The Malta Independent 14 December 2017, Thursday

Pembroke and the environment

Paul P. Borg Sunday, 6 August 2017, 08:38 Last update: about 5 months ago

Many decades ago, buildings mushroomed uncontrollably all over this tiny island of ours as land, rock, coast, valleys and soil were shrewdly and insensitively equated to greed and money and no longer to subsistence, saqwi, valleys, xagħri and open spaces. Few people understood what was going on; initially, protests were non-existent, then scant and sporadic. But despite eventual environmentalists' remonstrations, the virgin zones still dwindled. Whole valleys vanished; beautiful sites were literally gnawed into concrete mix aggregate and made way for new estates of villas - and pools next to the seaside!

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The coastline was handed over to people who had money and/or were in the know. Unfortunately, in time, environmental issues became political hot potatoes used for political agendas. The great loss to the virgin environment proceeded steadily, notwithstanding official plans and reports.

I would like to believe that attitudes appear to have changed and that man has apparently finally learnt that his virgin land must remain virgin land. The authorities have declared that virgin land is priceless and now we must act bravely so that virgin land actually remains virgin land.

The new school

The green light is being sought to build a new Chiswick School adjacent to the state school at Pembroke. It is always of very great concern whenever a priceless open garigue is swallowed forever, for whatever reason. I am aware that land can be used for housing projects or schools if there is the need, but we have to be more than sure that there is no other site that can be considered where damage to the environment will be less and no pure earth, virgin garigue, unspoilt land, is destroyed.

The built footprint is always increasing: in 2006, the government very unwisely legislated to drastically reduce the ODZ boundary. Incredibly, we still suffer the negative consequences of that rash and foolish decision. We continue to live in an overpopulated, overbuilt country and we simply cannot afford to eradicate more open garigue even if, paradoxically, we live on a tiny rock where constructions seem to be the main industrial activity that oils our economy.

Concern is accentuated as this new Chiswick School building is - incredibly - planned across the road from an ODZ! If it has been decided that we need to increase the number of private schools, let us do it if we must, if there is such dire need. If the number of existing private schools is not enough, by all means let us increase them. But please, please, not at the cost of giving up our garigue and maquis, wild thyme and carob trees and virgin land full of indigenous flora and fauna. Please, please.

Sadly, readers may not remember the useless hue and cry raised some three decades ago when other private schools were built on other tracts of priceless open land which was not fully appreciated at the time. We have all forgotten the incredible valley views lost, and valuable open spaces that vanished, the natural and cultural heritage that went down the drain forever then. 

The school Chiswick wants to construct on virgin land at Pembroke, reminds me also of a fish-packaging factory built on the garigue across the road from a protected virgin zone at Selmun, Mellieħa several years ago. I remember protesting strongly against this factory and sought to have on board other environmentalists and NGOs, who had hitherto been so strangely silent, to prevent a site of traditional agricultural beauty being blatantly raped and permanently denigrated. Of course I was not successful at all, as many environmentalists conveniently kept their mouths tightly shut. Even talking to then Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi himself proved unfortunately futile in my case. For some reason, Selmun was then not as fortunate as Pembroke is now with so many people voicing their concern about the proposed Chiswick School. Those were unforgettable days for me sounding my solitary voice, strange telephone calls, judicial letters and what not for protesting persistently and publicly against the introduction of industry on garigues! But, sadly, the fish factory construction went on unhindered. 

Pembroke is blessed by beautiful garigues leading to the sea and we must protect that natural environment. It is an open space that must not be nibbled, because it will not be many years before the actual coast is reached as has happened so often all over Malta. We are still in time to prevent all this from ruining yet another coastline town with such a unique open space. We have to stop equating our remaining garigues, land or soil to other reasons especially to projects that could be sited elsewhere after all.

More clouds on the horizon

Furthermore, Pembroke seems to be plagued by yet another looming disaster. Although I believe that high-rise towers are not that incongruent where the environment is already built up with other towers, I do believe that adding multi-storeys indiscriminately to existing Pembroke buildings will ruin the lower storey profile of a town street. We have to be careful to check another chaotic situation as had happened in the past. Another technocentric spree has been creeping into many town streets. It appears that it is now Pembroke's turn. We must learn from past mistakes to prevent another hotchpotch defiled by inconsiderate, crammed constructions ruining the potential harmony and beauty of a modern and unique coastal town.

The unprecedented economic well-being of our country, and the undeniable feel-good factor, are not due to coincidence but due to a government that can plan wisely, can listen patiently and decide conscientiously, and has a clear vision of the future. Indeed, the government did not keep rolling by smilingly with plans at Żonqor as happened at the Selmun fish factory in Mellieħa where entrepreneurs and authorities simply ignored the environment. New plans were drawn to save natural spaces at Żonqor and substantially reduce the building footprint. The AUM at Żonqor shows that there is a new, reasonable attitude that hopefully will prevail at Pembroke. That is why I feel that the development of Pembroke, which has the characteristics of a beautiful, modern, coastal town in the making, will be understood, felt, planned, and cherished. Pembroke's natural footprint must not shrink. Other environmental and cultural features that place Pembroke firmly in the context of our national history must be studied, scrutinised, developed properly and their benefits well planned. Its present streets must be saved from architectural dissonance of style and harmony that has plagued and ruined other habitats.

We have in our own times tried to stop depending directly on Mother Nature for our livelihood, but we still need to respect her. I am confident that the Authorities will not repeat unfortunate mistakes of the past. The natural, orderly environment belongs to us all, even to a faceless posterity. Our descendants will hate us for what we have failed to preserve for them. We have to start fully loving and appreciating the soul of our windy garigues and rugged cliffs, terraced fields and rocky coasts. We have already destroyed other coastal regions. A little walk through some coastal towns explains why more care must be taken to save nature and order at Pembroke. We are still in time. Please, please, Chiswick educators, reflect better on your new school.

My friend the poet

Whenever a stretch of virgin land is destroyed, whenever we give less importance to our shrivelling natural environment and give more importance to buildings, economy, social housing, commerce, religion, education, electoral proposals, financial gain, entrepreneurship, industry, infrastructure and whatever other reasons however vital they may be, I cannot help remembering the late Poet Ġorġ Pisani who I used to visit frequently.

I always stopped by the window behind which he used to sit, either writing poetry, or reading or just watching humanity go by and reflecting on his long years of activity in society. Pisani was passionate about his environment, he could humanise a street, a hillock, a dry rubble wall. He narrated endless stories and historical incidents associated with a particular spot. How I loved talking to him! I appreciated so much his linking of the natural environment with history and archaeology, tradition with culture, religion, geography... His knowledge of the environment resulted in a deeper sentiment that I call love, pure love of Mother Nature as should be manifested by the modern educated man relating to his immediate environment. 

This is what my friend the poet once told me; he cried as he spoke these words, and I want to share them with as many people as possible:

"We have no mountains and we have no rivers as other countries have; we have very little in our small country, it is so small... But this is what we have. This is what God has endowed on Malta, not much, but this is ours. Let us take proper care of it, let us love it..."

 

 


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