EU funds endanger Buskett N2K site

Saturday, 13th May, 2017

Endangering Buskett 
Alfred E. Baldacchino

Buskett is a Tree Protection Area, with some trees protected for their antiquity, a scheduled woodland, an Area of Ecological Importance, a Site of Scientific Importance, a Site of European Importance, a Special Area of Conservation, a Bird Protection Area, and above all an EU Natura 2000 site.

The remains of an Ash Tree, after being handled by a Landscaper, in the Natura 2000 Buskett.

Yet, to date Buskett has never been professionally managed, especially on the lines of EU obligations. Never. There is absolutely no will, no vision, and no professional commitment. To the extent that a past environment minister was made to believe that Buskett is a garden. There were plans to transform this important ecological habitat into a ‘quality garden’ on the lines eventually implemented at the Mdina Ditch.

One would have thought that this was just a political flash in the pan by a gullible politician who was taken in by those with commercial interests. But to this day, professional environmental responsibilities still have not reached the level of Cabinet’s political acumen.

The only type of management approved by the Authority for the Protection of the Environment is the chopping down of protected trees, such as this one in Buskett – A Natura 2000 site.

As an EU member, Malta had to have management plans implemented for all Natura 2000 sites by six years after accession. This deadline was not met.

Following public consultations, later approved by the government, and boasted about by the incumbent Minister for the Environment, management plans are not yet implemented, and it seems they will never be.

A recent visit to Buskett revealed the complete political failure, lack of professionalism and irresponsibility with regards to the management of this important EU Natura 2000 site.

Clearance of important natural habitat in a Natura 2000 site to restore of a rubble wall.

An extensive area of maquis was recklessly bulldozed and obliterated to enable the restoration of a rubble wall. While the restoration of rubble walls is necessary, and those in hand are being professionally built, this can never justify the massacre of flora and fauna: habitat and species of European importance.

The rich maquis habitat as it was before it was bulldozed with the blessing of the Ministry for the Environment.

I wandered around Buskett and I could see piles of earth and stones dumped on sensitive habitats: habitats important for rare and endangered species, all listed in the data sheets sent to the EU to justify the importance of such a Special Area of Conservation of European Interest.

A butchered Ash Tree where, a couple of weeks before, I was photographing its new seeds.

Piles of stones and earth dumped on sensitive habitat in this EU Natura 2000 site.

It is heartbreaking to see two protected and rare hawthorn trees that were chopped from ground level to make way for machinery, earth and stone dumping. A rare protected ash tree was heavily butchered.

Unfortunately European Union funds are being mismanaged, endangering an important sensitive habitat which according to EU legislation, the Minister for the Environment is obliged to protect on behalf of Malta and the EU.

According to the EU Habitats Directive (article 6.3), an appropriate assessment has to be drawn up for any plan or project not directly connected with, or necessary to the management of a Natura 2000 site, but which is likely to have a significant effect thereon, either individually or in combination with other plans or projects. Such an appropriate assessment is needed to highlight the implications for the site in view of its conservation objective.

The national competent authority for the EU Habitats Directive (the Environment and Resource Authority – ERA) shall eventually endorse the plan or project only after having ascertained that the conclusions of such assessment regarding the implications for the SAC will not adversely affect the integrity of the SAC concerned. ERA is also obliged, if appropriate, to obtain the opinion of the general public.

Two mature protected hawthorn trees in this Natura 2000 site, 2.5 metres high, were raised to the ground seemingly by the approval of the Ministry for the Environment and ERA 

Can the minister publish the appropriate assessment made (naturally if it has been done), which enabled the ERA board to approve such works in this important Natura 2000 site?

If not available, then ERA approved such works blindfolded, which is very irresponsible, or else the ministry is in complete darkness of its responsibility, and its personnel is on a wild unmonitored spree to obliterate a delicate natural habitat just to restore a rubble wall. Ironically, posters at Buskett advertise these works as an EU-funded Life Saving Project.

It seems that following the acquiring of EU funds, the most important thing is to nail a poster acknowledging EU. How these funds are spent, and whether they are in line with the obligations of the EU Environment Acquis, is not important, not even to the Ministry.

Considering the fact that the minister’s Environment and Resource Authority board is made up of the cream of the crop of Maltese academics, such officially approved ecological damage with EU funds is worse than one can image, both from a professional, an administrative and a political point of view.

60 mature olive trees were chopped down by the approval and financing of the University of Malta, following populist demands. So if it can be done on the University campus, why not on public land?

