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/

 


Our ‘landscaping’ needs professional updating

March 2, 2017

univ-of-faith

Thursday, 2nd March, 2017

Universe of Faith talks to Alfred E. Baldacchino, an environmental expert who is highly concerned about the fact that in Malta, we keep repeating the same mistakes detrimental to human health, the environment and the economy.

Fountain grass, Penisetum at Dingli. Photo: Alfred E. Baldacchino

Fountain grass, Penisetum sp. at Dingli. Photo: Alfred E. Baldacchino

“In the 1970s the government introduced Acacias trees which are detrimental to some people suffering from asthma, allergies, sinusitis etc. This alien species was introduced in Malta after a donation to the government of the time. Today, landscapers are doing the same mistakes by introducing alien species in our roundabouts, streets and other urban areas. One such example is the fountain grass, Penisetum, which following its planting in major roads, has now escaped and is growing uncontrolled along streets, in fields and also in valleys, competing with indigenous flora.” He explained that while there are also indigenous plants which can cause allergies these grow in small quantities and not invasively like the alien species.

Alfred believes that landscaping our streets needs to be combined with respect for the local wildlife and ecosystem. “Australia and New Zealand spray each plane that lands to control the introduction of alien insects from being accidentally introduced in their country. They have learned their lesson hard after Europeans introduced foreign species which brought havoc to their indigenous biodiversity. England is spending billions to control the negative impacts of invasive species. What can we learn from them?”

Carob brownies. Carob can be used as an alternative to choclate, it is also used as syryp, powder in both human and animal nutrition

Carob brownies. Carob can be used as an alternative to choclate, it is also used as syryp, powder in both human and animal nutrition

He insists that our approach needs to change and that things can be done more professionally. “We can use many of our indigenous flora, which are so easy to propagate. We have so many beautiful wildflowers. Israel uses indigenous trees, such as the carob, to landscape its streets. We can do the same. Indigenous flora should be propagated locally and not imported for commercial reasons. This would help economically, ecologically and socially. We have to put our priorities right. Environmental landscaping needs to move hand in hand socially and ecologically.”

He also warns about the dangers of importing olive trees which are suffering from a deadly disease causing great economical and ecological damages. “Do we have to go through such negative ecological and economical experience to make us aware of the actions that needed to be taken?” he asks.

Honeywort, Qniepen, Cerinthe Major. Photo: Stephen Mifsud www.maltawildplants.com

Honeywort, Qniepen, Cerinthe major. Photo: Stephen Mifsud http://www.maltawildplants.com

Alfred calls for the appreciation of our indigenous plants, those which have been adorning our country before the arrival of man, as well as implementing clear policies concerning alien invasive species which are destroying our ecosystems.

Pope Francis, in his recent letter On Care for Our Common Home also echoes this thinking when he said that some profits cause “terrible injustices, much greater than the economic benefit to be obtained,”. He also dedicates thirteen paragraphs (24, 32-42, 169, 190) of this letter on the value and protection of biodiversity.

Published: March 2017

Further Reading:
How can I become a “Green Catholic”?


The Caper at Couvre Porte

November 7, 2013

times

Thursday November 7th, 2013. 

The Caper at Couvre Porte

 Alfred E. Baldacchino

2013.10.22---Birgu-flag

Citta Vittoriosa flag

The Birgu Local Council deserves warm congratulations for the way they organised the Birgu Fest especially the candle­lit night which showed the splendour of the city: the overpowering majestic bastions, the Maltese workmanship, the architecture, the intricate sculptures, the winding streets, the renovated old buildings, and the growing public awareness of such a historical heritage.  Unfortunately this cannot be said for the way the Birgu environs are being landscaped.

2013.10.22---couvre-port-gate

Couvre Porte Gate

I entered through Couvre Porte, the  magnificent covered  gateway, admiring  the surroundings. I crossed the bridge  over the ditch, still in total darkness as to its future, at least from a public point of view. I wonder why no public consultations were ever held on such projects. Perhaps the present Minister would consider this before the works are done and public money spent and not follow in the footsteps of his predecessor.

Once through the main entrance of Couvre Porte, I climbed the 10 cm or so high steps leading to the top of the bastions. I could almost re­live the moments of such a historical architectural heritage left to us by the Knights of St. John.

There, on the highest part of the bastions something caught my eye: it was a caper (kappara) growing on one of the cordons, so soon on the freshly restored bastions, with defiance and a sense of victory. In the dim light, I could see the silhouettes of other indigenous plants which had also set foot on the fortifications: indigenous species which colonised these islands before man set foot on them.

2013.10.22---kappar-mas-swar

The caper on the bastions

The indigenous plants on the bastions echoed Rużar Briffa’s Jum ir­-Rebħ “Jien Maltija! Miskin min ikasbarni, miskin min jidħak bija” (I am Maltese! Pity the one who disgraces me, pity the one who mocks me”).

As I looked towards the Vittoriosa water front, the historic bastion rose as a background to a number of recently imported alien, toxic and some invasive trees. The never conquered Citta Vittoriosa, lied at the mercy of these introduced foreign species, some also invasive, politically approved and publicly funded. How could one accept the fact that there at the foot of the bastions exotic species had taken over the beds of the indigenous Maltese species, through the political apathy still accepting foreign colours to the indigenous splendour.

I slowly descended the steps, seemingly so much higher now, and mingled with the crowds till I found my way in front of the St. Lawrence Parish Church. Towering in front of the Church on my left was the Għolja tal­Ħelsien monument, a reminder of the last foreign power which had a foot in Malta. But even in the semi­darkness I could see the monument invaded with more than half a dozen exotic species, two or three invasive. Two palm trees on the monument seemed to have succumbed to the Red Palm Weevil, an introduced alien invasive species.  On my right along the waterfront leading to dock 1, I could see other exotic species, some invasive, introduced from around the world, including the now ubiquitous fountain grass. Could it be possible that the exit of the foreign powers opened the doors to the exotic alien flora and fauna to set foot on the Islands even growing on the very monument itself?

2013.10.22---għolja-tal-ħelsien

Three exotic alien species surround the fanfare of the departure of the last foreign soldier.

Landscapers equipped with a can of chemicals will no doubt be sent by their political master, the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport, to spray the indigenous caper and allies to oblivion, something in which I must admit, they are very good at. But these are wild species and do not fatten anybody’s pockets. I am sure that the indigenous species will rise again, and again, and again in protest with the same determination, as one or two have already done at the newly renovated Mdina bastions, made more to resemble Windsor Castle rising out of an expanse of turf, so artificial and unnatural to a Mediterranean fortification rising out of garigue vegetation. As long as the people and the EU pay, who cares? Who would be that Minister who,  during whose tenure, approved the introduction of the most exotic alien species, not excluding invasives, in the Maltese Islands at the expense of local indigenous species, in the name of landscaping? The wisdom of some politicians knows no bounds despite national and international obligations, and should I add electoral promises!

2013.10.22---inula-chritmoides

The Golden Samphire on the restored Vittoriosa bastions. It can easily replace the introduced exotic invasive species of Fountain Grass occupying the flower beds on the waterfront.

I walked heavily to where my car was parked close to St. Helena Bastions ­ another jewel of the Knights of St. John. Another gem of a historical heritage so conspicuous by its neglected and abandoned state.  If only the funds coming from the European Union and public funds lavishly spent on the importation, advice, planting and profits made on the exotic trees, went to the restoration of such other gem at Bormla (Cospicua) they would have been much better spent.

2013,10,22---fountain-grass

The now ubiquitous introduced alien invasvie Fountain Grass, in the shadow of alien trees, competing and taking over from indigenous flora.

It was a relief to drive back home. But not before driving through a breach in the Cottonera bastion lines leading from San Ġwann t’Għuxa to Għajn Dwieli. The mismanagement, lack of planning and financial driving force in landscaping with its negative social, historical and ecological impact had ruined the enjoyable candle­lit evening at the historical city of Birgu. The good thing about it was that the candle­lit environment had hidden the look of disappointment on my face: the lack of considerations for local biodiversity makes me feel ashamed that I am Maltese, when this is appreciated more by the foreigners than by the local politicians. When money grows on trees and it talks, there is nobody ready to listen.

aebaldacchino@gmail.com

alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com


Red Palm Weevil invades eco-Gozo

June 1, 2013

times

Saturday,1 June, 2013

Weevil invades eco-Gozo

Alfred E. Baldacchino

 

The red palm weevil first set foot in the Maltese Islands in 2007.  Despite the expanse of the natural adequate sea barrier preventing this weevil from crossing over to the Maltese Islands – it can only fly a distance of one kilometre – it did manage to get a free ride on infected palm trees imported from Egypt and Europe.

The bad news was relayed through a press release issued on 24 October 2007, by the Ministry for Rural Affairs and the Environment informing the public of the Red Palm Red-Palm-WeevilWeevil’s presence in Malta. It quickly established itself and from St. Paul’s Bay, where the infected trees were housed, it spread to Salini, Qawra, Mosta, Attard, Mtafra, Rabat, Siġġiewi, Żebbuġ, Luqa: in a short spell it spread all over the island of Malta.

The transportation of palm trees to Gozo was immediately withheld. The expanse of sea between the islands also served as a natural barrier preventing its dispersal.

A parliamentary question dated 25 March 2009, revealed that 310 palm trees were uprooted in Malta. These consisted of 121 from public places and 189 from private gardens. This year, on the 5 May, another parliamentary question further revealed that during the first four months of 2013, a total of 248 palm trees infected by the Red Palm Weevil, were uprooted in Malta.

From 2008 to 2013, the total number of palm trees officially uprooted is 558: the result of the mismanagement of Maltese biodiversity, reflecting the hidden costs paid by society and the ecosystem.

I was under the impression (up to Sunday, 21 May 2013) that the Red Palm Weevil was prevented from invading Gozo, and palm trees there were safe. It was on these thoughts that I expressed myself during a comment on the Red Palm Weevil on the national TV station news bulletin. But my optimism was short lived.

No sooner had the news been transmitted than a Gozitan friend of mine phoned to inform me that the red palm weevil had officially established itself in Gozo since September 2012, despite the fact that trees landing at Imgarr Gozo are monitored.

On the morrow, another Gozitan friend contacted me to tell me that a relative of his had some palm trees on his land, which trees had also been attacked by the red palm weevil.

To add insult to injury, after reporting such infected trees, he was given a warning from the Ministry of Rural Affairs and the Environment, that if the infected trees were not uprooted in a couple of days he would be heavily fined to the tune of €666.66!

Why has the invasion of eco-Gozo by the red palm weevil been kept a secret to this day? Why were the Gozitans not informed of the invasion by this introduced weevil, so that they could take any precautionary measures they deemed necessary?

Before I am so rudely reminded, I do recall that since the invasion of eco-Gozo by the red palm weevil, there was a general election!

2008.10.05---larvae-2

The larva of the Red Palm Weevil

Imported alien species all carry a hidden cost, no matter what politicians, entrepreneurs or public officials say or think.

And while landscapers cash on quick profits, and politicians gloat on the number of imported trees and flowers planted, and prime ministers tour ecological time bombs, the hidden cost is borne by society and the ecosystem.

Such burden is becoming heavier and heavier. Great Britain, an island, spends £3 billion annually to control three invasive fresh water species. The EU, the largest importer of alien species, spends €16 billion annually to control the negative impacts of invasive alien species. Brussels has belatedly realised that the free movement of goods with regards to living species, whether flora or fauna, is playing with a very expensive time bomb.

2008.10.05---larvae

The larva of the Red Palm Weevil at work

One hopes that Government will not follow the path of its predecessor, and will immediately intervene and take action.

The red palm weevil is just a living example. There are other invasive alien species, some which have already made their mark and issued invoices, such as the geranium bronze butterfly, the mulberry long horned beetle, the Asian tiger mosquito, while others are still building on their populations before their impact is felt and seen, such as the number of land snails slowly but surely dispersing outwards from their nurseries.

