The public landscaping mistakes experts say need fixing

October 18, 2019

Monday, 14th October, 2019

As an old contract comes to an end, we asked experts what we’ve done wrong

Jessica Arena

   photo: Times of Malta

Public landscaping practices in Malta have been plagued by poor practices which should not be repeated once a contract with the old consortium comes to an end, experts have said.

The public-private partnership deal between Environmental Landscapes Consortium and the government expires at the end of the year and a process for a new call for tenders is in the works.

In 2017, the National Audit Office published a report that found that the partnership with ELC should have long been dissolved due to a series of contract breaches on the part of the consortium.

The government has spent over €100 million since the start of the agreement in 2002, where neither the original partnership agreement nor the two subsequent contract extensions were awarded through a competitive tendering process.

The report, however, does not address the environmental critiques leveled at ELC, particularly when it comes to taking a more biodiversity-conscious approach to landscaping works.

Planting invasive species

“The consortium’s most insidious environmental impact has been the indiscriminate use of non-indigenous species during a number of landscaping projects,” marine biologist and environmentalist Alan Deidun told Times of Malta.

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In its early days, the consortium was responsible for the widespread planting of the hottentot fig (Carpobrotus edulis), a highly invasive species of South African succulent, he said.

Using water-guzzling turf

Additionally, ELC was often criticised for its use of water-guzzling turfs and the planting of non-local stocks of native species.

Millions of euros were literally wasted, including the scarce resource of water used

Landscaper and garden expert Fernando Mifsud said: “Although aesthetically beautiful, lawns need a lot of water to keep them looking green and also need a lot of fertilisers and chemicals to keep them looking healthy.”

Such pesticides leach into the ground, killing the biodiversity in the soil. They are also washed in the water course through water runoff when it rains, therefore negatively affecting water creatures like frog populations, he said.

Removing local ‘weeds’

Additionally, the overuse of pesticides and the culling of local flora considered to be ‘weeds’ were also critiques leveled at the landscaping consortium.

Local flora is often culled from landscaping projects to maintain “neatness” – however, these species are closely linked to local fauna such as native butterfly or bird species, and their elimination contributes to the scarce propagation of local fauna.

Environmentalist Alfred Baldacchino maintains that had the funds invested in the consortium in the past 15 years been utilised professionally, Malta would be covered with indigenous trees grown from local stock.

“From a biodiversity point of view, taking into consideration national and international obligation, millions of euros were literally wasted, including the scarce resource of water used,” Mr Baldacchino said.

What should a new contract stipulate?

Mr Baldacchino, who has been petitioning the Ministry for Transport and Infrastructure for a copy of the public agreement since 2015, believes a new agreement should regard contractors solely as operators and a regulatory role should fall within the Environment Ministry.

“Contractors should not be allowed any monopoly on landscaping. Emphasis should be entrenched in the contract that all trees and shrubs used for landscaping purposes should be propagated from local stock, so that a new local industry can be established for centres providing indigenous plants,” Mr Baldacchino said.

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This will also ensure the local gene pool of the indigenous species is not polluted, thus contributing towards better protection of indigenous species also from diseases and invasive alien species, having more educational input for the benefit of the public, and contributing to a multiplier effect from the funds allocated for landscaping.

Prof. Deidun stressed that future operators should ensure that only native or indigenous species fully adapted to the semi-arid conditions of the Mediterranean Basin are planted in landscaping projects.

“Additionally, plants which represent year-round important food resources for pollinators (e.g. bees) should be favoured, despite their status as ‘weeds’ by the public,” he added.

Mr Mifsud also says there should be an obligation to focus on the planting of indigenous species that propagate better in the region.

“These trees and plants need less care and are resistant to drought and pests. Over the years, they have evolved and adapted to our climate. This would also reduce the maintenance cost on the long run,” Mr Mifsud said.

When contacted, ELC declined to comment.

other related articles on this blog

Trees hit headlines

Our ‘landscaping’ needs professional updating

Maltese trees – conserving and landscaping

updating/https://alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com/2016/07/09/trees-and-invasive-species

/https://alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com/2016/05/11/national-hobby-of-butchering-trees

/https://alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com/2016/03/04/use-and-overuse-of-pesticides-2

/https://alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com/2015/05/05/alien-invasive-species-animation-film

/https://alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com/2012/10/29/eu-stand-on-invasive-species/

 


Environment Landscaping Conundrum

September 10, 2019

The environment landscaping problem

Tuesday, 10 September, 2019

Alfred E Baldacchino

 

One of the environmental legacies from such ‘landscaping’ “secret contract” – the ubiquitous invasive fountain grass.