It reminds me of the massacre of 60 established olive trees on the university campus, where no one batted an eye. We now have to suffer this ecological destruction in a Special Area of Conservation of national and European importance. Seems that academic qualifications today at best are of secondary importance when one sits on a political board.

Have we reached a stage where the destruction of the environment and the ecosystem has achieved virtual academic qualifications, approved not only by politicians but also by the top academic institution of this unfortunate country that seems to sit and tacitly approve?

This is a glaring declaration of total failure of the ministry’s obligations with regards to the protection of the environment. It seems that the latest environment ministers, one from either side of the local political hegemony, are competing among themselves as to who is the most committed to the destruction of biodiversity.

It would do no harm to remind, once again, the environmental promise contained in the 2013 electoral manifesto:

“The Environment and Resources Authority… will focus more specifically on the conservation, protection and amelioration of the environment and resources while undertaking also the responsibility of the important role of an environmental regulator, which presently our country does not have.”

A visit to Buskett where this EU Natura 2000 site is being endangered by EU funds, shows not only how an environmental regulator did never exist in the past, but also how the present one is working diametrically opposite to what has been promised and contrary to national and international obligations. Not only is it not functioning, but it is officially involved in such ecological damage.

Have we reached a stage where the destruction of the environment and the ecosystem has achieved virtual academic qualifications?

The minister has gone on record as saying that he has a “sound environmental policy”. Buskett Natura 2000 site, shows the lack of a will to protect biodiversity, as promised, all the result of such a “sound environmental policy”.


The result of the ‘sound environmental policy’ with which some are very proud.  Seeing all the above official ecological damage, this is the best diplomacy I could manage. And I am sure there are many others who feel the way I do.

Alfred Baldacchino is a former assistant director of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority’s environment directorate.

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25 Responses to EU funds endanger Buskett N2K site

  1. Eman Portelli says:

    Dear Alfred,
    It’s a pity, but in my modest opinion you jumped to very hasty conclusions on at least a couple of points. If you were seeking answers to your queries, all you had to do was ask directly those involved in project. I am more than sure that they would have gone out of their way to help you understand better things as they stood.
    I am writing this short feedback NOT as a means of justification or confrontation, but on the other hand because I felt that this project was being excessively criticised but moreover to highlight some inaccuracies mentioned in your article. I do not want in any way to justify wrong work practice, but on the other hand can’t stand reading half truths.
    First of all, may I underline that Buskett’s 47 hectares of Government Property consists of ‘only’ a part, circa 1/5th of the EU Buskett/Girgenti Natura 2000 site. The remaining 4/5th of this area is privately owned.
    It is also good to mention that Buskett is also protected with other regulations protecting its high value historic infrastructure:
    • ENVIRONMENT AND DEVELOPMENT PLANNING ACT – 4. Scheduling and Conservation (Article 81)
    • Scheduling of a number of buildings at Buskett designated as Grade 1 in terms of Structure Plan Policy UCO7 Section 46 of the Development Act, 1992 – GN 403 dated 1996
    • CULTURAL HERITAGE ACT – CHAPTER 445 (ACT VI of 2002, as amended by Acts XVIII of 2002, II of 2005 and XXXII of 2007; Legal Notice 426 of 2007; and Act XXIII of 2009.)
    May I also be permitted to remind you that Buskett apart from its ecological importance is also unique and important for its unique Historic value. Verdala Palace together with its gardens as seen today dates back to the Knights of the Order of Saint John’s period. Many Grandmaster, themselves personally disbursed thousands upon thousands of ‘skudi’ transforming this valley system into what we know it today (engineered) and all this by building and forming soil retaining walls thus bringing tonnes upon tonnes of material and soil from outside area to replenish and thus form the terraced fields and by planting a multitude of fruit trees. These works are recorded to have started immediately after the arrival of the Order in Malta that is way back in 1530.
    In view of the above then we must agree that Buskett MUST then be regarded as a place of outstanding Historical and Ecological both of National and European importance. However if these soil retaining walls keep failing and crumbling down and all this because of human neglect (Buskett was in this state it is in all because it was totally neglected for decades), then all soil will eventually finish washed downstream (as was already happening) resulting with most mature trees crumbling and fall down and as presently many are witnessing. (You can freely check with ex-EPD/ERA regards various approved applications to remove dangerous trees that collapsed or were in imminent danger of collapsing). And may I ask you who will be held responsible if someone is injured or killed by not taking corrective measures?
    1. The remains of that particular Ash tree was recorded to have been there way before 2010, ergo way before the EU funded project commenced. It was left there to decompose naturally. It was reported to EPS’s enforcement section within Ex-Mepa and I am sure you knew about it.
    2. There was NEVER a plan to transform this important Historical, Cultural and ecological habitat into a ‘quality garden’ as implemented at the Mdina Ditch. This argument is baseless of any proof whatsoever.
    3. I don’t want to justify wrong work practice, but I would like to be permitted to say that extensive area of maquis you mentioned was not all recklessly bulldozed to enable the restoration of a rubble wall. On the other hand what you witnessed was the amass or accumulation of collapsed material from rubble walls that was cleared and gathered so that the historical 500 year old infrastructure soil retainer could be rebuilt. Yes I admit that at first glance one might be shocked with the present view, but can assure you that corrective measures were already planned and soon whole area will be fully ecologically restored thus replanted with Pistaccia lentiscus.

