Trees hit headlines

May 4, 2018

Trees hit headlines

Friday May 4, 2018

Alfred E  Baldacchino

The last couple of months saw trees in the news.

Following the collapse, on February 10, of a mismanaged, unprofessionally pruned alien tree on the Mrieħel road, which led to the death of a foreigner, a spokesman for an entity paid out of public funds, was interviewed on a local TV station. He did not deny that the management of the trees in that particular road was their responsibility.

Photo: (Times of Malta) Jonathan Borg

April 9 saw another fatal accident in Żurrieq where a double-decker tourist bus “hit low-lying tree branches resulting in two dead tourists, 50 injured and some ending in intensive care, one needing a  major operation” (Times of Malta, April 10).

“Transport watchdog has long recognised trees as road hazards” read a heading in this newspaper (April 15). It referred to an “EU directive regarding road safety audits, impact assessments, inspections and high-frequency collision investigations”. The guidelines drawn in the light of this EU directive, outlined the fact that trees and landscaping are a “potential roadside hazard” and “need to be taken into account”.

In all honesty, the transport watchdog does not have the necessary acumen, adequate paraphernalia or professional personnel to plan, monitor, and professionally manage roadside trees. They rely on contractors.

Trees do not grow on their own in urban areas. They are planted, monitored and managed by contractors paid from public funds. So it is not the trees that are road hazards. It is the contractors who are responsible for their upkeep, ensuring that trees are managed aesthetically, professionally, and not posing a road hazard.

Trees do not move from the place where they are planted. If a tree has a 15- year-old branch protruding onto the road, it is not the fault of the tree, but that of unprofessional management. Even schoolchildren are today conscious and aware of proper tree management.

Following the ever-increasing negative impacts of such mismanagement and lack of awareness of international biodiversity obligations, a copy of the agreement for landscaping was requested on June 23, 2015. An agreement which the government and a private-public partner signed on October 31, 2012.

This request was vehemently refused by the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure (under Joe Mizzi) on  July 23, 2015, as was the subsequent appeal, on August 13, 2015.

On August 19, 2015, the matter was referred to the Information and Data Protection Commissioner. The commissioner’s decision of January 19, 2016 “considers that the public interest is better served by providing the applicant with a copy of the requested document” and “the commissioner has resolved that there are no impediments to release a copy of the agreement.

“Hence in the spirit of transparency and accountability as contemplated by the Act, the MTI [Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure] is instructed to acceed to Mr Baldacchino’s request by not later than twenty-five (25) working days from the receipt of this decision”.

One would have thought that such a matter would have been solved within weeks. But it seems, not in Malta

Subsequently a letter from the commissioner informed me that an appeal by the ministry (still under Mizzi) had been lodged to the Information and Data Protection Appeals Tribunal.

Almost two years from the initial request, the Information and Data Protection Appeals Tribunal decided, refusing the appeal made by the Ministry for Transport and Infrastructure, confirming the decision reached by the Commissioner of Information and Data Protection, ordering that a copy of such agreement signed between the government and ELC on October 31, 2001 should be given to applicant.

The Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure in 2017 said that legal proceedings were instituted by the ELC (Environment Landscaping Consortium) before the first hall of the Civil Court, “arguing that the decision of the Commissioner for the Protection of Data should be declared null and void”. Judgement had to be reached in December 2017, but the sitting has already been postponed twice.

As a member of the European Union, and also a signatory to the Aarhus Convention (Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters), one would have thought that such a matter would have been solved within weeks. But it seems, not in Malta.

What is the reason for such objections? The National Audit Office (NAO) published a ‘Performance Audit: Landscaping maintenance through a Public-Private Partnership’, dated September 2017. This throws a lot of light on possible reasons.

Topics covered in such report deal with: the non-availability of management accounts; no details regarding questions asked; contractor’s evident non-compliance on a number of issues; the government’s limited enforcement actions; arising questions regarding the financial and economic considerations revolving around the agreement; the non-submission of management accounts constituting a contractual breach; government’s lack of knowledge of the contractor’s financial input not conducive to a balanced partnership;

Contract rates higher than other landscaping agreements signed by governmental entities; operational and financial information gaps not appropriately safeguarding the government’s position as a partner within this agreement; contractual deficiencies that incorporated two subsequent addenda, as well as a number of elements of contractual non-compliance, generally, having their roots within the 2002 contract, beside others.

One of the conclusion the NAO report came to is that: “The contractor’s non-compliance remains evident on a number of issues. In some cases, deviations from contractual clauses that date back to 2002 impact negatively on government’s direct and broader interests.

One of the invasive species, Penisetum or Fountain grass, planted and paid by public funds, which is today spreading uncontrolled along roadsides, valleys, and other natural habitats. The social, ecological and financial negative impacts have to be paid by the man in the street.

“Contractual non-compliance prevailed in the face of government’s limited enforcement action. In such circumstances, government’s position shifted from one where action could be initiated to dissolve this PPP Agreement, to one where prolonged weak enforcement implied tacit consent” (page 55).

