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A talk with Paul Buttigieg

Hondoq beach intro

Edited by perchebio.com

The battle for Hondoq, one of the most enchanting bays on the Island of Gozo, Malta, has been raging for almost 15 years now, its outcome still uncertain. 

This battle takes place between two opposing local and Maltese visions for Gozo: one that, under the banner of development and new jobs, may cause the island to be given up, one untouched spot after another, for speculation and overbuilding; and the other that is determined to preserve for the enjoyment of all what remains of its unique natural beauty, biodiversity, and quiet, viewed as priceless assets.

hondoq, desalination plant“The area is owned by the Augustinian Fathers”, explains Paul Buttigieg, the Mayor of Qala (former Deputy Mayor) . “In 1988, they signed a promise of sale to Gozo Prestige Holidays that if they get the permit to develop the area they will have to pay 10 thousand liri for every tomolo of land. There are 68 tomoli, so they will pay 680 thousand liri.” Which is equivalent to 1,583,972.32 euros. Surprisingly not much compared to current market estate prices.

“Earlier, Qala Local Council had applied to convert the area into a National Park, but the high permit fees required by MEPA made it impossible to go on with the plan. “

“In 1969 the government had expropriated the area to cut rocks to built Mgarr breakwater and build a desalination plant now left unused,” continues Paul. Today, it is a bleak dilapidated edifice laying at the back of the beach that, alas, stands in stark contrast to the beauty of the area.

In 2002, the area having been returned to the Augustinians, the first application for the development of Hondoq Bay is submitted. The mammoth project envisions building a 5-star 110-room hotel, 25 self-catering villas, 60 apartments serviced by the hotel, 203 additional apartments, 5 catering facilities, 10 shops, 1,290 underground parking spaces, and a yacht marina for roughly 150 berths.

“The tourist village would end up housing more people than the village of Qala itself! The social impact assessment, analyzed by Prof. Boisevain, concluded that the project would turn the way of life of Qala residents upside-down,” remarks Paul.

The quiet, quaint village of Qala, counting as few as 2,284 inhabitants, would be assaulted by an endless flow of road and sea traffic, causing Qala roadnoise, air and waters pollution. And that would occur from the beginning: “During the operational phase of the project, additional traffic generated will be circa 2000 vehicles per day” write the proponents, “during the excavation phase, heavy traffic generated amounts to one truckload every 4 minutes.. 146 trips will be required per day ... 15 trucks leaving the site per hour.” And all this would have to pass from a narrow road of about 4 m.

Just imagine swimming in the vicinity! And what daily life would become for many Qala citizens to whom the proponents suggest to install double glazing to their windows. What’s more, Qala, according to a 2002 MEPA report, is the second most polluted village on Gozo and is already suffering truck traffic due to two running quarries and a concrete batching plant.

“The alternative routes submitted would only move air and noise pollution elsewhere, to Qala rural neighborhoods and quiet suburbs,” claims Paul, “The assessment surveys of the impact of sea traffic on Hondoq waters due to the marina were dire too”.

“Maritime traffic at Hondoq is expected to be 10 to 200 yachts per day… a pronounced intensification .. which could possibly impinge significantly on water quality.”
“..The risks of operational losses as well as of spills of fuels and of oils..may not be disregarded at this point..(and) may constitute a chronic source of pollution…” The “high water transparency values” of the area referred to as “one of the safest and cleanest for Gozo” may be lost for ever.

Thus, after thoroughly studying the plans submitted, Buttigieg decides to give birth to a movement opposing the project, the Moviment Harsien Hondoq (MHH). He goes around with a petition to get the citizens’ feeling about it and count the numbers. Eventually, a referendum takes place, its verdict is overwhelmingly against the project: 85% of the 75% of Qala citizens who showed up at the polls voted ‘NO’. From that day on, Paul has been on the frontline leading his citizens’ opposition to the “development” of Hondoq.

The first impression you get of him is that of determination. It looks, however, like a David-vs-Goliath battle. How did he and the citizens manage to resist all these years and defeat Big Money? Who helped them?

“God”, he replies, “And the Church, the Church in Qala is against the megaproject too. The Church Environment Commission voted against it.” It is for sustainable development for Gozo, a position that echoes Pope Francis’s Encyclical Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home, a strong call from the Holy Father to preserve our planet Earth.

Another of his powerful supporters is none other than the current Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat: “He has supported me from the beginning.”
What about your own party? And the Minister for Gozo? “They’re all on my side.” I cannot refrain from asking if he has ever received any threats. “No, never, never,” he answers promptly.

The second impression is that Paul loves Hondoq very much. He was born and has lived most of his life in Qala. He has deep roots. And our first meeting to talk about Qala citizens’ battle, he wanted it to be there, at Hondoq Bay. Indeed, “Hondoq ir-Rummien”, reads an evaluation report, “the project’s proposed site, has for more than five centuries formed an intrinsic part of the economic and leisure resources of Qala. Hondoq ir-Rummien is part of the identity of the village of Qala and the collective memory of its inhabitants, making it thus an essential component of their intangible cultural heritage.”

“They tried to water down the Qala referendum by surveying, along with Qala residents, the citizens of two more villages, Nadur and Ghanjsielem, who are not directly affected by the project.”

