It was the office of European Commissioner Karmenu Vella that invited marine biologist Alan Deidun to participate at the event ‘awarding’ a White Flag at Wied iz-Zurrieq in March last year, the first event launching a scheme that is now at the centre of controversy after The Shift News revealed the organisers were selling flags meant to denote a ‘plastic free beach’ with a price tag of €25,000 and very little to show for it.
Deidun told The Shift News that Vella’s office had invited him to speak about Marine Protected Areas, which he did on a voluntary basis. “I did just that and refused to appear in the official White Flag raising ceremony photo taken on the day, since I was not yet sure who these people were. I got cold feet some four or five months before The Shift News’ story,” Deidun said.
The Shift News reached out to environmental organisations and experts after a series of stories published last month revealing concerns on the White Flag project endorsed by the government. It led to a number of former backers announcing their withdrawal from the project, while others such as the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation and Bianca Jagger denied connections.
There has been no comment from the Environment Commissioner’s office on its support for the controversial project even after The Shift News revealed sources within sponsor companies saying tens of thousands had been transferred straight to an account in Zagreb, Croatia. There was no reaction either when Malta’s environment minister Jose Herrera admitted no due diligence had been conducted.
The second time Deidun participated in a related event, it was the annual ocean literacy event organised around World Oceans Day at the National Aquarium – an event held for the past three years under the patronage the President of Malta, where representatives of the White Flag project were also present.
“Since June last year, I [have] severed all contacts with White Flag, despite their persistent requests to meet up, even in public ( for a symbolic clean up dive at Golden Bay towards the end of summer, for example), since my misgivings about the White Flag had become more corpulent (mainly fuelled by their incessant calls and their lack of credentials). This means that I got cold feet about the White Flag some four or five months before the story broke on Shift News,” he said.
Deidun said he was not aware of the sums of money being paid for the White Flag. “One has to note that prestigious and high profile institutions, including the Prince Albert II of Monaco, were initially also taken in by the sweet talk of the White Flag representatives and hence it comes as no surprise that I chose, at least for the first few months, to give them the benefit of the doubt, before severing all contacts,” he added.
The Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation told The Shift News it intended to sue White Flag representatives for the use of its logo despite several warnings sent to cease immediately.
Questions sent to the Gaia Foundation, responsible for managing Ghajn Tuffieha beach as a protected area, were not answered. Reminders were also ignored.
Ghajn Tuffieha was ‘awarded’ a White Flag, sponsored by private companies, and a ceremony was held late last year that included the participation of ERA CEO Louise Spiteri – despite the fact that the organisers lacked necessary permits that should have been approved by the same Authority before the event.
Soon after the White Flag was given to Ghajn Tuffieha, meant to denote the sea bed and surface were cleaned of plastic with subsequent monitoring for maintenance, the beach needed an emergency clean up after storms washed large amounts of plastic on the beach. It was cleaned by government workers and NGOs, while those behind the White Flag were nowhere to be seen.
The Shift News revealed last week that even as Maltese politicians lined up for photos with the Croatian behind the project Kristijan Curavic, he was facing charges of fraud by Croatian authorities for a similar scheme in that country. They includied Environment Minister Jose Herrera, Gozo Minister Justyne Caruana, President Marie Louise Coleiro Preca, Environment Commissioner in Brussels Karmenu Vella and Prime Minister Joseph Muscat who lent his name to an event this year, as well as the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Keith Schembri’s right hand man – Mark Farrugia.
In his home country, Curavic convinced a couple of government Ministers who then led him to sponsors, on the promise that he would do a deep sea dive in the South Pole to raise awareness about global warming. Except it never happened and the money ‘disappeared’. Curavic is accused of providing a false invoice to avoid paying back the money, court documents in Croatia show.
Remarkably, the Environment Minister’s reaction to concerns on the White Flag project revealed by The Shift News was to say no due diligence had been conducted because “no contracts were signed”. It was on the strength of the government, and Commissioner Vella’s endorsement, that experts and divers and private sponsors supported the project.
PN MEP Francis Zammit Dimech tabled questions at the European Parliament on the Commission’s involvement.
The Maltese President of White Flag International, Steve Abela, who Curavic met at Lord’s Gym owned by Abela, told The Shift News Curavic left Malta a few days after the first stories exposing the money flowing to Zagreb, Croatia, were published.
Camilla Applegren, of Malta Clean Up, who has managed to recruit thousands of local volunteers for regular clean ups has voiced her criticism of the government’s endorsement of the controversial White Flag project. The regular clean ups by the groups have exposed the absence of White Flag teams in areas they were paid to monitor and clean up on a regular basis.
The national representative of Blue Flag, Nature Trust, told The Shift News it had referred the White Flag matter to its international body. The two flags are not to be confused. Blue Flag is an international eco label that is internationally recognised, and approved by the EU, UN and IUCN. When standards are not kept, flags are withdrawn.
In the case of the White Flag, the same handful of people set up the rules without any international accreditation, they set their own price tag and decided for themselves (appointing friends where necessary) on who to ‘award’ it to, depending on payment.