Friday, 4th December, 2020
Alfred E Baldacchino
The birth of the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA), snapped from the jaws of MEPA, was welcomed by many who looked forward to the professional protection and management of the environment for the sake of country and future generations.
Controversial decisions by ERA representatives, however, led to such a flame of optimism to be short-lived and many today consider the authority spent.
This is indeed surprising considering that the staff at ERA are all dedicated, qualified and motivated to contribute to a better environment. What is contributing to ERA’s failure? Is ERA still suffering from the imprinting it got while in limbo at MEPA? Is it a lack of direction? Or is it political involvement?
Without doubt, ERA has reached the level where other ministers decide upon ERA’s responsibilities, then forward their decision for acceptance and for the minister’s endorsement and agreement.
The action taken against Infrastructure Malta when it covered valley paths with concrete, such as at Wied Anġlu and Lunzjata, in Rabat, is seen as damage control PR action. What happened at Wied Qirda, Wied Liemu, and, lately, Dingli indicates that ERA decisions are all taken at gunpoint, in getting things done.
If one were to ask what ERA is most renowned for these days, the top three replies would be:
1. The official permitting of the destruction of protected indigenous trees in the Maltese islands. A permit issued with a snap of a finger: 300-year-old carob trees such as at Lija and Dingli and a 100-year-old holm oak near the Lija cemetery have all fallen with the help of an ERA permit. In contrast, those applying for a permit to undertake professional ecological studies pass through hell, so much so that many of my academic friends do not even bother to venture there.
2. The lethargy of ERA regarding complaints and anti-environmental issues results in studies and further sine die studies. If ever finalised, the problem would have long solved itself to the detriment of the environment.
3. The publication of regulations and guidelines are more a messa in scena. These are immediately forgotten by everyone, sometimes even by ERA itself. These include the Guidelines on Trees, Shrubs and Plants for Planting and Landscaping in the Maltese Islands (2002); the Code of Conduct on Invasive Alien Species (2011); Guidelines on Managing Non-Native Plant Invaders and Restoring Native Plant Communities in Terrestrial Settings in the Maltese Islands (2013); Trees and Woodlands Protection Regulations (2018); Guidelines on Works involving Pruning; Guidelines for the Control of Invasive Species (2018); Guidelines for the Reduction of Light Pollution in the Maltese islands (2020); Action on the Illegal deposits of Material on Land and Illegal Reclamation of Land Regulations (2017); and, of course, the Natura 2000 sites management plans, launched by ERA in 2017. The latter were supposed to be implemented six years after Malta’s EU accession.
When will ERA stand on its own two feet in the national interest of the Maltese islands?– Alfred Baldacchino
This is the ERA that was but never is.
The greatest enemy of biodiversity protection, without doubt, is Infrastructure Malta and the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure.
Ninety per cent of the destruction of indigenous trees and biodiversity are done with ERA permits. It is presumed that such permits had conditions attached.
A very rare indigenous protected tree, which was in the way of the Central Link project, was massacred and uprooted and thrown aside, left for dead. If it were not for the intervention of voluntary individuals, this tree would have been completely destroyed, despite ERA permits and conditions, if any.
The tree protection regulations contain a number of horticultural-grown fruit trees that are protected, mainly included, not for their ecological benefits, but for the minister to boast how many new protected species were included: “an increase of nine trees over the previous laws” and “24 more than under the old law” (José Herrera 2018).
But important species such as carob and rare trees as well as the common European elder were demoted to a lesser degree of protection. The actual undeclared reason is that they are more in the way of development.
The tree protection regulations give a monetary value of trees as fines for illegal activities, fines which can reach €2,000. But protected trees destroyed with an ERA permit simply carry conditions of compensatory planting, left to the whims and fancies of the applicant, with no monitoring, no controlling of source, no indication of adequate site and no ensuring that the compensatory planting is justified.
Unfortunately, this is the pitiful state of the protection of the environment in Malta, despite political promises and statements, not least from the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure. It is indeed an insult to the dedicated personnel at ERA, to the Maltese people and to the international fora to which Malta is a member, including the European Union.
Budget 2021 shows that biodiversity protection is not on the government agenda.
When will ERA stand on its own two feet in the national interest of the Maltese islands? And when will politicians let go of their hold on official entities and let them perform their scientific responsibilities in the name of the Maltese people and not in the name of political gain?
Alfred Baldacchino is a former MEPA assistant director.