The beach barbecue: Malta’s ‘tragedy of the commons’

Published: July 9, 2009 at 7:50am


The mayor of Mellieha is getting it in the neck because he has banned barbecues from taking place at Ghadira beach. It’s true that those who behave themselves and take their dirt back home with them now have to pay the price alongside those who don’t, and that’s hardly fair.

But whichever way you look at it, there’s no way out of this one because the problematic people appear to outnumber the non-problematic ones.

The beach barbecue has become Malta’s ‘tragedy of the commons’, which is the title of a seminal article written by Garrett Hardin and first published in the journal Science in 1968. Hardin described how many individuals, acting independently in their own self-interest, will ultimately destroy a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest that this should happen.

It is called The Tragedy of the Commons because Hardin used the metaphor of cow-grazing on the ‘common’ – the name given to publicly-held grazing-land in England. It was in each herder’s interest to put as many cows as possible onto the common, even if he had his own privately-owned grazing-land, and even if the common was damaged as a result.

The herder took all the benefits from putting his cows there, but the damage to the common was shared by the entire group. With all herders making the individually rational decision to put their entire herd on the common, the common is destroyed and all herders suffer.

I spoke to the mayor of Mellieha to find out what pushed him over the edge on this one. “People were burying their spent charcoal in the sand, and when we put out charcoal-bins, they were stolen within 24 hours,” he said.

“The mess we found every morning, particularly after weekend nights, was beyond belief. You have to see it to know what I’m talking about. It wasn’t just the food and packaging waste and the empty bottles and the charcoal. People dug holes and defecated into them, and sometimes they didn’t even bother to dig a hole at all.”

Ghadira is the only beach where barbecues are banned, but to listen to the ranting on radio phone-ins, you would think that barbecues have been banned nationwide, and that barbecue police wearing black Stasi uniforms will be going door to door with their Lidl barbecue detectors and full powers of arrest.

It is not enough for those who enjoy night-time barbecues – and let’s face it, the night-time barbecue has become essentially a proletarian pastime so there is bound to be trouble – that they can barbecue their blessed sausages up and down and right round the coast and in all the public fields used for winter picnics.

No, they must have Ghadira beach as well.

It doesn’t occur to them for a single moment that just because they are enamoured of their barbecues, it does not follow that everyone shares their passion. While those who love beach barbecues have all of the islands to play with, bar private property, those who can’t stand the noise, dirt and commotion have no beach to sit on after sundown with a bottle of wine and a couple of friends.

The Maltese beach barbecue is a uniquely unpleasant experience for those who do not favour it. For some reason that might have to do with territoriality, it involves pitching camp over as great an area as possible: one mini-marquee (perhaps Lidl has an offer on) for the children, another one for the grown-ups, and a third for the grandparents to sleep in.

A portable generator provides heat, light and noise, presumably because gossip cannot take place by gaslight. Once there is a generator to hand, then things take on a different perspective: ‘majtezwel’ take the laptop and a small television on which to watch Gran Torino, Scarface (I love both) and The Fast and The Furious.

Then there is the portable refrigerator or, failing that, two or three giant picnic coolers packed with enough soft drinks for an army. And of course, we shan’t forget the barbecue itself, with or without a full-sized gas cylinder, 20 of those folding chairs for everyone in the extended family to sit on, and at least one ghetto-blaster but very often two in case nannu wants to listen to a talk-show and everyone else wants to listen to Tiesto.

They have fun while creating hell for everyone else, particularly because Maltese communication style involves talking at the top of your voice and using aggressive and violent intonation even when you’re chilled and relaxed.

It’s bad enough during the day, but when those voices carry across the still evening waters, it forces you to reappraise the definition of ‘relaxation’.

The fact that summer beach barbecues are no longer the preserve of people in their late teens and early 20s, risking salmonella or the runs by eating half-frozen, half-charred chicken drumsticks barbecued by somebody half-stoned, while the more inebriated members of the party go skinny-dipping, is what has brought this social change about.

The family barbecue is another animal, and the plebeian family barbecue a wholly different creature still. Those who are keen to be politically correct avoid all mention of this aspect altogether, lest they be thought patronising or snobbish.

The interesting thing is that they fear identifying night-time beach barbecues as working-class entertainment because they don’t want to be thought undemocratic, but the working-classes who enjoy beach barbecues have no such hang-ups themselves.

They are all over the radio talk-shows, arguing that because they are tal-klassi tal-haddiema, they can’t afford to pay for barbecue dinners in hotels and must set up their own on the beach instead. Therefore the government is kontra l-klassi tal-haddiema.

