left disheartened, others fell by the wayside and others are marking time for better days. This is not going to be solved by such a NEP.

To make matters worse for the official side, many experienced personnel are either derided or emarginated, thus making the official side much more weak and denuded in terms of in-depth knowledge of the subject, to the extent that one is not blamed for asking whether this is part of the strategy. The rumblings of the effectiveness of such a fragmented NEP can be gauged by keeping one’s ears to the ground.

Another glaring observation was the conspicuous involvement of some NGOs or quangos, either because they were completely absent or because they preferred to act as wall flowers or as silent as a grave. Some representatives of environmental, legal, academic, trade unionist, religious, commercial and other entities, together with those of various ministries and departments, did not utter a word.  And the participants present could not comment on such entities’ views. This may also lead one to think that such entities, especially ministries and government departments, are either not interested or not concerned once this is the responsibility of the minster under whose umbrella the environment falls, that is the Prime Minister.

The above observation was also echoed both within the working groups and also in the plenary. This could also be concluded by the awkward position of the official side, at times at sixes and sevens, especially when faced with comments and questions on negative environmental impacts resulting from other ministers’ decisions and undertaking and for which the minister overseeing the environment is responsible to enforce, control or report to Brussels from where such national obligations arise.

One particular question constantly asked is why embark on a NEP when there is the National Sustainable Development Commission (NSDC), chaired by the Prime Minister himself, and incorporating all ministries. Admittedly the NCDC has been dormant for the past three years. Embarking on a separate isolated, fragmented NEP is laudable but its implementation is a failure from the word go. This is just a waste of time and resources and only contributes to procrastination in implementation.

The Prime Minster only needs to give the kiss of life to the NSDC and set it in motion to implement such a task.  Only this can restore the official handling of the environment to its 2004 credible level.

I do not think it is either just or fair to lump all the environmental responsibilities on a junior minister while some of his senior colleagues either do not bother or do not feel the collective responsibility of environmental matters and may also conveniently believe that this is the responsibility of the minister in charge of the environment – the Prime Minister.

There was wide consensus at the consultancy meeting that it was a wise government decision to set up the NSDC, chaired by the Prime Minister, to ensure everyone shoulders one’s responsibility.

Nonetheless, Dr de Marco should be encouraged, helped and given all the necessary assistance in the difficult task that has been bestowed upon him.  From the consultation meeting it is very obvious he has the support of most of the stakeholders and the public as confirmed from the results of the 2008 public attitude survey drawn up by Ernst and Young (2010).  Just one quote summarises all such expectations: “More than two-thirds (69 per cent) of respondents held the view that the environment was equally important as the economy. The environment was considered to be more important by 23 per cent of respondents while eight per cent held the view that the economy was more important” (NEP Consultation phase 1 – issue paper page 44)

Most of all, Dr de Marco desperately needs the help of his Cabinet colleagues. And this can only be achieved if the Prime Minister resuscitates the now long dormant NSDC to give more clout to environmental responsibilities. Dealing with such matters in a piecemeal manner can only contribute to more borrowed time, which can be convenient for some but certainly not for the environment.

aebaldacchino@gmail.com

alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com

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Mother Earth, Brother Sun, Sister Moon – 2

August 16, 2010

28th October 2007

Mother Earth, Brother Sun, Sister Moon – 2
Alfred E. Baldacchino

As we have seen from the first part of my feature, the world’s leading religions – no matter how diverse – are of one voice regarding man’s obligation to care for and protect the environment.

The wealth of spiritual direction by the leading world religions was
manifested in Assisi, Italy, on September 29, 1986, on the occasion
of the World Wide Fund for Nature’s 25th anniversary, where they
issued a declaration on man and nature.

For the very first time in history, five major ethical systems of the
world categorically stated that their beliefs led them to the need to
conserve this delicate and fragile ecosystem of which man is just a
part and so dependent upon.

The Venerable Lungrig Namgyal Rinpoche, Abbot of Gyuto Tantric
University, presented the Buddhist declaration on nature, dwelling
on the fact that the disregard for natural heritage has brought about
risks to world peace and to the survival of endangered species. The
destruction of the environment, and the life depending upon it, was
the result of ignorance, greed and disregard for the richness of all
living things. “We are the generation with the awareness of a great
danger. We are the ones with the responsibility and the ability to
concrete action, before it is too late.”

