Just lip service and cold feet

                                             published Saturday August 13, 2011

The year 2012 marks the 20th anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit held in June 1992. The Rio Earth Summit itself was held on the 20th anniversary of the 1972 UN Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, which is credited with introducing the environment in the contemporary political lexicon.

In fact, it was as a result of the Stockholm conference that various countries started appointing an environment minister. In 1976, in Malta, Dom Mintoff appointed Vincent Moran as Minister for Health and the Environment. The emphasis at that stage was environmental health. His primary environmental responsibilities being street cleaning, refuse collection and the management of landfills in addition to minor responsibilities on air quality. The serious stuff came later when Daniel Micallef was appointed Minister for Education and the Environment in 1986.

In 1992, the international community met in Rio de Janeiro to discuss the conflicts between development and the environment. This was brought to the fore by the 1987 UN report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, headed by former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. The report, entitled Our Common Future, referred to as the Brundtland report, is generally remembered for its definition of sustainable development. Development was defined as sustainable if, in ensuring that the needs of present generations are met, it did not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

The 1992 Rio Earth Summit produced the Rio Declaration on the Environment, the Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Framework Convention on Biodiversity, the Statement of Forest Principles and Agenda 21. Each one of these assumed a life of its own, addressing various issues.

I think it is essential to focus on the relevance of Agenda 21, which was, way back in 1992, drafted to serve as a global action plan for the 21st century.

Agenda 21 emphasises that sustainable development is not spearheaded by economics. It does not seek to balance profits with other considerations. Based on respect for people and the planet in the carrying out of our activities, it links the environment with social and economic policy.

It is indeed regrettable that some countries, Malta included, loudly proclaim adherence to the objectives of Rio 1992 yet fail miserably in translating them into the requirements of everyday life.

It is necessary to reiterate that Malta, through its present government, has paid lip service to issues of sustainable development. The Environment Protection Act of 2001, now in the process of being superseded, had established a National Commission for Sustainable Development headed by the Prime Minister. This was tasked with the preparation of a National Strategy for Sustainable Development, which was finalised and approved by the commission in December 2006. It was presented to Cabinet, which approved it in the weeks prior to the March 2008 election.

Soon after the 2008 election, during Parliament’s first session on May 10, 2008, Malta’s President proclaimed on behalf of the government that its policies will be underpinned by adherence to the principles of sustainable development. We were then told that when formulating decisions today serious consideration would be given to their impact on the generations of tomorrow.

I doubt whether there was ever any intention to implement such a declaration. I am informed that the National Commission for Sustainable Development, which, in terms of the Environment Protection Act, is still entrusted with the implementation of the National Sustainable Development Strategy, has not met since December 2006. Consequently, the procedures laid down in section 5 of the strategy as a result of which the different ministries had 18 months to prepare and commence the implementation of an action plan based on the strategy in their areas of competence were transformed into a dead letter.

The government has now gone one step further. It is formulating a National Environment Policy. This initiative has been undertaken by the same ministry responsible for issues of sustainable development – the Office of the Prime Minister.

From what is known on the contents of this policy it substantially duplicates the areas addressed by the National Sustainability Strategy. Consequently, it is discharging down the drains four years of discussions with civil society that had given the strategy its shape and content. It is clear that on the issue of sustainable development this government is very rich in rhetoric but when it comes to implementation it gets cold feet. It’s all talk, meetings, documents and consultations. And when a document is finally produced it is back to the drawing board to start the process for another one! This is lip service at its worst.

While the international community meeting in Rio in 2012 will take stock of its modest achievements in implementing the conclusions of Rio 1992 and its follow-up meetings, including those of Johannesburg in 2002, in Malta we are still awaiting a lethargic government to take the first steps.


Other posts on sustainable development during the past 12 months

2011, July 23                Living on Ecological Credit.

2011, June 5                 Government’s Environment Policy is Beyond Repair.

2011, March 5              Small is Beautiful in Water Policy.

2011, January 22        Beyond the  Rhetorical declarations.

2010, October 23        Time to realign actions with words.