At the time of the submission, the area concerned was in the ODZ (out of the development zone). In 2006, however, unbeknownst to Qala Local Council -, the Local Plan is changed. The preferred use is no longer to reclaim the area either for agricultural use or afforestation, but “..to sensitively develop the area. Tourism and marine related development may be considered by MEPA“. This change can turn the tide for the developers.

Hondoq  dumpsiteCome 2011. After the Hondoq project was recommended for refusal by the Directorate of Environment Protection, the coup de théâtre: new plans are submitted that replace the yacht marina with a swimming lagoon on the site of the former quarry and demolish the reverse osmosis plant to turn it into a double storey car park, housing 90 cars. But build-up footprint is not reduced. Paul underscores the proponents’ inconsistency. They had always stated that the project would struggle if it had to be developed as a stand-alone hotel without the marina.”
Mepa rejects the new plans claiming that such important changes required an entirely new submission.

In 2016 comes what seemed like a rejection: the Planning Authority unanimously refuses the application. The Hondoq development is deemed by the Planning Directorate to be in breach of the Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development’s vision of Gozo as an “ecological island” as it constitutes “a dense urban development” in a “coastal rural area.”

Paul, however, warns that “The window is still open for new applications to be submitted to develop Hondoq with ‘low density’ buildings due to the changes made in the 2006 Local Plan. Indeed, the applicants are not deterred. They appeal again, saying that MEPA ’s decision should be annulled for lack of fair trial.

The area is literally besieged. There was recently an application to start a souvenir shop that has just been refused. But the applicants have appealed. 

In the meantime, NGOs Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar (FAA) and Friends of the Earth Malta have submitted applications for Hondoq, among other sites, to be considered as Public Domaine sites. This would be a new step forward for Moviment Harsien Hondoq and Qala citizens. The process of submission to the Planning Authority and subsequent discussion before Parliament should take just few months, election permitting. The approval would finally secure Hondoq from private exploitation and pave the way for what Moviment Harsien Hondoq and other environmental NGOs have been calling on for years: a Nature Park.

As far back as 2010, Nature Trust appealed to MEPA, asking the authorities to rehabilitate Hondoq and change it into a Green Park project with afforestation, nature trails and natural heritage information for the enjoyment of all Maltese and tourists alike.

Clause 14.8.4 of the Local Plan states that ”Hondoq ir-Rummien lies in a relatively dilapidated state and there is a dire need for upgrading and rehabilitation of the area...” True, something must be done to rehabilitate Hondoq Bay and the applications saga has only put off long overdue public measures to return the area to the full enjoyment by citizens and eco-tourists alike.

Moviment Harsien Hondoq and the other environmental NGOs have for ever been urging MEPA to revert the land to its original destination as a nature park. “The Qala Local Council has already looked into the various aspects of creating an environment and heritage park, a project that would draw much-needed tourists to Gozo, and support existing hotels and catering establishments,” claims Paul.

Indeed, this also makes economic sense: tourism supply diversification. If the main island caters for tourists who like high rise luxury hotels and shopping centres, Gozo will be an ecological five-star. The island has something different but not less sought after to offer: a pristine environment, bays of outstanding natural beauty, crystal clear waters, enormous biodiversity, silence, and pure air.

student's project for Hondoq

Hondoq dumpsite

The old quarry overlooking the much coveted Hondoq Bay has been shamefully turned into a dumpsite. By whom and why isn’t this stopped and the quarry cleaned up?

“Because it’s private property. Think that last week Qala primary school students went to Hondoq for activities, one of them was planting around 359 plants and trees. They had to cancel the tree planting because literally the whole area is registered under the proponents’ name and the government cannot interfere in private property!” Clearly, the private area is kept in such a state for a purpose.

The desalination plant is an eyesore too. “There is also an application to turn it into a reverse osmosis treatment plant to supply Gozo with water as the island relies heavily on the pipeline coming from Cirkkewa’s plant, “ adds Paul.

Water supply is a real vulnerability for Gozo, but is a plant located in a sensitive spot like Hondoq going to cause air, water and noise pollution?

“From the discussion I’ve had with the applicants I am certain they are going to use the lightest technology available. I’ve recommended them to professionals whom I trust and I have actually hired them to help WSC in their environment impact assessment. At the moment, they are proposing to extend the waste effluent pipeline for 500 m and, if it is found that it needs more, it shouldn’t be a problem to extend it. I’ve been told that there is a lot of currents and water dispersion, so shouldn’t be a problem.”

While all sorts of garbage keep being tossed down its barren, stony slopes, the quarry stands like a gaping wound scarring the beautiful Gozitan landscape. It needs healing, and the garrigue needs to start growing again on Hondoq ir Rummien slopes.

Hondoq dumpsitetHondoq souvenir shop

REFERENCES

Alan Deidun Report 2010
COMMENTS ON QALA CREEK EIA: SOCIAL ASPECTS by Mario Vassallo Review by Prof. Jeremy Boissevain, assisted by Steven Vella
QALA CREEK DEVELOPERS APPLY TO USE GOVERNMENT LAND, Moviment Harsien Hondoq
MEPA air pollution report, 2002
Hondoq EPD final report Summary
Church Environmental Commission Report
Transport Malta

Copyright photography, perchebio.com

Master Plan for Hondoq, Courtesy of Paul Buttigieg