A new publication
A new publication
The EU Habitats Directive
Alfred E. Baldacchino
The main aim of the Habitats Directive is to promote the maintenance of biodiversity and to ensure the restoration or maintenance of natural habitats and species, that are important to the EU, at a favourable conservation status. Natural habitats and wild species of flora and fauna are under continuous threat from development and agricultural intensification. To pursue such an aim, EU member states are obliged to designate special areas of conservation (SACs) so that a coherent European ecological network known as Natura 2000 is created. These SACs support rare, endangered or vulnerable natural habitats, native plants and animals. Once a site designated by a member state is accepted by the EU Commission, it forms part of the Natura 2000 network, for which the member state has to honour the obligations incorporated in the directive. The EU has accepted as SACs 35 sites proposed by Malta, including Buskett/Girgenti area, Pembroke area, coastal cliffs from Il-Qammieħ area to Rdum tan-Nofsinhar, Wied il-Miżieb (which includes Mistra Bay and Baħrija Valley) and Ta’ Ċenċ area and Ramla area.
Natura 2000 also incorporates special protection areas (SPAs) which support significant numbers of wild birds and their habitats and which are identified by member states according to the obligations of the EU Birds Directive. Malta has
identified 13 SPAs which today form part of the Natura 2000 network, including Buskett/Girgenti area, Ta’ Ċenċ in Gozo and Filfla.
Obligations which member states have towards such sites are:
• the establishment of necessary conservation measures involving, if need be, the appropriate management plans specifically designed for the sites or integrated into other development plans;
• appropriate statutory, administrative or contractual measures which correspond to the ecological requirements of the different natural habitat types listed in Annex I and of the species of flora and fauna listed in Annex II of the Habitats
Directive, present in the sites;
• appropriate steps to avoid the deterioration of natural habitats and the habitats of species as well as the disturbance of the species for which the areas have been designated by the member state;
• an appropriate assessment of any plan or project not directly connected with, or necessary to, the management of the site but which is likely to have a significant effect thereon, either individually or in combination with other plans or projects. Such an appropriate assessment is needed to highlight the implications for the site in view of its conservation objective. The national competent authority for this directive (the Malta Environment and Planning Authority) shall endorse the plan or project only after having ascertained that the conclusions of such assessment regarding the implications for the SAC will not adversely affect the integrity of the SAC concerned. The national competent authority is also obliged, if appropriate, to obtain the opinion of the public.
• If, in spite of a negative assessment of the implications for the SAC or SPA and in the absence of alternative solutions, a plan or project must nevertheless be carried out for imperative reasons of overriding public interest, including those of a social or economic nature, the member state shall take all compensatory measures necessary to ensure that the overall coherence of Natura 2000 is protected. It has to inform the EU Commission of the compensatory measures adopted.
• Where the site concerned hosts a priority species or a natural habitat type listed in the Habitats Directive, the only considerations which may be raised are those relating to human health or public safety, beneficial consequences of primary
importance for the environment or further to an opinion from the EU Commission.
• Undertake surveillance of habitats and species and ensuring strict protection of species of flora and fauna listed in Annex IV of the Habitats Directive.
• Report to the EU Commission by the national competent authority on the implementation of the directive every six years, incorporating information on conservation measures taken, describing impacts on the conservation status of the species and natural habitats types listed in the directive, measures taken in Natura 2000 sites, besides the key findings of monitoring activities conducted to assess the conservation status of species and natural habitat types of community interest, as all outlined in the directive. The directive also places particular importance on informing the public and making such reports accessible to the public.
• To improve the ecological coherence of the Natura 2000 network, member states are to encourage the management of landscape features that are essential for the migration, dispersal and genetic exchange of wild species and so improve the ecological coherence of the Natura 2000 network of protection areas and beyond.
• The Habitats Directive requires member states to monitor natural habitats and species of community interest.
• Member states must also handle communication, education and public awareness to ensure the effective implementation of this directive. Malta had to implement the Habitats Directives from the date of accession, that is May 1, 2004. It seems that a number of ministries are among the many that are not au courant with the Habitats Directive. And I would not be surprised in the least if
the national competent authority itself is oblivious of such obligations, being so development-oriented and judging from the number of permits issued, including some in Natura 2000 sites.
The public officer who will be detailed to write Malta’s first six-year report on the implementation of the Habitats Directive will find it easier to paint the sky green. Unfortunately, Mario de Marco, Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment, will have to endorse the “achievements” of his predecessor.