To these financial observations, the immediate and long-term negative impacts on the Maltese ecosystem must also be taken in consideration.

What is the next immediate step? The Minister for Finance has to decide: either the dissolution of the agreement in the national interest, or the dishing out of an additional €8 million for the continuation of the implied tacit consent of such non-compliance.

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

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Lija oak cemetery

July 29, 2017

Friday, July 28, 2017

Lija Oak Cemetery

Alfred E. Baldacchino

The eight majestic, age-old indigenous Maltese oak trees at Lija are dead and buried. Gone at a great social, ecological, financial and political expense, which will get heavier with age. All the new-borns within the next decade will not be able to see any saplings planted today in their majesty as that commanded by the destroyed Lija oak trees.

One can attribute such a loss to lack of serious management of biodiversity, as well as lack of will towards the control of biodiversity loss and no extra efforts made to get them incorporated into the scheme.

No amount of tears will get the age-old oak trees in Lija back. Photo: Jonathan Borg

Unfortunately no amount of tears will get these age-old oak trees back. The best one can do in the circumstances is to pick up the saw dust and plan ahead. A plan of action is urgently needed, not only to ensure that such senseless destruction does not happen again, but also to ensure better professional management of Maltese biodiversity, to meet our national and international obligations in the conservation of indigenous species.

Such an action plan should not be a cosmetic one. Promising 20 saplings to make up for the age-old trees is tantamount to taking a €100 note from a child’s hand, and giving him twenty 50 cent coins, while trying to convince the child that he is now better off because previously he had one piece and now he has 20.

I am sure that the Maltese people are made up of much sterner stuff.

The present trees and woodland protection regulations are worse than the ones they replaced

Such an action plan has to be three pronged: legal, educational and hands on the ground.

The present trees and woodland protection regulations are worse than the ones they replaced. One such loophole even enables age-old indigenous trees to be chopped down with official blessings.

I just cannot understand what is keeping the Ministry for the Environment from publishing the much politically-promised regulations which would save so many indigenous trees and contribute to the local ecosystem, in line with the ministry’s aims for the protection of the environment.

The present trees and woodland protection regulations are worse than the ones they replaced

Is there a Cabinet decision against their publication? Is there any infighting? Are there some kind of fears? What is obvious is that their postponement is not helping in any way the local natural environment, especially trees.

The need for an educational campaign to create more public awareness of the appreciation and understanding of trees is badly needed too. The public cannot be blamed for thinking that there is an official hatred of trees, including indigenous ones, such as carob trees, Aleppo pines and holm oaks, a hatred which seems to have also infiltrated and is controlling official environment decisions, and the political mentality.

Because of this, official decisions are leading to more and more destruction of biodiversity. The benefits of trees are not only not understood, but unfortunately are ridiculed, and such a negative mentality cannot be in any way beneficial to society or to biodiversity, besides contributing to negative financial impacts.

One can neither be blamed for thinking that the Ministry for the Environment and the Environment and Resources Authority need to be seen to be more on the side of those who appreciate and protect trees and biodiversity in the national interest.

The wilful destruction of the Lija oak trees, with official blessing, is a case in point. Other similar instances include the destruction of the 60 mature olive trees at the University campus, and the mismanagement of the Natura 2000 site Buskett.

Finally the ever-increasing demand for indigenous Maltese trees, propagated from local Maltese stock, cannot be met because of the greater short-term financial gain from imported trees, despite the fact that their externalities, that is the hidden costs, are directly or indirectly borne by the local biodiversity and society in the long run.

The red-palm weevil, the geranium bronze butterfly, and the gene pollution of the indigenous sandarac-gum trees by imported specimens are some cases in point.

Such efforts in propagating indigenous Maltese trees from local stock is being left to voluntary, hardworking individuals, with little help, directly or indirectly, from the Ministry of the Environment.

No action plan can be achieved if there is no political will: a strong will based on ecological concepts arising from international obligations regarding biodiversity conservation, such as those of the Bern Convention and the EU policy driven by the biodiversity strategy setting ambitious aims for 2020 (halting the loss of biodiversity).

One can say that presently, with such incredibly uncontrolled destruction of indigenous trees, it is very difficult not to say that such a will is nowhere within sight, despite political commitments and promises.

The present rumours of the passing of landscaping responsibilities to the Ministry of the Environment can be a very positive step, because such ‘landscaping’ will be having a professional regulator from the biodiversity point of view, something which to date it does not have, or on which ERA found it too difficult to intervene.

But considering the present shallow interest and lack of will in the protection of biodiversity, these added responsibilities to the Ministry for the Environment can send shivers down one’s spine.

Till the time of writing, this is the fate of the majority of Maltese indigenous trees.

In the meantime, nature lovers can only keep wishing and hoping and praying, that the man at the helm will see the light of day and join, encourage and help them in their efforts to achieve such a noble, national aim in the protection of the environment in a tangible way.

Wouldn’t dare to say in a concrete way!

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

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