Never mind that this is a fallacious argument: a hotel barbecue and a barbecue on a sandy beach are two different forms of entertainment altogether, besides which Ghadira is not the only beach in the country and there are plenty of fields, too.

Some years ago, the historian Carmel Cassar wrote a book called Fenkata: An Emblem of Maltese Peasant Resistance? in which he argued that rabbit-hunting during the hegemony of the Order of St John became not so much about sourcing food as about peasants defiantly claiming their assumed rights over public space.

I can’t help seeing parallels between the rabbit-hunting of three centuries ago and the beach barbecues of today. It’s our own tragedy of the commons.

Garrett Hardin’s arguments can be applied equally to the devastation wrought by bird-shooting, though that’s a different story – and another Maltese tragedy of the commons.

This article is published in The Malta Independent today.

33 Comments Comment

  1. Mario De Bono says:

    We at GRTU supported the mayor publicly on this one, as the damage being done was fantastic to behold. Tourists coming to Malta for the first time, and who stay in the Mellieha area, usually arrive in the afternoon and head for the beach as soon as they land. They are greeted with the sights mentioned by Daphne, that is, barbecue parties with noise, litter, half drunk and stoned English students, the unbelievable amount of litter, people who throw rubbish on the sand “b’vendikazzjoni”, because there can be no other possible motivation, and so on.

    What we get the next morning is a plethora of people with cuts from empty tins and broken bottles buried in sand, children with serious burns on their feet from buried still-burning charcoal, even people who have stepped on syringes. I know because the business community in Mellieha get these complaints all the time, and we are at a loss what to do.

    I am sorry, but to say it in Maltese “M’ahniex nies”. We think we have the right to do anything whenever we want, and in whatever manner we want, and no one should dare to suggest otherwise. It’s not just basic education and manners that are lacking, because i have seen people who should know much much better behave like Neanderthals on the beach, and dump whatever they have anywhere, including actually having a dump in some sandy hole.

  2. eros says:

    Hats off to Robert Cutajar! The BBQ clans have taken up all the popular beaches and even rocky shores – drive by the Coast Road any night in summer and you will be amazed by the paraphernalia of equipment some people carry with them. A much sought after piece of BBQ-estate is the parking-lot in front of the Coastline Hotel, and whoever plants his flag first gets to take over most of the area as if by some God-given right, and woe betide anybody who dares invade their playground. I am sorry to say this but it is not in Maltese culture to self-regulate, so yes, we need regulation and huge fines as deterrents to offenders. I just wish other councils would take the cue.

  3. Rita Camilleri says:

    Thank you, Daphne. You made my day with this article. My day ahd started on a bad note, but now I can’t stop laughing. You painted such an accurate picture of a Maltese barbecue.

  4. Mario De Bono says:

    This year is a very challenging year for in terms of tourism. Directly or indirectly, we depend on tourism for quite a big chunk of our earnings. If this product is perceived to be dirty, soiled, or bad in any way, we are done for. Mellieha specifically, and Malta generally, depend on this product.

    If barbecues, beach parties and general barbarism damage the beaches, they have to go. It is quite possible to go to the beach and enjoy your picnic without causing a nuisance to others by means of generators, loud music, dirt, and so on.

    As my grandmother used to say, “Jekk ma tridx titghallem bis-sewwa, ikollok titghallem bid-dnewwa”. Unfortunately, we Maltese can’t be trusted with our own heritage. And that is a mark of a very sick society. We are undisciplined, unprincipled and uncaring, and the few who are not like that are drowned by the Neanderthals.

    • NGT says:

      I couldn’t agree more – apparently even the local council of Birgu has banned barbecues along the front as all the garbage left over was swept into the sea. After a few complaints from the ‘new’ residents, the mayor did something about it.

      We really are an unbelievable nation. I go jogging around Ta’ Xbiex at night and get really depressed with what I see. Pizza and KFC boxes just left scattered in the road. The place looks like a dump. There are many bins but I guess it’s easier to open the car door and throw stuff out.

      No wonder even the crassest East End reject feels superior here.

  5. Tina says:

    Daphne, as a child we used to have occasional barbecues with my extended family at Ghadira, and the older generation always made sure that we were never rowdy, that we did not occupy half the beach, and that we cleaned up everything before we went back home.

    At that time Ghadira was a decent place. You’re right that recently it has drawn certain kinds of people, but it has also become a regular barbecue beach for students of English as a foreign language.,

    However, make no mistake about the effect this ban is going to have. These people are not going to sulk and stay at home now. No, they will move to other areas which at the moment are relatively (emphasis on the word) preserved, such as Ghajn Tuffieha. So this means no decent beach left for the decent people. Great.