    What I really missed reading in your article was the extensive tree regeneration project being undertaken at Buskett, Tree planting will be greatly increasing all the existing protected annexed habitats and all this by the planting of over 3,300+ indigenous trees, painstakingly grown from seeds collected from Buskett to be planted at Buskett.

    Thank for giving me the opportunity to reply.

    • Dear Eman,
      Many thanks indeed for your comments, especially where you added more legal measures there are for the protection of Buskett. My main comments were with regards to Buskett as a Natura 2000 site.

      As I am sure you are aware, the Competent Authority for Natura 2000 sites (including Buskett) is the Environemnt and Resource Authority – ERA, in the portfolio of the Minister for Sustainable Development, the Environment and Climate Change.

      In the circumstances, I, and all the others who have biodiversity protection, appreciation and management at heart, would prefer to hear the official comments of the Ministry who is directly responsible.

      Nonetheless, many thanks for your comments.

      • Eman Portelli says:

        Precisely Alfred…..the main problem I see here is that most comments are ONLY intended towards Buskett as a Natura 2000 site….It seems that those having biodiversity appreciation and management at heart keep forgetting that Buskett is also first and foremost protected for its Historical unique infrastructure.

        • Eman Portelli says:

          By the way… infrastructure which consists mainly of rubble walls that was and still is holding all this Natura 2000 site’s soil tight together……if these badly neglected, damaged retaining walls were not addressed immediately and hence continued to fail, we were risking big time of losing everything, leaving our future generations really nothing at all but devastation.

        • May I please ask if you are speaking on your own behalf or on behalf of the Environment and Resource Authority who as already emphasises is the Competent Authority with regards to Natura 2000 sites?
          And are you in a position to publish the appropriate assessment, approved by the ERA Board, which assessment is obliged under the Habitats Directive to enable the like of works which are going on at Buskett?

  2. Carmel Galea says:

    Alfred, I get so sad reading your blog on the state of Buskett. When I was a young boy and teachers tell us we are going to Buskett, I used to get excited and full of wonder when we used to walk among the beautiful trees and pathways. I feel so sad that the ‘Conrete Island of Malta’ is taking the little bit left where people can forget the pressures of the towns and relax for a while in such a precious woodland. The crisis in political leadership in environmental matters is contributing to undermine the existence of this jewel, it seems. We don’t wont playgrounds anymore. We want our remaining woodlands and environmental sites to be managed by professionals not politicians and business people. Leave these places alone for us. We don’t want you meddling with the little that is left.

    • Carmel,
      Unfortunately, we have to face reality and do our best to try and protect what is left of biodiversity in our country.
      As you correctly pointed out, environmental conservation is getting from bad to worse. Though I must say that the public appreciation and demands for its protection are on the increase.
      I remember past days, as you explained, when it was an excitement and an expression of wonder when we used to go to Buskett. Today, a visit to such a Natura 2000 site fills one with sorrow and heartaches.
      It shows the complete failure of the Ministries of the Environment over the years.
      And as I am sure you know, in the past there were many an environmental NGO who used to keep an eye on the well being of Buskett. Unfortunately not anymore.

    • Eman Portelli says:

      Mr Galea, may I cordially ask you the last time you visited Buskett? And what is so irritating in restoring what our forefathers left us? Is it not that thanks to the Knights of St John that all of us are today so lucky to appreciate this historic site? Unfortunately the rate of field infrastructural structures degeneration, collapsing was so great that unfortunately certain interventions had to be greater to safeguard the surrounding environment. Regards trees please note extensive areas were planted with new in a tree regeneration project. This said tree planting exercise will be increasing all the existing protected habitats by quite a substantial percentage and all this by the planting of over 3,300+ indigenous trees, painstakingly grown from seeds collected from Buskett to be planted at Buskett.