According to the National Audit Office (NAO) report of September 2017, “landscaping maintenance through a Public-Private Partnership” was a matter for which an agreement was entered into on October 31, 2002 between the government (Ministry of Finance) and the Environment Landscaping Consortium (ELC) “for managing government resources, which were made at its disposal to deliver the landscaping projects in accordance with the terms and conditions stipulated in the agreement.”

This agreement “was not derived through competitive tendering procedures” but awarded “through direct negotiations with ELC following a call for an expression of interest.”

The government further opted to extend this contract twice, namely in 2007 and 2012 through two direct orders which “also deviate from the spirit of competition promoted by the Public Procurement Regulations where it is stipulated that material contacts are to be subject to a European Union wide call for tenders”.

According to the NAO, “the contractual rates negotiated are not favourable to the government” because of such procedures.

This contract expires at the end of 2019, having to date received from the government approximately €8 million per year (that is, €136 million in total).

The NAO report goes into detail about the contractual deficiencies of this agreement. Amongst these, the report outlined how the parties’ documents did not reconcile on various aspects of service delivery. It noted that the Project Management Committee was non-functioning and that there was non-receipt of a number of reports, particularly the quarterly management accounts, which “constitutes a contractual breach”.

The report noted the use of pesticides at Buskett Gardens’ orchards despite the restrictions within an EU Natura 2000 site, and also how documentation relating to a detailed survey of the sites could not be traced by the Planning Authority and the Environment and Resources Authority.

The NAO also outlined how work was carried out without any authorisation and that work on four projects, which had to be completed by 2017 and which were to be carried out by the contractor at no additional cost to the government, had not yet commenced.

There was mention of how the government had not kept abreast on the status of the contractual clause needing to be fulfilled whereby the government had agreed to finance an in-house training course for students following horticulture studies at MCAST. There was also mention of the government’s lack of knowledge of the contractor’s financial input, which was not conducive to a balanced partnership.

The report noted how the contract rates higher than other landscaping agreements signed by governmental entities and that the operational and financial information gaps were not appropriately safeguarding the government’s position as a partner within this agreement. It went on to note: “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 the government’s direct and broader interests.”

Bad planning, wrong use and waste of scarce water resources.                    Photo A E Baldacchino 2011.07.01.

The NAO report refers only to the financial and commercial aspects of this PPP contract. The national and EU obligations with regards to biodiversity are not entered into.

A copy of this public agreement was requested on June 23, 2015. This request was vehemently refused by the Ministry for Transport and Infrastructure, as was the subsequent appeal dated August 13, 2015.A request was filed with the Information and Data Protection Commissioner on August 19, 2015. The Commissioner’s decision of January 19, 2016 considered “that the public interest is better served by providing the applicant with a copy of the requested document” and “that there are no impediments to release a copy of the agreement.”

 

I cannot help but wonder whether there is any hidden political hand in this environment landscaping conundrum

 

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

Following this ruling, an appeal was lodged by the said Ministry to the Information and Data Protection Appeals Tribunal.

The Information and Data Protection Appeals Tribunal (14.09.2107) waived the appeal made by the Ministry for Transport and Infrastructure, confirming the Commissioner of Information and Data Protection ruling (19.01.2016), and ordered that a copy of the agreement signed between the government and ELC on October 31, 2002 should be given to the applicant.

The Information and Data Protection Appeals Tribunal in its ruling (27/2016) concluded, amongst other things, that “in the said agreement, there is no information of a commercial nature that cannot be made public and that in terms of article 35(2) of the said Act, it is in the public interest that such an agreement be made public.”

The Ministry for Transport and Infrastructure was unhappy with this ruling. An email from the Ministry for Justice, Culture and Local Government in October 2017 subsequently explained: “The Ministry for Transport and Infrastructure had appealed the Tribunal’s decision and filed a court case (45/2017) against the Commissioner for Information and Data Protection, 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”.

maintenance of public gardens –  pruning agony.

Judgement had to be reached by December 2017, but the sitting has been postponed and postponed again. The decision is still pending.

Considering the Freedom of Information Act (Chap. 496 of the Laws of Malta) and considering that, 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 after four years from the initial request for a copy of this agreement, such a contract is still not publicly available.

