Kevin Schembri Orland in his eNGOs’ 2021 wish list: Stronger legal, environmental protection, fossil-fuel-free vision might as well be addressing not only the specifics of Malta but the whole of the MENA region. Let us see if apart from the no so distant proximity, there are other similarities.
3 January 2021
Legislative and policy changes, including on building heights, certain changes to the constitution and the move towards a fossil fuel-free Malta are among the things environmental NGOs wish to see in Malta in the new year. Kevin Schembri Orland spoke to some of the main environmental lobby groups.
‘Many policies were designed around the needs of developers… this needs to change’ – Moviment Graffitti
Andre Callus from Moviment Graffitti mentioned three points.
The first regards planning policies. “In 2020 we issued a document titled Reforming Planning and Construction in Malta, where among other things, we listed a number of policies which need to change. As an example, we mentioned the rural policy on which a consultation was launched yet until now has not been changed, also on the policy which allows hotels in certain cases to rise as much as the developer wants, or in other circumstances where policies allow big development in areas that cannot handle it.”
He said that there were many policies that were designed and centred around the needs of developers rather than the people. These need to change, he said, “to respect the environment and the people. Right now, they do not and communities around the country face applications that threaten their quality of life all the time. Some of the applications literally speak of hundreds of apartments that will be built on one spot. These applications radically change the lives of the residents in the area and have a negative impact.”
The second point revolves around the way authorities related to environment and planning operate, which include the Planning Authority, the Environment and Resources Authority and even the Lands Authority, in the way government land is given to third parties.
“There are a number of different authorities that, right now, are not transparent and, clearly, certain people and lobby groups with a lot of money have certain control over them. Decisions are seen to be taken to aid particular interests which is undemocratic and allows space for corruption. We believe that the way these authorities take decisions needs to change. We had made suggestions in terms of how they should change, and the people who are appointed to such boards should be done through a Parliamentary process and not simply be appointed by a minister, as is the case today.”
The third point is about farmers. “We have fought many battles over farmland, the most recent one in Qormi.” He said that Infrastructure Malta does what it wants and bullies residents and farmers, “moving into their land killing their products in order to pass a road or widen them which in some cases do not even make sense.”
“Aside from damaging our environment they are also taking farmers’ land.”
“They are showing great disrespect towards such an important sector.”
All major projects should be suspended pending independent social impact and carrying capacity studies – Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar
Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar (FAA) Coordinator Astrid Vella spoke about the need to revise planning regulations as well as the need for pedestrian spaces to no longer be eaten up by tables and chairs.
In 2021, Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar (FAA) would like to see residents’ health and quality of life given their rightful importance in planning laws and decisions. “As such we urge the authorities to immediately revise planning regulations that undermine residents’ quality of life and the integrity of Maltese towns and villages, such as Annex 1 of the Design Guidelines 2015, which allows extra heights all over Malta and Gozo and the all-important Sanitary Law which was watered down to favour developers at the cost of residents’ health. Enforcement of building regulations, air and noise pollution laws is a must.”
“All major projects, tall buildings and applications for extra storeys for hotels and care homes for the elderly (which violates the National Health Strategy) should be suspended pending independent social impact and carrying capacity studies to assess localities’ ability to cope with more building in terms of population density, transport and utilities.”
She said that to make towns and villages healthier and more liveable, “we maintain that it is necessary to enact laws to forbid the destruction of old urban gardens and green spaces, enact an effective tree protection law that prevents further destruction of mature trees, and regulations preventing the demolition of unscheduled houses of heritage value. Bars, cafes and restaurants should no longer be allowed to take over public spaces/pavements with tables and chairs so as to improve the ability to walk in towns and villages.”
“Similarly, more cycling lanes and pedestrian priority areas need to be established rather than having cars and motorways taking over public spaces and even public gardens as is happening at Gżira, where the MIDI project will gobble up much of the Gżira promenade and public garden, while the Msida Creek flyover will totally destroy Msida as we know it.”
“Most importantly, the authorities should start purchasing unbuilt green spaces in urban areas, such as the site of the Razzett l-Antik in Fgura (now-destroyed) and Manoel Island, in order to convert them into public parks which are essential to residents’ physical and mental health.”