Fr Lanfranco Serrini, Minister General of the Franciscan Conventual Order, declared that man’s dominion cannot be understood as a licence to abuse, spoil, squander or destroy what God has made to manifest His glory. That dominion cannot be anything other than a stewardship in symbiosis with all creatures.

On one hand, man’s position verges on a viceregal partnership with God; on the other, his self-mastery in symbiosis with creation must manifest the Lord’s exclusive and absolute dominion over everything, over man and over his stewardship. At the risk of destroying himself, man may not harm or destroy God’s bountiful treasures.

Karan Singh, president of the Hindu Virat Samaj, read the Hindu Declaration on Nature referring to the Hindu scriptures which pronounce a reverence for life, and an awareness that the four elements – earth, air, water and fire – as well as various orders of life, including plants and trees, forests and animals, are all bound to each other within the great rhythms of nature. An ancient Hindu dictum is: “The earth is our mother, and we are all
her children.”

Abdullah Omar Nasseef, secretary-general of the Muslim World League, said that for Muslims, mankind’s role on earth was that of a khalifa, viceroy or trustee of God. We are God’s stewards and agents on earth. We are
not masters of this earth; it does not belong to us to do what we wish. It belongs to God and He has entrusted us with its safekeeping. Our function is only to oversee the trust. He added that the world is green and beautiful and God has appointed man as His steward over it. Environmental consciousness is born when such values are adopted and become an intrinsic part of our mental and physical make-up.

Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, vice-president of the World Jewish Congress, explained that the encounter of God and Mother Earth by Jenness Cortez
Perlmutter man in nature is conceived in Judaism as a seamless web with man as the leader and custodian of the natural work. Man has a responsibility to life, to defend it everywhere, not only against man’s own sins but also against those of others. “We are all passengers together in this same fragile and glorious world. Let us safeguard our row boat – and let us row together.”

Since these statements were made in 1986, much water has passed under the bridge. But the strong flow of water today facing humanity is all murky, carrying the hidden costs of man’s greed. The silver lining is that the destruction of the eco system is also strongly contributing to a stronger public awareness, not least in the spiritual field.

Last month, Pope Benedict XVI led the Church’s first ‘eco friendly’ youth rally on the occasion of his prayer vigil with young people in Loreto, Italy. Addressing nearly half a million youngsters, the Pope, referring to world
leaders, emphasised that “before it is too late, it is necessary to make courageous decisions that reflect knowing how to recreate a strong alliance between man and the earth” and stressed the “pressing need for science and religion to work together to safeguard the gifts of nature and to promote responsible stewardship.”

On October 1, the Maltese Church’s Environment Commission published an opinion paper stating that “the Church needs to be a clear and courageous sign of the times. With its sincere interest in the holistic development of humans – because they are created in God’s image – the Church is in the best position to find the right balance between the three dimensions of sustainable development: the environment, society and economy while lamenting that “… for some individuals in the various strata of the Church in Malta, environmental responsibility features quite low in their personal value scale”.

The light at the end of the long dark tunnel is shining brightly, helped by the world’s leaders, obeying the command of our Creator. The sacred writings all spell out the anguish that can befall humanity, both from a spiritual and a physical point of view, if the environment is destroyed. Keeping in mind, with courage and determination, that we are guardians of God’s creation, we cannot fail.

And once obeying the command of the Creator, can anything block our enthusiasm when we are united with Christ? Before it is too late, let’s do it, in the name of the Father.

aebaldacchino@gmail.com


Mother Earth, Brother Sun, Sister Moon: some spiritual teachings

August 14, 2010

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Mother Earth, Brother Sun, Sister Moon:

some spiritual teachings
Alfred E. Baldacchino

In the name of the Father, man has committed a number of atrocities – in the political arena, in the religious realm, and also in the same ecosystem which sustains him. The holy books of all religions are as old as man himself, and they still teach what they originally were meant to teach. But the different interpretations given to them down the years were very often meant to accommodate man’s relentless greed rather than to get him
closer to the deity he worshipped.
Leafing through the main religious books, be they Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist, or Hindu, the writings give the same clear and identical message. For instance, in the Bible we read that after creating man, God saw
everything that He had made was very good. And the Lord took man and put him in the Garden of Eden, to tend it and to guard it. God also said to Adam and Eve, “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Genesis).
The Western world, which mainly professes Christian beliefs, has not only interpreted ‘subdue’ and ‘dominate’ ad litteram but also implemented it to the fullest ad nauseam. I remember reading teachings that man is unique
and not part of the ecosystem which God has created only for man to ‘exploit’.
Fortunately, following spiritual revival, these teachings have been dumped, though there are still many of their followers around. The Bible and other sacred writings all lead us to better understand their teaching, as some
of the following references clearly show.

