Taking back control

turtle dove

 

Throughout this Sunday morning the Electoral Commission will supervise the counting of the votes cast  in yesterday’s  spring hunting abrogative referendum. The first reliable projections of the result should be available at around  10.00am with a final result early in the afternoon.

Irrespective of the result, this is history in the making as, for the first time ever, Maltese voters will be directly taking a decision on environmental policy. They will decide whether spring hunting in the Maltese islands will be consigned to the history books.

This is the end of a two year journey that began in  April 2013 when the first steps were taken to form a broad-based anti-spring hunting Coalition of  environmental NGOs together with Alternattiva Demokratika-The Green Party in Malta. Initially, Alternattiva Demokratika’s initiative was met with scepticism: there was widespread fear of confronting the parliamentary political parties which had created the current spring hunting mess.

Constructive dialogue with both the Maltese authorities as well as with the EU Commission had failed to yield results, yet when push came to shove there was still considerable reluctance to think outside the box.  This mess could not be cleared by applying the same thinking that led to its creation. The spring hunting mess was created by successive governments that were held to ransom by the hunting lobby. There was only one solution: government was the problem so it could never be part of the solution – civil society had to take back control of the decision-making process to have order restored.

This was going to be a mammoth task. The fact that the abrogative referendum tool had never been used since its introduction in 1998 understandably added to the reluctance.

As late as 18 June 2013, some environmental NGOs were still hoping that the Maltese Government, or the EU Commission itself, would act in a reasonable manner and stop spring hunting.  In fact, reports in the press at that time were speculating on then EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik initiating an inquiry into spring hunting in Malta.

Early in the day, few people were conscious of the empowerment potential of the abrogative referendum. Almost none of the eNGOs was aware that the abrogative referendum process is independent  of government or Parliament.  Some eNGOs  supported the initiative almost immediately but it was an uphill struggle to convince others, taking weeks and a great deal of patience until practically all eNGOs were on board.

The collection of signatures to initiate the process for calling this abrogative referendum was launched on 10 August 2013 at Il-Buskett. Initially the uptake was very slow, as voters took some time to understand that this was no ordinary petition.

Then, on 23 and 24 October 2013, one of the worst massacres of wild birds in Malta took place. It is best described in a Birdlife Press release which stated  as follows :

“Despite the presence of six BirdLife Malta teams and as many ALE units in the Buskett area this morning at least one Booted Eagle, Ajkla tal-Kalzetti, was shot down inside Buskett Gardens as it left its roost this morning. Several others, including Short-toed and Booted Eagles, were shot at and many more were seen carrying injuries after last night’s shooting spree by hunters in Dingli, Buskett, Girgenti, Siġġiewi and Zebbuġ.

This morning’s second confirmed victim was a Short-toed Eagle, Ajkla Bajda, shot down in Gozo.

The shootings follow what can only be described as a massacre yesterday evening, after more than 50 eagles were seen by birdwatchers counting passing migrating birds in their regular watch-point above the wooded valley of Buskett. At least 10 eagles are known to have been shot down and many more targeted by dozens of hunters in locations around Buskett. Several as yet unconfirmed reports were also received from members of the public who saw eagles and other large birds of prey being shot at and shot down.”

This marked the turning point in signature collection as within ten days of the massacre of these eagles the required number of signatures had been received . The verification process was commenced immediately and the petition was finalised for submission to the Electoral Commission.

By July 2014, the Electoral Commission had concluded its vetting of the signatures submitted and six months later, in January this year, the Constitutional Court threw out the hunters’ objections.

For the past three months we have been actively campaigning to drive the message home: spring is the time when birds are on the way to their breeding grounds. They need to be protected. This message has been conveyed through the different spokesman and women ambassadors who, together with hundreds of volunteers, have done wonders to ensure that practically every voter is aware the he or she has the power to take a decision in order to clean up the mess which Parliament and the government have created over the years.

Today we will know what the decision is.  Saving any last minute surprises, it is clear that after today’s result Maltese civil society will cherish its newly discovered empowerment. Tomorrow, Monday, will not be just the start of a new week.  Hopefully, it be the start of a new era of ever-vigilant NGOs, now armed with the knowledge that they can hold government to account for inadequate legislation whenever they consider that this is necessary.

The abrogative referendum is the tool through which civil society can bring government to order. Today’s result will just confirm whether it can make use of it.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 11 April 2015

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Towards a Circular Economy

circular economy

In a recent interview EU Environment Commissioner Januz Potočnik stated that the European Union is en route to the circular economy. A step which he described as being essential in ensuring the EU’s competitiveness.

The circular economy, in contrast to the linear economy is one which respects nature and seeks to utilise the earth’s resources in a sustainable manner.

The linear economy is based on a take-make-waste model, extracting raw materials from the earth and dumping the resulting waste after use.  This is a cradle to grave path for raw materials. The EU’s waste management strategy in conjunction with its Roadmap to a Resources Efficient Europe seeks to decouple the generation of waste from economic growth thus nudging the EU towards a new path: one of green growth.