2008.02.03---weevil-cocoons-

Cocoons of the Red Palm Weevil spun by the larvae, before they emerge as adult weevils

Social and ecological considerations are not even factored in the maximisation of profits of such businesses, which up to the ides of March 2013 had political backing.

The bottom line is that eco-Gozo, and Malta, despite obligatory phytosanitary certificates, political half-baked measures, colourful publications, and national and international legal obligations, have been invaded by an alien species despite persistent warnings. 

Gozo is such a small island that the red palm weevil won’t have any problem infesting each and every palm tree there.

Furthermore, it is not that difficult – if there is the will – to trace where new palm trees have been planted.

2008.02.03---ther-works-of-the-Red-Palm-Weevil-larva

The fatal works of the Red Palm Weevil

Along with habitat destruction, over-exploitation, and the domino effect of extinction of species, Pulitzer Prize-winning scientist Jared Diamond has included invasive species as one of the “Four Horsemen” of this ecological apocalypse.

2008.01.15---dead-palm-tree-at-Imtarfa

One of the 600 dead palm trees killed by the Red Palm Weevil at Mtarfa. Who’s paying for the damages?

Eco-Gozo and the Maltese ecosystem now have to pay through their noses for such self inflicted political mismanagement and for ignoring national and international obligations showing the complete failure of virtual eco-Gozo and the once environmental pillar.

Will this apocalypse horse gallop on unbridled, spurred by financial greed?

aebaldacchino@gmail.com

alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com

See also

https://alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com/2010/07/25/the-red-palm-weevil-another-alien-species/

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

https://alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com/2010/06/21/the-introduction-of-alien-species-into-the-natural-environment-%E2%80%93-a-european-concern/


Seminar on the benefits and use of trees

February 22, 2013

Introduction to Maltese native trees

Alfred E. Baldacchino

On Tuesday 10th February 2013, Flimkien Għal Ambjent Aħjar Tree Group in collabortion with the Attard Local Coucil organised a seminar on The benefits and use of tree. 

The FAA Tree Group was established following the outcry against the wanton and  widespread destruction of urban trees both in Malta and Gozo by Government Ministries,  paid from public funds. The response for such a first activity of the FAA Tree Group was immediate:

  • there were more than 100 participants who not only followed the presentations with great interests, but also took notes;
  • asked a number of pertinent questions, and
  • also demanded more information and similar meetings on the better use and appreciation of Maltese indigenous trees.

The seminar covered information on Maltese indigenous trees and the need for more appreciation especially by those who are entrusted to protect them; the benefits that trees give to society and the environment, and also their contribution to the economical aspect. The need to prevent the introduction of invasive species which can devastate the Maltese ecosystem, was also highlighted.

The partecipants were also addressed with regards to the use and benefits of trees in the urban environment and how this can be undertaken in a professional way.

A short presentation on tree protection regulations was also given.

Following the seminar, the demand for copies of the presentations were more than expected

As a first additional step towards the aim of more appreciation and protection of trees, the slides (used as the basis but without any animation, used during the presentaiton) can be viewed on the following link

https://alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com/presentation-seminar-on-the-benefits-and-use-of-trees/


Breeding birds of the Maltese Islands – a scientific and historical review

October 12, 2012

A new publication
Breeding Birds of the Maltese Islands - a scientific and historicl review


Money doesn’t only grow on trees here, it talks too!

May 23, 2012

Wednesday, 23 May, 2012

Alfred E. Baldacchino
Money doesn’t only grow on trees here, it talks too!

The appreciation of trees in the Maltese Islands is gaining momentum in leaps and bounds. This is mainly due to newly-established environmental NGOs, individual interventions, more private education and public awareness and, no doubt, Malta’s accession to the European Union.
Regrettably, the official side is still dragging its feet, finding it very difficult to understand and keep pace with this public awareness. This despite national and international legal obligations and good-intentioned environmental actions plans.
When Legal Notice 12 of 2001 was revoked by LN 200 of 2011, the Department of Agriculture was exempted from any legal responsibility with regard to urban tree-protection. Public trees in urban areas can now be pruned, uprooted, cut up in logs, butchered and destroyed without any official prior approval, according to one’s whims and fancies. Rather strange!
Many readers might remember, that when the Department of Agriculture was still responsible for landscaping, street trees used to be pruned with dedication, care and feeling. I remember the ficus trees at Saqqajja, in Rabat, among others, so professionally pruned in a seemingly sculptured way with a crown extending from one end of the line to the other and with small branches forming a beautiful trellis. It gave the area a green soothing sight in contrast with the heavy congested traffic-zone.
At that time, the Department of Agriculture did not have as many resources as today’s “landscapers” have but they used to make miracles with as little public expenses as possible and with professional management.
Today, “landscaping” projects are farmed out; it seems to anyone who can handle a chainsaw. There is nothing wrong in farming out to professional entities that are au courant with national and international legislation. But these operators must be subjected to a regulator that decides what should be done and not be done, monitor expenses, prevent ecological negative impacts, incorporate such operations in formal and non-formal education and ensure that the operators are observing guidelines and decisions.
After all, this is a basic issue of governance: the regulator and the operator should not be one and the same entity. Notwithstanding, the absence of such regulator, the politician still has a responsibility to shoulder, more so when such works are paid from public funds.
The lack of regulatory measures has led to a farcical scenario where the public is completely in the dark about what farming out agreements providing for and how funds are being managed. Taking the Prime Minister on a tour to demonstrate the colourful flowers or to nurseries to view lace makers at work only fools the actors but not the people.
What the people want to hear is how public funds are being spent: how much is being spent overseas on the importation of trees, what is the cost of such trees, why are these not being grown in Malta, thus creating more jobs, more local expertise and benefiting from the multiplier effect besides preventing the introduction of invasive species.

This invasive species used in landscaping financed by Government and under the auspices of the Ministry of Resources and Rural Affairs, has already established itself in valleys, garigue and other wild habitats. This despite the fact the national and international obligation, including those of the EU, to prevent the introduction and to control invasive species. It also goes against the National Environment Policy published earlier this year, and the fact that it is listed as invasive by MEPA the Competent Authority on the Environment. The Ministry responsible for landscaping seems to be living in a republic of its own.
The photo was taken along one of the busiest roads in the Maltese Islands.

The standard reply given to these sorts of questions is that such data cannot be divulged because those involved in landscaping are private companies. And I was always under the impression that these were public private partnerships. US orator and politician, Patrick Henry (1736-1799) once wrote that the liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them. Seems that we still have a long way to go to reach the 18th century, despite being an EU member state.
It has now become customary that those who ask or comment in the national interest on the lack of governance, on professional tree management and on the lack of transparency on the use of public funds are looked upon as if they are enemies of the state. They are called names and are subjected to character assassination. It is so reminiscent of the 1980s.
Is there a real genuine desire for public consultations, suggestions and comments? The idea, of course, is not to point fingers at anybody.
In the history of landscaping in Malta, never have so few had a free hand and benefited at the expense of so many. It also seems that, in Malta, money does not only grow on trees but it talks too!
aebaldacchino@gmail.com

NOTE: The photo and its caption were not part of the original article in  The Times, but were added by the author on this post. Thelink to the original article is:

http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20120523/opinion/Money-doesn-t-only-grow-on-trees-here-it-talks-too-.420947


Bżonn ta’ aktar immanniġġar tas-Siġar Maltin

March 5, 2012

It-Tnejn, 5 ta’ Marzu, 2012

miktub minn Gaetano Micallef

Il-ġlieda ta’ raġel biex isalva s-siġar lokali

 Il-“massakru” tas-siġar lokali u l-importazzjoni ta’ ċertu speċi ta’ siġar u pjanti li magħhom qed iġibu ċertu nsetti qed jinkwetaw lill-ambjentalist ALFRED E. BALDACCHINO kif wieħed jista’ jara mill-blog tiegħu. GAETANO MICALLEF iltaqa’ miegħu biex jara għaliex mhux jara futur għas-siġar indiġeni u cioè dawk tal-lokal. Fil-blog tiegħek għidt li s-siġar lokali qed jiġu “immassakrati”. X’ridt tgħid biha? X’qed iwassal għal dak li qed tiddeskrivi bħala trattament inaċċettabbli tas-siġar? Skont il-prinċipji tal-UE hemm bżonn ta’ regolatur u operatur biex l-affarijiet jitmexxew sewwa. Jekk nieħdu l-qasam tal-enerġija għandek il-korporazzjoni Enemalta li hija l-operatur waqt li fil-qasam tal-ilma nsibu l-Korporazzjoni għas-Servizz tal-Ilma li wkoll hija operatur. Imma t-tnejn li huma regolati mill-Awtorità Maltija għar-Riżorsi (MRA). Issa fil-qasam tal-‘landscaping’ insibu l-operatur, li huwa l-partner privat tal-Gvern, imma uffiċjalment m’hemmx indikazzjoni li hemm xi regolatur. Din tista’ twassal biex id-deċiżjonijiet u l-politika ta’ dan ix-xogħol titfassal mill-operatur innifsu. Ngħidu aħna, xi speċi ta’ siġar u arbuxelli jitħawwlu, minn fejn jinġiebu, jekk għandhomx jiġu impurtati, fejn jitħawlu, minn fejn jinqalgħu, jekk humiex skont il-liġi u jekk jonorawx l-obbligi internazzjonali li għandu l-pajjiż. Imma jidher li m’hemmx regolatur biex jgħid “ara, din l-ispeċi m’għandiex tintuża għax din għandha impatt negattiv fuq is-soċjetà, l-ekonomija u l-ekoloġija”. L-operatur m’għandux direzzjoni u mhux regolat. Ara f’Għawdex ħaġa bħal din ma tiġrix. M’ilux kont hemm u staqsejt uffiċjal fil-ministeru għaliex kuntrarju għal Malta ma rajtx il-pjanti li jgħidulhom is-Swaba tal-Madonna u l-Pjuma meta f’Malta dawn tarahom kważi kullimkien. Ir-risposta kienet li f’Għawdex huma jiddeċiedu liema pjanti jitħawlu u mhux il-kuntrattur. U billi jafu li kemm is-Swaba tal-Madonna u l-Pjuma huma pjanti invażivi ma jridux li dawn jidħlu Għawdex u jinfirxu kullimkien bi ħsara ekonomika, ekoloġika u soċjali. Tgħidli x’għandhom ħażin dawn il-pjanti? Dawn huma fost l-agħar pjanti invażivi fl-Ewropa. Pjanta invażiva hija dik li meta tiddaħħal minn barra taħrab u tinfirex mal-pajjiż fejn qatt ma kienet tikber qabel. Is-Swaba tal-Madonna hija pjanta Sud-Afrikana. Li pjanta minn barra tiddaħħal fil-pajjiż ma fiha xejn ħażin fiha nnifisha sakemm ma tkunx waħda li faċli taħrab bi ħsara kbira ekoloġika, soċjali u anke ekonomika għall-pajjiż. U meta din taħrab, tinfirex u tistabilixxi ruħha ma jkunx possibbli li tiġi kontrollata u meqruda. Ħares lejn il-Ħaxixa Ingliża jew il-Qarsu kif jafuh xi wħud. Din inġiebet xi 100 sena ilu mill-Afrika t’Isfel u tpoġġiet fil-Ġnien Botaniku fil-Floriana. Minn hemm infirxet u mliet Malta, Għawdex u Kemmuna. Saret invażiva għax illum qed tikber bla kontroll, ma tistax tiġi kontrollata u impossibbli li tiġi eliminata. Fil-fatt minn hawn Malta waslet anke Tuneż u Sqallija.

Imma mhux kull pjanta tista’ titqaċċat jew titneħħa?

