ASTRID VELLA is not a new name when it comes to the protection of Malta’s urban and rural heritage. She speaks to OUTLOOK about the main objectives that the team at Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar work so hard to achieve.
As a key player within the environmental NGO Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar (FAA), Astrid Vella has become a well know name in the environmental protection scene. Together with the FAA team Ms Vella forms part of Malta’s increasingly influential NGOs with the primary objective of safeguarding Malta’s priceless urban and natural heritage.
“It is certainly a challenging, yet also a very rewarding task,” she explains as she begins to describe the organisation’s role. “Since we were established I would say that we have had to work hard on three main fronts – firstly, we needed to convince people that they can bring about change themselves. Traditionally, civil society has never felt empowered to bring about change when it came to environmental protection.”
“Secondly, way back when we started off as an NGO it was also a challenge to secure access to certain information and reports,” she explains, “but with great insistence and through the Aarhus Convention we managed to pressure that files and reports became more accessible and available to the public.”
She continues to explain that a third challenge that the team has faced throughout the years was actually establishing a more accurate public perception of the organisation itself. “We have had to work hard to dispelling the controversial image of FAA that some sections of the media labeled us with,” she states. “FAA is against abuse of any kind and is supportive of development that is well designed and integrated with its context. For example, FAA runs an annual award for architecture students and is creating a website to showcase Malta’s history, art, architecture and culture for students.”
Yet while the FAA is certainly kept extremely busy in its quest to ensure adequate levels of protection for Malta’s urban and natural heritage, Ms Vella is also of the opinion that the Maltese public, who have such an important role to play in this regard, still do not have a good level of understanding and appreciation of the country’s heritage and their own role in protecting it.
“Malta has been a colony since the time of the Phoenicians and no occupying force has ever had an interest in promoting pride in Malta’s heritage. At the same time, the Maltese public did not identify with these sites or take ownership of their protection,” she explains. “This culture is not something that can be turned around in just one generation.
Nevertheless, education and awareness raising initiatives will certainly bring about the required culture change, with time. In this respect, Ms Vella would like to see the use of “more creative methods to impart Malta’s history to our students.”
“A nation that does not know its history does not know itself,” she says. “That is why FAA is dedicating significant funds and energy to the creation of a website on Malta’s history and culture using a medium that students identify with.”
FAA is, of course, not the only organisation with the protection of Malta’s urban and natural environment at heart.
“FAA tries to monitor applications affecting heritage and today finds cooperation from MEPA officials.” explains Ms Vella. “When it comes to collaboration with heritage groups like ours, MEPA - as the guardian of the Aarhus Convention - has undertaken to provide support to environmental organisations. We hope that the Environment Fund will further strength and further this support which we need.”
Bearing in mind that the environment has been topping the list of the Government’s priorities in recent years, FAA will certainly be kept busy complementing the objective of securing high levels of protection for the environment.
As Ms Vella explains, “In the short term, FAA seeks to help steer the Hondoq project to a positive MEPA decision, that will allow it to be converted to a National Park on the lines of the proposals submitted by our architecture students.”
“In the medium term, FAA will be continuing its programme of raising awareness and will be working to launch its heritage website,” she continues. “In the long term, FAA hopes that the protection of Malta’s heritage and environment will be established on such a sound footing that FAA will no longer have to act as a guard dog!”
Ms Vella concludes “Recording all the important aspects of Malta’s history, art, architecture and culture is very demanding and we take this opportunity to invite anyone who might be interested in helping our organisation to develop this heritage website to email FAA on firstname.lastname@example.org