Flesh to the eco Gozo vision (Talking Point)

This Talking Point by the Hon. Giovanna Debono, Minister for Gozo, was published today, Saturday 5 June 2010, in the Times of Malta on the occasion of World Environment Day.

This year's theme for World Environment Day is biodiversity and the consequences on our planet if we, people of the world, ignore the writing on the wall.

Many Species, One Planet, One Future is the chosen slogan to make us aware of the dangers of extinction of both known and unknown species that form the circle of life. The bottom line is that we're all in this together and we all have to pull our weight to safeguard our planet and reduce the pressures on its natural systems.

Gozo, though a little island, is giving its share too. Two years ago, the Prime Minister entrusted me with the eco Gozo vision. Following a wide consultation exercise with all interested stakeholders, we coined a mission statement, which, on one hand, makes us proud to have grasped this challenge while, on the other, places on our shoulders the responsibility to turn this vision into stark reality.

We declared that "Gozo will become an eco island by 2020, supported by a keen and committed sustainable community. Gozo will strive to reduce its water and carbon footprints. We want to protect the Gozitan lifestyle, the island's environment, resources, culture and identity and see that all these play a significant part in attracting more visitors and investors to the island. We want to see quality of life in Gozo improving further through education, economic development and social progress".

We've prepared ourselves for the work needed to give flesh to our vision and managed to hit the ground running when, in October 2009, we launched an 80-point strategy for the short-term (2010-2012) reaching out on several aspects of the eco Gozo vision, essentially a sustainable development strategy for our island.

Some criticised our intentions and others still resist what we want to create. Others denigrate all this. Yet, the first signals of our work is proof of our determination to succeed. The eco island vision foresees a sustainable and, therefore, a secure future for the island of Gozo. It is a vision rooted in the island's potential and the capabilities of its people. This is why the government has secured an all-time record investment of €25 million over the next three years just for eco Gozo.

We've started implementing some of the proposed projects and are now building the foundations for other more ambitious initiatives within our proposal for action in the short-term. We want to be quick in our delivery but understand that any changes proposed must go through the normal channels and some projects necessitate interventions in zones that are of high environmental sensitivity. One particular case in point is the clean-up of valleys, which, over time, have fallen victims of neglect and repeated irresponsible acts from people who should have known better. We have now been granted permits to start cleaning Wied ta' Żejta, a picturesque valley where we will remove significant amounts of rubble while increasing the potential to retain larger volumes of rainwater for use in agriculture and for the recharge of our island's aquifers.

I wish to publicly thank the Malta Environment and Planning Authority for their support and keen interest in guiding us to the best way on how to implement this sensitive project.

Similar projects will be launched throughout the year following the groundwork required, among which will be new afforestation zones for families to enjoy and the park that will replace the Qortin landfill in Xagħra, under Wasteserv's leadership.

In the meantime, we are launching the second phase of a project to promote the restoration of wind pumps, while more government buildings in Gozo will be installing photovoltaic panels to cut dependence on fossil fuel energy.

Within our eco Gozo strategy we have plans to attract investment to generate more employment in Gozo. We're working hard to attract such companies and, thanks to Malta Enterprise, we will launch a one-stop shop for investors who want to start a business in Gozo or who want to set up a Gozo branch. We're also giving out incentives to those who come up with eco friendly business ventures. In this regard, we, as government, are leading by example. The proposed new aquatic sports centre in Victoria is a true example of an eco friendly investment, which will not only benefit all Gozitans in the sport, well-being and health sectors but will also be operating on environmental principals.

This is the way forward for Gozo. We need to give a mark of sustainability to whatever we do. If we heed those who want us to remain stagnant in front of the changes occurring around us, we'll be doomed. If we procrastinate in the difficult choices posed by the challenges that lie ahead, we'll fail in preparing our island for the generations to come who, rightfully, demand of us a better Gozo.

The author is Minister for Gozo.