Sunday, March 02, 2008
Alfred E Baldacchino
Buskett is of great importance to the Maltese islands from a historical, ecological, economical, educational, and a scientific point of view. The name Buskett is derived from the Italian word Boschetto, which means a small wood. A part of Buskett is called il-Bosk – the wood. Buskett is the only locality for Aleppo Pine woodlands, besides having a variety of habitats ranging from maquis, forest remnants, different levels of garigue, and woods typical of watercourses. The English reference to Boschetto, Buskett Gardens, have misled many, not least some politicians lacking ecological background, to conclude that this a garden, as much a garden as San Anton Gardens.
One of Malta’s past colonisers who without doubt were the best that had environmental vision, were the Knights of St John. Without the rich heritage they left us, we would definitely be so much the poorer. Unfortunately, much of this historical heritage is abandoned, neglected and/or vandalised. Buskett is one of the heritage site left to us by the Knights of St John, and was further enhanced by the next colonisers – the British. Today Buskett is protected with a number of regulations. The first legal protection for Buskett was for avifauna and was published as far back as 1932. This was strengthened throughout the years and today Buskett is still protected under the current Conservation of Wild Birds Regulations.
In 1933 a number of trees in Buskett were protected by GN 269, as historical trees of antiquarian importance. In 1996 Buskett was scheduled under the Development Planning Act as an Area of Ecological Importance, a Site of Scientific Importance, an area of high landscape value and a scheduled woodland, by Government Notice 403 of 25 June 1996. A site plan attached to this Government Notice showed the different levels of protection (level 1, 2, or 3) of Buskett and its surroundings.
During 2001 Buskett was also protected by the regulations for the protection of trees as a tree protected area. Buskett is also an Important Bird Area endorsed by BirdLife International. Because of such endorsement the government declared as a Special Protection Area, in accordance with the Birds Directive. In 2003 the government proposed Buskett as a Site of Community Interest through Legal Notice 23 of 2003, with the main aim that Buskett be declared a Special Area of Conservation under the EU Habitats Directive to eventually form part of the EU Natura 2000. The Rubble Walls and Rural Structures (Conservation and Maintenance) Regulations 1997, also apply to Buskett. Now this is all very laudable, no doubt about it, but if these regulations are to be worth the paper they are written on, they have to be observed, they have to be implemented and they have to be enforced. There are a number of obligations arising out of European Union legislation, all transposed to local regulations, which have to be taken in consideration with regard to a number of activities.
From an ecological point of view, this means that one cannot bulldoze into Buskett, chainsaw in hand, “pruning” trees, clearing undergrowth, “tidying” walls from creepers, and sweeping dead leaves from beneath wild growing trees. All these activities need to have “prior” clearance from the Competent Authority, and in some cases submit an appropriate assessment of the implications of the operation or activity on the site, in view of the site’s conservation. Consent can be given to the operation or activity only after it has been ascertained that the plan or project will not adversely affect the integrity of the site concerned and if appropriate, after having obtained and taken into account the opinion of the general public and representations made within such reasonable time as the Competent Authority may specify. I remember going to Buskett in my younger days to enjoy the natural environment surrounded by healthy trees, birds, myriads of butterflies and moths and other invertebrates enriching this unique natural environment we have, and the background sound of water trickling as it flowed through Buskett, watering Wied il-Luq. This despite the fact that in those days there were no strict regulations for the protection of species and their habitats. When I visit Buskett today, I leave heartbroken: no butterflies, no insects, dead or dying or sawn off trees, dried up springs, and a dying woodland, despite the fact that today there are regulations drafted on international standards, which we, as Maltese, are obliged to honour, not only for our own sake and sanity, but also because of our obligations to the European Union, of which Malta is a Member State. In a statement issued by the Ministry for Rural Affairs and the Environment, (TMIS, 24 February 2008) it was stated that the “work the ministry intended to do was blocked by MEPA, which claimed the projected work could damage the ecosystem.” It is not very often that MEPA official are praised by this Ministry, especially those in the Environment Protection Directorate, or what is left of it. I would also like to extend my congratulations to such dedicated MEPA officials for their efforts because I can fully understand the difficulties they faced to achieve this. If it weren’t for such efforts to stop such mismanagement of this EU Special Area of Conservation, today Buskett would probably be competing with San Anton Gardens. It would be a very good idea if the Minister for Rural Affairs and the Environment were to invite the Prime Minster for a walk around this sensitive unique ecological gem we have in our country, and the beauty nature has bestowed our tiny island. They could see for themselves the Maltese flora and fauna and what a rich heritage we are responsible for. They would also be able to see first hand what has been done and what has not be done to manage such a Special Area of Conservation, which Malta has proposed to the European Union for inclusion in the Natura 2000 network; this small wood called Buskett can contribute in many different ways for the benefit of the Maltese. It would then be easier for them to understand the need and the importance of a National Biodiversity Strategy, with its action plans and management plans – an obligation arising out of international treaties to which Malta is party. Without such a National Biodiversity Strategy, Buskett, together with other natural important habitats, would be lost forever.