Cover photo: White Flag’s divers with Environment Minister Jose Herrera at the Blue Grotto (Photo: White Flag); Circle photo: White Flag’ International founder Kristijan Curavić (Photo: Instagram)
A Croatia-based diving cleanup project has denounced allegations that its operation in Malta is a complete sham as “what seems like a systematic and coordinated attack intended to get at the Maltese government”.
“There was absolutely no bad intention on our part,” a spokesperson for WhiteFlag International told Lovin Malta. “We just wanted Malta to become the first country in the world with a seabed completely free of plastic and marine waste.”
The WhiteFlag International project kicked off in Malta in March this year, announcing Blue Grotto as the island’s first litter-free beach following a diving operation in which divers brought waste out of the sea with their own hands so as not to damage the marine flora.
EU Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella and Environment Minister Jose Herrera were both present at the launch to endorse the campaign.
Since then, six other beaches – Ġnejna Bay, Għajn Tuffieħa, Golden Bay, Marsalforn Bay, Mġarr Ix-Xini and Daħlet Qorrot – have been granted the White Flag.
However, its operation in Malta now risks being killed in its cradle after several iGaming companies pulled out as clean-up sponsors in the wake of reports that the project is nothing but a scam and that its founder Kristijan Curavić has been accused of fraud.
The Shift News cited companies as saying they paid up to €25,000 to sponsor a beach and claimed the initiative could even see taxpayers fork out millions for what is ultimately a relatively useless project. To back up their argument, they published photos of plastic bottles and waste that were littered and washed onto the beaches of Ġnejna Bay and Għajn Tuffieħa – both of which were granted the White Flag.
Meanwhile, Malta Clean Up’s Camilla Appelgren – quite possibly the island’s most passionate litter collector – has warned that WhiteFlag’s operations are completely opaque, with no prior announcements of impending clean-ups or documentation to prove they even visited the beaches in the first place.
“They recently said they picked up 100 tonnes of plastic from Gnejna Bay, but that’s impossible unless perhaps they found a shipwreck!” she said. “To put it in perspective, a recent nationwide clean-up only generated 60-80 tonnes of waste.”
Gnejna Bay after a recent clean-up: (Photo: The Shift News)
“Knowing the clean-up society, you’d typically love taking photos of your work to document everything and raise awareness. However, WhiteFlag never publish any photos and never answer my emails. I suspect the reason they chose Malta is because we’re renowned as a society that doesn’t usually ask questions or scratch beyond the surface.”
She also questioned why the Environment Minister didn’t conduct a simple background search on Kristijan Curavić before endorsing his campaign.
“A simple Google search would have found that he was accused of fraud,” she said. “One would think that the government would have carried out basic due diligence checks, but the Environment Minister seems to think people are stupid.”
The Gozo Ministry has indeed paid WhiteFlag to clean up the bays of Mġarr Ix-Xini and Daħlet Qorrot, but WhiteFlag said it offered this clean-up on a ‘two beaches for the price of one’ deal, meaning that (if the Shift’s numbers are correct) it cost taxpayers some €25,000.
Kristijan Curavić and Health Minister Chris Fearne launch a White Flag at Gnejna Bay
However, the Environment Ministry has said it has no contractual obligations with WhiteFlag, meaning the clean-ups for the other five beaches were sponsored by primarily iGaming companies as a corporate social responsibility initiative.
Herrera has argued that, as there is no contractual deal between his ministry and WhiteFlag, it wasn’t his remit to conduct due diligence on the project or dig into Curavić’s background.
“We were told they would bring drivers to clean up beaches from accumulated rubbish, primarily plastic,” a spokesperson for Herrera said. “By attending their events, just as he frequently attends events organised by other environmental NGOs, the minister simply sent out a sign that he subscribes to the principle that beaches should be cleaned and maintained.”
“If it turns out there is proof of fraud, then we will obviously stop attending their events, but so far there are only allegations in the Croatian press. It wasn’t the ministry’s remit to check them out as we weren’t entering into a contractual agreement that warranted due diligence.”
A spokesperson for WhiteFlag confirmed they plan to sue The Shift and Appelgren.
“The allegation that the government is forking out millions in taxpayers’ money is a severe accusation and we will take legal action in this regard,” he said.
He denied that WhiteFlag abandoned the bays after the initial clean-up, noting that they were in the process of setting up a Maltese team to monitor each bay at least twice a year and that “a big operation” in Malta is scheduled for next month.
Malta Clean Up founder Camilla Appelgren
“There was absolutely no bad intention on our part. We just wanted Malta to become the first country in the world with a seabed completely free of plastic and marine waste”
White Flag International spokesperson
“Publishing photos of plastic bottles on the beach as evidence that our operation is a scam portrays a major misunderstanding of our work, as we remove plastic and marine waste from the seabed and the sea surface and not the ground,” he said. “If anything, those photos do more damage to NGOs involved in cleaning up beaches than they do to us.”
“There was absolutely no bad intention on our part. We just wanted Malta to become the first country in the world with a seabed completely free of plastic and marine waste; our goal aimed towards protecting marine and aquatic life, but also developing a sustainable tourism so local people and tourists could enjoy clear healthy seas. We set ourselves a huge goal that had never been achieved in history and tried our best to engage the corporate sector to share responsibility for the public good. However, it appears as though some groups have different agendas.”
He also played down reports that the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation intends to sue WhiteFlag for listing it as one of its partners, stating that: ”We’ve been in contact with the Foundation and there is no lawsuit against WhiteFlag International.”
Who is Kristijan Curavić?
Curavić was born on Krapani, a small Croatian island with a population of under 250 which has a strong diving tradition. Indeed, Curavić’s Facebook profile describes him as a keen and passionate diver, who fell in love with the sea when he was just four years old. “After finishing high school, he moved to Oslo where he attended a professional diving school to become the youngest commercial diver in Scandinavia at the age of 19,” his profile reads.
Kristijan Curavić diving in the freezing waters of the North Pole. Photo: Pinterest
“Maybe I’m a charmer but I’m certainly not a thief”
In 2005, he left a mission to the North Pole, where he set a world record for the deepest dive ever made in the Arctic – 51m depth under 2m ice thickness at -35 degrees air temperature. After completing his mission, he returned to his homeland of Croatia and set up five diving centres along the Adriatic Coast.
He also dated the popular Croatian TV presenter and actress Nikolina Ristović for a few years.
However, Curavić has also faced controversy in the Croatian press after people accused him of embezzlement. One of his former divers went public with accusations that Curavić hadn’t paid her and had used the money on dinners and cars instead. Curavić has denied these claims.
In an interview with Slobodna Dalmacija, Curavić said he went bankrupt as a result of the 2008 global recession, with projects collapsing as a result.
“Maybe I’m a charmer but I’m certainly not a thief,” he said. “I was bankrupt, my friends used to give me coffee and there were awful days when I didn’t even have enough food to eat.”
He said his idea for the White Flag project and the affiliated Ocean Alliance Conservation Member initiative was born of the success of ‘World Aqua Day’ – an annual global underwater cleanup.
“We didn’t want to be an organisation that only cleans up litter from the sea once a year, because sea waste needs our attention everyday,” he said at his launch in Malta. “The White Flag and OACM projects are about cooperation between governments, world-leading NGOs and businesses.”