This is also the basic philosophy of the Waste Management Strategy proposed by the Environment Ministry in Malta and currently subject to public consultation.

Malta’s proposed Waste Management Strategy advocates a policy of waste minimisation, that is, we must make an effort to avoid use of resources whenever possible. In addition it then advocates recycling the waste which is generated. This is done by tackling different waste streams in a manner most appropriate to the materials used in that specific stream. 2050 is the Malta target for achieving a Zero Waste society. An achievable target only if we get down to business immediately.

Waste separation is  an essential prerequisite in order to ensure that effective recycling takes place.   As a result of recycling, the waste from a specific product or process feeds a separate process. This is the manner in which nature functions. Have you ever noted how a tree sheds its leaves? How these leaves slowly decompose and nourish the soil, micro-organisms, insects and plants and actually feed the surrounding eco-system?

We have a lot to learn from nature. Biomimicry, imitating nature, is in fact a branch of study which seeks to apply nature’s lessons to solve many modern day problems. Discarding our throwaway attitudes is one such basic lesson.

Modern manufacturing is characterised by a cradle to grave design. It is the result of a society accustomed to throw away products once their useful life ends.

Applying nature’s lessons hence signifies manufacturing products whose life cycle is no longer one which leads from the cradle (production) to their grave (disposal). Instead of being discarded at the end of its useful life a product gives birth to something else through recycling. Just like nature does when dealing with the tree’s leaves. The cradle to grave cycle needs to be transformed into a cradle to cradle cycle.

This obviously has an impact on the manner in which products are designed.  In their  book  Cradle to Cradle, remaking the way we make things, American Architect William McDonough and German Chemist Michael Braungart explain that life cycle thinking, instead of filtering out the undesirable substances and toxins in a product at the end of the manufacturing process filter them out at the beginning, that is on the drawing board.

A waste management strategy which is based on a resource management approach is linked to these long term aims. It is a long process but one which is finally rewarding.

By separating our waste we facilitate its recycling. When recycling takes place we reduce the take-up of the earth’s resources and consequently avoid using the energy required to extract more resources from the earth.

All this shifts the focus from economic growth linked to activities which harm our surroundings to economic activity which enhances them. This leads to the creation of  green jobs.  It shifts our thinking to one which links prosperity with environment protection.

Resource efficiency is at the core of Europe’s 2020 strategy. It does not only mean doing more with less, that is, being eco-efficient. It requires also being eco-effective, that is ensuring that the consideration of long term impacts features in all our decisions. That means designing the present with the future in mind.

A waste management policy based on resource efficiency is an essential tool in this respect. This is just one example. Plenty of other examples can be found in appropriate policies to manage our water resources, our land use, our heritage.

All this leads back to the circular economy which is not just a green way of organising our economy.  It is a different way of life. A way of life which is not antagonistic to our surroundings but one which is in harmony with them.

This is what sustainable development is all about. It seeks to redimension the manner we think.. Having just one Earth we must realise that we cannot have another try if we succeed in ruining the present one.  There is no Plan B.

The circular economy is an adequate tool which can set us back on track.

published in The Times, Saturday November 2, 2013

Within limits

the earth

The EU Commission has just published a draft of its Seventh Environmental Action Programme (7th EAP) covering up to 2020 which draft is entitled “Living well, within the limits of our planet”.

The draft which is open for public consultation aims “to step up the contribution of environment policy to the transition towards a resource-efficient, low-carbon economy in which natural capital is protected and enhanced, and the health and well-being of citizens is safeguarded.”

It is a programme which is based on the principle of subsidiarity meaning that decisions and action are to be taken as close as possible to those impacted. Some at the level of Member States, others at an EU level.

This draft EAP is based on three basic principles, namely: the polluter pays principle, the precautionary principle and the principle of rectification of pollution at source.

Its objectives are nine in number and include the protection of natural capital, resource efficiency, the attainment of a competitive low-carbon econony, enhancing the sustainability of the EU’s cities and  increasing the EU’s effectiveness in confronting regional and global environmental challenges.

Launching the draft EAP Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik said: “The new Action Programme sets out the path for Europe to become a place where people live in a safe and healthy natural environment, where economic progress is based on a sustainable, green economy and where ecological resilience has been achieved.”

Climate Action Commissioner Connie Hedegaard said: “We cannot wait until the economic crisis is over before we tackle the resources, environmental and climate crises. We must address all these at the same time and so include climate and environmental concerns into all our policies. This strategy gives businesses and politicians the long-term view we very much need for making the transition to a sustainable, low-carbon society in Europe.”

The basic message and direction of the 7th EAP are contained in its title: ensuring an adequate standard of living (living well) but at the same time being conscious that there are limits to the resources available.

All our actions must be within “the limits of our planet”.  As I have repeatedly stated on this blog, examining our policies in Malta will reveal that we are still off target in many areas.  An environmental consciousness is developing at at fast rate, but unfortunately this is not matched with appropriate government action.

originally published at di-ve.com on 7 December 2012