One would have thought that the ELC – the government’s private partner – would be proud to inform everyone how they utilised the €136 million from public funds in relation to their contractual obligations.

The NAO’s report (page 55) concludes: “Contractual non-compliance prevailed in the face of government’s limited enforcement action. In such circumstances, the 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”.

 

The Fountain grass will long be remembered after the demise of the ELC.  It will be up top the social, financial and ecological expenses to control and manage such an EU listed invasive species used in local ‘landscaping’.

The Ministry for Finance has opted for the second position and continued to vote €8 million per annum. What will be the stand taken by the Ministry of Finance vis-à-vis the coming budget with regards to this ‘secret agreement’? Hopefully the Ministry for the Environment, who is now responsible for this ‘secret contract’, will put its foot down.

I cannot help but wonder whether there is any hidden political hand in this environment landscaping conundrum.

aebaldacchino@gmail.com

 

Related articles

Trees hit headlines

Our ‘landscaping’ needs professional updating

Maltese trees – conserving and landscaping

updating/https://alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com/2016/07/09/trees-and-invasive-species

/https://alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com/2016/05/11/national-hobby-of-butchering-trees

/https://alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com/2016/03/04/use-and-overuse-of-pesticides-2

/https://alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com/2015/05/05/alien-invasive-species-animation-film

/https://alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com/2012/10/29/eu-stand-on-invasive-species/

 


Il-Knisja u l-ambjent

August 17, 2019

Soċjetà Filarmonika Nicolò Isouard – Festa Santa Marija Mosta – Awwissu 2019

Il-knisja u l-ambjent

Alfred E. Baldacchino

Il-Ġenesis jgħidilna kif Alla ħalaq id-dinja u s-smewiet. Ħalaq id-dawl, is-sema, l-ibħra, l-istillel, l-art, il-pjanti u s-siġar, u l-annimali bħall-bhejjem u l-għasafar. U Alla fl-aħħar ħalaq il-bniedem biex ikun fuq il-ħut fil-baħar, fuq l-għasafar fl-ajru, fuq il-bhejjem u l-annimali l-oħra u fuq kull ħolqien ieħor li jimxi fuq l-art. U Alla ra lil dak li kien ħalaq kien tajjeb.

Imma l-bniedem jaħseb u jemmen li bħala l-aktar ħolqien intelliġenti fuq din id-dinja għandu dritt mingħajr limitu mingħand Alla biex jaħkem lin-natura. U dan anki kif kien jiġi mgħallem.

Papa-Gwann Pawlu II

Kien il-Papa Ġwann Pawlu II meta f’Nairobi kellem lill-ġemgħa msejħa mill-Programm Ambjentali tal-Ġnus Magħquda (UNEP) fejn qal li Alla ħalaq kollox u għabba l-bniedem bir-responsabbiltà biex jieħu ħsiebhom u mhux biex jagħmilhom tiegħu u jeqred kemm jiflaħ. Il-Papa għallem li huwa meħtieġ għad-dinjità tal-bniedem, u għalhekk huwa ta’ responsabbiltà kbira biex il-bniedem jsaltan fuq il-ħolqien b’governanza għaqlija. L-esplojtazzjoni tal-rikkezzi tan-natura irid isir bil-għan mhux biss tal-bżonnijiet tal-ġenerazzjonijiet tal-lum, imma anki għall-bżonnijiet ta’ dawk ta’ għada. B’din il-direzzjoni li tana Alla mbiegħdu kull tmexxija ta’ kilba u ta’ gwadan personali, u twassalna biex nifhmu li dak maħluq minn Alla huwa għall-ġid tal-umanità kollha. Il-bniedem għandu r-responsabbiltà li jħares lin-natura.

Fil-kliemu, li llum huwa magħruf sewwa, li kien għamel fl-1 ta’ Jannar 1990, il-ġurnata dinjija għall-paċi, il-Papa Ġwann Pawlu II kien tkellem fuq ir-responsabbiltà tal-bniedem għall-ambjent. Tkellem fuq ir-rispett tan-natura, fuq l-egoiżmu kollettiv, fuq in-nuqqas ta’ rispett għall-ġirien, fuq id-diżonestà, fuq il-kriżi ekoloġika li tikxef in-nuqqas ta’ karattru morali u ta’ valuri etiċi tal-bniedem, fuq it-tbagħbis fl-ekosistema, fuq il-qerda bla kontroll tal-annimali u tal-ħajja tal-pjanti, u fuq ħtif u l-użu bla rażan tar-riżorsi naturali.