Impossibbli. Kif tista’ telimina l-Ingliża minn hawn Malta li tikber kullimkien u tiksi kullimkien? Anke mas-swar u mal-irdumijiet. Jew is-Siġra tar-Riġnu jew is-Siġra tax-Xumakk? Meta tidħol speċi u ssir invażiva jkun impossibbli teliminaha. Fl-UE l-pjanta tas-Swaba tal-Madonna hija meqjusa fost l-iktar mija invażivi. U aħna nħawluha fit-toroq! Min qed jagħmel il-politika? Ir-regolatur? Anke jekk m’hawnx regolatur xorta waħda tibqa’ ir-responsabilità tal-Gvern li jara li l-obbligi internazzjonali li l-pajjiż għandu jiġu onorati. U għaliex dan l-interess u din l-għebusija tar-ras biex din il-pjanta u oħrajn invażivi bħala jibqgħu jiġu mħawla u mħallsa bi flus pubbliċi? Din jista’ jweġibha biss min qed jagħmel il-politika f’dan il-qasam. Sadanittant, is-soċjetà, l-ekonomija u l-ekoloġija jħallsu għal din il-politika żbaljata. Id-deċiżjoni li jkun hemm sieħeb privat mal-Gvern, f’dan il-każ l-ELC, mhux idea ħażina. Imma ma jistax ikun hemm operatur bla regolatur iktar u iktar meta l-operatur għandu €7 miljun kull sena għal ħames snin, jingħata l-mixtliet tal-Gvern biex jopera minnhom, jingħata l-makkinarju bħall-bowsers tal-Gvern biex jaħdem bihom u anke ħaddiema li kienu jaħdmu mad-Dipartiment tal-Agrikoltura f’dan il-qasam. F’din is-sħubija hemm riżorsi tajbin, kemm finanzjarji u umani, imma la hemm il-viżjoni u lanqas id-direzzjoni biex l-għan jintlaħaq. Il-Gvern huwa marbut mal-liġijiet lokali u anke b’dawk tal-UE u b’konvenzjonijiet internazzjonali rigward il-ħarsien u l-immaniġġjar tal-biodiversità imma kemm qed ikunu riflessi fix-xogħol li qed isir f’dan il-qasam ta’ tisbiħ tal-pajjiż? Dan narawh iktar ċar meta wieħed jara, fost orajn l-pubblikazzjonijiet uffiċjali tal-MEPA fejn jgħidu liema huma l-ispeċi invażivi li huma ta’ ħsara għall-ekoloġija lokali … fosthom is-Swaba tal-Madonna u l-Pjuma. Imma minkejja dan kollu ara kemm flus pubbliċi għadhom jintefqu fl-importazzjoni ta’ siġar eżotiċi, uħud minnhom invażivi, jew li jġibu magħhom speċi invażi. Ma tara l-ebda sinjal ta’ tkabbir ta’ siġar indiġeni lokali. Mela għala noqgħodu nippubblikaw pjanijiet, strateġiji u miżuri oħra favur l-ambjent meta dawn qed jiġu kompletament injorati? Jekk wieħed iħares lejn l-irdumijiet viċin tal-Blue Grotto jara li magħhom tikber is-Swaba tal-Madonna b’kompetizzjoni għall-pjanti indiġeni, uħud endemiċi, li jikbru hemm. Veru li dawn is-Swaba tal-Madonna kienu qed jikbru hemm qabel ma bdew jitħawlu fit-toroq. Allura nkomplu nżidu l-opportunità għal din il-pjanta biex tkompli tinfirex u tikber f’ambjent naturali mhedded.

Is-Swaba tal-Madonna – pjanta li l-UE tqis li hija fostl-aktar 100 pjanta invaziva. Hawn Malta, flus pubblici jintuzaw biex din tkompli tithawwel fit-toroqf pubblici

Anke l-Pjuma qed tinfirex sewwa u rajtha f’għelieqi, tikber taħt il-bankini fit-toroq, fil-widien u anke fix-xagħri. Min sejjer iħallas biex din tiġi ikkontrollata skont l-obbligi legali tal-pajjiż? Min sejjer jirrispondi għall-ksur tal-liġijiet u l-obbligi internazzjonali li l-pajjiż għandu biex ma jħallix pjanti invażivi jkomplu jinfirxu fl-ambjent naturali?

Il-Pjuma – pjanta invażiva li qed tinferex sewwa b'impatt negattiv soċjali u ambjentali

Kull speċi invażiva hija ħażina għall-ambjent lokali?  Mhux kull pjanta importata hija ta’ theddida għall-ambjent. Erħilha li meta dawn jiġu impurtati, magħhom jdaħħlu wkoll speċi oħra anke jekk magħhom ikollhom iċ-ċertifikat tas-saħħa tal-pjanti. Hekk kellhom is-siġar tal-Palm li magħhom daħal il-Bumunqar Aħmar tal-Palm. Għalhekk għandu jkun hemm regolatur professjonali biex lill-operatur jgħidlu xi speċi għandu juża fit-tisbiħ tal-pajjiż. Li kieku kien hemm regolatur xjentifiku u professjonali ma kienux jitħallew jiġu impurtati siġar tal-Palm mill-Ewropa u mill-Eġittu meta dawn kienu diġà mifnijin bil-Bumunqar l-Aħmar tal-Palm. Kieku ma kienux jitħallew jiġu mħawla ma’ Malta kollha s-Swaba tal-Madonna u l-Pjumi. Imma jekk wieħed iħares biss lejn il-parti kummerċjali mingħajr ma jagħti każ tal-impatt negattiv soċjali u dak ekoloġiku li dawn jista’ jkollhom allura dak li jiġri. Fl-aħħar mill-aħħar ir-responsabilita hija tal-Gvern imma bħalissa qisu l-Gvern qed jagħti ċekk iffirmat imma vojt u l-ammont jintela minn min jirċievi ċ-ċekk.

Imma fl-ELC ma hemm ħadd li jifhem fil-pjanti u s-siġar?Ma nistax nimmaġina li ma hemmx. Li kieku le, kif ġiet fdata b’din ir-responsabilità f’idejha? Naħseb li hemm min għandu ħafna esperjenza f’dan il-qasam u għalhekk niskanta kif isiru dawn l-affarijiet u jinġiebu pjanti invażi li mhumiex ta’ ġid għas-soċjetà u għall-ambjent ekoloġiku. U għalhekk ukoll ma nistax nifhem kif fil-mixtliet tal-Gvern ma jitkabbrux iktar siġar indiġeni bħal-Luq, il-Ballut, l-Għargħar, id-Deru, is-Safsafa l-Kbira, l-Għanżalor, il-Fraxxnu, il-Ħarrub, iż-Żagħrun, ir-Rummien, il-Lewż u ż-Żnuber. Minbarra li dawn inaqqsu t-theddida ta’ speċi oħra li jġibu magħhom dawk importati – bħal bebbux, pjanti, insetti u rettili – immaniġġjar bħal dan jiffranka ħafna flus milli jmorru barra minn Malta u minflok jintefqu hawn u jservu ta’ ġid għall-ambjent. Imma għidli kemm-il siġra indiġena minn dawn li semmejt tara biex jissebbaħ l-ambjent urban? Fil-passat il-mixtliet tal-Gvern, anke jekk mingħajr r-riżorsi finanzjarji li għandhom illum, kienu jagħmlu kollox u minkejja li kienu wkoll jiżirgħu u jħawlu siġar mhux adattati għal pajjiżna, bħall-Akaċja u l-Ewkalyptus, ma kinux jimpurtaw siġar bħal ma qed isir illum u għalhekk ma kienx ikun hemm periklu li jidħlu speċi barranin. Bil-politika li qed tiġi mħaddma llum, f’dawn l-aħħar snin daħlu ħafna speċi invażivi. Huwa ferm diffiċli li meta tiddaħħal pjanta stabbilita ma ddaħħalx magħha xi speċi oħra anke fil-ħamrija li jkollha. Meta ddaħħlu s-siġar tal-Palm uħud minnhom kienu twal xi żewġ sulari u kważi impossibbli li ma jkunx hemm speċi magħhom. Il-Bumunqar l-Aħmar jgħix l-Asja. Hemm l-ambjent tiegħu. Daħal fl-Eġittu mas-siġar tal-Palm u mill-Eġittu sab ruħu fl-Ewropa mas-siġar tal-Palm li ġew esportati hemm. Fl-Afrika ta’ Fuq dan il-Bumunqar huwa ‘pest’ għax qed jeqred ħafna siġar tat-tamal u kellu impatt negattiv fuq din l-industrija.

Ir-riżultat ta' deċiżjonijiet mhux professjonali – waħda mill 400 siġra tal-palm, maqtula mill-Bumunqar Aħmar tal-Palm li ddaħħal mas-siġar importati.

Issa xi ħadd f’Malta kellu l-idea “inteliġenti” li jixtri s-siġar mill-Eġittu u anke minn Spanja u Sqallija li kienu impurtawhom mill-Eġittu u sal-lum inqerdu mal-400 palma li wħud minnhom kienu ta’ valur storiku. Sa issa dan il-Bumunqar għadu għaddej joqtol kull siġra tal-Palm li jiltaqa’ magħha u qed jintefqu ammont ta’ flus biex dan jipprova jitwaqqaf. F’Malta daħlet ukoll il-Ħanfusa s-Sewda tat-Tut. Is-siġar tat-Tut u ċ-Ċawsli li kien hemm fil-Fiddien kollha sofrew ħafna minn din il-ħanfusa. Kif ġralhom ħafna f’ġonna privati. Issa siġar tat-Tut m’hawnx ħafna f’pajjiżna u daret fuq is-siġar tat-Tin. Min qed iħallas għal dan? L-impatt qed inħallsuh jien u int. Daħal ukoll il-Farfett tas-Sardinell. Kulħadd jilmenta fuqu. Għandi erba’ qsari tas-Sardinell fit-terazzin biex nistudja dan il-farfett … kull sena joqtolhom. Biex wieħed ikompli jara n-nuqqas ta’ miżuri professjonali qed ikomplu jitħawlu s-Sardinell matul it-toroq biex dan il-farfett ikollu iktar pjanti fuqhiex ibid, jiekol, joktor u jinfirex! Diġà qed jinstab jittajjar fil-widien tagħna fejn għandna pjanta mill-istess familja tas-Sardinell li s’issa għadu ma misshomx. Nispera li issa ma narawx impjegati jbixxu kull Sardinella li jaraw bil-kimika biex joqtlu dan il-farfett! Daħlet ukoll is-susa tat-tadam. Qerdet ħbula wara ħbula ta’ tadam. Daħlet għax l-attivitajiet kummerċjali jieħdu preferenza fuq il-ħarsien soċjali u ekoloġiku. Imma hawn xi ħadd li jimpurtah u jieħu ħsieb li dawn l-affarijiet ma jiġrux?  Għandek ukoll numru kbir ta’ speċi ta’ bebbux tal-art li ddaħħal mal-pjanti impurtati. Sa issa għadu ma jinħasx imma meta jibda jinħass imbagħad naħseb li nibdew naraw kif se jintefqu l-flus biex jiġu ikkontrollati. Illum jitħawlu fjuri bħall-Pensieri, Qronfol Tork, Petunji u Sardinell li wara ftit ġimgħat jispiċċa żmienhom u jinħartu biex jerġgħu jitħawlu oħrajn. Ma nistax ngħid li mhumiex sbieħ imma meta fil-gżejjer tagħna għandna ’l fuq minn 1,000 pjanta selvaġġa kollha adattati għall-klima tagħna, li m’għandhomx bżonn ħafna ilma, allura għaliex ma nużawx dawn u nkunu qed inħarsu aħjar l-ambjent ekoloġiku u fl-istess ħin inħarsu l-ekonomija tal-pajjiż. Din bħall-kwistjoni tal-ilma. L-UE tobbliga li l-ilma tad-drenaġġ ma jistax jintefa l-baħar mhux imsaffi. X’ġara? Investejna f’impjanti biex jittrattaw dan l-ilma imma wara li jiġi msaffi jerġa’ jintrema l-baħar u mbagħad nerġgħu ntella ilma baħar iktar ikkonċentrat biex jerġa’ jissaffa mir-reverse osmosis ħalli jittieħed għax-xorb. L-istess qed jiġri fit-tisbiħ tal-pajjiż bil-pjanti. Jekk dan  immaniġġjar professjonali nixtieq lil xi ħadd jgħidli xi jfisser dilettantiżmu!