BirdLife Malta hopes that the natural environment footprint in the country does not decrease any further
BirdLife Malta CEO Mark Sultana spoke about looking ahead towards the action being taken over Malta’s spring hunting derogation by the European Commission and also spoke about Malta’s natural environment footprint.
Sultana hopes that the government realises “that the public deserves a healthy natural environment and that the natural environment footprint in the country does not decrease any further.”
“I hope that there will not be any further use of natural habitats for the benefit of the economy. It needs to be the other way around and health must come first. I hope that Covid-19 has opened our eyes more on this issue.”
BirdLife Malta is also looking forward to understanding how the European Commission will react to the government’s replies regarding the two derogations that are now being challenged at EU level – the Spring hunting derogation and the Finch trapping for scientific research derogation, and as to how the EU Commission will proceed.
“It is unfortunate that in 2021 we will not see the government be courageous enough to take decisions in favour of birds and natural habitats and therefore we will need to rely on the European Commission to ensure that it abides by the Birds and Habitats Directive.”
Din L-Art Ħelwa will push for stronger protection of natural and urban heritage to be included in the Constitution.
Din L-Art Ħelwa’s (DLĦ) Executive President Professor Alex Torpiano spoke about the environment minister and the need for changes in the way public consultation is handled, among other things.
Torpiano said that the new environment minister (Aaron Farrugia) has been saying the right things and added that DLĦ will continue to support him to achieve environmental improvement goals as well as for possible changes to the Planning Authority that need to be done in order to save urban areas “which, at the moment are under threat.” He said however, that while DLĦ supports what Farrugia is saying he wants to change, they have not seen the changes being made yet.
He said that DLĦ will continue to push for more community participation in decisions, for better understanding of the value of our urban spaces and the importance of having green areas inside urban areas.
“We hope to convince the government and developers that granting permission to build everywhere to a maximum of five floors and higher in other places is damaging. Some areas can take it but in many, it is ruinous for the urban space, particularly if in a row of two or three storey houses one owner decides that they want to build up because policies allow it. I believe that the policies are wrong as they allow this type of activity everywhere in Malta. Safi, for example, is not the same as Qormi and Għarb is not the same as Sliema. Having the same policies apply does not make sense. We think that the minister is beginning to understand this point and is trying to find the ways with which to resolve this issue.
The DLĦ Executive President expects that, in 2021, there will be advances in the discussions revolving around Malta’s Constitution. “As DLĦ we will push for stronger protection for natural and urban heritage to be included in the Constitution. By stronger protection, I mean not just a statement – because there is such a statement already – but it is not currently enforceable. Unfortunately, it is one of those clauses which is a statement of principle but is not enforceable. In other words, civil society cannot sue the government for passing a law which is clearly damaging the environment or urban heritage. We believe that it is time for civil society to have stronger powers to prevent the damage that the government is meant to protect from. In reality, we wouldn’t need this if the institutions were doing their jobs properly. Institutions have been, over the past years, biased towards development.”
This, he said, is because development is an easy way to help the economy. He said that the GDP is a crude measurement of the economy, but it does not take into consideration other economic aspects. “For example, if the character of Gozo is lost it will impact the tourism industry and development can impact people’s quality of health. There are hidden economic aspects which people need to become more aware about.”
He hit out at the consultation processes in Malta. “The PA regularly publishes calls for comments… People submit their comments, say they do not agree, they are formally noted and then ignored. Unfortunately, it has been inculcated in us that this is the way things have to be done, but this is not true as other countries have found systems whereby the community truly decides what is of benefit for the community and ultimately it is the constitution that must protect this right.”
‘A vision for a fossil fuel-free Malta must be drawn up’ – Friends of the Earth Malta
Friends of the Earth Malta Director Martin Galea De Giovanni spoke of the vision of a fossil fuel-free Malta, the wish to renationalise the energy sector, and the implementation of waste reduction measures.
He said that 2020 will be remembered as the year the world hit pause on our daily lives and economies in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Friends of the Earth Malta would like to see a green and just post-Covid-19 recovery, both on a national and European scale. We must ensure that the economy we build back is more resilient, fairer, and less destructive to our planet. This is the right moment for the government to support citizens at a time when many are already struggling to pay their bills. Instead of supporting big businesses, future economic stimulus packages could help finance renewable energy support schemes and make homes more energy efficient.”
