The Dwejra sandstorm

Many locals thronged cinemas out of national pride rather than a desire for entertainment when blockbusters like Gladiator and Munich – filmed in Malta – were being screened.

So it is quite ironic that many people are now calling for a total ban on filming at certain delicate sites, after a botched film set turned part of Dwejra into a stodgy mess that could have long-term consequences.

The Malta Environment and Planning Authority is blaming the film producers for the damage. The producers have pointed fingers at the contractor. The public, meanwhile, wants to know why Mepa granted the permit in the first place and have accused authority inspectors of being caught napping.

Unlike some have suggested, it would be madness to ban filming at a picturesque site like Dwejra. Aside from the obvious promotional benefits for Malta, filming has taken place there before without a hitch, as film line producer Malcolm Scerri Ferrante recently pointed out. That argument is therefore not even worthy of consideration.

The real issues are whether Mepa was fully aware of the extent of the activity that was meant to take place in such a sensitive area, whether enough was done to prevent what happened, and what steps will be taken to ensure it does not happen again.

Mepa has laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of the American producers, who it says breached at least three conditions – including inexcusably ignoring a requirement to place an impermeable cover below the ‘sand’.

Yet people are legitimately asking how such a thing took place without the authority’s knowledge. Mepa said monitoring may only be carried out if it is advised that filming is taking place in a specific area – the producers are filming concurrently at 10 different locations – and in this case it was not.

Though this argument has some merit, it is still pertinent to question why a Natura 2000 site like Dwejra was not afforded special treatment. Should such an area be left to the mercy of film-makers who have little reason to worry about what they leave behind?

There is still a question mark, of course, over the extent of the damage. Environment management expert Alfred Baldacchino said the solidified sand had caused the total elimination of the ecosystem and that the living species beneath the sand stood no chance of survival; while Mepa environment director Martin Seychell has insisted these claims are exaggerated. Even though plants are present, he said, they were not of the type that helped Dwejra obtain its Natura 2000 status.

Although Mr Seychell did not help himself or Mepa when he originally said the area was bare rock with no ecosystem, this particular sideshow is not likely to get us very far at this stage. What we need now is to ensure that there is accountability and no prospect of a repeat.

However, in all of us there has been a degree of double standards on this issue. The degeneration of Dwejra has been going on for decades and few people have objected – with over-built boathouses and an interpretation centre sticking out like sore thumbs. Meanwhile, construction rubble has been allowed to deface the cliffs.

Other areas around the island are also being ruined by unbridled development and vandalism – and sadly the occurrences are too common to make front page news.

Perhaps the latest incident at Dwejra will teach us once and for all to start looking after our sites as well as improving monitoring – and not just when the cameras are rolling.

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