Jiġifieri bħala prinċipju taqbel li m’għandhom jidħlu ebda speċi barranin? Le, mhux qed ngħid hekk.  Hemm ftehim internazzjonali, li wkoll jagħmel parti mir-regolamenti tal-UE u li l-prinċipji tiegħu huma nklużi fil-liġijiet lokali, magħruf bħala l-“prinċipju ta’ prekawzjoni” li permess tiegħu jekk se tittieħed xi deċiżjoni u ma jkunx magħruf x’impatt din se tħalli fuq l-ambjent u s-soċjetà allura din m’għandix tittieħed. Nifhem li jekk se ssir triq u hemm siġra jew siġar fin-nofs ma tistax tħallihom hemm. Imma ma jfissirx li mingħajr ma jkun hemm konsultazzjoni, ix-xogħol isir mingħajr l-ebda pjan ta’ immaniġġjar. Jekk hemm proġett ta’ żvilupp suppost li jkun hemm il-permess tal-MEPA. U meta jkun hemm siġar bħal dawn ikun hemm kundizzjonijiet ta’ kif sejrin jinqalgħu, minn sejjer jaqlahom u fejn sejrin jerġgħu jitħawlu. Nuqqas ta’ tagħrif lill-pubbliku joħloq ukoll ċertu suspetti. Is-siġar taż-Żebbuġ li nqalgħu minn ħdejn il-Monument tal-Gwerra fil-Floriana ġew impurtati u mħawla ftit tas-snin ilu. U s-siġar fejn sar it-terminus tal-Arriva fil-Belt ukoll inqalgħu biex minflokhom tħawlu siġar oħra kbar impurtati bi prezz mhux irħis. L-aħħar darba li mort hemm kelli ċans naraw li tnejn minnhom diġà nixfu. Meta nara dawn ir-riżorsi qed jinħlew u kif bihom jista’ jsir ferm iktar ġid ma nistax ma ninkwetax għal din il-‘laisse faire’. Meta wieħed iħares lejn ir-regolamenti tal-2001 dwar il-ħarsien tas-siġar, li kienu jagħtu ħarsien anke lis-siġar li jikbru fl-urban u li kienu ġew ippubblikat bi sħab bejn il-Ministru tal-Ambjent u dak tal-Agrikoltura, u meta wieħed jikkumpara kif dawn ġew emendati fl-2010, fejn ġew ippubblikat mill-Ministeru tal-Ambjent biss u ma fihom l-ebda referenza għall-ħarsien tas-siġar li jikbru fl-urban, allura ma jistax ikun li dan il-‘laisse faire’ ma jinħasx iktar. Mhux talli s-siġar indiġeni ma jintużawx fit-tisbiħ tal-pajjiż imma minħabba n-nuqqas ta’ regolatur uffiċjali numru ta’ siġar rari u mħarsa wkoll qed isofru minn din il-mentalità. Il-Professur John Borg, li darba kien Supretendent tad-Dipartiment tal-Agrikoltura, kien jara li siġar Maltin rari fil-pajjiż kienu jitħawlu jew jinżergħu fil-Ġonna ta’ San Anton. Fosthom kien hemm is-siġra rarissima magħrufa bħala s-Siġra tal-Kuruna, li aktarx hija l-unika waħda li għad baqa’, tikber f’San Anton, li l-aħħar li rajtha ftit ġimgħat ilu ġabuha qisha kurċifiss!

Ix-Xewk tal-Kuruna – l-aħħar siġra Maltija ta' din l-ispeċi rari u mħarsa strettament, li qed tikber fil-Ġonna ta' San Anton. Imbiċċra.

Barra minn hekk numru ta’ Siġar tad-Deru li kien hemm jikbru fuq ġewwa mal-ħajt ta’ dan il-ġnien tqaċċtu mill-qiegħ nett. Żabra li min jagħmel il-politika u huwa responsabbli fl-immaniġġjar tas-siġar imissu jistħi jidher quddiem in-nies. Dan biex ma nsemmiex dak li ġara l-Buskett li huwa sit tan-Natura 2000.

Id-Deru - kien jikber matul il-ħajt tal-ġnien f'San Anton. Imqaċċat mill-qiegħ.

Imma forsi għalhekk ma jeżistix regolatur… biex ħadd ma jkun f’pożizzjoni li jistħi. Huwa faċli li wieħed iwaħħal fil-ħaddiema biex taparsi jkun jidher li ħa passi. Imma l-ħaddiema jagħmlu dak li jgħidulhom. U bla regolatur x’tistenna? L-iktar ħaġa li tweġġgħani li dawn qed isiru bi flus pubbliċi u ħadd ma jidher li huwa responsabbli.

Forsi l-akbar ċertifikat ta' inkompetenza f'dan il-qasam huwa il-mod kif siġar f'Natura 200 tal-EU, il-Buskett, ġie mżeblaħ, anki dan bi flus il-poplu. Darba din kiet siġra rari u mħarsa strettament - is-sigra tal-Fraxxnu.

Sakemm ikollna dan ir-regolatur jiddispjaċini ngħid li s-siġar indiġeni f’pajjiżna m’għandhomx futur sabiħ. Jekk għandhom futur. Jekk ix-xogħol jitmexxa b’għan kummerċjali biss, u mingħajr ma jittieħdu kunsiderazzjonijiet tal-għan soċjali u ekoloġiku, wieħed ma jistax jistenna li s-siġar indiġeni ma jibqgħux sejrin lura u li ma jidħlux iktar speċi invażivi. U waqt li l-profitt kummerċjali jeħduh l-individwi, il-prezz iħallsu l-poplu u l-ambjent ekoloġiku.

Ara x'żabra dik? Certifikat għal dak il-politiku li huwa responsabbli biex dan ma jħallihx isir.

Żabra bla ebda professjonalita, bla kuxjenza u bla mistħija.

Għall-ġid tal-poplu u tal-ambjent! Dan qed ngħidu fuq dak li qalu, li qrajt u li smajt, fuq dak li rajt, u fuq ir-riżultati ta' dan kollu, dejjem bi flus pubbliċi.

NOTA: Ir-ritratti ma jidhrux fl-artiklu oriġinali li deher fl-Orizzont, imma dawn żidthom jien fuq il-blogg u kollha huma ritratti li ħadt jien.


The time for the green itch

November 5, 2011

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The time for the green itch

Alfred E. Baldacchino

Every five years or so there is an itch in the air – a political itch – that intensifies at the eleventh hour. The environment is not immune to this five-year itch. In fact, the last environmental itch centred around an environmental pillar. What a noble idea, I thought! But when the itch subsided, the mass media was inundated with criticism regarding official decisions and actions not exactly having the environmental-pillar base.

These included: the discharge of treated sewage water in the sea, declared as having “no economic value”; mismanagement of Natura 2000 sites, declaring part of Dwejra “to be just bare rocks”, building adjacent to a freshwater stream of EU importance; Buskett saved by the skin of its teeth from being turned into a public garden; planting and covering substantial areas with declared invasive imported species, despite international obligations and recommendations by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority; channelling scarce resource of rainwater along roads to the sea; compliance certificates issued to buildings that do not conform to the legal requirements that each should have a cistern of a capacity of at least three cubic metres for every five square metres of the floor surface of each room; over-extraction of the already precarious groundwater; disbanding the National Sustainable Development Commission; opposing an EU proposal for the listing of the bluefin tuna on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species; permitting buildings that make it impossible for neighbours to tap solar energy; negative impact of black dust politically regarded as an alien phenomenon; “cleaning” valleys by bulldozing their ecosystems… Space does not permit me to go on.

The virtual environmental-pillar was knocked out flat by the commercially-driven economic-pillar. It was not strong enough to withstand the official onslaught by those who have a collective responsibility to defend it. The environmental pillar is now dead and buried under commercially-driven decisions, perhaps at Wied il-Qasab Nadur cemetery.

Now it is time for a new itch: the green itch time. A draft National Environment Policy has been published for public consultation. What a noble idea, I think! The draft in hand encompasses legal international environmental concepts and principles, the great majority of which are already transposed in national legislation. These are juxtaposed in a colourful mosaic but, unfortunately, like all mosaics, hairline cracks abound, which, with some political acumen, can easily develop into loopholes. Some are already evident.

Such an essential document does not even have definitions of important concepts like “sustainable development”, “environment” or “precautionary principle”. International environmental legal obligations all have such definitions but do the political players have the same definitions in mind?

Some important concepts have also been mishandled. Can an environment policy disregard biodiversity as a resource? I cannot image that such omission is meant to cover the government’s stand against the listing of the bluefin tuna, an endangered international natural resource! The draft NEP lists a number of measures, all of which can definitely contribute to the sustainable use of the environment, though one comment betrays an inferiority complex.

Besides, a number of measures cannot be implemented within this legislature. Considering that some could be sitting on different seats, not necessarily of a different colour, following a musical chairs festival, one cannot exclude the possibility that such a policy will not necessarily be handled with care. The more so when some colleagues in the corridors of power do ignore national environment legislation, published over the signature of the Prime Minister himself. And the competent authority responsible for environment legislation habitually stands and stares, licking its wounds and cursing its impotency to take action.

I do, however, admire the tenacity and drive of Environment Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco but I cannot help feel that he is a lonely voice in a political wilderness, abandoned even by his environmental watchdog. A few days ago, another colourful environment document metamorphosed. This spelled guidelines for controlling alien species. A much-needed effort, though it retrospectively tackles negative economic, social and ecological impacts of introduced alien species and does not address the cause. They seem more like guidelines on how to control horses that have bolted after housing them in stables without doors.

This is why I have become very allergic to nicely-coloured printed documents that undoubtedly are attractive to the illiterate. Could be because I have not yet recovered from the decision to disband the National Sustainable Development Commission, flavoured by the now popular political dictum that one should not be judged by what one says but by what one does. These do not help at all to dispel any of my fears.

The eleventh hour is nigh. When the clock strikes one, will the environment policy slowly, silently, diplomatically, slide down in repose on the shelves of history, like the National Sustainable Development Commission did after all? National environmental legislation has been brushed aside; an environmental-pillar has been laid to rest; why not a policy? I am wishing, hoping and praying that I am wrong but I fear that Greenwich time will prove me right.


E is for Environment

August 8, 2011

Maltatoday, Sunday 7th August, 2011

E is for Environment ___________________________________________________________________________________ Despite occasional improvements, Malta’s environmental standards remain below expectations raised by EU accession. ALFRED E. BALDACCHINO, the man who was involved in the transposition of the acquis communautaire into Maltese law, offers an insight into why. ___________________________________________________________________________________

As environmentalists go, few can lay claim to the epithet ‘tree-hugger’ quite as convincingly as Alfred E. Baldacchino. An author of numerous books on Malta’s indigenous wildlife (and biodiversity in general), his very name is now practically synonymous with all matters arboreal. More significantly still, he is often heard on the radio, where he discusses the regular ‘massacre’ of roadside trees in the name of ‘pruning’ and ‘landscaping’… as well as what appears to be our national predilection for choosing the species most unsuited to our islands’ particular ecosystem.

I meet Baldacchino at his Attard home, and I am soon introduced to his private collection of indigenous Maltese saplings – all taken from seeds and cuttings, and grown in pots on a small and crowded verandah. As he talks me through the different species, it quickly becomes apparent that behind his regular complaints about our national treatment of trees and plants, there lies a deeper and altogether more pressing concern with the lack of comprehensive planning and co-ordination: a state of affairs affecting our country’s entire attitude towards all aspects of the environment, with results that can be seen all around us.