A vision for a fossil fuel-free Malta must be drawn up, researched, and plans for a fossil fuel-free Malta put in place, he said. “Ensure implementation of the current Climate Action Act (2015). Start the process to review the Act in order to make it more ambitious in a way to reflect the current reality of a climate emergency. A climate change adaptation strategy should be put in place, given inevitable climate effects in the coming decades even if all emissions were to stop tomorrow.”
In terms of waste management, FoE is hoping to see the implementation of waste reduction measures, such as the single use plastic ban which has been rolled out as of 1st of January 2021 and the introduction of the deposit-refund scheme for beverage containers. “We encourage similar initiatives which reduce the scale of the waste problem rather than promote unsustainable consumption.”
The government must shift towards agro-ecology and food sovereignty, he said. “We’ll be continuing our work together with other NGOs coming together from across the whole European Union to call for bee-friendly farming. With our European Citizens’ Initiative, we are calling on the European Commission to support an agricultural model that allows farmers and biodiversity to thrive in harmony.”
“We need to protect nature and green spaces and ensure people have access to them, especially within our densely populated urban environment. We need protection of mature trees – not just on paper. Although planting more trees is a positive initiative, let us not delude ourselves into believing that planting saplings have the same positive benefits for our environment and wellbeing as mature trees. The same applies for replacing trees from urban environments and replanting them away from communities.”
FoE Malta also believes that there can be no environmental justice without proper and fair democratic institutions and structures. “This is the right time for people to say no in response to the many decades of having politicians from both PN and PL parties in government roll out the red carpet to dubious tycoons, autocratic leaders and tax evaders. The value systems brought about by politicians and their ‘as long as the economy is fine anything goes’ mantra have now led to some of the biggest environmental and social injustices suffered by the country.”
Friends of the Earth Malta demands that all national institutions “be freed from political manipulation and thus serve the public interest rather than politicians and big business. All large tenders and planning applications that were dished out over the past years must be investigated by an independent authority. We also demand that national services such as the power station be renationalized in the interest of the general public.”
That is the story of the Dakar 2021 where a certain Al-Attiyah, a backpacker in search of glory near his land. The Dakar Rally 2021 route, features about 5,000 kilometres made up of 12 stages. Despite months of uncertainty mainly due to the pandemic, this 43rd edition is the second to be held in Saudi Arabia. It will start on 3 January from Jeddah and finish on 15 January in the same place. Nasser Al-Attiyah, a native of Qatar, is the favourite candidate to take the top prize. Here is his story as told by the France 24 television edition of today.
2 January 2021
Dakar 2021: Al-Attiyah, backpacker in search of glory near his land
Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) (AFP)
He knew the Dakar when he still arrived in the capital of Senegal and signed his three victories in the famous rally-raid in South America, but Nasser Al-Attiyah still has a dream: to win in Saudi Arabia, in the environment of the Gulf countries that he knows so well.
At 50, the Qatari driver is taking part at the wheel of his Toyota Hilux from Sunday in his 17th edition of the Dakar.
And it is an understatement to say that Al-Attiyah loves the Dakar: since his first participation in 2004, he has posted a worse result, when he did not give up, a 10th place, precisely for his debut in the rally-raid. who was still arguing in Africa.
Since then, he has entered his name on the charts three times (2011, 2015, 2019) with three different cars, and has won at least one stage per edition without stopping since … 2007 for a total of 35 successes!
But Al-Attiyah remains by his own admission on “a big disappointment”: he nevertheless finished 2nd in the 2020 edition, behind the Spaniard Carlos Sainz (Mini), but for the start of the Dakar in the Saudi desert, he was another goal was set.
“It was great to be in a new region with incredible landscapes and above all, we were very confident, but from the start of the rally, we started to have punctures. In all, I suffered eleven punctures”, he recalled on the official Dakar 2021 website.
– 150 km of cycling –
The tire problems, used until then for South America, resolved, “NAA” has also adapted its physical preparation.
While he focused on endurance, adapted to low oxygen levels at high altitude in South America, he worked his muscle building to tame the dunes of the Saudi desert on the program of the twelve stages of this Dakar 2021. until January 15.
“I adopted a different physical program which focuses on building muscle,” he told AFP.