2010, October 17        Reflections on an Environment Policy.

2010, October 3          AD on Government’s Environment policy.

2010, September 17  Lejn Politika tal-Ambjent.

2010, September 4     Environment Policy and the Budget.

2010, August 14          Thoughts for an Environmental Policy.

2010, August 2            Bis-serjeta ? Il-Politika Nazzjonali dwar l-Ambjent.

The two faces of Janus

In Roman mythology the god Janus was depicted as having a head with two faces. One looking eastwards and the other westwards. One symbolically looking into the future  and the other into the past.  

Unfortunately it is not Janus who overlooks the entrance to the Ministry for the Environment in Valletta. Janus could symbolically motivate environmental policy through learning through past mistakes and applying the lessons learnt into the future.  Janus could however symbolise the two political faces of government. One compatible with its declarations and rhetoric. The other with its actions.

Consider this government’s commitments in favour of sustainable development. In May 2008 the Head of State reading the speech from the throne on behalf of Gonzipn promised  one and all that :

The government’s plans and actions are to be underpinned by the notion of sustainable development of the economy, of society and of the environment. When making decisions today, serious consideration will be given to the generations of tomorrow.

Sustainable development has three main dimensions – economic, social and environmental. Our challenge is to ensure continuous economic development, promoted by education, social development, with particular attention to environmental protection.  When we evaluate our activities in view of these three inter-related dimensions, we would be placing every person at the heart of the Government’s actions.”

The member of Cabinet responsible for issues of sustainable development is the Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi. Dr Gonzi’s commitment towards sustainable development is not to be gauged by his rhetoric but through his actions. He excels in rhetoric but he fails miserably in implementation.

The Commission for Sustainable Development set up in terms of the Environment Protection Act has not met for almost five years, since December 2006. Its Chairman is Dr Gonzi. During its last meeting it had approved the final version of the National Sustainable Development Strategy, which it then submitted to Cabinet for approval. The main function of the commission now is to oversee the implementation of the Sustainable Development Strategy for the Maltese Islands, approved by Cabinet prior to the March 2008 election and having a 10-year lifespan (2007-2016). The strategy is half way past its lifespan and the process for its implementation is nowhere in sight.

This fact on its own speaks volumes as to government’s strategy. The National Sustainable Development Strategy was drafted after years of discussions with civil society. The Commission which in terms of the Environment Protection Act had to be chaired by the Prime Minister hardly ever met in the presence of Dr Gonzi. He delegated his responsibilities to others. When the National Sustainable Development Strategy was finalised government ignored it and commenced the formulation of another document dealing with a National Environment Policy. The information available to date about this National Environment Policy is substantially a duplication of what’s been said and written on the Sustainable Development strategy.

All this leads to one conclusion. The current government is primarily interested in talking about sustainable development and environmental issues. But when the time comes for implementation it goes back to square one. More talk and more documents.

Well it seems that the Minster for the Environment, Dr Lawrence Gonzi, needs some images of Janus at his office. It would remind him constantly that in the long run having two faces on the same head is only suited to mythology.      

 Published Sunday 7th August 2011

The Independent on Sunday – Environment Supplement


More Voodoo Planning

The proposed Mepa legislation fails to address basic issues bedevilling land use planning and environment protection. It is basically a consolidation of current legislation with some amendments. Important provisions in the Environment Protection Act, such as reference to the National Commission for Sustainable Development, are being repealed. While acknowledging that they may crop up in other legislation, the government has not to date publicly indicated its intentions.

After almost two years of consultations I expected something quite different. There has been no attempt at ensuring that appointees to the Mepa board are at least conversant with planning and environmental issues. If past appointments are any indication of what to expect we will have more voodoo planners. Appointing one Mepa board member from an environmental NGO area of influence will not solve anything. We have been there before with the appointee resigning after a few weeks.

Appointment of architects to boards and commissions is no guarantee that Mepa will function within current policy and legislation. Censurable decisions have been taken by DCCs chaired by architects. Some resigned their posts as a result.