Back on the terrace, he points to a specimen of Fraxinus angustifolia (Fraxxnu in Maltese) on his terrace. “If I can grow this from a seed here in my own home – and believe me, I am no expert in cultivation – why can’t we do the same elsewhere? Why do we have to import harmful and invasive species, sometimes spreading diseases and unwanted alien pests like the red palm weevil, when we can invest the same energy into preserving our own natural biodiversity?”

He promptly answers his own question: because commercial interests have meanwhile overtaken all other considerations… including our country’s legal and moral obligations to manage and protect the environment. As an example he turns to his hobbyhorse: environmental landscaping.

“Just this morning I talked about this on the radio, and I was surprised by the reaction: some 12 phone-calls throughout the programme… of which only one was critical, accusing me of being ‘too negative’.” Baldacchino’s point on that programme (of which I had caught snatches while driving) was that pruning of trees – which used to be carried out under the auspices of the Agriculture Department, but has now been farmed out to the private sector – is now being done at the wrong time of the year, and in a slapdash way that reduces many of the trees concerned to mere stumps.

“Just a few moths ago, the trees outside my own home were being ‘pruned’ (or rather, ‘hewn’) and when I popped my head out of the balcony and asked the landscapers why they were doing this now – and more to the point why they were chopping them down to the trunk – they replied ‘because cars pass from here’. What sort of answer is that? Did cars suddenly start passing this way only now…?”

Baldacchino suspects the reason is another: that the job of environmental landscaping has since been taken over by a ‘public private partnership’, or ‘PPP’. “If you ask me, it more like ‘Pee Pee Pee’,” he says… spelling out the ‘double-E’ each time. “The problem is that private concerns like these are driven by commercial interests, and commercial interests that simply do not mix with environmental protection.” For instance, Baldacchino argues that landscapers have taken to using herbicides on roundabouts and pathways. “Not a good idea,” he intones. “These herbicides will be washed away by the rain, only to find their way into valleys and possible reach the watertable. Why is this being allowed to happen? Why isn’t MEPA coming down like a tonne of bricks?”

Even the choice of plants and flowers for these roundabout displays is at best questionable. “Recently, the Prime Minister was on TV talking about government investment in embellishment projects. He was saying things like: ‘when did we ever see so many flowers blooming in August, when it is normally dry as dust?’ Personally I don’t blame the PM himself for saying things like that, but somebody should really tell him that this sort of landscaping goes against his own environmental credentials. These take substantial amount of precious water, especially those laid out with turf. Their temporary aesthetic impact carries hidden costs carried by society.…” Baldacchino explains that ‘alien’ flowers like (for instance) petunias tend to guzzle enormous amounts of water – itself a precious resource that the country can ill-afford to waste – and some species also have the potential to ‘escape’ and take root elsewhere in the wild. “Some of the plants used have microscopic seeds that get easily blown about by the currents as cars drive past, or carried by the wind, washed away by the rain, and so on. It is easy for them to end up germinating in a valley somewhere. What happens if they start to spread? They will become an invasive species, competing with other indigenous plants and ultimately become a threat toMalta’s natural biodiversity.” Some established invasives include the south and Central American Nasturtium, and the south African Hottentot Fig, the latter also used in landscaping.

Baldacchino points towards the profit margins of the private companies involved in the partnership as the main reason for both the use of herbicides, and the inauspicious choice of flowers. The reasoning is one we have all heard before, perhaps in relation to other issues and scenarios: ‘someone’ will be importing a certain type of herbicide, or a certain type of plant… “None of this is necessary,” Baldacchino asserts. “This is the result of having lost our way when it comes to environmental issues.”

But we have raced ahead of ourselves. Part of the reason I came here was to talk about these issues, true; but I also wanted to ask for a historical perspective on what exactly went awry. Baldacchino has after all been involved in the country’s environmental sector…  having kick-started the government’s environmental department in the early 1980s. At that time, the environment fell loosely under the portfolio of Health Minister Vincent Moran… though Baldacchino doesn’t count Moran as one of Malta’s environment ministers, for the simple reason that the word ‘environment’ had yet to achieve practical relevance back then. It was only later – and very gradually – that the concept began to take root in Malta’s subconscious, slowly rising to become a major concern. “Since the 1980s I have worked under six ministers and one parliamentary secretary,” Baldacchino recalls: adding the curious detail that three of them (apart from Moran) were doctors –Daniel Micallef, Stanley Zammit and George Vella. “Doctors make good environment ministers,” he asserts. “I think it’s partly to do with their scientific academic background, and also their charisma with people as doctors. In fact it was with Daniel Micallef that environmental awareness began to take off; and things reached a peak with Stanley Zammit, who had by far the longest time to deliver.”

Baldacchino also acknowledges the input of lawyers who took over the portfolio – namely Ugo Mifsud Bonnici and Francis Zammit Dimech – considering that by their time Malta had to face the voluminous legal international obligations including those of the EU. He was less enthusiastic about role of architect ministers who came in their wake. “Doctors immediately grasped the scientific concept of environmental conservation, while the legal aspect was also quickly picked up by lawyers… But something that took maybe five minutes to explain to the doctors, would take up to five hours with the lawyers…” As for the architects, Baldacchino makes an exception for Michael Falzon, who had the benefit of being helped by Stanley Zammit as his parliamentary secretary. I point out that this leaves us with only one architect who was also environment minister – George Pullicino, with whom Baldacchino had a very public and very acrimonious fall-out. However, he had no intention of being drawn into a discussion about that difference – which erupted after his retirement from the Environment Protection Directorate.

Instead we talked about what he defines as the two ‘fatal errors’ that have undermined previous efforts to create a functional environmental protection regime. “Initially, all the people involved in the department were chosen on the strength of their scientific background. Despite the paucity of human resources, we had the best available people. We needed them, too. Back then we were screening Maltese legislation with a view to transposing the EU’s acquis communautaire: a massive job and we had problems – big problems – at the beginning. But we also had a wealth of highly scientifically qualified and motivated people, enabling the department to be professionally run at the time.”

And then, out of the blue… the catastrophe. Baldacchino explains how the government suddenly decided to strip the environment of its own ministry, and instead transfer it lock, stock and barrel to the Planning Authority. “I think I was as surprised as Minister Zammit Dimech at the time,” Baldacchino recalls, referring to the decision as an environmental disaster from which the country has never fully recovered. “We were like a round peg in a square hole. Suddenly, decisions started being taken without any consideration or even idea of the country’s legal international obligations. Scientific and technical expertise was put aside in favour of other, more commercial considerations. From that point on, we started heading downhill.”

Baldacchino observes that – with the exception of occasional improvements – the trajectory has remained downhill ever since, in part thanks to a second and equally damning mishap. “The second major mistake was to allow the National Sustainable Development Commission (NSDC) to fizzle out. Whether intentionally, or through ignorance, or out of our national tendency to simply ‘postpone’ problems for future generations, the commission was never set in motion …” Originally set up in 2002 – significantly, before the decision to rob the environment of a ministry of its own – the NSDC initially aimed to provide an umbrella organization to integrate and amalgamate all economic, social and environmental considerations. “It has been years since the Commission last met,” Baldacchino says in regretful tones. “Today, decisions which have huge impact on the environment are taken in the absence of any framework organization. Development planning has hijacked all other considerations.”

Baldacchino argues that we are literally paying a high price due to the lack of any clear planning strategy… as an example, he singles out Malta’s policy regarding water. “The Knights of St John handed everything to us on a silver platter. They left us an entire aqueduct and water storing system, and more importantly they had drawn up laws whereby all houses had to have their own wells.” He points out that technically, these laws are still in the statue books. “But are they being implemented? No. Today, MEPA merely issues compliance certificates in cases where houses are illegally built without wells. And just look at the homes we are building: any space for reservoirs is today taken up by garages instead.” Ironically, then, it seems that Maltawas more conscious of water conservation 500 years ago … despite the fact that population pressures, coupled with the demands of a thirsty tourism industry, have resulted in skyrocketing water demands.

From this perspective, environmentalists like Baldacchino were ‘scandalised’ to hear Infrastructure Minister Austin Gatt cavalierly announcing that excess water produced by sewage treatment would be pumped into the sea because it “had no economic value”. “No economic value? That’s blasphemy. What economic value is there is throwing away 50% pure water, when only a few metres away we have Reverse Osmosis plants pumping up 100% concentrated water from the sea? Considering how much we are paying for water produced in this way, can we afford to throw away water that would actually cost us less? So much for economic value…”

Baldacchino argues that the whole system was geared up from the outset with a view to pumping the water into the sea. No thought was given to the possibility of re-utilising that precious resource, “How else do you explain that all the country’s sewage treatment plants were sited near the sea to begin with?”

All this is symptomatic of a system which has fallen apart at the seams – almost an inevitability, Baldacchino suggests, when one considers how the environment itself was divorced from its original ministry, and instead spread among different entities, all of which work independently of one another without any cohesive framework policy. Again, water provides a good example; being a resource which falls under no fewer than three separate ministries. “MEPA is responsible for Malta’s surface water policy, and this falls under the office of the Prime Minister. But the Water Services Corporation – which handles distribution of water – falls under the Finance Ministry, whereas groundwater extraction, among others, falls under the MRRA.” So who takes ultimate responsibility for water-related problems when they arise? Baldacchino suggests the answer, as things stand, is ‘nobody’… coming back to his earlier point that the current set-up encourages government to put off existing problems, leaving future generations to cope with them as best they can.

“It’s a little like what happened with Bisazza Street, but on a national scale,” he remarks. “In the case of Bisazza Street, we had one ministry planning for pedestrianisation, and another ministry planning for traffic, and they only realized there was a problem when the two came together. Why? How is this possible? But at least,” he adds with a twinkle in his eye, “in the case of Bisazza street, a few ‘heads’ did actually roll…”


Landscaping with native flowers

May 19, 2011

Landscaping with native flowers

Thursday, May 19, 2011 ,

Alfred E. Baldacchino

Over the last few weeks, nature regal­ed us with its wonders, richness and colours of native spring wild flowers: fields covered with red carpets of poppies, lavish yellow crown daisies and perennial wall rocket, white borders of sweet alison and white mustard, mauve patches of mallow, wild artichoke and the dappled bear’s breech, different sizes and colours of bindweeds, some red-listed, among many, many others. All for free: no fees charged for sowing; for watering or weeding.

Crown Daisy - Lellux

Unfortunately, instead of appreciating and encouraging nature’s free gifts, the government’s official policy seems to be to decimate and eliminate them. Masked clothed men can be seen spraying herbicide at every wild native flower that dares raise its head and bloom within a stone’s throw of the urban environment, eliminating also the ecological niche and all the other flora and fauna depending directly or indirectly on such a niche.

Year after year sizeable patches of Bindweed along the Imriehel bypass, were shaved to the ground untill they finally succumb.

Such government policy is contributing to the disappearance of a number of native species like, for example, butterflies and moths. If it isn’t for the migratory butterflies, the dash of colours of the native ones would be so sparse. Some, like the small copper, have already hung up their wings. Others, like the meadow brown, are not far from following suit.

When have you seen your last 7-spot Ladybird?

Once, the red seven-spotted ladybird was as common as all the exotic flowers being planted along traffic islands and highways today. It controlled and preyed on aphids taken from plants and trees – just for free! But the government policy of spraying insecticide and herbicides along roads and streets is also drastically eliminating natural predators.

Today, the harmful alien red palm weevil can be more plentiful than the once common helpful ladybird. And, naturally, this policy is also affecting pollinators, such as the honey bees.

Financial and human resources are available to embellish the country in a sustainable way, without any externalities, that is, without any hidden costs borne by society in general, and by biodiversity in particular. Unfortunately, the myopic policy in using such resources shows a glaring lack of biodiversity conservation and social consideration concepts, though strong profit motives.

Mallow - Ħubbejż - did not escape the herbicide or shaving either.