Il-Papa kompla jgħid li l-paċi fid-dinja hija mhedda, mhux biss bil-ġirja għall-armi, l-gwerrer u l-inġustizzji, imma anki bin-nuqqas ta’ rispett lejn in-natura, il-ħtif tar-riżorsi naturali, u bit-telf dejjem jiżdied tal-kwalità tal-ħajja. Dan l-istil ta’ ħajja jħaddan fih sens ta’ nuqqas ta’ kontrol u nuqqas ta’ serħan il-moħħ u, kif qal il-Papa huwa “ġuf ta’ egoiżmu kollettiv, nuqqas ta’ stima għall-oħrajn, u diżonestà.” Hawn il-Papa jgħid u jerġa jgħid u jwissi li l-kriżi ekoloġika “hija kriżi morali”.

Papa-Frangisku

Fuq dan il-pedament li firex il-Papa Ġwann Pawlu II, komplew bnew il-Papiet li ġew warajh. Tant li l-Papa Franġisku fl-24 ta’ Mejju 2015, ippubblika ittra pastorali Laudato Si li wieħed jista’ jsib fuq il-ħolqa http://thechurchinmalta.org/files/article/Enciklika_LaudatoSi.143514750116.pdf

Din tispjega, tgħallem, u twissi dwar ir-responsabbiltà li aħna bħala Nsara għandna lejna nfusna, lejn il-ġenerazzjonijiet ta’ għada, lejn id-dinja u l-aktar lejn Alla li ħalaqna.   L-Enċiklika tiftaħ bil-kliem mill-għanja ta’ San Franġisk t’Assisi lill-ħolqien: Tifhir lilek Mulej, (Laudato Si’) liema kliem ifakkarna li d-dar tagħna lkoll hija bħal oħtna li magħha naqsmu din il-ħajja. Jfakkarna wkoll fl-omm ħelwa tagħna li tiftaħ idejha biex tħaddanna magħha, li titmagħna bi frott, bi fjuri mlewna u bi ħwawar.

L-Enċiklika ta’ Papa Franġisku tgħallem kemm l-ekoloġija hija importanti u meħtieġa. Hija importanti bħala nisġa li għandha tkun il-mera tagħna f’kollox, l-aktar biex turina r-relazzjonital-persuna tagħna ma’ Alla, mas-sistema ekoloġika, magħna nfusna, ma’ persuni oħrajn, u mal-ħolqien.

aebaldacchino@gmail.com

 

Ara wkoll

https://alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com/2015/09/22/l-enciklika-laudato-si-u-l-kummerc/

https://alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com/2015/03/16/it-taghlim-tar-religjonijiet-u-l-ambjent-9/

https://alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com/2015/06/25/a-prayer-for-our-earth-pope-francis/

https://alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com/2012/04/04/the-biblical-apple-tree/

https://alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com/2010/08/14/mother-earth-brother-sun-sister-moon-some-spiritual-teachings/

https://alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com/2010/08/16/458/

 


Environment hit by EU funds

July 27, 2019

Saturday, 27th July, 2019

Alfred E Baldacchino

On July 18, the Planning Authority approved the Attard Central Link Project for which the EU is going to contribute €55 million.

There were a lot of questions and doubts on this project which everybody hoped a meeting would iron out. Not only were these not answered but even more doubts were cast.

The meeting was opened by the Infrastructure Malta CEO, Engineer Fredrick Azzopardi, representing the Ministry for Transport and Infrastructure. He tried to convince those present that this Central Link project has many benefits. Stakeholders subsequently expressed more doubts and asked more questions, confirming the lack of public consultations.

Here is a résumé of the questions:

Those present for the meeting asked how such a project would be beneficial for full-time or part-time farmers, and those involved in animal husbandry.

There were also questions about the loss of 22,000 square metres of agricultural land and the subsequent loss of jobs due to this land being destroyed.

There were concerns about the fruit and crops in the area since these would be covered with additional emissions that would disperse across the adjacent fields.

The biodiversity of the area was also a point of concern seeing as this was facing the destruction of more than 550 trees, many of which are protected, and the loss of their contribution to climate change and the ecological niches of which they form part.

Questions were asked about the hydrological system feeding Wied is-Sewda, along with the farmers’ cisterns and the disruption of natural water flow destroyed by the project (which was unbelievably referred to as “flood water”).