  6. Jeremy J Camilleri says:

    What do syringes have to do with family barbecues? Is Mr. Debono suggesting that all beaches are sealed off at night? Even better…perhaps the beach concessions could grow ever larger until the business community is given full control over our ever shrinking beaches.

    • Mario De Bono says:

      Yes, thats exactly what I am suggesting, Mr Camilleri. Seal them off from the likes of people who abuse drugs and who are too stoned to care. I take it you are not a beach babe. Kemm int vojt, xbin. We are actually working so that the beach concessions are controlled too.

  7. matt II says:

    […summer beach barbecues are no longer the preserve of people in their late teens and early 20s, risking salmonella or the runs by eating half-frozen, half-charred chicken drumsticks barbecued by somebody half-stoned, while the more inebriated members of the party go skinny-dipping…]

    Impressive description! I’ll miss our Ghadira BBQs ;’-(

  8. Ishmael Dalli says:

    I agree, Mario – where is our civic sense? Some local councils are even considering removing the skips and bring-in sites because people are dumping kitchen refuse and other waste all around them. Part of education should be instilling in people a sense of civic pride.

  9. john xuereb says:

    I hope that barbecues are banned all over the islands, not only at Ghadira. Well done to the mayor of Mellieha.

  10. Milone says:

    This one’s closely related to the caravan crisis: “I can’t afford a home by the sea and I can’t afford to go on holiday abroad” ergo “I have a right to park my caravan at the beach”.

  11. richard muscat says:

    I agree with your protest article. It’s a shame! L-aqwa li inkantaw il-versi tal-mibki Sammy Bartolo! May we learn some day!

  12. Karl says:

    Such unregulated, unsupervised and unchallenged flouting of the law is almost equivalent to the supremacy of mob rule.

  13. CaMiCasi says:

    The furore seems to be fuelled by the ‘fact’ that beaches and barbecues belong together like roads and cars do. If so, it’s a ‘fact’ which needs to be unlearned – there are very few well-kept beaches outside of Malta which allow them, at least ones of the scale described above.

    In Paris, where people think nothing of taking dogs shopping, to restaurants and on public transport, they’ve been banned from taking them to most public parks and gardens in the city centre, even though you’d think it was the natural place for them to be. This for pretty much the same reason as our own barbecue issue – that given the open space, public property and lack of oversight, the owners think nothing of acting irresponsibly, being a nuisance and encouraging a poop without bothering to scoop.

    They got over it, because they had to.

    I think barbecues, if allowed on other beaches, should be organised/controlled in the same way camping sites are – you get an allotted space in your name (which you may or may not pay for) and you are responsible for that space. Damage and costs can be traced back to you. Make them pay to clean it up.

  14. P Shaw says:

    I really appreciate what Mr. Cutajar has done. It was a bold move, and I admire him for his guts knowing that barbecuing is a national pastime on the same level as the village feast. I am from Mellieha. Going to the beach, I feel desperate and so ashamed. It’s a dump, and it’s not only the working-class people who throw garbage around. I have seen university students, and other uptight youths throwing garbage out, because they claim that the garbage bin is not close enough, and they don’t feel like walking to the bin – people who should lead by example.

    And then they claim that the Mellieha residents are Maltese ‘minn wara l-muntanji’ because it’s a rural area, somewhat cut-off from the rest of the island. I can assure you that the typical old local residents (most of them farmers) have far more respect for the environment and the village surroundings than both the ‘educated’ class and also the urban ‘working class’.

    We have to live with all this dirt throughout the summer, and the ‘xalati tal-festa’ carcades every Monday. Yes, bold moves are needed with uncivilised people.

  15. E=mc2 says:

    Daphne’s article is excellent and the Mellieha mayor’s courageous act is most commendable. Most of the barbecue fans couldn’t care less. Quiet beach evenings as I remember them no longer exist, and it’s a shame. People usurp so much that is commonly held: beaches, birds, etc.

    And what about the famous boat-houses which successive governments have allowed to mushroom in picturesque settings illegally and then had the cheek to regularise them so as not to lose votes? Look at all those motley hideous constructions by the side of the hill near Mellieha Bay. They are there forever to ruin that place: shanty towns and favelas. The “justification” was the same one mentioned by Daphne: that the rich can afford “villeggatura” but the “haddiema” can only afford to build “boat-houses” on public land.

    The rich can also afford a Maserati, so why not buy one for each plebeian out of public funds? What a country. What spineless politicians whowill sell their soul (or rather public land) for a vote.