A delicate balance
In the Jewish Talmud we read: “When the Holy Blessed-Be-He created the first man, he took him aside and warned him: See my works, see their beauty, their perfection; everything I have created I have created for you.
Take care not to spoil or destroy my work, because there will be no-one to mend it after you
.”
As regards creation, the Qur’an, the Muslims’ holy book, teaches: “To Him belongs whatsoever is in the heaven and the earth; All obey His will. And it is He who originates creation” (30:25). Creation was designed to
function as a whole, a dynamic delicate ecological balance. “Transgress not in the balance, and weigh with justice, and skip not in the balance. It is He who has appointed you viceroys in the earth” (6:165).
The Old Testament teaches that the land belongs to God. People are “only strangers and guests”. The land shall not be sold in perpetuity for the land is Mine (Leviticus 25:23). The earth is God’s and all its fullness, the world and all who dwell in it. (Psalm 21:1). Man must rule the world in holiness and righteousness (Wisdom 9, 3). “God took Adam and placed him in a garden… to work it and to preserve it.” (Genesis 2:15.).
The Dalai Lama, in line with Buddhist belief, teaches: “We only have one earth and any damage which we do to it will rebound upon us.” A. Tyiradhammo, from the Dhammapala Buddhist monastery referring to the
delicate ecological dynamic balance explains: “The illusion of separate, independent subjects and objects is merely due to the influence of self-centered ignorance.” The founder-director of the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environment Sciences, F. Khalid, emphatically declares: “Dominion over Creation remains with the Creator Himself and there is no evidence there of Him having abdicated His responsibilities to one of his
creatures no matter how intelligent.”

Much to answer for

The Tablet, a British Catholic weekly, of October 4, 1986, points out that many who embrace the Christian faith have much to answer for. Quoting Max Nicholson, a well known authority on ecology, The Tablet says that it
has been a tragedy that the most influential religion in the world should have been “one of the very few which preached man’s unqualified right of dominance over nature”. Aboriginal spirituality in Australia teaches that ‘the land is our mother“, “we do not own the earth and the land owns us”. Chief Seattle, of the North American Indians explains: “This we know: the earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. This we know: all things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”
Quite a different perspective from the interpretation of “dominion” and “exploitation” we Christians have been taught, and on which teaching many an empire has been built, many a life taken, and many a resource plundered. But before any of your readers pulls out his red card, not to accuse me of being an ecofundamentalist, but to show me the way back to the fold following my readings of ‘other’ biblical books and writings, I will now dwell more deeply on the teachings of the spiritual leaders of the Catholic Church. This will be amplified in the next part.
According to Genesis, the first book of the Bible, man is the final and supreme creation, the only being made in God’s image. Nature has been handed over to his dominion. He is commanded to “fill the earth and subdue it” and “rule” over the animals. Man is not only the “master” but also the “guardian” of the ecosystem. But a guardian is one entrusted with property that does not belong to him. His role is to take charge of it and
eventually return it to its owner intact. It has also been explained that the world is not ours. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalms 21:1). It has been handed into our safekeeping only on condition that
we maintain it unspoiled. This approach to creation is also supported by the teachings of other main religions of the world.