With his co-driver since 2015, Frenchman Matthieu Baumel, “we train according to the countries where the Dakar takes place”, underlined the driver born in Doha, the capital of Qatar.
“The program varies between cycling 100 to 150 kilometers per day, running or other exercises,” said the man who is nicknamed “Superman” in his country.
With the confinement imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the champion had to adapt.
– “Dance on the dunes” –
“I have a simulator at home and a gym that kept me in the rally spirit,” he explained.
Al-Attiyah is a symbol of the rise on the international scene of Qatar, a small emirate of the Arabian Peninsula that has become in a few decades an essential name in the field of sport in particular.
Before training in the gigantic and luxurious Aspire sports complex in Doha, Al-Attiyah experienced difficulties in his youth in financing his ambitions to become a great racing driver.
The one who is said to “dance on the sand dunes” has forged an impressive track record in rally as well as in rally-raid: he has been 16 times Middle Eastern champion, WRC2 world champion or four times winner. of the World Cup off-road rallies.
He also shone at the Olympic Games, shotgun in hand, to finish 4th in the skeet event at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games and 3rd at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
While waiting for a new Olympic challenge in Tokyo this summer, Al-Attiyah is aiming for a fourth coronation on the Dakar. Everything is looking good: in October he won the Andalusia rally and his car will be struck with the number 301, just like in his successes in 2015 and 2019.
The Earth’s climate has naturally varied from time to time, between getting hotter or colder for periods of differing historical spans. Nowadays, things have gone so apparent in the sense that the above natural process as it were has mutated to a faster pace. Why? All agree that it undeniably is an inevitable change in the Earth’s climate and that it is no more a natural process, but a human-made one. So, battling Climate Change and how every individual can help would be a good question.
After abusing and depleting the Earth’s resources for hundreds of years, we are now faced with the harsh reality of climate change. The planet’s temperature is slowly rising and causing more erratic weather conditions with this last decade being the hottest on record.
The time to act is now. Two artists have tried to communicate the urgency of this message by installing a ‘climate clock’ in Manhattan’s Union Square. This countdown warns that if our current greenhouse gas emissions do not slow down before the deadline, the damage we will have done will be irreversible. Given the looming window of opportunity to battle climate change, here are various ways that you can help.
1. Get Informed
Many contend that we are currently living in the age of technology and information. This is indeed a blessing, as we have countless resources available with the click of a button. Nevertheless, it is also a curse as we are subjected to a lot of disinformation and fake news regarding important subjects like climate change. Even President Donald Trump propagated the myth that climate change is a hoax. It is essential that you read up on the facts surrounding climate change. Look for reliable news sources and environmental blogs to keep up to date.
2. Take Action
Once you are informed, it is time to take action in whichever way you can. There are many different ways to help battle climate change. You can ask your energy provider if they offer any services with renewable and clean power sources. In your everyday life, you should avoid driving when possible and opt for carpooling or public transport instead. Make informed food choices, such as eating less meat or purchasing ingredients from a sustainable soy production supplier.
You can also avoid purchasing fast fashion and try to buy second-hand pieces instead. Re-cycling old possessions is also a great way to help the environment as many discarded items end up in a landfill for hundreds of years.
3. Rally Others
Rallying others is one of the best ways to help tackle the climate crisis. Every small change can help make a large-scale impact on the environment, therefore the more changes the better. Open up a climate conversation with friends or family and try to shine some light on their carbon footprint. What can they do to reduce this? Don’t refrain from rallying some of the bigger players on the field too!
Companies have a corporate social responsibility and you, as a customer, have the right to demand change. Contact a senate or member of congress and ask them for support too.
We only have one planet so we must do everything we can in order to save it. Although attitudes towards climate change have been shifting in a positive manner, there is still much more that we can do. If everyone does their part, including large corporations and governments, we can all strive towards a more sustainable and greener lifestyle.
As an architect who has worked on educational buildings, I cringed at these completely closed boxes, but the openness of the education taught in them won and we enrolled our son in an IB school.-SJK Architects.
We were keen on an IB education for our child for the freedom in learning it oﬀers. We loved it’s focus on a thorough understanding of a subject and analytical skills and not on rote memory, and the broad holistic range of subjects that it oﬀers – one of the most open curriculums available today.