Such official policy also approves the clearing of native wild flowers to make way for exotic species, contributing to the establishment of invasive alien species, such as the South African Hottentot fig, which is also so declared by the State of the Environment Report for the Maltese Islands.

The dreaded invasive alien species, Hottentot Fig, which despite competing with endangered indigenous species, is being planted, with government funds.

A handbook published by Daisie (Delivering Alien Invasive Species Inventory for Europe), funded by the European Commission, listed the Hottentot fig as one of the worst 100 invasive species in Europe. Suggestions made include its restricted sale, public awareness of its negative impacts, encouraging its proper removal and disposal and promotion of native species.

The wild Sweet Alison (Buttuniera) does not look so sweet for the commercial landscapers.

The EU Habitats Directive also obliges member states to take measures to ensure that any introduction of a non-native species does not prejudice the natural fauna and flora by regulating or prohibiting the importation of non-native species. But the government is making available public funds to replace native wild flora with such invasive species, in this case the Hottentot fig.

A short drive by the roundabout leading to Malta International Airport, to the verges past the Blata l-Bajda Museum chapel and to the roads leading to Mater Dei Hospital, among many others, will show this planted invasive alien species.

The plant is established on sea cliffs and on sand dunes, competing with local rare indigenous cliff and dune vegetation, even endemics listed in the EU Habitats Directive annexes. A look from the belvedere overlooking the Blue Grotto in Żurrieq can reveal some areas where it has established itself.

In Gozo, it is found growing wild in the now famous Dwejra special area of conservation (or should I say special area of convenience). I find it very, very difficult to understand how the government not only allows this to happen but also contributes through public funds.

More than a decade ago there used to be a Ministry for the Environment, which used to address such obligations. It seems the government, despite having the environment as one of its main pillars (to be corrected if I am wrong), never seems to learn and does not want to know and to listen.

Through the government policy mentioned above, a number of invasive alien species have already established themselves in the Maltese islands. Naturally, the public and the local biodiversity bear the hidden financial costs of such policy.

Who has not had the misfortune to bear costs in connection with the damage done by the red palm weevil, the geranium butterfly, the Asian long-horned beetle, the tomato leaf miner and the Bedriaga’s frog, among others? Definitely not the Maltese biodiversity, despite Malta’s commitment to control biological loss by 2010.

The Wild Artichoke (Qaqoċċ salvagg)

The government can indeed turn a blind eye to such hidden costs. It can also continue with such a blinkered policy driven by the now familiar and usual short economic returns. But no blind eye can ever fail to see the political responsibility of those who are in a position to avert such damage and miserably fail to do so.

Writing on invasive alien species, Jeanine Pfeiffer, research director for social sciences at Earthwatch Institute said: “We can’t afford to be culturally ignorant any longer.” It seems the government strongly begs to differ!

Following the publication of the above article, a reader kindly sent me this photo showing what nature can give for free, which unfortunately is not appreciated at all.


Mepa and EU obligations

July 30, 2010

Friday, 30th July 2010

Mepa and EU obligations
Alfred E. Baldacchino

It seems that Mepa now acknowledges my expertise in the field of nature protection (July 21). It was also gratuitous of them to refer to me as the former Mepa assistant director for nature protection. Prior to that I was involved with the Environment Protection Department since its inception and worked under various ministers, especially in connection with EU screening and transposition of the EU biodiversity acquis. Progress during such a period was smooth and fast, with constant ministerial help, understanding and direction, despite some difficulties and lack of resources.

It was a very rewarding and satisfactory time, which I still cherish. But when Mepa was conceived and took over the responsibility of the environment (not just biodiversity), the planning mentality contributed to the dismantlement and, to some extent, the throwing overboard of established procedures and structures. Time and space do not allow me to go into detail here but should the need arise…
More surprising was the fact that Mepa, despite not wanting to fall for childish tit-for-tat, took two newspaper columns, beating about the bush and going on a wild goose chase, only to endorse all the EU Habitats Directive’s obligations outlined in my contribution (July 13). The outstanding points of Mepa’s letter are not the eulogy of what it achieved but the glaring absence of what has not been taken in hand or not done in the spirit of the obligations. To list but a few:

Article 6 of the Habitats Directive outlines what should or should not be done in Special Areas of Conservation (SAC). These, in brief, include conservation measures, management plans, steps to avoid deterioration of natural habitats and species. To use Mepa’s own words: “Obviously, projects and activities that are incompatible with the conservation of objectives of the site are prohibited.” Mepa could have explained how this was applied with regard to the permits issued for development in Baħrija, Mistra and Ramla l-Ħamra, all SACs. And it seems there are more to come!

Article 22 of the EU Habitats Directive deals with invasive alien species. To the credit of the past, now extinct, Nature Protection Unit, the hottentot fig (Carpobrutus edulis) was declared an invasive alien species, as also declared by the European Union. This species has already invaded some coastal cliffs, all SACs. Yet, public funds are being spent to plant this invasive alien species all over Malta and Gozo.  And Mepa, the Competent Authority responsible for this directive, turns a blind eye to such activities.

Buskett, another SAC and also a Special Protection Area (SPA), has become full of invasive alien species. The ongoing disturbance, deterioration and loss of habitat, decrease and disappearance of indigenous species of flora and fauna, the chopping down of protected trees and bushes is so opposed to the obligations of the Habitats Directive. Mepa, in its eulogy of achievements, completely fails to mention any actions taken or being taken in this regard.
A high Mepa official publicly stated on the national TV station that if no solution is found to eliminate the introduced alien frog in Gozo, then the water will be poisoned to eliminate it. This pool also contains, besides others, the painted frog, which is a species of EU interest in need of strict protection listed in annex IV of the Habitats Directive. Such destructive action is completely against the obligations of the directive.

Monitoring and enforcement are other obligations of the Habitats Directive which need reporting on in the six-yearly report. But no mention of these was made in the Mepa achievement list. It is no secret that Mepa is allergic to enforcement measures. When the Environment Protection Department was taken over by the Planning Authority, the former had a fully fledged environment enforcement section. Today, this section has disappeared into oblivion.

A development-driven authority can never, by any stretch of the  imagination, take responsibility and be accountable for the protection, management, monitoring and enforcement of environmental matters. The more so since the deciding bodies within Mepa do not have any inkling of environment management, conservation and EU obligations.
As publicly discussed controversial permits show, technical reports are also often ignored. The ever-increasing public discontent on how the environment in general, particularly the natural environment, is  deteriorating, blatantly abused, exploited, mismanaged and disappearing, is a very strong verdict of Mepa’s failure. A number of environmental NGOs have also publicly asked for resignations within Mepa, considering that it is the Competent Authority responsible to safeguard the environment in the name of the public, who is the main stakeholder. Sometimes, I wonder if the greatest hurdle in the way of the protection of the environment is the Competent Authority itself.

If all this is regarded by Mepa as “Malta living up to the EU Habitats Directive” then divine intervention is the only solution! I am indeed utterly worried for Mario de Marco who has now been handed environmental responsibility.

aebaldacchino@gmail.com
alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.

Link to MEPA’s letter dated 21st July 2010.

http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20100721/letters/malta-living-up-to-the-eu-habitats-directive

_________________________________________________________________
The author is a retired assistant director, Environment Protection Directorate at the Malta Environment and Planning Authority


The Red Palm Weevil – another alien species

July 25, 2010

 

Sunday, 2nd December 2007

 The Red Palm Weevil – another alien species –  Alfred E Baldacchino

The Red Palm Weevil – il-Bumunqar Aħmar tal-Palm – is a relatively large species of beetle about 3cm long. Its common English name is derived from its rusty red colour. Scientifically known as Rhynchophorus ferrugineus, the Red Weevil originates from tropical Asia, but has now spread to Africa and Europe. It reached Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman in 1985. And by 2006 it was recorded in France and in Cyprus.

The rapid spread of this pest is due to the transportation of infested young or adult date palm trees and offshoots from contaminated to uninfected areas. Egypt supplied, directly or indirectly, thousands of such palm trees each year to Spain and other European countries. There is ample evidence to conclude that the first Red Palm Weevils were introduced into Spain from adult palm trees imported from Egypt. And despite the fact that palm trees, like all other imported plants, must be accompanied by a phytosanitary certificate, adult palm trees can still conceal large quantity of hidden insects and diseases, such as Red Palm Weevil eggs and larvae. Red Palm Weevil larvae can eventually kill the tree host. In fact, it is a most destructive pest of date palms in the Middle East.

The Red Weevil spends all its stages (egg, larva, pupa and adult) inside the palm tree itself. The female weevil deposits 300 eggs in separate holes or in injuries on the palm tree. The eggs hatch after two to five days into legless grubs which bore into the interior of the palms and feed on the soft succulent tissues of palm trees.

The larval period varies from one to three months, after which the grub pupate in an elongated oval, cylindrical cocoon made out of fibrous strands. The pupation period lasts 14 to 21 days, after which the adult weevil emerges – a life cycle of about four months.

The adult is a reddish brown cylinder with a long prominent curved snout, varying considerably in size. It is about 35 mm in length and 12 mm in width. Its leathery forewings are dark red, strongly ribbed longitudinally, covering the hind wings which are brown in colour. The weevils can fly a distance of up to one kilometre.

In a press release issued on 24 October 2007, the Ministry for Rural Affairs and the Environment warned the public of the Red Palm Weevil’s presence in Malta. The question is, how did it get to Malta? The expanse of sea surrounding the Maltese islands is a strong enough natural barrier. But following the importation of hundreds of palm trees to Malta, the Red Palm Weevil took a free ride and established itself as an alien species.

In a previous article, I had drawn attention to the great number of palm trees that are being imported. Some, similar to those in the midst of Mikiel Anton Vassalli regional road, are up to two storeys high. They are easily 60 or more years old and once must have graced some natural oasis in north Africa. Considering the infested trees in Egypt which have contributed to the introduction of the Red Palm Weevil to Spain and Europe, the indications are that this is where it came from. And with such an abundance of food available, who can stop it from dispersing all over the island.

Malta does have indigenous species of palm trees, the Dwarf European Fan Palm – Chamaerops humilis il-Ġummara, whose wild population is critically endangered.

Furthermore there are a number of important Date Palms – Phoenix dactyliferail-Palma, and Canary Island Palms – Phoenix canariensis il-Palma tal-Kannizzati. There are also a number of historical specimens of palm trees growing in a number of private gardens and also in the Argotti Botanic Gardens, San Anton Gardens, among others, most of these planted from seed by the renowned Maltese botanist John Borg. However, all these important indigenous and historical palm trees are now in danger of kissing their roots goodbye.

Dead palm trees – the result of the introduced invasive alien species, the Red Palm Weevil

 

The control of such an alien species is indeed a hard nut to crack. It came fairly easily. But eliminating and controlling it is almost impossible. When the laboratories of the Plant Protection Section of the Department of Agriculture and the Agricultural Research Institute in Cyprus discovered the Red Weevil on its territory, all infested plants were removed and burned. In addition measures were taken to train all plant health inspectors in the identification and handling of infested palm trees.

The ecological, economic, and historical damage will become more evident with time. The damage caused by the Red Palm Weevil’s larva is not immediately visible, and by the time symptoms of such infestation appear, the damage is so advanced that it is difficult to save the tree from death. The population of the Red Weevil cannot but increase with such a large food supply available, and with no official national biodiversity strategy in place.

Measures necessary to control this introduced alien species are expensive, as with all other invasive alien species. One wonders if the entrepreneurs who have been directly involved in importing palm trees to the Maltese Islands are going to finance such measures to control this species – though perhaps the ecological and economical damage is not so much of a concern to them as much as cashing in on the profits. From experience it is almost impossible to convince decision-makers and garden centres to use locally grown specimens for landscaping. Dealers in palm trees and other plants find it more profitable economically to import, and let society carry the hidden costs.

