A new publication
A new publication
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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!
Wednesday, 9th February 2011
Sifting solidified sand at Dwejra
Alfred E. Baldacchino
Following the Dwejra debacle, three reports were published: a legal report by Kevin Aquilina and Simone Borg; a technical report by Louis Cassar et al. and an administrative report by the auditor of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority, Joe Falzon.
The legal report aims at reviewing the process adopted by Mepa in issuing development permissions for film shooting applications in environmentally sensitive areas. Referring to the guidelines on the implementation of the Habitats Directive, this report highlights measures regarding activities in special areas of conservation (SACs), such as appropriate assessment, the precautionary principle and the related Aarhus Convention, which emphasises the importance of public consultations in relation to environmental decision-making. If Mepa failed to include any reference to the Habitats Directive in the permit, how can the applicant be aware of such legal obligations? And how can one expect Mepa to follow the guidelines of the implementation of this EU directive with regardto such activity? The Film Commissioner interviewed by the authors commented that the permission issued is “…too generic as it covers various sites at one go. Conditions need to be streamlined better per filming site”.
The Dwejra permit in question included all levels of protection under the Development Planning Act, completely ignoring any level of protection under the Environment Protection Act – no mention that Dwejra is a SAC, part of the EU Natura 2000 Network. No reference to the important geological features of the site, yet “the applicant was given development permission… to cover the site with ‘sand or shingle’”.
A very interesting, not surprising, excerpt from this legal report is that “Both the Director of Planning and the Director for Environment Protection thought that Mepa was exercising a dual role: it had to safeguard the integrity of Natura 2000 sites but, at the same time, it is called upon to give its consent or otherwise to activities taking place at these sites. They thought that Mepa should move out of the first function and that such function should be carried out by a management committee independent of Mepa so that it could regulate such committee from a distance without having such a dual role”. Isn’t this what private and political entities, eNGOs and individuals have been stressing for such a long time, that environmental protection and development planning are not compatible? Mepa cannot tell its left foot from its right. Environmental obligations, on a national and international level are still out of Mepa’s grasp. Mepa is the competent authority for environmental matters. Seems it wants to abdicate from such responsibility.
The scientific report shows that the thick layer of “sand” completely buried flora and fauna. Only three plant clusters were recorded, two identified and one consisting of a number of desiccated twigs, which could not be identified. Any plants present in the area, would already have been obliterated during deposition of “sand”. The report refers to dry vegetation on the periphery, saying these could be either removed buried plants from site or introduced plants with the extraneous quarry sand, potentially a means of introducing invasive species in this part of the SAC.
With regard to fauna “at the base of boulders and under small stones and in depressions, crevices and at the base of vegetation”, two species of ants and two different species of terrestrial gastropods were recorded in the reference area: two forms of the endemic Maltese top snail and a Maltese round-mouthed snail. On the fringes of the area two unidentifiable snails were also recorded. Nothing was found in the area of “gravelly mud”. Not surprising, considering the thickness of the covering material and the way it was “cleaned” with bristle brooms and brushes. In the adjacent rock pools, some with sand deposits, large populations of crustaceans (copepods), large number of ciliates and sparse populations of an isopod were recorded. The habitat type “vegetated sea cliffs of the Mediterranean coasts with endemic Limonium spp” listed in the Habitats Directive and also in local legislation is reported to have suffered a high negative impact in the affected areas. Other important species of flora included in the Standard Data Form, compiled by Mepa and sent to the EU, regardingDwejra Natura 2000, include the Maltese sea lavender, the Maltese camomile, the rare pygmy groundsel, the cliff carrot, all endemic or sub-endemic, listed in the Malta Red Data Book, and the rare corn daisy, also listed in the Red Data Book. These were recorded either around the perimeter of the covered area or in the adjacent area and one or two of them were partially covered with the deposited “gravelly mud”. Mepa initially declared the area as bare rock with no ecosystem; later it referred to it as a “white area” in the SAC. When the report was published MEPA commented there was no evidence the deposited sand eliminated the terrestrial fauna and flora of the site!
Besides, the significance of damage to fossils and ichnofossils within the site and in other parts of Dwejra is considered to be high, given the extent of observed damage, the sensitivity of the resource to damage, permanent and irreversible nature of damage and inexistent scope for mitigating impacts, notwithstanding that it is protected by the Cultural HeritageAct.
The Mepa auditor’s report exposed all the cracks and fissures (and incompetence) of this competent authority for the environment. This report reveals the letter of consent was signed by the Director of Planning, who is quoted as saying the Planning Directorate was communicating on behalf of the Environment Protection Directorate! The auditor also reports that “…it was agreed that all filming applications would be led and processed through the Planning Directorate” which “is authorised to represent Mepa”. On this matter the auditor states that “the legal adviser explained the situation in a written note which states: Instruments of delegation are published by government notice. There is an instrument of delegation in relation to delegated decisions (which is not the case here) which refers to both directors”. Accordingly, the permit could only be issued by Mepa’s CEO and not by any particular director. One might ask how valid was such a permit?
This report affirms that all work had to be monitored, at the expense of the applicant, but, notwithstanding, it never was. It confirms that rain had washed a good quantity of fine sand into the rock pools, on the perimeters and also overspilled into the rocky foreshore while the rest turned into mud. It quotes the chairman and the legal adviser saying that, since only standard conditions were imposed and no special conditions were included, the need for an assessment was superfluous. It reveals that Mepa officials were under undue pressure to issue the permit in inadequate time to make proper assessments of the implications. Both Mepa directors were critical of the Film Commissioner, among others.
