When 19-year-old Sasha Vella set up a Facebook group to save the trees, I doubt she thought more than 10,000 members would join her cause within days. Less still, that over a tenth of those would show up early on a hot Sunday morning to tie themselves to trees.
But they did. And they brought their kids, lots of colourful placards and a great energy with them too.
Up to a few days ago the event organisation seemed haphazard at best and it looked unlikely to draw enough of a crowd. But yesterday’s demonstration turned out to be an amazing example of what civil society should look like in Malta today.
The hundreds of people who tied themselves to trees created a stark (and very shareable) image of people prepared to defend these beautiful mature trees till the end. And beyond that great visual, something even bigger was created.
This 19-year-old girl has not only made it acceptable to protest. She made it cool. Just by being her awesome, young self and attracting other great people to join her, she created an Instagrammable protest that left whoever failed to show up with a sense of regret. This was the place to be yesterday morning.
Seeing young people dance and sing in harmony, surrounded by children holding up colourful and meaningful placards at a non-partisan grassroots event was inspiring whatever you may think of the cause.
It was also a great follow up to a similar demonstration organised recently by Moviment Graffitti in the wake of building collapses that forced several families out of their homes.
Both events were non-partisan and managed to attract a large crowd of people from all walks of life. Both were vibrant family-friendly protests that were able to generate the sort of media content that guarantees front-page coverage. And both sent a strong signal to the authorities.
In the absence of a strong Opposition, a new opposition is growing organically. It is not led by Moviment Graffitti, Sasha Vella or even Simon Busuttil and his girlfriend (as One News would have you believe).
It is led by the frustrations of ordinary people who love Malta but are deeply concerned with its direction. Many are victims of the fast rate of economic growth which seems to have increased their cost of living and reduced their quality of life.
These people are not your standard tree-huggers, even if they bound themselves to trees yesterday morning.
They are not politically-driven people dead set on overthrowing the current government.
They are just normal people who recognise that things are not quite right and they must do something about it.
It seems people are waking up to the reality that there is a missing piece in our democratic puzzle. The lack of a meaningful Opposition means there is an absence of balance in the way decisions are taken. Very few decisions are ever meaningfully challenged and discussed.
The result is a frenzied bulldozing over anything, as long as it’s in the name of generating more economic activity.
It is this frenzy – visualised in fumes, dust clouds, collapsed buildings, uprooted trees, uncollected garbage and workers dying due to poor health and safety regimes – that has ignited a sense of urgency to fight back. A sense of balance must be brought back and civil society is demanding it.
In an interview with Lovin Malta, President George Vella agreed that there is a price to pay for revving up the economic engines the way Malta has done over the last 15 years. He also said it was up to politicians to decide where to stop and turn down the accelerator.
But perhaps it’s not just up to politicians. Maybe it’s up to citizens who don’t want to be forced out of their country and who are ready to do what it takes. They should not be ignored.