  16. John Schembri says:

    We used to go in 1980 for moonlight picnics at Golden Bay, light a small fire in a five-gallon tank and light up two emergency lights. When the moon was full, there used to be another ten groups or so. After some years we saw an ice-cream van developing into a restaurant, then another restaurant, then a permanent volley-ball pitch, then student groups, band clubs with tables, generators, disco and what-have-you.

    And the beach litterers are mostly the language ‘students’.

    All this happens because there is no good law enforcement to kill the serpent of egoism in the egg. If our laws were enforced we wouldn’t be in this situation today.

  17. Nigel says:

    I just got home from a day out of the office to clean my apartment at Mellieha Bay or as we Maltese call it L-Ghadira. It was a pleasure to walk on the pavement along the seafront for once in a very long time without any hassle. Gone are the generator noises, the acrid smell of kerosene thrown on barbecues to set them alight, the smell of fatty sausages, the shouting and half naked persons, dirty with sand and muck. It was really a study in tranquility.

    There were of course many people eating and picnicking on the sand but I can tell you that I have never seen so many Maltese at the same time, all so quiet. The silence and tranquility were unbelievable. It was 8 pm when usually it is peak time for chaos.

    Well done, Mellieha council. Well done, Mellieha mayor.

    Let’s ban barbecues from every seaside resort in Malta and Gozo. They are degrading.

    • Mario De Bono says:

      And so say all of us!

    • John Meilak says:

      Why not demolish that shanty-town near the nature reserve while still at it? Or demolish those illegal kiosks encroaching on the beach? But of course not, banning barbeques is the most cost-effective way of showing us that you’re doing something about cleanliness at the beaches. Wow, what an achievement.

      Anyway, this ‘ban’ will be null and void in a month’s time as happened with the smoking bans, Paceville drinking bans and so on. I wouldn’t blame the police force for not imposing such ridiculous bans. It would be quite a waste of resources to send officers to monitor the beach for ‘bbq activity’ whilst hardened criminals roam the streets. And anyway, this ban can be easily overcome: buy a portable gas stove for 40 dollars. Enjoy your meals by the sea!

  18. Joseph Micallef says:

    I rejoice when I hear of such actions but then my frustration assumes apocalyptic dimensions when I see that in Bahar ic-Caghaq we are back to square one!

    • J Azzopardi says:

      Sfortunatament Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq reġa ġie l-istess jew aktar agħar milli kien. Mort din il-ġimgħa u rajt caravans bil-parapett madwarhom magħmulin mill-injam jew forsi sempliċiment palettes tat-tgħabbija f’forma kwadra li tieħu 3 parkings u ħadd ma jista’ jersaq ‘l hemm.

      Madwar baħar iċ-Ċagħaq it-triq fiha xi daħliet li wieħed jista jipparkja u jagħmel piknik hemm hekk għax hemm l-imwejjed ta’ l-injam. Jekk tgħaddi minn hemm tara ruxmata nies fuq xulxin jagħmlu l-barbeque fuq il-bankina.

      Ma ninswex li f’Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq hemm il-Magħtab li mhix twarrad iżda tinten…u ma naħsibx li BBQ hemm huwa pjaċevoli :)

      U l-BBQ mhux ta’ xi klassi soċjali jew oħra iżda ta’ ħafna Maltin li ġejjin minn kull qasam soċjali.

      Huwa sew li ċertu bajjiet l-aktar fejn hemm ir-ramel jkunu protteti imma ma naħsibx li minħabba l-injuranza ta’ xi wħud għandu jeħel kulħadd.

      X’hemm ħażin imbilli jien u l-familja nagħmlu BBQ, inżommu nadif, mingħajr ebda storbju, mingħajr sigaretti mxerrdin ma kullimkien, mingħajr generator, mingħajr fliexken mkissrin u nieħdu spazju limitat?

      Il-bniedem biex jegħleb l-injuranza għandu bżonn it-tagħlim. U l-moderazzjoni hija virtu f’kull ħaġa li wieħed jagħmel.

  19. adrian muscat says:

    I am so glad that finally someone is taking action. your article describes the situation so well. Hopefully the ban will last for years to come. It is high time that these activities are controlled all over the island.

  20. Jeremy J Camilleri says:

    Mario De bono…Seal them off from people who abuse drugs or are stoned….So GRTU have a drug radar? Prosit. Perhaps you’d like to lend it out to the cops, seeing that you’re doing their job…seal off beaches indeed!

    [Daphne – Jeremy, I can see where you’re coming from, but you have to admit that Ghadira is a lot more pleasant in the evening now – for the majority, rather than the minority, and as a socialist you have to see the benefit in that. Or are today’s Maltese socialists thinking along the lines of taking over public spaces for privileged minorities on a first-come, first-served basis?]