Not to mention the concerns about the psychological and physical health of residents in the vicinity and beyond Attard, including those residing in Siġġiewi and Qormi, given the increase in noise pollution and toxic chemicals that the project is sure to cause.

There was also the question about the cultural heritage of the area and the number of historical constructions that would be threatened, some dating back to the times of the Knights of Malta.

Will the towers being built close to the Malta Financial Services Authority, nonchalantly approved by the lack-of-vision, commercially minded PA – definitely be­yond the carrying capacity of the area – be the main beneficiaries of the public land being taken up and the EU funds being spent?

None of the social and environmental elements mentioned above is going to bene­fit from this EU-funded project.

None of the questions were answered by the CEO of Infrastructure Malta. None of the concerns put forward were even addressed. The Environment Im­pact Assessment presented gave a very superficial indication of the project’s negative impacts.

The chairman of the Environment and Resources Authority, as silent as a grave, in a later interview in the press (July 19) was quoted as saying that “he had nothing to add” because none of the comments raised by stakeholders during the meeting changed anything from the ERA’s report.

He called most interventions against the project “emotional”! He also justified the project “on the basis of national interest”.

In yet another section of the press (July 19), Environment Minister José Herrera said that “the authority (ERA) would be vigilant and in a consistent way, [fulfil] its duties to offer the greatest elements of protection to our natural capital, and this with the means and parameters established by law”.

This trophy was first awarded to MEPA in 2015. Despite the fact that the year 2019 is not yet out, this has been awarded to the Planning Authority and the Infrastructure Malta for the environmental devastation that they are involved in.

 

So long as there are EU funds, then they have to be spent irrespective of the foreseen environmental destruction

The Infrastructure Malta CEO said that this project, according to his economist’s report, will “give back” €16 savings for every €1 spent without even saying how. His economist did not refer to any externalities or the hidden costs that would be borne by the public and the environment. No wonder all the above questions asked were ignored by the CEO.

With regard to the uprooting of trees, he told the press, with hand on heart, “they are using the ERA compensation system of planting trees for those uprooted”, and that the “trees to be planted as compensation will have to be at least three metres tall”. This implies they will all be imported irrespective of the possible dangers of diseases and other invasive species they may bring with them, contrary to EU recommendations as administered by ERA.

Farmers were up in arms when they heard the Infrastructure Malta CEO say that they had been consulted, and could not keep from emphasising that this was a blatant lie.

This is how decisions are taken in Malta – a final late meeting on decision day without the stakeholders being properly consulted, despite this being a requirement whenever EU funds are involved.

All stakeholders and the public have to be involved and consulted so that they are part of the decision rather than just being informed of the decision after it has been taken. Consultation does not mean planting political individuals amidst the public and stakeholders and having them clap every time their minister’s wishes are supported.

The bottleneck at the roundabout beneath Saqqajja Hill will not only remain as it is but will become worse because of the heavier and faster volume of traffic that will be introduced, as advertised by the Ministry’s billboard in Attard.

How on earth can one imagine that the bulk of this traffic has to make its way up Saqqajja Hill where there are only two carriageways? No explanation whatsoever was given by the Infrastructure engineer.

Unbelievably, the EU is dishing out €55 million to the Ministry for Transport and Infrastructure for this particular project, while stakeholders and the public have to depend on voluntary contributions to protect the country from environmental and social destruction.

If there were no EU funds, there would not be such useless environmental destruction taking place. The impression one gets is that, so long as there are EU funds, then they have to be spent irrespective of the foreseen environmental destruction.

ERA, the competent authority recognised by the EU for the protection of the environment, gave its endorsement of this environmental destruction because most of the questions asked, according to the ERA chairman, were “emotional”.

On its website, the ERA says that it is committed “to safeguard the environment for a sustainable quality of life”. There was no confirmation of this whatsoever from the ERA chairman during the meeting, which took place on a very black Thursday for the Maltese environment, with the blessing of ERA.

Can anybody with a real national, social and environmental conscience, and without any political influence, be blamed for losing all confidence in ERA?

aebaldacchino@gmail.com 


Where have all the butterflies gone?

July 21, 2019

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Landscaping works contributing to further biodiversity loss

Jessica Arena

 

A few decades ago, butterflies of every shape and colour would take off in swarms as you walked under carob trees. Nowadays, the decline of butterflies is occurring at such a high rate that when naturalists spot a particularly uncommon species, they do not disclose its location; to protect the insects from harm.