Sustainable development
Pope John Paul II, addressing the United Nations Environment Programme in Nairobi, quoted from the Genesis to direct and lead the faithful towards the responsibility of the Lord’s creation. The Pope dwelt on the Church’s commitment to the conservation and improvement of our environment being linked to a command of God. God created all things and then entrusted them to the care of human beings who were themselves
created in His image as we find in the very first pages of the Bible.
The Pope explained that it is a requirement of our human dignity, and therefore a serious responsibility to exercise dominion over creation in such a way that it truly serves the human family. Exploitation of the riches of nature must take place according to criteria that take into account not only the immediate need of the people but also the needs of future generations. In this way, the stewardship entrusted by God to man will not be guided by short-sightedness or selfish pursuit, rather it will take into account the fact that all created goods are directed to the good of all humanity.
In a way one can undoubtedly say that Pope John Paul was laying the foundations for national strategies for sustainable development, a concept arising out of Agenda 21 which is a comprehensive plan of action to be
taken globally, nationally and locally by organisations of the United Nations system, governments, and major groups in every area in which human impacts on the environment. (see my article in The Sunday Times of
September 9).
Pope John Paul II continued with his teachings on man’s role and responsibility for the environment in his famous speech on the celebration of the World Day of Peace on January 1, 1990. The Holy Father emphasised that states should jointly implement internationally accepted standards and make or facilitate necessary socio-economic adjustments within their society.
In his keynote address, the Pope touched upon respect for nature, collective selfishness, disregard for others, dishonesty, the ecological crisis which reveals man’s lack of moral character and ethical values, interference in the ecosystem, uncontrolled destruction of animal and plant life and reckless exploitation of natural resources, emphasising the need for a sound economic, industrial and scientific progress.
John Paul II stressed that world peace is threatened not only by the arms race, by regional conflicts, by the never ending injustices among people and nations, but also by a lack of due respect for nature, by the plundering of natural resources and by a progressive decline in the quality of life. Such a lifestyle harbours a sense of precariousness and insecurity and “is a seedbed for collective selfishness, disregard for others and dishonesty”, he said.
Furthermore, certain motivating forces contributing to today’s ecological crisis reveal its moral character. We have now realised, at a painful cost, that “we cannot interfere in one area of the ecosystem without paying due
attention both to the consequences of such interference in other areas and to the well-being of future generations.”

A moral issue
Many patterns of environmental pollution, and the uncontrolled destruction of animal and plant life, and the reckless exploitation of natural resources underlie a most profound and serious indication of the moral
implication evident in the lack of respect for life.
The Pope warns that “even if this is carried out in the name of progress and well-being, it is ultimately to mankind’s disadvantage” because the “respect for life, and above all the dignity of the human person, is the ultimate guiding norm for any sound economic, industrial or scientific progress.”
A lesson to be learnt by the leaders of any social entity from this dramatic threat of ecological breakdown is the extent to which greed and selfishness – both individual and collective “…are contrary to the order of creation,
an order which is characterised by mutual interdependence.”
Our planet is administered, governed, ruled or dictated by politicians, who if guided by such teachings would definitely make our world a better place to live in. Unfortunately, politicians, worldwide, are more concerned
with their short-term delivery during the term with which they have been entrusted. The long-term vision is left for the electorate, if there is one, and for future generations to solve, if they are still around.
This is what has fuelled the environmental crisis worldwide, because of the expected quick results at the expense of hidden costs of long-term damage. No wonder Paul John II lamented that “…the seriousness of the
ecological issue lays bare the depth of man’s moral crisis” and “the air and its atmosphere are telling us that there is an order in the universe which must be respected, and that the human person, endowed with the capability of choosing freely, has a grave responsibility to preserve this order for the well-being of future generations. I wish to repeat that the ecological crisis is a moral issue.” (my italics).
Man, the most intelligent being created by God, is the only creation who can rebel against his Creator and who can destroy himself. Adam and Eve were the first to immediately oblige and rebel, and they were followed by
their subsequent progenies, when they crucified the Son of the Creator. It is not surprising then that man, the climax of intelligence on this planet, wipes out other “inferior” living species over which he has been given
dominance. It is also not surprising at all that man is the only creation who again through his ‘intelligence’, can sabotage his own existence – something he is very close to achieving.

Pope’s warning
Christians who still believe, by conviction or through convenience, that as the most intelligent being on earth, man has unqualified rights of dominance over nature, should do well to take heed of Pope John II’s
admonishment that “Christians, in particular, realise that their responsibility within creation and their duty toward nature and the Creator are an essential part of their faith” and that “modern society will find no solution to the ecological problem unless it takes a serious look at its lifestyle” whether they prefer to emphasise the quality of life enriched by spiritual values rather than the quality of life swamped with material possessions, but empty of joy.
At a conference on man and the environment on December 1971, Cardinal Villot, then Vatican Secretary of State, declared that “every attack on creation is an insult to the Creator”. As far back as 1986, a lone voice
boldly took a first step in this insular fast-desiccating intellectual desert, within the enclave of his social institution.
The late Mgr Professor Carmel Sant, on December 20 of that year, in his oration entitled Natural Environment: the biblical perspective, at the graduation ceremony at the Seminary at Tal-Virtù, courageously wrote: “It is man’s moral responsibility to care for God’s creatures around him, on whom his own physical existence and spiritual uplift depend. Hence it is not only within the competence of the Church and her ministers to intervene and take a definite stand for the defence of the environment, but their duty to take such a step”.
One needs to explain that the graduation ceremony was held at Tal-Virtù because the Faculty of Theology was booted out of the University at Tal-Qroqq, on the pretext that such teachings and studies should not be
subsidised by public funds. Now, almost 21 years later, the first ripples of that address have reached our shores. If only these directions can be taken in hand, in the name of the Father.
(To be concluded)
aebaldacchino@gmail.com