But as we scouted for schools and visited a handful, the irony of the centrally air-conditioned, closed, boxy buildings that IB schools have come to be synonymous with, was not lost on us. IB education is quite expensive and so with it comes an expectation for IB schools to have better infrastructure, one common interpretation for which is equating comfort to air-conditioning.
As an architect who has worked on educational buildings, I cringed at these completely closed boxes, but the openness of the education taught in them won and we enrolled our son in an IB school.
00_Introduction sketch 1
August 2020 has come and gone. This month had been eagerly anticipated by my family – it was the start of the new academic year and the ﬁrst time that my son would start going to a ‘Big’ school! But we are still in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic in semi lockdown state. With all kind of human contact being discouraged for the fear of contracting and spreading the infection, all schools are physically shut, and so the academic year started on- line. It feels a bit strange that the start of a child’s schooling is in a virtual environment.
Most teachers and schools have been exemplary in learning the ropes of on-line, remote teaching quickly, establishing systems and working very hard to come up with content that keeps kids engaged on-line. But while parents are happy to have schooling resume, most fret about the prolonged exposure to screens and the sense of isolation that the kids may feel.
The understanding that social skills and friendships are essential for mental well-being and key to learning, was never so acutely felt as it is now. And when normalcy does return, will the kids have adjusting issues, they wonder.
For now, these are just thoughts and worries – safety is paramount and social distancing our armour until Covid- 19 is vanquished.
But normalcy will return. And when it does, the favourite question doing rounds is – what will we take back from this strange period in our lives?
With thoughts of physical safety and mental health being top of mind, I and other colleagues turned to thinking about the type of buildings that would serve as thriving post-Covid19 schools in the metros.
Two great needs stand out-
1- To design buildings that do not encourage infections from spreading:
Research suggests that being outdoors or in well ventilated spaces can dilute ‘aerosols’ (or germs as we knew them in the pre-covid times!) enough to minimize tremendously the spread of any infection.
A building that is designed to work with climate, one that invites sunlight and wind through strategically located openings but rejects heat and rain, may be quite comfortable for at least a certain percentage of the year in a tropical country like ours (studies claim upto 80% of the time in all climatic zones in our country). So ensuring open spaces and natural cross-ventilation to the extent possible maybe the way to go!
And when absolutely not possible to achieve a comfortable environment without air-conditioning, alternative technologies like radiant cooling that do not circulate air for cooling or use of specialized ﬁlters that clean air in circulation could be employed to prevent air-borne infections from spreading.
2- To design buildings for human connections:
Post this isolation that children have been through, the attention would undoubtedly be towards providing environments that deepen human connections and restore or enrichen the social fabric of their little worlds.
Studies indicate that not only do friendships and social relationships strengthen children emotionally and turn them into well-rounded human beings, but also peer-to-peer sharing will most deﬁnitely accelerate learning. Such interactions with peers, often occurs outside the formal space of a classroom – so designing spaces for social interactions is a critical need.
It seems clear that the two responses that emerge– designing buildings with really good ventilation and ensuring spaces for social interactions, are simple yet wonderful principles of design for physical-emotional health and happiness that have been prevalent through all of historic and vernacular architecture, and ones that we at SJK Architects have applied to a variety of projects.
Here’s examining some of our urban projects, ranging from oﬃce buildings to residential homes, and spotlighting methodologies that helped accomplish these principles of health and happiness, ones that can easily be applied to post covid school buildings.
One: Use screens to draw wind into the building without gaining heat:
While the non-north faces of the building receive direct sunlight and are way warmer than the north, it may be necessary to open these up to invite the winds in for proper cross-ventilation. Drawing from the use of ‘jalis’ in vernacular and historic buildings, sun-shading devices such as louvers, ﬁns or screens can be added to such non-north openings, ensuring that direct sun (and, therefore, heat) is blocked and not incident into the inner spaces, while the gaps in the ‘jalis’ can still allow wind in.
1_Nagpur House – Jali
Allowing the screens to be movable can give additional ﬂexibility to open up completely in the winters or in cloudy weather, while leaving them shut when the sun is scorching bright.