  3. Dr. Brian Farrugia says:

    Hopeless, kemm hawn nies verament injoranti.

  4. Eman Portelli says:

    Mr Baldacchino et all……please note that ERA, Nature Trust and BLM are all engaged as stakeholders on this project……So please rest assured that as done in the past many environmental NGOs are strongly involved ergo still keeping a watchful eye on the well being of Buskett. Unfortunately not like the usual few….Whoever asks questions they will surely get plausible and very environmental accepted answers.
    Presently both BLM and FKNK have been handed a fully restored Knights period farmhouse each to promote and tackle Environmental issues. Therefore their presence and suggestions at Buskett are now more than ever constantly felt and appreciated.

    • Mr Portelli,
      Are we to understand that ERA (The Environment and Resource Authority – the Competent Authority) BirdLife Malta and Nature Trust, approve of the destruction of biodiversity outlined in my article?
      As a stakeholder, I am convinced that this has not helped Buskett at all. And I am sure that there are many other stakeholders who are also convinced.

  5. Eman Portelli says:

    Am I to understand that you are against any sort of restoration works carried out on structures built after the 1530s?

    In 1663, during his visit in Malta, Albert Jouvin De Rochefort’s “……………this garden occupies a small valley surrounded by hills, making it look like a gondola. We descended through a more than a mile long avenue of orange trees, cedars, lemon trees, olive trees and fig trees. We then found several smaller gardens, each containing something of special interest. In one of them, for example, there were fruit trees which normally cannot grow in such a hot climate, such as different kinds of the pear trees, plum trees, cherry trees and apricots. That is why there are in all seasons, small streams which render the place even more pleasant in the winter than in the summer when, were it not for these streams, everything would dry up because of the great heat. In another garden, we saw flowers which did not usually grow in Malta and, in this same setting, there were small meadows where greenery is present all the year round, due to the presence of water which flows from a cave situated on one side of this little worldly paradise. This cave is decorated with shells and small natural rocks, as well as with statues of nymphs, dolphins and sirens while Neptune demonstrates his authority and power, standing in the centre of a most pompous following. We then entered a small wood, where we saw many wild beasts which were kept here for hunting together with other delights; making this garden a most accomplished one.”

    What I can tell you Mr Baldacchino is that all restoration works were considered as fundamental to Buskett. Most of these walls were destroyed and vandalised throughout ages of neglect. I hope you are not implying that a bramble should be considered as more important that the same historic infrastructure retaining all soil forming this entire ecological site?

    • Unfortunately, your statement that “I hope you are not implying that a bramble should be considered as more important that the same historic infrastructure retaining all soil forming this entire ecological site?” explains the mentality behind such a massacre of biodiveristy in this Natura 2000 site.

      • Eman Portelli says:

        Ample and abundant bramble is still present on site and left intact and you should know better how easy it for this species to regenerate itself.

        • Eman Portelli says:

          So are you implying that restoring historic but fundamental and functional soil retention walls is wrong?

  6. Eman Portelli says:

    Another period Description of Buskett in the Descrittione di Malta Anno 1716….

    “The country about the city abounds with delightful gardens . . . that in particular called Boscheta, or pleasure-garden, belonging to the Grand Master, and situated on an eminence on the west side of the city, yields the most beautiful prospect, from the great quantities of stately trees which grow upon it, as orange, lemon, citron, pomegranate, olive, peach, nectarine, and other fruit trees. One part of this delicious spot is made into a warren, and breeds a great quantity of hares and rabbits, another, planted with olive-trees abounds with stags, deer, etc. The whole is finely variegated with springs, cascades, and other water-works, and adorned with a most stately palace, whose apartments and lofty walls are magnificently furnished and adorned”.

  7. Eman Portelli says:

    My comments will not….but proper site managent and propagation measures will.

  8. Eman Portelli says:

    I am not justifying any negligent work practices (if this really is the case) it is certainly not my intension, but on the other hand will your comments bring back the soil retaining walls sustaining fundamental soil on which trees grow in?

    • Mr Portelli,
      The energy which you are using to justify the lack of monitoring and unprofessional work at Natura 2000 site Buskett is indeed surprising. Unless of course you want to stick your neck out for those who should know better and shoulder the responsibility.

      The final responsibility is with the Ministry for the Environment and the ERA Board who are the Competent Authority. It is ERA who gave the go ahead.

      • Eman Portelli says:

        On works carried out I respect your opinion and can imagine your way of thought, however I to a certain degree have to disagree…….Yes if need be I will stick my neck but only for the long term plan and protection of all of Boschetto, that is both its history and respective biodiversity.

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