The Malta Independent 5 March 2024, Tuesday
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Malta’s Taliban

Kevin Cassar Sunday, 26 November 2023, 09:24 Last update: about 4 months ago

On 2nd March 2001 the Taliban destroyed the priceless Buddhas of Bamiyan, 1,500 year-old monumental statues carved out of a cliff in a valley in central Afghanistan. The world watched in horror as the Taliban used anti-tank mines, anti-aircraft guns, artillery and dynamite to blow up the ancient treasures. UNESCO had written 36 letters to the Taliban urging them not to destroy the Buddhas. The Taliban ignored them.

Two decades later UNESCO wrote to the Maltese government’s representative urging Malta to protect the 5,000-year-old Neolithic temples of Ggantija.  Like the Taliban had done 20 years earlier, Malta’s Labour ignored UNESCO.

Ggantija Neolithic temples date back to 3600 to 2500 BC. They are the second oldest religious structure in the world.  They are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  They form part of a heritage that belongs to the whole human race.  Yet Labour’s Planning Authority couldn’t care less.  Like the Taliban, they defied UNESCO and simply approved the development of a massive block of flats consisting of 22 apartments and 20 basement garages next to the Ggantija world heritage site.

With seven votes for and one single vote against the Planning Authority approved the underground excavation for the development of 20 basement garages within 157 metres of the historical site.  They approved the building of 22 apartments, disregarding the impact of the development on the surrounding landscape next to the temples.  Only the NGO representative Romano Cassar voted against the development.

UNESCO had warned Malta’s permanent delegate that the operational guidelines mandated that a heritage impact assessment be carried out before any development in the area could be considered. The Superintendent of Cultural Heritage and the National Heritage technical committee both agreed on the need for a heritage impact assessment. But the Planning Authority went ahead and decided to grant a permit without it. That’s the Planning Authority’s role - to make sure developers are taken care of and allowed to make hay while the sun shines.

And that’s exactly what happened here. The applicants falsely claimed that the site of proposed development was outside the buffer zone around the historic temples. The Times of Malta fact checked the applicants’ claims.  They were false.  The site of development is well within the buffer zone established in 2015. But Labour’s mouthpiece, TVM perpetrated that lie.

Unbelievably the case officer at the Planning Authority hearing took the side of the developers.  He insisted that the site for the planned development lay outside the buffer zone. How is it possible that a case officer could get this wrong? The Times easily established that the planned development site was well within the buffer zone.  Surely the case officer could not have got this wrong.

Based on that false claim, the Planning Authority was able to justify its approval. They ignored hundreds of objections.  They ignored the Superintendent of Cultural Heritage. They ignored the National Heritage Technical Committee. And they ignored UNESCO.

In August of this year, Prime Minister Robert Abela told his ONE interviewer “I find myself asking ‘why do developers submit applications that are total non-starters?’”. The answer is simple.  Because his Planning Authority will approve developments even within the buffer zone of priceless world heritage sites.   “I am pleased to see Labour led councils stand up to developers whose projects would damage local communities,” Abela declared.  This project damages the whole country.  It damages the world’s heritage. And yet the Planning Authority approves the wanton destruction.

“Applications that are not in line with planning policies should not even be submitted,” Robert Abela warned.  He called developers cowboys.  And here we are, defying UNESCO to allow the pathetic development of more garages and more flats just next to one of our oldest and most precious treasures.

Now the Maltese national committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites has appealed directly to that same Robert Abela to take a public stand on the matter.  They warned him about the damage being done, not only to Malta’s heritage, but to its reputation. They pointed out that the permit for development was issued on false grounds.  They insisted that a heritage impact assessment was the mere basic requirement before the application should even have been considered.

Robert Abela has remained silent. He’s not reacted, he hasn’t bothered to respond. Is anybody surprised? This is the man who on the eve of the general election dined with Joseph Portelli (https://theshiftnews.com/2022/03/14/joseph-portelli-organises-exclusive-dinner-for-pm-to-meet-gozitan-contractors-ahead-of-fundraiser/) and his mates and then justified his shamelessness by claiming that he meets everybody. Robert Abela isn’t bothered about world heritage sites.  He’s only interested in promoting the financial interests of his party’s financial backers. What filthy deal did Robert Abela strike with Joseph Portelli and his friends that night?

Abela found time to call on Mosta’s councillors to “continue to listen to the residents” over the planned uprooting of trees. But didn’t utter a word about Ggantija. There are no developers behind the massacre of Mosta’s trees. So Abela can safely speak up to save them.

Daphne Caruana Galizia, just months before her assassination, had sussed Robert Abela out. She condemned his sense of entitlement and arrogance, his sheer ungracious bad manners, greed and avarice. “He may not look like a bogan,” she wrote “but that’s exactly what he is”. Daphne was right.

When the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas, the National Geographic asked “Will history repeat itself?”. They’ve got their answer now.

UNESCO Director General Koichiro Matsuura commented that “Crimes against culture must not go unpunished….the international community must not remain passive, it must not tolerate crimes against cultural assets.  UNESCO will respond with appropriate measures”.

Let us hope UNESCO keeps its word.

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