4_Nagpur House – External Elevation
[Images 1, 2 and 3- Wooden jalis protect the bedrooms and living spaces of a Family Home at Nagpur, allowing for natural ventilation when possible, keeping the interiors cool, well shaded and additionally ensuring privacy.]
Two: Open up the North for drawing wind into the building and for social spaces:
The north face of the building receives the best shade (in our hemisphere) and is, therefore, the coolest! So, it makes sense to open up the north of the building. One can easily provide windows to draw wind into the building from the north. But, additionally, one can also step out into comfortable, well-shaded courtyards, balconies and other social spaces that can be carved out of the north face of the building. Providing these courtyards with props like amphitheater steps and benches can support interactions.
While designing in cities, one is ever conscious of ensuring that all available FSI is consumed leading to tall buildings with little or no open space available at ground level. So while a courtyard at ground level is often impossible, providing courtyards at higher levels is a useful strategy that can ensure a win-win.
[Image 4, 5 and 6- A north facing, shaded and vibrant courtyard at the 4th ﬂoor of a Commercial Building at Nagpur with an amphi-theatre and overlooking public passages, staircases, projecting meeting rooms and terraces to create a design centered around social gathering spaces and green pockets at every level.]
Three : Tiny courtyards for better social interactions and some fresh air:
Often, in the quest to consume all available FSI, it may be impossible to provide large courtyards. But even an eight feet wide tiny courtyard can become the soul of a building by bringing in day light and visually connecting diﬀerent ﬂoors.
[Image 7- A tiny 8’ x 21’ atrium courtyard within a Family Home at Nagpur. The courtyard visually connects diﬀerent levels of the house and is designed to create a sense of togetherness that binds a large joint family]
Four: The Staircase as a courtyard for cross ventilation and visual connectivity:
Some projects are so hemmed in from all sides that even the tiniest courtyard is impossible. But converting the staircase into a courtyard is still a possibility as we found while designing one of our favourite projects in Bangalore.
The staircase is a vertical connector that is a mandatory part of any building and organizing it, such that it visually connects diﬀerent levels and becomes a conduit for sun and wind, can convert it into an urban courtyard that much like a traditional courtyard can serve as a space for social connections and welcome breaks, with minimal waste of precious ﬂoor space.
(Images 8 and 9- The core of this ‘out of the box’ oﬃce building for Nirvana Films at Bangalore is the N-S connector staircase that slices through the building with a huge skylight above, suﬀusing it with sunlight and natural ventilation.
Five: Use the terraces for social interactions:
The roof terrace is a free of fsi space. If possible, carving into the building to provide small terraces at every level can allow for each classroom to have a small attached open space. But whether at one level or at many, greening up the terrace for the children to use is such a simple possibility! It can bring an additional beneﬁt – the joy of learning from nature!
Six: Balconies for well ventilated social interactions:
Some cities have, very wisely, retained the possibility of cantilevered balconies and double height terraces over and above the permissible fsi allowed for the building. If one is lucky to be in such a city, needless to say, all balconies must be availed for breezy, social spaces.
The lockdown in the wake of Covid 19 has forced us to pause and reﬂect, and simple solutions like the ones described here and perhaps several more are available to design post-covid city schools. These simple solutions that promote better physical-emotional health and happiness align beautifully with the spirit of sustainable development. Buildings and cities that work with climate will consume less energy and lower our carbon footprint. Likewise, buildings and cities that promote social interactions will help provide an emotionally stronger social fabric through better communication and understanding, one that, hopefully, will lead to a more inclusive, fair and tolerant society. So, in promoting our own health and happiness, we can simultaneously nurture the planet and its people – the wonderful i n t e r c o n n e c t e d n e s s of all fates! Sometimes it takes a pandemic to remind us.
This article by Austrian Science Fund (FWF) about Saving the world with Christmas cookies? is serious about all matters of people continuing to ruthlessly exploit land resources around the world and to how to counterbalance that, especially during those especially festive days.
Despite all warnings, people continue to ruthlessly exploit land resources around the world, planting monocultures and setting up large-scale infrastructure. Social ecologist Anke Schaffartzik analyses the political and economic interests that precede these developments and their impact on society. The snapshots of global material and energy flows, but also the power gradient of which they are a symptom, reveal that thoughtful consumption in Austria alone stands little chances against oil palm plantations in Indonesia.