As M. Ferry and S. Gomez (2002) conclude in their paper The Red Palm Weevil in the Mediterranean Area, “… there is a need for phytosanitary regulations at a European and North African country level to forbid totally the importation of date palms.” Will the minister responsible for the Environment and Agriculture eventually stop the importation of palm trees to contain such damage? Who is going to be accountable for any potential additional importation of this alien species and more of its food supply? What action will be taken to prevent the introduction into and the spread within the community of the Red Palm Weevil?

It is more realistic than pessimistic to conclude that at the end of the day, it will be common people Read the rest of this entry »


Missing the wood for the trees

June 21, 2010

 

Wednesday, 20th February 2008

Alfred E. Baldacchino

I can fully empathise with Louis Schembri’s feelings expressed in his letter Tree Murder in Balzan (February 1).  But Mr Schembri should not expect too much. The lack of a national biodiversity strategy leads to a lack of direction, and a lack of policy, amongst others for the proper planning, management and conservation of trees. In the absence of such strategy one cannot expect any better. The prevailing blinkered vision seems to be in planting more trees. This is not a bad idea at all, and can contribute not only to a better landscaping but also to a better afforestation. But the lack of such a national biodiversity strategy leads to an artificial implementation. As one can see the emphasis is just on numbers – quantity at the expense of quality. This leads to a false perception that it is not important whether these trees are locally grown or imported, as long as there are more and more and more, and one can then boast of numbers – the numbers’ mentality which should not form part of any biodiversity strategy. In the meantime, established urban trees are butchered or as Mr Schembri aptly put it, “murdered”. This would be quite explainable if the post of the minister responsible for the environment was vacant! The ever increasing impacts of climate change, and the need for measures, no matter how small, to address it, both in the context of national and also of international obligations, includes the control of the loss and the mutilation of trees. In their own unique natural way, trees remove carbon dioxide from the surroundings, besides enriching the urban environment where they flourish. The picture accompanying Mr Schembri’s letter clearly shows that the Balzan trees can no longer contribute to this. Unfortunately, this seems to be the order of the day considering the ever increasing numbers of such mutilated trees one can see, and the amount of public criticism resulting from a fast growing public awareness and a stronger environmental conscience.

Some such denuded trees that immediately come to mind are those at Saqqajja Square, Rabat, those along Ħal Warda Street, Attard, those in front of the Lyceum in Ħamrun, and those at Bir Bal Balzan. Incidentally the latter three sites are all adjacent to educational institutions – schools. I am sure readers can point out more of such mutilated trees in their locality. One can easily conclude that the Maltese official contribution to control and to limit the effects of climate change (apart from asking for higher quota for carbon emissions) seems to be the giving of a carte blanche to a contractor to chop and denude trees, paying him out of public funds for doing so. But alas not a word from the minister responsible for the environment, also responsible for landscaping, as well as being responsible for climate change and for formulating the policy for landscaping. When one sows the wind one cannot but expect to reap a whirlwind. What a waste of resources! I can hear echoes in the corridors of some Ministry saying that we, yes we, are paying millions of pounds to landscape the countryside with beautiful coloured pansies, marigolds and geraniums (for a maximum of a score of weeks, before they are ploughed up, to be planted anew) not forgetting the number of imported trees species, such as, for example, palm trees. I would not be surprised in the least if some other introduced species will make its presence felt considering the ever increasing amount of imported flora without any biodiversity strategy at all. As one drives around the island one cannot but see a number of such “hat stands” such as those at Balzan, Rabat, Attard, and others, sculptured out of established living trees and paid for out of public funds. The latest additional visual results in landscaping efforts are the number of dead palm trees: the result of short-sightedness in importing trees for landscaping purposes. Living monuments to crass incompetence, again the result of the lack a national biodiversity strategy.

Is there somebody who still believes that money does not grow on trees?


The introduction of alien species into the natural environment – a European concern

June 21, 2010

22 June 2008

Alfred E. baldacchino 

Alien species are not extraterrestrial species, as one could be led to believe by the word “alien”. From a biological perspective, alien species are living species of flora and fauna which, in an unnatural way, are introduced into a natural habitat where they have never occurred before, and as such are not indigenous to that area. Some of these species may be quite harmless. But others can be very dangerous from an ecological and an economical aspect. The introduction of alien species can be either accidental or intentional, but in both cases the species introduced can became invasive, competing with the local species for space and food and thus threatening the survival of indigenous species, sometimes even by predation. Invasive alien species (IAS) can be a serious threat to biodiversity and contribute to its loss. Aided by other environmental threats, IAS weaken the resilience of natural systems and reduce their ability to adapt to new conditions generated by climate change. An example of a local intentionally introduced floral species is the eucalyptus tree. The latest introduced faunal species recorded towards the end of 2007, and officially declared invasive, is the red palm weevil. This is but a brief and simple definition of an alien species. The ever-increasing international demand for exotic species, whether animal or plant, for commercial trade, aided by modern means of transportation, make it easier for species to establish themselves in countries where they have never previously been present. The increasing illegal trafficking in exotic wild species on a global scale (which is only second to illegal drug trafficking) further enhances the possibilities of species invading other countries. Having seen the negative impact of IAS, the international community introduced legislation to control them. Below is a very brief general look at some of this legislation and its provisions and obligations, which is aimed at controlling introduced aliens species, and to which the signatories have committed themselves.

Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) The Convention on Biological Diversity, which was signed at Rio de Janeiro on 5 June 1992, is the most recent international convention and embraces the most modern scientific principles in the conservation of biological diversity. It lays down measures regarding the conservation of species and the contracting parties will, as far as possible and as appropriate, achieve this by establishing or maintaining the means to regulate, manage or control the risks associated with the use and release of living modified organisms resulting from biotechnology that are likely to have an adverse environmental impact that could affect the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, taking also into account the risk to human health. Furthermore, the signatories are also obliged to prevent the introduction of, see to the control of or the eradication of those alien species that threaten ecosystems, habitats or species. Malta became a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity on 29 December 2000.

Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (Bern)  was signed in Bern on 19 October 1979 under the auspices of the Council of Europe. The signatories to this convention are obliged to undertake strict control of the introduction of non-native species. Malta became a signatory to this convention on 26 November 1993.

Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (Bonn) The United Nations Environment Programme is the Secretariat of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals. The signatories to this convention, which came into force in 1985, agree to endeavour – to the extent that is feasible and appropriate – to prevent, reduce or control factors that are endangering or are likely to further endanger the species listed in an annex of the convention. Signatories are also obliged to strictly control the introduction of, or control or elimination of, already introduced exotic species. Malta became a signatory to this convention on 13 February 2001.

United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) UNCLOS also addresses the protection and preservation of the marine environment. The signatories to this convention, which came into force in 1994, are to take all measures necessary to prevent, reduce and control pollution of the marine environment resulting from the use of technologies under their jurisdiction or control, or the intentional or accidental introduction of species, alien or new, to a particular part of the marine environment, which may cause significant and harmful changes thereto. The cleaning of ships’ hulls and the ballast water carried by ships are the main contributors to such alien introduced species. Malta became a signatory to this convention on 25 May 1993.

EU Council Directive 92/43/EEC of 21 May 1992 on the Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Fauna and Flora    This European Union legislation also addresses the issue of the introduction of alien species with regard to the conservation of European natural habitats and wild species of flora and fauna. In implementing the provisions of this Directive, also referred to as the Habitats Directive, member states are to ensure that the deliberate introduction into the wild of any species that is not native to their territory is regulated so as not to prejudice natural habitats within their natural range or the wild native fauna and flora and, if they consider it necessary, prohibit such introduction into their country. This Directive became applicable to Malta when it joined the European Union on 1 May 2004. The European Union also has other decisions and regulations that support and encourage member states to honour the international conventions that incorporate such principles. These include, amongst others, the above-mentioned conventions. It has to be admitted that such concepts are relatively new to all the social entities in the Maltese Islands, where a lot still has to be done so that they can be understood, accepted and implemented. Nevertheless, these are Malta’s legal obligations under the international treaties to which Malta is a contracting party. aebaldacchino@gmail.com


Why not use native plants for landscaping?

May 28, 2010

Sunday, 23rd May 2010

Why not use native plants for landscaping? Vincent Gauci, Sta Luċija

Environmental Landscapes Consortium (ELC) Ltd is the government contractor for the landscaping of our roads, roundabouts and centre strips. ELC is doing a good job. However, the consortium is quite wasteful with water and it is not difficult to realise that the taxpayer is paying a hefty price for this service. ELC should consider using flora of local genetic origin, i.e. native plants, for landscaping public green areas. Malta is endowed with a selection of scented, colourful and attractive native plants, some of which may be suitable for growing in public green areas. Native plants are adapted to the local climate and soil conditions where they naturally occur. Many native plants have deepspreading root systems that protect the soil against erosion. Native plants provide nectar, pollen, and seeds that serve as food for native butterflies, bees, birds and other animals. Moreover, native species require less watering and caring than imported horticultural species. Indeed, encouraging the development of indigenous plant communities in roundabouts and other public areas may also somewhat compensate for the destruction of native communities in the wild due to development.

Comments

Alfred E Baldacchino  (5 hours, 39 minutes ago) Why blame ELC for this rampage on trees going on all over the island. They are supposedly getting their policy from the Ministry of Resources and Rural Affairs, unless of course the ELC drafts the policies themselves and also implement it. If policies are being made by the MRRA, who in such cases also issues permits for such ‘pruning’ then I am afraid that at the MRRA there are none who can distinguish between a tree and an elephant. If policies are being drafted by the executers, then this is very highly irregular and urgent administrative action is needed to correct this. Otherwise the rampage can only gather momentum, unfortunately financed by public monies. This is one of the reasons why such a mentality is doing so much damage to the Maltese natural environment, when one also considers the uncontrolled introduced species, and the spraying of herbicides on every plant that is regarded by these landscapers as a weed, amongst others. It is no wonder that in the year which is the UN and EU International Year of Biodiversity, an EU report has revealed that Malta trails miserably in biodiversity protection. This is just a living example.

Antoine Vella (1 day, 2 hours ago) Native plants would be cheaper than imported ones and ELC would make a bigger profit if they limited themselves to indigenous species. The reasons for growing exotic plants are others.

Annalise Falzon (1 day, 2 hours ago) @ Azzopardi native plants are boring?have you ever been on walk in our countryside?? There are about 800 indigenous plants on this rock! Join any nature walk to learn more or simply have a look at any flora guidebook and website for local species.

S.Zammit (1 day, 8 hours ago) I could not agree more with you Mr.Gauci! I’m no expert on local plants, but I think a patch of poppies, ‘lellux’ and ‘qarsu’ – to name the more common ones – is as striking as a mass of any other cultivated (read moneymaking!) flower….

Andrew Azzopardi (1 day, 8 hours ago) Sticking to ‘native’ species is impractical and boring. Imagine…….no citrus trees, no geraniums, no cacti, basically very little beyond carob trees and widnet il-bahar. And what is ‘native’ anyway?

D.Dalli (1 day, 4 hours ago) I agree with your, what is native anyway. What could have been introduced here a millenia ago could now erraneously be considered as native because the species is further found around the Mediterranean basin. One thing is for sure, and as again you, in my view, rightly state, if we had to stick to what some term native, this place would be boring and much of the trees etc will simply vanish. Agreed some have their particular over abundant thirst for water and compete with “native” species. So do many other things, including humans. 8000 years ago, humans were not indigenous to this place, should we all go, because we compete for a whole lot of resources with animals and plants. I am a firm believer that a responsible (and that is underlines) team of scientists should actually introduce other plants and trees in Malta, making sure they are of a species that don’t destroy what we have in a matter of months/years. Some plantsm, rather than compete alone,destroy and that is where i would be cautious. For example I would actually plant a whole lot of magnificant cactii at the bottom perimeter of Maghtab

Ramon Casha (17 hours, 8 minutes ago) Wow Andrew… you should get out more often – into the countryside in spring. We have an amazing variety of local plants of all colours. I have yet to see a sight as beautiful as a field covered in common “silla” in full bloom. We have flowering plants of all colours – some annual, some more permanent but there’s a great variety.

Paul Borg (1 day, 11 hours ago) Could profits on imported plants have something to do with it? Could the very perishability of foreign plants be their attraction? That way ELC has to keep on replacing them? Is it true that Polidano (aka Caqnu is one of the shareholders of ELC?) Is the care of our roundabouts an ELC monopoly, or does it get tendered out publicly, giving other companies a chance to win the contract?

T Camilleri (1 day, 9 hours ago) Paul Borg Money on imported plants certainly has got to do with it. We are paying millions to ELC apart from paying the wages of the ex-Agricultural Department employees who are seconded with ELC. This is what the people should be told and not that we have more beautiful roundabouts.


IS-SIĠAR MALTIN

February 21, 2010

 

21 ta’ Frar, 2010

IS-SIĠAR MALTIN

Alfred E. Baldacchino

Nistħajjel xi ħadd jistaqsi: “imma x’jagħmel siġra siġra Maltija u oħra mhux Maltija? Is-siġar mhux kollha siġar?”

Il-gżejjer Maltin kellhom għatja ta’ siġar adattati kemm għall-klima kif ukoll għall-ambjenti naturali tagħhom għall-eluf ta’ snin qabel mal-bniedem medd riġlejh fuq dawn il-gżejjer. Insibu siġar li kienu, u wħud minnhom għadhom jikbru sa llum il-ġurnata, f’ambjent niexef u fqir fil-ħamrija; oħrajn jikbru f’ambjent bi blat bi rqajja’ ta’ ħamrija, waqt li oħrajn jikbru matul il-widien u qrib ta’ nixxigħat minħabba li dawn iħobbu l-ilma. Dawn, li kif għidna, uħud minnhom għadhom jikbru fil-gżejjer Maltin, huma s-siġar Maltin, jew kif huma magħrufa teknikament, siġar indiġeni Maltin. Dan ma jfisserx li dawn is-siġar Maltin jikbru biss fil-gżejjer Maltin, imma huma popolazzjoni ta’ siġar li għal eluf ta’ snin ma kellhomx u lanqas illum ma għandhomx kuntatt fiżiku ma’ siġar oħra bħalhom li jikbru barra mill-gżejjer Maltin. Siġar oħra bħalhom jikbru l-aktar fil-pajjiżi madwar il-Mediterran, imma minħabba li l-gżejjer Maltin huma mdawrin bil-baħar, mhux possibli li s-siġar Maltin jiddakkru jew idakkru, b’mod naturali, is-siġar bħalhom li jikbru fil-pajjiżi tal-Mediterran għax il-firxa tal-baħar tal-madwar hija kbira wisq.

Matul il-medda tas-snin, uħud minn dawn is-siġar Maltin, saru rari ħafna, waqt li oħrajn inqerdu għal kollox.  Ilum insibu madwar 60 speċi ta’ siġar Maltin li għadhom jikbru, jħaddru, u jsebbħu pajjizna, għalkemm ’l biċċa l-kbira huma kemmxejn rari u jikbru f’postijiet imwarrba.

IR-RIĦAN – waħda mis-siġar Maltin, li għadha tħaddar u twarrad f’xi rqajja tal-gżejjer Maltin, tgħamel ħilitha biex tkompli issebbaħhom minkejja l-imġieba negattiva tagħna.  U minkejja li huwa tant ħafif biex titnissel, xorta għad hemm min jagħżel li jdaħħalha f’pajjiżna billi jixtriha jew iġibha minn pajjiżi oħra, fil-riżultati negattivi kollha li jista’ jkollha.

Kif u għaliex inqerdu xi siġar Maltin

Meta l-bniedem rifes fuq dawn il-gżejjer, dan mill-ewwel kellu impatt fuq l-ambjent naturali Malti, anki fuq is-siġar. Dan beda jaqta’ s-siġar għall-injam biex jibni għatja fuq rasu; biex ikebbes in-nar, kemm biex isajjar kif ukoll kontra l-kesħa, u anki biex bl-injam jagħmel manek għall-għodda.  Il-bniedem ukoll ġab miegħu xi annimali domestiċi, fosthom il-mogħoż.  Dawn xejn ma għenu fit-tnissil tas-siġar Maltin, għaliex kull nebbieta ta’ kull siġra kienu jqaxxruha mill-qiegħ biex jiekluha. Il-qerda tas-siġar ħadet xejra oħra meta l-bniedem beda jaħdem l-art biex ikabbar l-uċuh tar-raba’. U numru ta’ siġar Maltin, tbiċċru, tqaċċtu, u nqalgħu biex għamlu wisa’ għall-għelieqi.

Il-ħakma tal-gżejjer mill-barrani matul is-snin, l-aktar dawk Rumani u dawk Għarbin wkoll kompliet tneżża lil dawn il-gżejjer mill-għatja ta’ siġar Maltin.  Dan kien isir ukoll għall-għanijiet ta’ gwerer, u l-injam tagħhom saħansitra għen biex inbnew xi xwieni. Anki llum il-ġurnata għadna naraw l-imġieba negattiva u n-nuqqas ta’ apprezzament tal-bniedem lejn is-siġar.  Wieħed ma jieħux gost jgħid, imma n-nuqqas ta’ edukazzjoni dwar dan il-wirt, tkompli tgħin biex is-siġar Maltin ikomplu jonqsu bil-mod il-mod.  U kif ngħidu aħna, tieħu mingħajr ma trodd, is-swar tħott.

Illum naraw theddida oħra ġdida għas-siġar Maltin.  Din ġejja mill-importazzjoni, jew id-dħul fil-pajjiż ta’ siġar minn kull rokna tad-dinja: mill-Asja, mill-Amerika, mill-Awstralja, u mill-Afrika t’Isfel, mingħajr l-iċken ħsieb ta’ l-impatt negattiv li dawn jista’ jkollhom mhux biss fuq is-siġar Maltin imma anki fuq l-annimali u l-pjanti slavaġġ, jiġifieri fuq l-ekosistema Maltija.  Dan biex ma nsemmux ukoll l-impatt ekonomiku, dak storiku, dak tas-saħħa tal-bniedem, dak estetiku, dak agrikolu, u impatti oħra.  Sfortunatament, wieħed mill-għanijiet ewlenin għad-dħul ta’ dawn is-siġar barranin huwa biss għan ta’ qliegħ ta’ flus.

Hawn ukoll min jaħseb li biex tgħin lis-siġar u l-ekosistema tal-gżejjer Maltin huwa billi jinxtraw jew jinġiebu siġar bħal dawk Maltin, minn pajjiżi oħra, mingħajr ma jqis l-impatt negattiv li dawn jista’ jkollhom fuq is-siġar Maltin stess, bħal ma sfortunatament diġa rajna. Hawnhekk ma jistax ma jingħadx li dan huwa kollu riżultat tan-nuqqas ta’ apprezzament tas-sistem ekoloġika, nuqqas ta’ għarfien tal-obligazzjonijiet internazzjonali f’dan il-qasam, kollu frott tan-nuqqas ta’ rieda u n-nuqqas ta’ edukazzjoni.

aebaldacchino@gmail.com


International Day for Biological Diversity

February 8, 2010

             12 July 2009

International Day for Biological Diversity

Alfred E. Baldacchino

Every year, the International Day for Biological Diversity is celebrated (internationally, but not in Malta) on 22 May, as declared by the United Nations for the promotion of biodiversity issues. This year, the International Day for Biological Diversity appropriately chose as its theme the issue of the introduction of invasive alien species (IAS). The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) defines invasive alien species “as an alien species which becomes established in natural or semi natural ecosystems or habitat, an agent of change, and threatens native biological diversity. These invasive are widely distributed in all kinds of ecosystems throughout the world, and include all categories of living organisms.” Plants, mammals and insects are the most common types of invasive alien species in terrestrial environments. The threat to biodiversity due to IAS is considered second only to that of destruction of natural habitats.

Invasive alien species

Invasive alien species have fearsome negative impacts. They:

• are one of the greatest threats to biodiversity, and to the ecological and economic well-being of society and the planet;

• are capable of establishing, invading and outcompeting native species leading some to extinction;

• can cause changes which can be irreversible; • can act as vectors for new diseases, alter ecosystem processes, change biodiversity, disrupt cultural landscapes;

• decimate crops;

• take lifts in ballast water and on ships’ hulls, possibly upsetting ocean food chains;

• worsen human health problems, like hay fever;

• some newly introduced plant pests even cause famines, claiming the lives of millions of people and displacing millions of others;

• feed on, hybridise with, parasites and outcompete native species.

Invasive alien species are active on a global scale. With the everincreasing global markets and the rise in global trade, travel and tourism and the concept of the free movement of goods, as in the European Union, IAS have every chance of further extending their range and numbers in this century.  

Economic costs

The economical damage and control costs of introduced IAS are indeed fearsome. On a global level, the yearly costs are estimated at $1.4 trillion. In Britain, combating IAS amounts to £2 billion a year; 60 per cent of invasive plants in the UK are garden escapees. Preliminary estimates indicate that the monetary cost of IAS in Europe amounts to at least e10 billion per year, and yet almost nothing is known of the impacts, as yet, for 90 per cent of the IAS. The marine environment is not spared either, and it is estimated that overall annual European expenditure to combat IAS amounts to e8.18 million. One of the greatest problems with regard to the control of IAS is that too many governments ignore such alien species, or procrastinate sine die until the effects are visible and can no longer be swept under the carpet.

The European Union

The European Commission recently became more concerned about the impact of IAS, many of which have bene-fited from the free movement of goods concept. These are having such a negative impact on the Community and threatening European biodiversity, that a number of policy options for developing a strategy to deal with IAS have been drafted. These are aimed at a coordinated approach and measures to be put in place immediately, and include a Europe-wide early warning system for reporting IAS. Such a harmonised approach is conspicuous by its absence. European Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: “Invasive species are a major threat to biodiversity. Halting the loss of biodiversity in the EU will not be possible without tackling the problem of these unwelcome visitors. Given the way that these quickly become established and spread, measures taken by one member state can have no effect if neighbouring countries fail to take action or respond in an uncoordinated manner. The ecological, economic and social consequences of the spread of invasive species for EU countries are serious and need a harmonised response.” The journal Science1 recently published a paper that suggests that legislation is not enough to tackle IAS. It also points out that Europe lacks appropriate governance and institutional coordination across member states to tackle the IAS invasion effectively.

The Maltese scenario

In recent years, the number of IAS in the Maltese Islands has been increasing alarmingly. The most popular seems to be the red palm weevil, which, since its introduction, has devastated at least 300 mature adult palm trees. How did Malta commemorate International Day for Biological Diversity on 22 May, with the present theme of controlling Invasive Alien Species? The only reference to the subject was a press release from the Department of Information dated 25 May, in which the ministry responsible for agriculture informed the public that another introduced alien species – the tomato leaf miner – had, since April 2009, set up house in the Maltese Islands. It also informed the general public about the insecticides to use to eliminate this IAS. But worse still is the fact that when some species are declared as IAS locally, or on a European scale, these are still locally traded. To add insult to injury, invasive alien plants are planted by a government contractor, who is paid out of public funds. A case in point is the Hottentot Fig, a flat evergreen South African succulent plant with large magenta or yellow flowers, which spreads along cliffs, and spreads aggressively once it becomes established in the environment. All one has to do is take a look at the planted specimens on the roundabout leading to Malta International Airport, and at those established invasive specimens along the cliff faces on the southern coasts of the island. The Hottentot Fig is one of the IAS on the elimination target list of some EU member states, and is also declared as such by Mepa.

Besides a strong pair of hands and a virtual environmental column, a clear official vision, an iron will and a Minister for the Environment are urgently needed to give the environment the much needed boost on the lines of the obligations outlined in the EU environmental acquis. The aliens are here, there and everywhere, and in strong numbers.

aebaldacchino@gmail.com