There will always be those who err. In addition to human error, some will err as a result of incompetence and others as a result of pressures applied. In the past, some members of the DCC and the Mepa board have taken up the practice of voodoo planning: discarding their role of applying policy, opting instead to create it.

This is the result of not being aware of their role and not being familiar with planning and environmental policy.

Voodoo planning is also a reaction to pressures applied or perceived in the so-called closed-door meetings. Mepa’s executive committee, for example, has developed the role of advising DCCs as to the manner of deciding particular applications. This unacceptable intrusion into the DCCs competence does not feature in the proposed legislation. It is to date left unregulated.

Through its Select Committee, Parliament should develop the role of a permanent monitor: a spotlight focused on Mepa. It should also have a role in screening the government’s nominees to the Mepa board and DCCs, which screening can be carried out through subjecting such nominees to public hearings. Such hearings can weed out most undesirable appointees. Those with a glaring conflict of interest and those whose only qualification is their political allegiance would be the first casualties. A system through which Parliament’s Select Committee screens potential appointees can also nudge the government into discarding the tradition as a result of which competent individuals not close to the government of the day are not considered for appointment.

MPs should not be able to decide specific planning or environmental applications. Hence, I query whether Parliament should continue appointing two of its members to sit as voting members of the Mepa board. MPs would fulfil their role as representatives of the community much better if they develop Parliament’s monitoring role. Parliaments in other jurisdictions function very effectively in this manner.

Up till 2002, the government was still considering the setting up of a separate authority dealing exclusively with the environment and had, in fact, commissioned and received draft legislation on the subject.

The issue of having two separate authorities, one dealing with land use planning and the other with environmental protection, is not one of principle. It is rather one of ensuring that the environment protection function is not stifled as has been done to date. The environment protection voice has been continuously suffocated, available resources withheld or diverted, with appointments to sensitive environment posts being dished out to persons whose competence and experience was in other fields, primarily land use planning. Coupled with the appointment of boards and commissions insensitive to environmental issues, these attitudes have led to the current state of affairs.

If the government persists in its policy of retaining the environment protection function within Mepa, the least it can do is to embark on recruiting qualified personnel at all levels, thereby reversing the accumulated negative legacy. This includes the need to appoint more members of the Mepa board equipped with a suitable knowledge of environmental protection issues.

A positive aspect of the proposed reform is that the government has re-dimensioned its role in forward planning. While rightly affirming that policy decisions are the role of the politician, Mepa’s role in policy formulation has been retained. In addition, the Ombudsman’s comments on fine-tuning of the consultation process as explained in his report dated April 2007, titled The Duty To Consult And The Right To Be Consulted, have been taken on board.

Land use planning and environmental protection will always be controversial. These are surely not the paths to popularity. Parliament needs to take a more active role as an overseer. While the government has a role in leading the way, Parliament has the duty to ensure that the country’s resources are used in a sustainable manner, holding the government to account in the process.

Greens deplore Government’s stand on Bluefin Tuna


AD, stated Chairperson Arnold Cassola, strongly deplores the government’s
stand against the EU’s proposal to halt for two years the exploitation of the
Bluefin Tuna to ensure that the species is not driven to extinction due to
unsustainable pressure. The population of the breeding tuna in 2007 was only a quarter of the level of that of 50 years ago, most of the decline occuring in recent years.

The Maltese Government’s opposition to the EU Commission proposal, added Carmel Cacopardo AD Spokesman on Sustainable Development and Local Government, not only shows a lack of an environmental commitment but also exposes the government’s willingness to back short term economic profit at the expense of natural resources.The livelihood of Maltese fishermen who use traditional fishing methods is being threatened by such behaviour.

On the basis of the precautionary principle established in International Fora
and enshrined in Malta’s Environment Protection Act, the Maltese Government should have supported the EU’s proposal thereby protecting blue fin tuna from the unscrupulous exploitation by large scale industrial fishing. There is no need to wait for more detailed scientific studies, concluded Carmel Cacopardo, to arrive to the obvious conclusion that unless there is an immediate halt to bluefin tuna exploitation this species will become extinct shortly.

Ralph Cassar