Every year, Austrians produce and buy tons of Christmas cookies. Depending on the individual budget and mind-set, more and more people opt for the product on the shelf that claims to be “palm-oil free.” For today, many people know: Palm oil plantations are being operated on a large scale in countries such as Indonesia, crowding out orangutans living in the tropical rainforests. Anke Schaffartzik, Hertha Firnberg Fellow of the Austrian Science Fund FWF, can well understand that people want to improve the world. Unfortunately, unequal participation in the economy, unequal access to resources and to political co-determination already have an impact on land use even before the consumers can choose a suitable cookie brand in Austria.
In the context of her project at the Institute of Social Ecology in the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences in Vienna, Schaffartzik analyses worldwide material and energy flows in order to explore the dual nature of inequality: “Inequality as cause and effect of non-sustainable development is easy to observe wherever nature is being exploited to make commercial use of land and resources,” she explains. “Some countries ensure high consumption and economic growth while preserving their resource base or having long since exhausted it. But others are using up more and more land for the export of raw materials or energy sources, thereby making socio-ecologically sustainable development impossible.”
Who decides on land use?
After the first year of her research, Schaffartzik understands that global inequality cannot be quantified exclusively in terms of money. It is informed a great deal by how processes are designed, and the imbalance is already apparent in terms of access to land and decision-making processes. The global data analysis along a time series from 1960 to 2010 suggests to Schaffartzik that the “valorisation” of land is a key process in this growing and deepening use of resources: what counts is the desired economic development, not the needs and voices of the local population. The above-mentioned cultivation of oil palms in Indonesia is one case in point. Before the plantations could be exploited on a large scale, the land first had to be re-zoned accordingly. Palm oil can be used for cooking, as a lubricant and animal feed, for biodiesel or highly processed foods such as Christmas cookies and chocolate. Nowadays, almost the entire volume of crude palm oil is exported from Indonesia, but the processing that generates added value takes place elsewhere.
Cheap and diverse
In the 1980s, palm oil production began to take off in Indonesia, a vast nation of many islands. This not only encroached on the rain forests, but also crowded out other crops and areas used for subsistence farming. “The progressive land grabbing that we are witnessing was initially based on political decisions: There was a wish to see the resources being used in a way that yields money and political control over remote islands,” Anke Schaffartzik notes. Hence, political decisions about land use had to be taken before various big corporations could buy palm oil cheaply as a basis for goods of higher value and before local land was exposed to land grabbing. The “valorisation” of land that previously contributed nothing to the national GDP is the first step in the process. “Countries increasingly look to agricultural goods for economic growth and they consider that to be more important than the food supply for their own population,” explains Anke Schaffartzik. In this context, one can observe that commodities that use up a lot of land for their cultivation or extraction are not generating more money than those that require little land. Today, the local population work either on the plantations or in nickel mining, and meanwhile cooking oil has to be imported.
For her further research, Anke Schaffartzik is cooperating with various institutes in Europe. Together with Julia Steinberger from the University of Lausanne she is working on the relationship between infrastructure, its social status and how infrastructure decisions are being taken. At the Universidad Rovira y Virgili in Spain, she is collaborating on a case study of the construction boom during the Spanish economic crisis, and the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona maintains a global atlas of environmental conflicts that provides a tangible picture of the processes leading up to a critical decision.
Approaches to improving the world
Hence, it is not enough, unfortunately, to read the small print and spend a little more money on palm-oil free biscuits. There are always many factors at local level that cannot be influenced downstream by ecologically minded consumers. Once the path to unsustainable development has been taken, there is hardly a way to retrace it. While consumer responsibility is something that people call for, they actually have very little influence.
The focus should therefore be on political processes and decisions that lead to social and ecological inequality and thus promote destructive land use. This is the case not only in Southeast Asia and Latin America, but also on our own doorstep. Where do we see the privatisation of land that was previously subject to shared use? Where is land being re-zoned to build infrastructure? What changes in legislation will affect who gets to decide on land? Who are the beneficiaries? These are important questions. Whose needs are served by the third runway at Vienna Airport, one may wonder, when the actual priority is an expansion of the railway network? Projects such as urban gardening or the sharing economy gain importance if they are understood as a counter-movement to these processes.
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