Founder and Chairperson of Futur Ambjent Wiehed Claire Bonello sat down with Kevin Schembri Orland to discuss the recently set up NGO, and its aims of environmental advocacy. She highlighted the power held by the PA, indeed saying that it has too much power, while also citing some major issues in Malta today.
What is the aim of Futur Ambjent Wiehed?
It is a very focused and lean NGO. We don’t engage in activities or anything like that, and are focussed on environmental advocacy and offering professional help to people as well as environmental ENGOs when it comes to planning and environmental issues.
What kind of help?
Legal, scientific and architectural help. Nowadays, environmental and planning issues require a high level of professionalism and technical in-depth analysis which could be problematic for an objector, environmentalist or NGOs. This is a lacuna we are trying to tackle.
Before, maybe ten years ago or so, it might have been a case of citizens’ power, where citizens would band together and draw up objections as they felt was appropriate, where they would simply refer to the concepts of intensification of use etc. Nowadays that doesn’t work, it doesn’t leave the mark. Unfortunately everyday citizens are faced with very technical reports justifying all sorts of environmental travesties – traffic impact assessments, air quality assessments – they are faced with this barrage of information which is very technical and complicated. Unfortunately it is a lot.
In one case regarding a high-rise building for example, there was one study which took up four large boxes. It can be overwhelming. In another case there is a pile of documents as high as I am. Even picking them up required effort.
Has your NGO been registered yet?
We are in the process of registering. The statute is there. As an NGO it exists as it does not start existing when one registers it. You register it in order to benefit from funds and things like that.
Have you taken any cases yet?
To date, we have objected to several individual cases. But we are going a step further. We are in contact with groups of citizens and we are considering going a step further and filing a breach of environmental human rights case on a particular environmental issue.
Could you give any information as to what this issue is?
At the moment no, but it will be an all-encompassing issue. Unfortunately we lag behind in the recognition of health matters with regards to environmental health as a breach of human rights in Malta.
There is a large NGO based in London and Brussels called Client Earth, and we aim to be a mini-version of that, scaled down for Malta.
How is Futur Ambjent Wiehed different from other eNgos?
All the NGOs are doing a very good job and we will not be in competition with them, but would be complimentary. Other NGOs include other activities, while we are directed solely at the legal and technical challenge side of things.
In your NGO’s opinion, are the Maltese people’s rights being protected with regards to the environment and access to it? If not what needs to be done?
No and this is the issue. For example let us take air quality. Recently another study was published regarding emissions and there were studies on asthma and other respiratory illnesses in the past. They are disastrous and the government is not doing anything quick enough. They keep on saying that they removed heavy fuel oil. All well and good but it had to do that in terms of legislation, so let’s not continue acquiring praise for something we had to do anyway.
The constant increase in emissions and bad air quality is due to one factor, our cars. The government is still embarking on this crazy car-expansion strategy. They argue that we will shift to electric vehicles but that is in the long-term and is shifting the burden. Peoples health is being affected. This is not a pie-in-the sky issue. The right to health and the right to a clean environment is a right, by means of the European Charter of human rights and other legislation. What do you do when your government does not abide by the law? You have to go to court.
There is also another issue. There is absolutely no meaningful enforcement of any environmental law. People have a right to have the law respected.
What are your main environmental concerts, what do you think will be the main issues you will deal with?
At the top of the list is air quality. Next would be urbanisation and a very drastic decrease in green areas with what would probably be a catastrophic effect on our pollinated species.
When it comes to the environmental and planning institutions in Malta like the PA and ERA, how do you think they are fairing, do they need more power?
The Planning Authority needs less power. It is the omnipotent authority on the island. It can suggest legislation that is taken up at the drop of a hat. It has huge power through the executive council and is basically made up of government and business friendly representatives.
There have been occasions where objectors would make certain legal arguments yet a member of the board would argue that they are here to just hear the planning perspective. Does that need to change?
Yes i’ve heard them also. It is completely irregular and not on. The law in general and planning laws state that the PA needs to take into consideration the principles of justice hearing every part and legal issues when deciding. This disregard is irregular, but it is very hard for people to continue appealing. It is an extra expense and hassle so it is a handy way of obstructing people’s rights at a lower level.
What about the ERA?
There are some very good people within the ERA but it is an undisputed fact that it is completely under-resourced and is not effective. The power is not shared equally with the PA and it has no Veto. They recently increased their enforcement arm a bit but it is a question of money and power. They ignore the ERA. To be fair the ERA made some very good constructive proposals regarding the fuel station policy but they were not taken on wholesale by the PA. It is not an equal counterweight.
What kind of impact do you want this NGO to have on society?
There is one real takeaway, to show people that there are remedies to problems and that they are not powerless. Their only input is not just at the polling booths once every five years. There are other ways, immediate ones, to enforce their environmental rights and they do not need to be held to ransom by political factors.