While migratory butterflies can still be spotted with some frequency, local butterflies have all but disappeared from view. Landscaping works being carried out without consideration for local fauna and flora are having a devastating effect of the state of Maltese biodiversity, according to experts.

Jake Farrugia, an earth systems student and amateur lepidopterist, recounts how just earlier this month, while collecting fennel for his own larvae, he spotted a large number of swallowtail butterfly larvae nestled in the fennel bushes. Returning to the site a few days later, Mr Farrugia says that during landscaping works in Triq il-Buskett, Rabat, the native fennel bushes on the side of the road were all removed, taking the butterfly larvae with them.

“Plants growing under country walls and other walls are essential in providing micro habitats for all sorts of flora and fauna,” Mr Farrugia says.

“A butterfly looking to deposit eggs, such as the swallowtail, would have gladly chosen this spot since it is sheltered from the sun and wind as well as potential predators.”

The removal of fennel bushes and other local flora constitutes as habitat loss… We are shooting ourselves in the foot,” Mr Farrugia says, adding that the desire to ’embellish’ public spaces is not allowing nature to adapt .

Alfred Baldacchino, an environmentalist and former assistant director at the Mepa Environmental Directorate, describes the conservation of biodiversity as pitiful.                   ,

“Despite the fact that the Environment and Resources Authority is responsible for biodiversity protection and conservation through the enforcement of EU legislation, they  are incompetent, ignorant of the situation and failing to take any proactive measures,” Mr Baldacchino says.

Biodiversity loss can be attributed to an intersecting number of external situations, the most pressing of which, according to Mr Baldacchino, is climate change. Rapid changes in temperature, the use of fossil fuels and pesticides are compounded upon flora and fauna, giving the environment very little time to adjust.

“ERA is incompetent and ignorant of the situation”

“This year alone we have seen temperatures in France soar to 45’C, several fires in Europe, the destruction of Miżieb,” says Mr Baldacchino.

“There is a complete lack of interest, lack of tangible effort, lack of any help at all from the Ministry responsible for climate change and the environment.”

According to Mr Baldacchino, the ERA and Ambjent Malta are not doing enough to mitigate  the   effects  of   climate change and prevent further biodiversity loss through adequate conservation plans.

“Mizieb is a case in point,” he says,”first there’s a disaster and afterwards we run a study about how it could have been prevented.”

When it comes to landscaping, Mr Baldacchino says the authorities and entities concerned demonstrate a pattern of disinterest and wilful ignorance with respect the havoc being wreaked on native flora.

“The Environmental Landscapes Consortium is the worst enemy of biodiversity,” Mr Baldacchino says. “Their only interest is.monetary profit. Despite the fact that they have been paid €8 million a year for the past 15 years from public funds, all they have to show for it is the destruction of biodiversity, use of chemicals and water-thirsty turfs which compete with local flora.”

There is a public perception of biodiversity that regards the majority of wayside flora as ‘ħaxix ħażin’ (weeds) and that its removal causes only superficial damage. This position is something Mr Baldacchino calls “professional ignorance” as even school children are taught that flora is an integral part of the ecosystem.

Wayside flora are unique ecological niches and  often serve as breeding grounds for insects and other fauna, as well as being highly attractive to pollinators, such as bees and even butterflies.

The careless removal of these niches could spell doom not just for our butterflies but for the long term health of the environment itself, Mr Baldacchino stresses.

“When ELC act like they derive pleasure from removing every blade of grass that grows, we only have a recipe for disaster.”

aebaldacchino@gmail.com

 


Dwejra: Tribunal dazzled by delight

July 8, 2019

 

Monday, 8th July 2019

Alfred Baldacchino

A recent decision by the Environment and Planning Review Tribunal has overturned a Planning Authority decision, ordering it to approve a permit for the extension of a restaurant, the installation of light and increasing the number of tables and chairs in an EU Natura 2000 site in Dwejra.

Without any doubt, this throws a lot of light on the official political disrespect, disinterest, exploitation and disregard for the environment as well as national and international legislation.

Dwejra is a Special Protection Area and a Special Area of Conservation with regard to biodiversity, in line with the Birds and Habitat Directives. It is part of the EU Natura 2000 network because of its importance to the EU.

The Malta Environment and Resources Authority is the responsible competent authority recognised by the EU. Competent national authorities are those entitled to give authorisation or consent to a plan or project in Natura 2000 sites.

 

Dwejra is the best remaining site on the islands for astronomical observations. Photo provided by the Physics Department and the Institute for Astronomy and Space Sciences

Dwejra is also designated as a ‘dark sky heritage area’ in the Gozo and Comino Local Plan.

Article 6 of the EU Habitat Directive can be regarded as a key framework for giving effect to the principle of integration with regard to the management of the protected areas in a sustainable way and sets the limits of activities that can impact negatively on protected areas.

In an international context, Article 6 also helps to achieve the aims of relevant international nature conservation conventions such as the Berne Convention and the Biodiversity Convention (Malta is a party to both), while at the same time creating a more detailed framework for site conservation and protection than these conventions themselves do.

Where assessment is required by Article 6 (3) it takes the form of an assessment under Directive 85/337/EEC (on the assessment of the effects of certain public and private projects on the environment), where public consultation is necessary.

In this context, it is worth mentioning the possible longer-term implications of the Aarhus Convention, which emphasises the importance of public consultation in relation to environmental decision-making.

According to Habitat Directive’s article 6 (2) “any plan or project not directly connected with or necessary to the management of the site but likely to have a significant effect thereon, either individually or in combination with other plans or projects, shall be subject to appropriate assessment of its implications for the site in view of the site’s conservation objectives”.

The Environment and Planning Review Tribunal has completely undermined Malta’s obligations at EU level

“In the light of the conclusions of the assessment of the implications for the site and subject to the provisions of the Habitat Directive (para 4), the competent national authorities shall agree to the plan or project only after having ascertained that it will not adversely affect the integrity of the site concerned and, if appropriate, after having obtained the opinion of the general public.”

An EU Commission publication dated 2000, Managing Natura 2000 Sites – The provisions of Article 6 of the Habitats Directive 92/43/CEE, explains that “member states shall take appropriate steps to avoid, in the special areas of conservation, (like Dwejra) the deterioration of natural habitats and the habitats of species as well as disturbances of the species for which the areas have been designated, in so far as such disturbance could be significant in relation to the objectives of this directive”.

The article also states that “member states shall take appropriate steps to avoid, in the special areas of conservation, the deterioration… as well as disturbances…” of species and habitats for which the sites have been designated and should also be implemented if necessary outside the sites. (Article 6 (2)).

Disturbances include, among others, noise and source of light.

The intensity, duration and frequency of repetition of disturbance are, therefore, important parameters and can be regarded as a significant disturbance.

Even a plan or project that includes conservation management among its objectives may still require assessment.

Although the management plan for Dwejra has long been drawn up with the help of EU funds, and approved by the EU, it is still gathering dust on the ministry’s bookshelf.

There is still no administrative set-up for its implementation, enforcement, management, administration, education and no stakeholders are involved, as obliged by the management plan.

The Environment and Planning Review Tribunal has completely undermined Malta’s obligations at EU level. Can the ERA contest such a decision in court, especially when the Minister for the Environment has publicly stated that he does not agree with this permit? If not, does this decision mean the ERA is impotent as a competent authority responsible for EU obligations when confronted by such a tribunal?

Do the citizens have to refer the matter to the EU to achieve what the ERA should be on the front line defending on their behalf?

This is definitely another decision reached by hand-picked political academics,whose short-sighted decision embarrassed Malta with regard to its international obligations.

If such a tribunal is independent, then the responsibility has to be carried by those people involved in such a decision and who have completely ignored and defied the decision made by two national competent authorities and also the public with great political and environmental consequences.

It is high time the EU DG Environment investigates how Natura 2000 sites in Malta are being brought to disrepute.

aebaldacchino@gmail.com

alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com

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

related articles:

Dwejra: Gone with the wind

A window pain for sure

Sifting solidified sand at Dwejra

 

aebaldacchino@gmail.com

alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com


Crossing the cross

May 14, 2019
Alfred E Baldacchino
Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

Photo: Chris Sant Fournier   

The Gozo permanent link discussion has now been politically sealed by the House of Representatives, though not the relevant scientific studies. From the horse’s mouth we now know that it is up to the official agencies to decide how to go crossing this cross with the least possible damages: presumably damages with regard to social, ecological and financial impacts.

One can never vouch for what is said and written, much less for what is not said and not written.

Now this cross is on the lap of the hand-picked academics to decide (or blindly endorse) and shoulder responsibility. One hopes that work will not start, and when problems are encountered, a study is initiated when there is no reversing the damage done, and the necessary permits have been issued. We have seen this a number of times, lately with the widening of country paths by the Ministry of Infrastructure.

The present fleet of Gozo ferries was adequate when they were launched because the demand was adequately met then. But today, the demand has increased while the ferry service has not.

“Surely a fourth ferry can extend the 12-year expiration date… but delaying the problem is not good enough” a young engineer wrote (May 2). Seems waiting for 12 to 15 years for the tunnel to be completed is better than waiting for the fourth ferry which can be in service before one can say Jack Robinson. This student engineer concluded that the fourth ferry is not “economically possible”.

Drivers from Mġarr still have to drive through bottlenecks and traffic congestions from Xemxija, to Sliema, Mater Dei, University, airport, and Valletta: dispersing emissions through towns and villages to the detriment of society and the environment, if these are of any relevance today.

It has also been implied and said that a fast ferry service should be for passengers only. Why? Is there a monopoly which needs protection?  Is this in the interest of commuters or traffic management?

“Congestion is not removed by restricting it. What better ways are there to eliminate traffic congestion other than to facilitate its mobility?” and do away with monopolies. “The idea of a permanent link is not to cut down on the 25-minute ferry trip, but to remove the queues. The engineer caters for the target user first and foremost.” (May 2).

Only? Those who used the ferry service from Mġarr to San Maison know what I mean, before the area was taken for a yacht marina.

Political mongering warns that if northern winds hit the island a fast ferry cannot operate at all. How many times did the fast ferry service from Malta to Sicily (more than 27-kilometre distance) not operated because of inclement weather? Besides, even aeroplanes are occasionally grounded either because of inclement weather, terrorism threats, and volcano emissions! And what about accidents half way through the tunnel?

Saying that the fast ferry service will create a parking issue in Gozo, is trying to convince that a circle is square

Political tears maintain that there is no room in Mġarr for the berthing of fast ferries, not even for a fourth ferry because of the yacht marina. What is more important for commuters: a quay for fast ferries or a yacht marina for the selected few?  One cannot have the cake and eat it too.

Saying that the fast ferry service will create a parking issue in Gozo, is trying to convince that a circle is square. Will there be a selective quota for the number of cars entering the tunnel so that “they will not create a parking problem”?

The political mentality dictates that fast ferry services pollute more than all the cars. Why is this of concern only to ferry services to Gozo and not to the number of cruise liners, which all work on heavy fuel oil even when they are berthed in Grand Harbour?

Young University students are all computer literate. I hope none of these have been imprinted by a ministerial political comment that “environmentalists are not those who stay on the computer writing about everything that passes over the country”!

Students should be proactive and become familiar with modern technology, and not just look at an old ferry fleet to the sound of political idiosyncrasies as if nothing is related to the environment. Student engineers should be at the top of the list on such modern approach as other academic students are doing.

Surfing the internet, getting one’s feet wet, can enlighten one on the modern way of solar-powered ferry services. Sitting near and hearing politicians can lead one to a tunnel vision. There are solar powered ferries working in Scandinavia, where the sun does not shine as strong and as long as it does in Malta and Gozo.

“Engineers are a separate species from the rest of the broader Homo sapiens. Engineers act, socialise and think like engineers; they think laterally. Also, engineering is non-democratic” (May 2) does not reflect well at all on the profession, unless of course this comment is relevant only to those engineers with such a vision, who are building highways in country paths guided by a ministerial mentality of “ħaxix ħażin”.

There are many professional engineers who incorporate the findings of other professions, like economists, ecologists, physicists, chemists, psychologists, geologists, sociologists, planners, legal and medical professions, and also public consultations.

Unfortunately, hand-picked politically faithful academics, some engineers not excluded, fear to tread or consult other professional studies, even if it is just an exercise to “…to remove the queues”, and might I add “ħaxix ħażin”.

Political comments do imprint some hand-picked academics, mercenaries, and the square circled mentality, to whom such political comments are directed.

An appropriate title for this parody would be: “Of guinea pigs, parrots and carrots.”

An appropriate title for this parody would be: “Of guinea pigs, parrots and carrots.”

“Regardless of which career you have, you are going to think like an engineer.” (May 2). A dangerous statement, which can only put engineers in a very bad light, and isolate and lead one into tunnel vision, professionally, physically and morally.  And to say the least, it is not expected from a budding university student, unless of course this is the axiom on which students are taught.

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

aebaldacchino@gmail.com

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

Related articles:

To Gozo with love

Efficient link to Gozo

Wirt Għawdex tunnel debate

Tunnelling the cross