The auditor emphasised that “Mepa’s Director of Environment had the obligation to screen the applications (within SACs)” so he could “identify the likely impacts upon a Natura 2000 site and consider whether these impacts are likely to be significant”. Despite claims this had been done, the auditor did not find information in any file “where and what criteria were used to come to this conclusion”. Not only so but the auditor states the indications are that the assessment of the application was carried out by the Planning Control Department in consultation with the Directorate of Environment Protection, indicating also that the latter was absent from such assessment procedure.
The auditor states that the precautionary principle was not even considered and evasive answers were given to his office. He was told conditions are based on circumstances that are not abnormal, despite the fact that the Habitat Directive makes it clear that “the safeguards set out… are triggered not by a certainty but by a likelihood of significant effects”. A strong worded comment by the auditor is that “Unfortunately, the DEP abdicated its responsibilities to the Planning Directorate that was ill-equipped to carry out this work”. This is the result of having environment and planning in the same bed, with the environment playing the part of the ghost of Cinderella.
My first contribution on the matter was titled Dwejra – Gone With The Wind (November 13, 2010). After reading the above three reports, I regret to say Mepa has gone to the dogs.
P.S. Photos do not appear in the original article but were added by the author on this blog.
It-Tnejn, 20 ta’ Diċembru, 2010
Alfred E. Baldacchino
Ix-xagħri huwa wieħed mill-ambjenti naturali li nsibu fil-gżejjer Maltin. Dan huwa wesgħa ta’ blat tal-qawwi b’numru ta’ ħofor baxxi mimlijin b’ħamrija ħamra.
Dan l-ambjent huwa ddominat minn pjanti baxxi li jgħolew bejn 50 sa 100 cm. Huma kollha adattati għal dan it-tip ta’ ambjent naturali miftuh għall-irjiħat, u għall-qilla tax-xemx fis-sajf. Dawn jistgħu jaħżnu l-ilma taħt l-art biex isibuh matul il-ġranet sħan tas-sajf. Hekk insibu pjanti li ħafna minnhom għandhom zkuk inniggżu u ħafna drabi jkunu jfuħu wkoll. Il-pjanti jikbru mferrxa fi rqajja ta’ ħamrija qalb il-blat. Ix-xagħri huwa l-ambjent naturali bl-akbar firxa fil-gżejjer Maltin, u huwa sinjur fl-ispeċi ta’ pjanti li jħaddan. Madwar nofs il-pjanti slavaġġ li jikbru fil-gżejjer Maltin, jinstabu jikbru fix-xagħri. Dawn ukoll joffru kenn u ikel għal numru ta’ fawna oħra.
Sfortunatament għad hawn minn jaħseb li dan ix-xagħri huwa blat għeri mingħajr l-ebda użu. Din il-mentalità tinstab f’kull qasam tas-soċjetà, kemm dik kummerċjali, dik reliġjuza kif ukoll anki dik politika.
Minħabba din il-mentalità, li wieħed jinnota b’sodisfazzjon li bil-mod il-mod qed tinbidel l-aktar qalb il-ġenerazzjoni żgħażugħa, ħafna minn dan l-ambjent huwa żdingat u traskurat. Hekk ġieli naraw borġ wara borġ ta’ terrapien u skart ieħor mormi f’dan ix – xagħri u mhux rari li wieħed jara dan it-tip ta’ ambjent jiġi mgħotti bil-ħamrija biex jinbidel f’għelieqi. Lanqas hija ħaġa rari li fuq dan it-tip ta’ ambjent naraw xi bini tiela.
Tant huwa mportanti dan it-tip ta’ ambjent li l-Unjoni Ewropea tqisu bħala tip ta’ ambjent naturali speċjali, u kull membru msieħeb li għandu minn dan it-tip ta’ ambjent irid jiddikjara numru ta’ inħawi minnu biex ikunu mħarsa bil-liġi u meqjusa bħala Firxa Speċjali ta’ Konservazzjoni (Special Area of Conservation) li flimkien ma’ nħawi oħra ddikjarati minn kull membru msieħeb fil-UE, jifformaw ix-xibka Natura 2000.
Malta wkoll iddikjarat inħawi tax-xagħri bħala SAC. Fosthom insibu l-Kemmuna, li hija kważi kollha xagħri, Ta’ Ċenċ u l-Qortin tal-Magun f’Għawdex, kif ukoll Pembroke. Fost l-ispeċi ta’ flora u ta’ fawna li nsibu fix-xagħri, mingħajr dubju l-aktar magħruf huwa s-sagħtar li fis-sajf jiksi dan l-ambjent b’tapit roża-ħamrani. Hemm ħafna u ħafna speċi oħra li nsibu fix-xagħri. Fost il-flora nsibu t-Tengħud tax-Xagħri li huwa endemiku u għalhekk jinsab jikber fil-gżejjer Maltin biss, il-Berwieq, u numru ta’ Orkidej. Fost il-fawna nsibu l-gremxul, il-bebbux, numru kbir ta’ insetti, kif ukoll għasafar fosthom il-Bilbla li żżurna bejn l-aħħar tar-rebbiegħa u l-bidu tas-sajf biex tbejjet fix-xagħri.
Hekk naraw kemm ix-xagħri huwa sinjur u kif huwa ambjent b’valur kbir ekoloġiku, ekonomiku, edukattiv, xjentifiku, estetiku u soċjali.