    • Mario Debono says:

      This Jeremy is more intent on scoring points than on discussion. I thought he was more in favour of the masses than this. In his haste at scoring points off the GRTU and the PN he just trips over his own feet. Ghadira is enjoyable in the evenings now without the few who were spoiling it for the many. Mr Camilleri is arguing in favour of the few who had made Ghadira their own with their ‘tersaqx l-hawn ghax indamdmuk’ attitude. At least you have to admire the fact that the guy is one of the few elves who use their own name.

  21. Lorna says:

    I’m all for banning barbecues on all beaches – sandy beaches especially. However, make no mistake: people can be rowdy without the actual barbecue set.

    I feel so frustrated that wherever you go you have to put up with noise and high-volume music from your neighbours. It’s bad enough to be surrounded by noise everywhere we go – but why can’t we simply enjoy the sunset or just sitting on the beach in silence? The sound of the saves lapping up to the sandy beaches, the loud sound of silence as an Italian author once wrote, the applause of silence to the grandeur of nature.

    If it’s before 11p.m. one has no chance in hell of having one’s “right to silence” respected. The police tell you to stick with it till 11p.m. Why do people have the right to be noisy but people do not have the right to silence and peace?

    So, hats off to the mayor of Ghadira. But let’s ensure that the beach is no longer polluted – and this includes noise pollution, day and night.

  22. Jeremy J Camilleri says:

    Daphne, public spaces should never be taken over….by anybody…You must admit that the promises made before last elections to boathouse owners in certain areas, and apparently by both parties, means that, well, public spaces are taken over by small minorities.

    [Daphne – I agree with you, Jeremy. I can’t stand the argument that the ‘little man’ has the right to take over public space by the sea because he can’t afford a villa or a holiday. Or that he has the right to hold a barbecue on the water’s edge because he can’t afford the prices in five-star hotels. Boathouses and shacks by the sea are a hangover from the days when people didn’t have cars and ‘had to’ decamp to the coast for the entire three months of summer – a sort of slum version of the ‘summer villas’ in St Paul’s Bay and Sliema used by the upper middle classes. Now every household has one car or three or four, and there is no longer any excuse. As I once told one comfortably-off person who insists on that way of summer life, and who lives quite close to where I do, when he complained: if I can drive my children to the beach every day and drive them back home again, your wife can do the same. After all, she’s got a car and money for petrol.]

    Mario…about the syringes and all the rest….eliminated now are they?

  23. Mario De Bono says:

    Jeremy, everybody knows in this blog that my busness is pharmacies, including Mellieha. I can give you several telephone numbers of doctors of your bent if you wish, that is lefties. I can also give you right-wing doctors’ telephone numbers but I really don’t believe that you’d believe them.

    Call them yourself and see what they have to deal with come Sunday or Monday morning. The syringes are the worst health hazard on that beach, but not the only one.

    They also have to deal with the occasional, but not infrequent, bad trip down at the beach at night. Admittedly not just Ghadira beach.

    When I was younger, people used to go to the beach to surreptitiously smoke a joint, set a bonfire and play the guitar. Today’s version is a full-blown disco, with lights, generator, barbecue and hard drugs.

  24. Jeremy J Camilleri says:

    Mario De Bono..once again, the reasons you put forward are not direct results of family barbecues. Why is it so hard for you to understand something so simple?

  25. Jeremy J Camilleri says:

    As for the doctors, whilst thanking you for your kind offer, I’d rather use my own if you don’t mind.

    I wouldn’t like to fall ill on a Monday morning and have my MD unavailable because he’s at Ghadira bay picking up syringes…..

  26. Nicholas Parnis says:

    People get the governments and the laws they deserve. This one’s been coming, and well done to the mayor of Mellieha for taking this stand.

  27. A Smith says:

    It’s great that this ruling was put in place. To be honest most people I know view the Maltese as peasants with the sort of behaviour they show at beaches and their ranting and carrying on if you dare tell someone to put their garbage in the bin.

    My wife and I made the mistake of telling an adult lady with her two sons to take her plastic bag with her, after we politely told her she had “left” it there. She ignored us, and we honestly thought she had left something valuable there.

    We picked up the bag, and noticed it was just full of rubbish, and we walked to her and told her. She then said “Doesn’t matter, the rubbish too far away from here”.

    There are masses of uneducated dopes who make the intelligent on the island look bad. What is it about Maltese? You have such a beautiful island, but you make yourselves look like 3rd world people. It’s so sad!

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