The Nadur cemetery – where the dead will haunt and curse the living

June 21, 2010

Sunday 08 February 2009

Alfred E. Baldacchino

On 6 November 2006, Mepa approved the development of the Nadur cemetery (PA 2407/04) despite the repeated advice of its own technical and professional officials that such a project was objectionable in principle. Some wrongly believe that it was the technical and professional staff who recommended such a project. Mepa also waived the study of an environment impact assessment (EIA), despite the fact that this is an ODZ (Outside Development Zone) development, and based its decision on a hydrology report by a geologist, on the grounds that the project is unlikely to have any adverse impact on these resources. In so doing, Mepa thus completely ignored the precautionary principle adopted by the Environment Protection Act 2001 as a guiding principle.

The Malta Resources Authority, through its Water Directorate, did not object to this development either. Work started in summer 2007. An appeal was lodged according to the provision of the Development Planning Act. The sittings for the hearing of such an appeal were convened on 9 January 2008, on 12 March 2008, 2 April 2008, 18 June 2008, 24 September 2008, 29 October 2008, 3 December 2008 and lately postponed to 4 March 2009. Despite the deliberations that were made and the documents presented, no decision was ever taken.

In the meantime, work on the site continued unhindered, the footprint was excavated, foundations laid and building progressed. Protected carob trees were uprooted this year and “planted” elsewhere (see photo). One would have thought that this would never have been possible considering that the environment is one of the pillars of the government of the day, and considering the negative impact that this project is having on the economic, social and ecological environment. Could this possibly be a subtle strategy to enable the finalisation of the development before the appeal is decided? And can anyone be blamed for concluding that this is an insult to the intelligence of the people.

No public consultation was ever made on this ODZ development. Yet a number of letters were officially, personally and publicly written to the Prime Minister, who is also responsible for the environment. A number of social entities, and members of the general public have expressed their disapproval, both on this development and on the way it is being handled. Maltese farmers have also publicly supported the Gozitan farmers in their efforts to save their livelihood. The national authorities, whether political, administrative or religious are completely numb, which can also make one conclude that these are four square behind such an unsustainable project with all the resulting negative impacts also pointed out publicly. Such an absurd situation has to be urgently addressed in Mepa’s promised reform, not only with regard to this particular issue, but also to other issues where an appeal is lodged. It must be assured that when an appeal is made against a development where the damage would be irreversible, work on the project has to be immediately frozen until the appeal is decided. This would benefit the social, economic and ecological environment in toto.

When the dust settles and the Nadur cemetery opens its door to its permanent residents (I am convinced that the appeal would still not have been decided – irreparable damage has already been done), the damage would not only be irreversible but also persistent. Who will then stand up and publicly say that he is accountable for such a scenario? Will it be the Diocese for Gozo, one of whose officials is the applicant? Will it be the minister responsible for MRA who has not lifted a finger to protect and save the irreplaceable priceless aquifer and the lives and ecosystem it sustains? Will it be the minister responsible for agriculture who is responsible for the well being of agriculture and the community dependent on it, which is already being affected by what has been partially done so far? Will it be the minister responsible for Mepa who has ignored inside technical and professional advice and issued the permit?

The bending over backwards to accommodate the dead at the expense of the living is indeed unbelievable! “Our lives end the day we become silent about things that really matter. And in the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends” (Martin Luther King). That is why the Nadur cemetery will deliver financially to the very, very few, in the name of the dead at the expense of the social, economic, and ecological environment. And those who will be laid to rest at the Nadur cemetery will haunt and curse the living.