Saturday, 14 June 2008

Gozo - Ecological island

Sabine Cassar-Alpert was commissioned by The Times to report the event when Gisela Kallenbach (Green MEP) took part in the Civil Forum organised by the EU Office Valletta regarding 'Gozo as an ecological island.

I thought to publish in full this feature which was published on the Times of Malta, since sometimes, some features are not accessible on-line after some weeks. And I think that the write-up by Sabine is a very good one. The photos that goes with this article are brought to us by courtesy of the Author herself. Here it goes:

Stronger than expected, according to Julian Vassallo, was the response from Gozitan residents to an invitation to discuss Gozo as an ecological island, the first of a series of civil fora to be organised by the European Parliament Valletta Office this year.

Around 100 attendees flocked to Ta' Mena Estate, an agro-tourism site located at Marsalforn Valley, to listen to keynote speaker Gisela Kallenbach, a German member of the European Parliament from the Greens/European Free Alliance Group, and to air their opinions about the requirements for making their island a better place to live in. However, discounting officials of various constituted bodies and members of Gozo's expatriate community, who formed a sizeable part of the audience, it was obvious that only a handful of native Gozitan residents were present. Dr Vassallo, head of the EP Valletta Office, explained that the citizens' fora, rather than being a series of lectures, had the purpose of collecting ideas from people who were directly affected by legislation and the planning of new projects.

Ms Kallenbach, who is currently a member of the European Parliament's committee on regional development, said that the committee had observed a much higher success rate of projects if citizens were involved in the decision-making process. A new strategy for distribution of EU funds was to demand an integrated approach that would see all authorities of a region collaborating on sectoral projects. Moreover, partnerships were encouraged between authorities and citizens, who often came up with more creative and innovative ideas.

Ms Kallenbach thanked Alternattiva Demokratika for inviting her to Gozo and for an extensive tour around the island. "You showed me the bright and the dark sides," she said. It had surprised her that the new road to San Lawrenz did not include a bicycle lane, and to see so many empty houses as well as new and abandoned construction sites. "But on the whole, from what I have seen, I really believe that Gozo is a unique place, it has potential for becoming an ecological island."

Before opening the discussion to the floor, hydrologist Marco Cremona outlined the importance of sustainable tourism and utilisation of renewable energy. The pressure on resources such as water was critical. If normally a person consumed an average of 70 to 80 litres per day, for each tourist in a 5-star hotel this figure was inflated to up to 300 litres. More groundwater was being extracted than input, resulting in the salination of aquifers. Even one of the islands' most obvious raw materials, limestone, was limited. If construction continued at its current rate, this resource would be used up in 50 years' time and would then have to be imported. So would it not be sensible to utilise currently-empty houses, which made up 30 per cent of all dwellings?

Mr Cremona gave the example of the small Danish island of Samso, which took part in ‒ and won ‒ a national contest for offshore islands to come up with an ecological master plan to become entirely energy-sustainable. Its 1,500 inhabitants worked together and devised a successful plan, which ultimately stimulated the economy and afforded the population an improved quality of life and a clean environment.

Ultimately it was up to the Gozitans to decide whether an ecological island was what they wanted. Were they prepared to limit the amount of tourists? Would all farmers accept organic farming, which was imperative for an ecological island? What about accessibility of walkways in the countryside, which was at present problematic when tourists met hunters?

Participation in the ensuing debate was lively and peppered with criticism, yet notably amic-able. Joe Spiteri, one of the owners of Ta' Mena Estate and responsible for its agricultural aspect, fully embraces the organic farming concept. But he pointed out that establishing an organic farm in Gozo was actually impossible. Regulations stipulate a minimum distance of five miles between organic and other farms, in order to eliminate the risk of contamination. This was unworkable on an island the size of Gozo, unless all farms were organic. Mr Spiteri also deplored the bureaucratic formalities which all but hindered anyone who wanted to establish an organic farm; he had waited for two years for a permit to construct a reservoir for the collection of rainwater.

One gentleman angrily remarked that the "integrated approach", which Ms Kallenbach had mentioned, was not practised in Gozo. "What about Ħondoq?" he asked "80 per cent voted against, but the result is ignored!"

With regard to lack of water, which was a problem affecting the entire Mediterranean, Arnold Cassola remarked that the water treatment plant had been chosen without taking agriculture into consideration; its water cannot be used for farming. He also pointed out that families had to have two cars because the existing public transport provided no alternative.

Betty Berry, an English resident in Gozo for 32 years, said she still loved the island, but the air quality had deteriorated. It was an ordeal to visit Victoria in the mornings, due to traffic jams and massive, overloaded construction trucks that were way too large for the island. Were they ever checked for their axle weights?

An Australian gentleman, who together with his wife had chosen Gozo as location to set up a high-tech business after travelling to more than 30 countries all over the world, had words of praise for the support they had received from the local authorities. He marvels at the idea of Smart City, but would like to see it extended to Gozo, which was perfect for IT-related business, as no more than computers and internet access were needed.

In closing, Ms Kallenbach reiterated that it was a good idea to bring people together and let them encourage one another by working together. She expressed her hope that this was a start and not a one-time event.Following the discussion, all guests were treated to tasty samples of Ta' Mena's organically grown food and wine ‒ a practical approach to teaching the difference!

No comments: