A Better Gozo

 This Opinion piece by the Hon. Giovanna Debono, Minister for Gozo, was published on Sunday 6 June 2010, in the Malta Independent on Sunday on the occasion of World Environment Day.

A Better Gozo

World Environment Day is a welcome reminder of our collective responsibility towards a greener planet. In Gozo, we are working hard all year round to achieve what we have coined as our eco island vision: Eco Gozo. Upon being entrusted by the Prime Minister with steering the ambitious project of turning Gozo into an eco island, we have produced a lengthy vision document that sets out our goals for the year 2020 and beyond, but we have also identified 80 concrete initiatives to be effected over the next three years and the government has voted the sum of €25 million to turn our vision into a reality.

a better Gozo

Wherever we mention "Eco Gozo", we go on to say: "a better Gozo". I must admit that this is proving to be the hardest part of selling our vision to the people of Gozo and Malta. To my surprise, it is very clear that some people still do not recognise that the future of our island lies in our ability to sustain our environment. The hardest part of our job is to strike that daily balance between progress and development and protecting our natural heritage – essentially achieving sustainable development. Over the years, our island has developed into a strong and resilient economy which, though still in need of a degree of sustenance from the central government due to our double insularity, still manages to survive on its own merits. Nowhere in the whole world do I know of a small island such as Gozo where there is much economic activity happening. We tend to take some things for granted, but take the banking sector, for example: five national banks operate in Gozo, of which two are internationally owned. Some of our local entrepreneurs have managed to market and export the Gozitan brand-identity in their products, and our tourist product is one of the most exclusive niches you can find in the Mediterranean, offering as it does award-winning services. We have done well, but now it is time to do better. Competition from all sectors is nibbling at our competitiveness in the tourist market. Should we just reduce our prices and become another cheap destination in order to secure jobs, or is it high time we rolled up our sleeves and made sure that our product is of a higher quality? Gozo today is equipped with the best hospitality services that money can buy, so adding more dressing to our product will not give us the competitive edge we need now, and over the coming decades. We boast an island with a countryside and a landscape that is much more heterogeneous and attractive than those of any other island in our league. Our lifestyle flows hand-in-hand with our beautiful landscape, and our typical Mediterranean diet fits perfectly into this scene. All we need to do now is to lace them all together into a unique package. This package is called "Eco Gozo" and it means a better Gozo.

After the 2008 general election, we passed from vision to action. Eco Gozo was alive, yet at the embryonic stage, and our job was to sustain it and give it flesh. After consulting all interested stakeholders on the island we produced the Eco Gozo vision document, from which we selected the 80 initiatives to be completed in the next three years. Bureaucracy takes its time. Yet we will continue to wait for the relevant tendering procedures, permits and authorisations, even at the cost of being constantly under fire from those who unfortunately find joy in armchair criticism. Notwithstanding the hurdles, much work has been completed behind the scenes and the first sprouts of our labours are beginning to show. In collaboration with Mepa, we have launched a clean-up project of our valleys, which will result in not only improving the landscape but also improve our potential for storing rainwater. We have also announced four sites where afforestation projects will be carried out and which will eventually be turned into natural parks for our families to enjoy. Along with the Ministry for Resources and Rural Affairs, what was once Gozo's main polluter, the Qortin landfill, will be transformed into a family park. We have launched a second scheme to promote the restoration of artesian wells, and photovoltaic panels will be installed on more government buildings in Gozo to reduce their dependence on fossil fuel energy. Within our eco-Gozo strategy we have plans to attract investment to generate more quality employment in Gozo. We are 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 set up a Gozo branch. We are also giving incentives to those who come up with eco-friendly business ventures. In this regard, we as the government are leading by example. The proposed new aquatic sports centre in Rabat is a true example of an eco-friendly investment that will not only benefit all Gozitans in the sport, well-being and health sectors but will also be operating on environmental principles.

In the months to come we hope to be launching more projects that will see our eco vision begin to materialise. We will do so while still carrying on with our daily routine and ensuring that the daily needs and aspirations of the people of Gozo are fulfilled. But we need the support of everyone if we are to succeed. We are all in this together, and if we do manage to make our island an ecological destination, then we will have succeeded in creating a better Gozo.