For a number of years, I have visited the island of Gozo in the Mediterranean, and I have become very attached to its culture, its landscape and its society. I will try to explain what makes this little island special.
Gozo is one of the three largest islands of European Union Member state Malta, the other ones being the main island Malta and a third, smaller, island called Comino. Malta is not yet a Member of IUCN, but the Malta Environmental Protection Agency – MEPA – is in discussions about Government Agency membership. Gozo is, what you could call, the bread basket for Malta – this is where most of the agricultural production takes place that supports the population. Malta is also a fishing nation, and most of the ports on Gozo are still fully operational.
Much of the economic development of Malta is related to foreign trade and tourism, and this has resulted in large, mass-tourism infrastructure on the main island. Yet, Gozo is still relatively unspoilt. The Government has realised this and has launched an initiative called Eco-Gozo (www.ecogozo.com). The idea behind this programme is to reduce the carbon and water footprint, promote eco-tourism, protect the traditional values of the Gozitan society and maintain the landscape of the island. In reality, it has so far focused on landscaping roundabouts, road verges and parks, but the intent is to do a lot more, as described on the Eco-Gozo website. The opportunity to turn the island into a real ecological destination is obvious to any visitor.
What can a small island like Gozo provide in the way of ecosystem services? One the one hand there is the possibility to maintain and restore historical services like water storage in underground systems and wetlands. Gozo is an outcrop of limestone in the Mediterranean Sea, and therefore there is potential for subterranean water storage. In the past, fresh water was collected from wells and reservoirs that were recharged during the rainy season. Rainwater harvesting was a standard practice, with channels dug into the rock, and water collected from roofs of agricultural structures. Nowadays, more than half of the fresh water in Malta is provided by treating seawater through reverse osmosis plants – energy demanding and dependent on imports of hydro-carbons.
With high cliffs, strong winds and almost guaranteed sun every day during the summer, the potential for renewable energy on Gozo is high, but this is not yet fully explored. Individual roofs of private dwellings start to show solar panels for power generation or water heating, but this is not yet accepted as the norm. MEPA (www.mepa.org.mt) is promoting renewable energy, and this is also one on the components of the Eco-Gozo initiative, but not yet every citizen in Gozo has been convinced about the benefits of alternative energy options.
Historically, Gozo used to have a thriving sea-salt industry. This activity has been revived, and tourists now buy “locally produced” sea salt, but there are still other salt pans lying idle.
Quality control of sea salt may be an issue, but attractive packaging and improved publicity now provides a growing market. Similarly, Gozo tourists buy liquor produced from local cactus fruits, tomato paste produced from locally grown tomatoes, jars of naturally grown capers and more recently bottles home-grown wine. I visited a small enterprise on the way to Marsalforn – the ta’mena estate – which is producing a range of local produce grown on their land, and both Gozo Cottage and Jubilee Foods sell locally produced food with no additives. There is great potential for upscaling these individual initiatives, to reach an international market.
Finally, a small island with stunning scenery provides opportunities for eco-tourism. When I was on Gozo, I met the director of a new enterprise, Gozo Adventures (www.gozoadventures.com) which has discovered a niche for individual tourists who want to go hiking in the countryside, kayaking along the coast, abseiling from the cliffs or diving to see the marine biodiversity.
In my view, Gozo should avoid becoming a mass-tourism destination, but should focus on individuals and small groups that have an interest in the landscape, nature and culture of the island. There are a few hotels on the island, and so far, the tourism infrastructure has been well managed. I believe that increased demands for tourist accommodation can be met with low density developments.
The biodiversity on the islands is rather special, and there are many endemic species on Gozo. IUCN has carried out a number of studies and assessments on biodiversity in the Mediterranean through its Centre for Mediterranean Cooperation (www.iucn.org/about/union/secretariat/offices/iucnmed), and I have been told that the rich marine life around the islands makes it one of the best diving spots in the region. Hunting of birds has always been a controversial issue on Malta, and while the membership of the EU has curtailed rampant hunting excesses, there is still a vivid discussion about the protection of migratory species and the rights of local hunters. A clear zoning plan to define management regimes for the different parts of the island would help, but such a plan is not yet fully in place.
Similarly, there are hot debates about fishing, and the role of Maltese fishing boats in commercial fishing in the Mediterranean. There are two individual Marine Protected Areas on Gozo, and while MEPA is working on a coastal planning strategy, there is no Integrated Coastal Zone Management plan of the island.
All-in-all, Gozo is a case study of ecosystem services and the island provides many examples of nature-based solutions for economic development.
Please let me know if you have ever visited the island and what you think