Gozo, the golden egg - 1
"Why kill the goose that lays the golden egg?" Astrid Vella, asked Dr Francis Zammit Dimech, Minister for Culture and Tourism. She's spokesperson for Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar (Together for a Better Environment, www.ambjentahjar.org) the organisation of environmental activists.
His was the final presentation at Heritage Malta's third International Conference, entitled "Island Fragility and Cultural Resources". The minister's speech was pretty standard stuff: how important Malta's heritage is; how much Gozo has to offer; and how we need to strike a balance between cultural resources and economic development.
As for golden eggs, Ms Vella explained that, often through MEPA, decisions are made that would spoil some part of the country. Malta and Gozo are the geese, as she describes the fairy tale, and the golden egg is the islands' heritage that attracts tourists.
She continued: "While Government is sinking record amounts of funds into restoring its monuments, speaker after speaker today stressed that culture is more than churches and museums, it is the whole context of the country. Many spoke about the authenticity and distinctiveness of Gozo. Continue along the current path, overdevelop, overbuild and ...distinctiveness is gone." Because of Government's recent rationalisation scheme, more of Gozo's lands are being tossed to the winds of speculation.
"Why," she asked, "is Government killing the goose that lays the golden egg by backing projects like that proposed for Hondoq ir-Rummien in Qala? Both the Minister for Gozo and the Prime Minister have announced their support for it and yet permits from MEPA have not been approved or issued."
The minister replied that it is actually MEPA, the independent planning agency, which makes such decisions. Moreover, no application should be denied automatically, he said, before he hurriedly left the room.
It's compelling, this issue of cultural preservation vs. development - of protecting history at the sacrifice of new building - because in a sense it's a clash of cultures. Limited space overwhelmed by cultural riches. But also, as the conferees heard, cultural appreciation is being overwhelmed by pressure to build bigger buildings, higher towers, marinas... and pave more roads.
The problem for an island nation, the reason we are considered "fragile", is that very soon the builders run out of land to build on. Then what? Build over top of historic sites? Tear them down? Bulldoze them out of the way? These were some questions this conference dealt with.
Appeal of Hondoq's abandoned quarry
Not far from Nadur and Ramla Bay, a developer looked at an abandoned quarry with a beach and small dock below Qala where people go to swim and barbecue. The water is pristine, the beach is open and the land was owned by the Augustinian order in Malta. The water could be a yacht marina and the quarry, a five-star hotel. He made the order an offer, which they accepted. They agreed that if it is ever permitted to build on the site, he'd pay them more.
The architect responsible for Portomaso and Cottonera drew up a Project Development Statement and four years ago, in 2002, they submitted it to MEPA.
Meetings and challenges and protests followed. The people of Qala united to oppose this project. It deprived them of their beach; exposed them to years of construction-related inconvenience; and essentially diminished their quality of life. Who needed that? Not the people of Qala. In a referendum, more than 85 per cent of them voted No.
Four years passed and, probably encouraged by the government's "rationalisation scheme", the Project Development Statement for the "Qala Creek Yacht Marina and Tourist Complex" has resurfaced. Same plans, same players and the same disregard for community concerns.
It's not just Qala that will be affected. All of Gozo and in some instances, Comino, will suffer from the altered coastline, the heavy yacht traffic and a disproportionate number of day trippers who, instead of touring Gozo, will more likely swim or stay on board their vessels and party.
The project's overarching goal is: "The enhancement of the Maltese Islands' objective to act as an international hub for yachting and marine activities in the Mediterranean Sea. The development of the location as a destination port where yachts and boats can anchor in order to enjoy day/short-stay trips."
Gozo will suffer the ripple effect. There's no stated intention to promote the spirit, heritage or culture of Gozo. Not surprisingly, people from other parts of the island are adding their support to the Phase II group of community activists in Qala. See their Website www.soshondoq.
"Hondoq Needs You" reads their flyer in Maltese. Distributed by SOS Movement leader Paul Buttigieg at the Heritage Malta conference, he thrust one into the hand of Minister Zammit Dimech as the minister was rushing out.
The aim of the movement is to rehabilitate the disused quarry into a national park where everyone can enjoy the beauty of nature as was previously listed in the Gozo Local Plan.
In August, the Gozo and Comino Local Plan was approved and announcement flyers recently were distributed to local homes. Under normal circumstances, that pubic action would ensure that the Qala Creek project would be tossed out, denied. But this project calls for eternal vigilence.
A few weeks ago, a luxury passenger yacht carrying 110 people on her maiden trip stopped for half a day near Dwerja. Passengers were entertained by folklore displays - offered with the compliments of the Ministry for Gozo in collaboration with the Gozo Culture Department and the MTA and served traditional food, an initiative organised by the Gozo Ministry Secretariat ...not a good sign for the SOS Hondoq Movement.
Moreover, The Times reported that these yacht owners believe Gozo has potential as a marina day stop for the smaller cruise ships. If an investment is made in Gozo's cruise infrastructure, they say, it will not be too long before Gozo will start attracting numerous ships just as the Greek island of Santorini does. With that comes traffic, pollution and difficult swimming conditions.
To be concluded