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We’ve all seen the surreal scenes from this past week: following the Mosta local council’s unanimous decision to chop down twelve mature Ficus trees in the locality’s square, a decision which was revoked midway following widespread public anger and an active occupation of the site in which the trees were facing the chop, it is hard to feel anything but sheer disbelief.

We’ve seen birds falling out of the sky dead with exhaustion as they desperately tried to roost in those mid-century old trees only to instead find heavy machinery had evicted them. We, too, felt a piece of our own collective memory was permanently destroyed as we witnessed the immediate aftermath of their butchering.

Moviment Graffitti activist Andre’ Callus, who has been consistently active in the fight against the destruction of our environment for years, was arrested by two police officers who handcuffed him and dragged him to the nearby police station following his refusal to allow workers to erect gates around the trees.

Although he was released thirty minutes later and no charges seem to have been levied against him as of yet, the fact that two district officers were ordered to arrest one of the luminaries of civil society in broad daylight is a massive escalation in intolerance towards environmental activists. It is no coincidence that this is happening precisely when environmental activists have become a formidable thorn in the backsides of the greedy, corrupt developers who are hell-bent on landscaping, reshaping, and oversaturating every square centimetre of this island.

It is even less of a coincidence when one remembers that another activist from another NGO – Repubblika’s Robert Aquilina – has been courteously asking the police force for armed protection following an escalation of the threats he and his family have been facing, only to be rebuffed by a wall of silence from a police commissioner who couldn’t give less of a toss about his failure to uphold the law equally for all without fear or fervour.

Of course, one may be tempted to argue that in light of how serious Malta’s love affair with organised crime and corruption is, this statewide uproar about a dozen trees in a village square may seem disproportionate and perhaps even be labeled as a distraction from other, larger issues. After all, I could reasonably ask this question of myself – why did I, a freelance journalist who focuses on organised crime and corruption, give so much attention to this issue?

I did so because of the very simple reason that one of the first, most obvious casualties of corruption in any society is the state of its natural environment.

Due to its illicit profit making oriented nature, a society that is both materially and morally corrupt will refuse to acknowledge the environment as anything other than just another resource which can be exploited for monetary gain. Environmental crime is one of the most profitable avenues of activity that is available to organised crime networks across the globe, simply because the real, long-term devastating impact of criminal activity which involves environmental exploitation is often not as immediately visible as something as high-profile as drug trafficking.

What happened in Mosta is a microcosm of how the environment is treated in such a society.

A notoriously disliked, arrogant mayor in a busy town decides he wants to pedestrianise the square. His somnambulant fellows on the council offer about as much resistance as a chicken-wire fence, and sometimes even bother to look up from the game of Candy Crush they’re probably playing on their tablet to grunt their approval at the mayor’s grand plans.

At one point, he casually informs them that twelve trees which have defined the square for half a century will be chopped down and transplanted elsewhere. The discussion lasts a minute and the trees which, in their lifetime up until now, have witnessed Malta’s transformation from backwater puddle to global tax haven, are butchered faster than you can say the word “Ficus”.

Our heroic police force, known for its intolerance for small-time crooks and its cosiness with politicians who have committed enough crimes to be effectively in league with mob bosses, awakens from its slumber to harass and arrest protesters who were righteously making use of their right to demonstrate and take action against environmental destruction.

In case you were worried that any of this might have troubled the mayor’s conscience, fear not, for he’s been overheard by incredulous witnesses as he loudly proclaimed that he does not believe this will affect his chances of re-election come next year.

Also, bear in mind that the removal of these trees was sanctioned by the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA). Just like in other countries across the world, a corrupt government will sanction anything as long as it keeps the procurement orders for its selected operatives in the private sector.

This is where the intersection between environmental crime and corruption is evident.

The fact that such an incompetent, ignorant lot of councillors were elected and were then free to abuse their pathetic, limited amount of power to such an extent is testament to how deeply flawed and corrupt our political system is.

The fact that the authorities responsible for protecting our environment instead gave a thumbs-up to this moronic idea is testament to how deeply flawed and corrupt our political system is.

The fact that all of this was carried out without as much of a whisper of public consultation, against the wishes of the architects who designed the project, against all common sense and reason and respect for the community, is testament to how deeply flawed and corrupt our political system is.

More importantly, this small win serves as an important reminder that every battle is important, and that one cannot underestimate how sometimes, it is something which seems minor in the grand scheme of things that can trigger the general public into taking action.

Sometimes, it is only when our homes, our childhood memories, and our sense of familiarity are threatened that we understand just how bad things are.

There is nothing inherently wrong with that, as long as there is a deeper understanding of what needs to be done to address the systemic issues which brought us here in the first place.

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