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When Legal Notice 12 of 2001 was revoked by LN 200 of 2011, the Department of Agriculture was exempted from any legal responsibility with regard to urban tree-protection.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.
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!
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: