True Value of Land
We Maltese have always conceptualised joy and misery in terms of physical space; words like roħob, merħba or dwejjaq are all associated with space. It is interesting how having to share our meagre 316Km2 of land has seeped into our language long before our population reached its current size. And yet it is not surprising, because choosing what to do with this limited resource is a profoundly political, even, ethical issue. Who we are as a society is defined by the kind of landscapes we leave behind.
Let us take agriculture. There is a concern that farming will disappear due to the market situation such as the reliance of the livestock sector on imported feed or competition with imported agricultural products.
However we must also think how agriculture is affected by our land use decisions. We cannot pretend that if we just build around our natural heritage, it will be enough. The encroachment of urbanisation brings with it the loss of the important services that nature provides and can mean increased flood risk, soil loss and the destruction of pollinators. Agriculture needs more than pockets of protection, it needs a landscape in which to thrive. Pushing out agriculture would not only mean losing an important economic sector but it would mean letting the possibility of having more sustainable produce with shorter transport distances disappear, it would mean letting the value of a rural landscape disappear and most importantly it would mean letting the possibility of having genuinely delicious food disappear. We are lucky to still have access to some of the tastiest vegetables I have ever tasted. The global loss of farms that are tied to their landscape and the richness and history of that land has meant higher production rates, but a loss of the quality of the product. I should know, I live in the Netherlands, ‘the country that feeds the world’ and one of the largest producers in the world of tomatoes. Yet they are only tomatoes in name. I could not recall their taste because they have none; they are not our ‘żenguli’ or our ‘tadam ċatt’. In this sense I could not agree more with Karl Scerri from the Malta Youth in Agriculture Foundation (MaYa) that farmers have what it takes to outcompete imported foods.
Besides this, a degree of local production is the economically wiser decision to make, as opposed to being wholly dependent on imports. To quote my favourite pop historian, John Green, ‘trade can be a pretty weak foundation on which to build a polity’. He was referring to the city-state of Srivajaya, a successful trade-based state in Sumatra between the 7th and 13th centuries. Yet as history teaches us, the nation was only temporarily successful as it places you at the mercy of the highs and lows of the international market.
At this point people often mention Singapore to me because it seems to be the obvious comparison for what we could, and even should become, as a small island with no resources and circa 50 years of independence from the British. Recently it has even become one of the most food secure countries in the world. Again Singapore’s success, much like its medieval neighbour of Srivajaya, is highly dependent on how you define that success. Singapore’s educational system and economic development is virtually unparalleled and yet this came at the cost of 90 per cent of its forest, 67 per cent of its birds, about 40 per cent of its mammals and 5 per cent of its amphibians and reptiles making it one of the worst environmental offenders in the world according to some studies. Similarly its riches have not reached everyone, as it has one of the biggest wealth gaps of any OECD country. Whether you think Singapore is a success or a horror story depends on what you value.
The question is not whether we will run out of physical land (although in a country as small as Malta this is physically possible), but rather what kind of society do we want to be. Do we want to depend on imports? Do we want to do away with agriculture altogether? Do we go for one island city and a few parks or do we leave space for wildlife? Will we erode the services that nature provides or will we protect them? Do we want to maximise the efficiency of our land use and build more sky scrapers or do we want to maintain traditional architecture? I am not here to give answers, but if we don’t start thinking about the answers to these questions, collectively and as a society, we run the risk of having an urban environment, a natural environment; in short, a landscape which none of us are happy to live in.