Saturday, June 18, 2016,
There is no respite for trees
Alfred E. Baldacchino
The proposed uprooting of trees at the Ta’ Xbiex yacht marina provoked a flow of comments and criticism on the social media. This followed a decision to “condemn to death by Transport Malta with the blessing of Ta’ Xbiex local council and the hidden hand of the Gżira local council”. Incidentally, the Gżira local council also had a hidden hand in the butchering of the indigenous olive trees at the University campus.
It is now becoming more clear that one of the main items at the top of some local councils’ agendas is the destruction of urban trees in their territory. They certainly do not show any appreciation for such an important natural heritage, nor any respect for political commitments and (inter)national obligations.
The trees at Ta’ Xbiex intended for uprooting fall under the responsibility of the Minister for Transport and Landscaping. This ministry is becoming more and more notorious for the decimation of trees in the Maltese islands, both directly and indirectly. In fact, it would not be surprising to say that the Minister for Transport and Landscaping seems to be completely unaware of his party’s electoral manifesto.
Article 56 of the Labour electoral manifesto promises that the government will “continuously protect the existing trees in Maltese cities and villages and incentivise the planting of more trees, particularly indigenous trees”.
Section 9 commits the government, which “believes that Malta should be in the forefront in environmental standards. Not because there are obligations from the European directives but because this is what our children deserve.”
Despite such commitments, the devastation of urban trees has been going on even under the present administration.
To add insult to injury, the Minister for Transport and Landscaping is responsible for a public-private partnership agreement for which the Maltese public is now paying €8 million a year.
What has one to show for all this public money spent in the last 14 years, that is €112 million? Invasive species spreading all over the islands, such as fountain grass, hottentot fig and siris tree, expanses of turf gulping scarce resources of water, most of which ends up running down the adjacent streets, herbicides preventing Maltese wildflowers from propagating and offering an adequate habitat for pollinators such as bees and for insect larvae, mutilated and uprooted trees, annuals which are planted for a couple of weeks and then ploughed to be replaced by other annuals. All are endorsed and paid for by the said ministry.
Considering the above promises, national and international obligations and subsequent damage to the local biodiversity, I asked for a copy of the agreement. Following a number of refusals by the Ministry for Transport and Landscaping, last January 19, the Commissioner for Data Protection “instructed the minister to forward a copy of such agreement”. But Joe Mizzi’s ministry is still objecting to handing it over.
One of the main items at the top of some local councils’ agendas is the destruction of urban trees in their territory
What is so scandalous in this agreement? What is the reason for objection when the Data Protection Commissioner “concluded that it does not contain any information having a commercial value”? It is an open secret that the original agreement was the result of a direct order and not made through a call for interest from various stakeholders. Why is the minister so keen to keep such an official public agreement so close to his heart? Is there anything embarrassing in it? Is it possible that what is being paid from public funds is not exactly in line with what is stipulated in the agreement?
The protection of trees and the natural habitat is the responsibility of the Minister for the Environment, who is obliged to ensure that the number of national and international biodiversity obligations, including those of the EU are honoured. Perhaps the new Environment Minister can give a helping hand to Mizzi and put his foot down on such destruction as he courageously and boldly did regarding the vote at the EU against the extended use of the herbicide glyphosate?
The introduction to the 2013 electoral manifesto, signed by Joseph Muscat, now Prime Minister, clearly states that: “For us Malta does not belong to this one or that one. It does not belong to any clique. Malta belongs neither to some politician nor to some political party. Those times are past.”
Judging by the way trees are handled, it seems the ministry is still anchored to past times. One has only to look at all the disfigured urban trees, the spread of invasive species, the waste of resources, the spread of exotic species at the expense of indigenous trees to reach such a conclusion.
Besides, the Ministry for the Environment seems to think and believe that the public agreement that provides public funds for the above-mentioned environmental damage is its property.
Alfred Baldacchino is a former assistant director at the Malta Environment and Planning Authority’s environment directorate.
Further reading on trees: