Cabinet ownership of the environment

October 7, 2010

Thursday, 7th October 2010

Cabinet ownership of the environment

Alfred E. Baldacchino

The first consultation phase of the National Environment Policy (NEP) held on September 17 was indeed an opportunity for stakeholders to air their differences.  The concept of the policy, the discussions and the opportunity of rubbing of shoulders was also of great help.  Such a “conflict” of ideas can only contribute to more healthy, holistic and strong decisions.

Without any doubt, the opening speech by Environment Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco was indeed a breath of fresh air.  It was a genuine speech with a vision, reaching out for support so that the NEP “can be built on the wide consensus”, an approach so much lacking during the last couple of years. Considering that Dr de Marco is a newcomer to these responsibilities, his introduction to the subject is even more welcomed.

The number of stakeholders present, who did not disappear after lunch, is one observation that shows the strong prevailing interest in the environment. Their input, comments, suggestions and constructive criticism, both during the various workshops and the plenary, are all valid.  Even when Dr de Marco’s body language showed he was a bit hot under the collar, nobody was called any names, despite the fact that some comments and criticism did not sound music to the government’s ears.

Another strong conclusion surfacing from both the workshops and the plenary was the fact that the report is compartmentalised and fragmented. There is need for a much more holistic approach and strategy. The official side (through no fault of its own) lacks the experience and some the complete knowledge of the subject matter, so obvious when faced with comments and questions from the gathering. This is the obvious result of the way the environmental set-up was mishandled over the last years when experienced personnel left disheartened, others fell by the wayside and others are marking time for better days. This is not going to be solved by such a NEP.

To make matters worse for the official side, many experienced personnel are either derided or emarginated, thus making the official side much more weak and denuded in terms of in-depth knowledge of the subject, to the extent that one is not blamed for asking whether this is part of the strategy. The rumblings of the effectiveness of such a fragmented NEP can be gauged by keeping one’s ears to the ground.

Another glaring observation was the conspicuous involvement of some NGOs or quangos, either because they were completely absent or because they preferred to act as wall flowers or as silent as a grave. Some representatives of environmental, legal, academic, trade unionist, religious, commercial and other entities, together with those of various ministries and departments, did not utter a word.  And the participants present could not comment on such entities’ views. This may also lead one to think that such entities, especially ministries and government departments, are either not interested or not concerned once this is the responsibility of the minster under whose umbrella the environment falls, that is the Prime Minister.

The above observation was also echoed both within the working groups and also in the plenary. This could also be concluded by the awkward position of the official side, at times at sixes and sevens, especially when faced with comments and questions on negative environmental impacts resulting from other ministers’ decisions and undertaking and for which the minister overseeing the environment is responsible to enforce, control or report to Brussels from where such national obligations arise.

One particular question constantly asked is why embark on a NEP when there is the National Sustainable Development Commission (NSDC), chaired by the Prime Minister himself, and incorporating all ministries. Admittedly the NCDC has been dormant for the past three years. Embarking on a separate isolated, fragmented NEP is laudable but its implementation is a failure from the word go. This is just a waste of time and resources and only contributes to procrastination in implementation.

The Prime Minster only needs to give the kiss of life to the NSDC and set it in motion to implement such a task.  Only this can restore the official handling of the environment to its 2004 credible level.

I do not think it is either just or fair to lump all the environmental responsibilities on a junior minister while some of his senior colleagues either do not bother or do not feel the collective responsibility of environmental matters and may also conveniently believe that this is the responsibility of the minister in charge of the environment – the Prime Minister.

There was wide consensus at the consultancy meeting that it was a wise government decision to set up the NSDC, chaired by the Prime Minister, to ensure everyone shoulders one’s responsibility.

Nonetheless, Dr de Marco should be encouraged, helped and given all the necessary assistance in the difficult task that has been bestowed upon him.  From the consultation meeting it is very obvious he has the support of most of the stakeholders and the public as confirmed from the results of the 2008 public attitude survey drawn up by Ernst and Young (2010).  Just one quote summarises all such expectations: “More than two-thirds (69 per cent) of respondents held the view that the environment was equally important as the economy. The environment was considered to be more important by 23 per cent of respondents while eight per cent held the view that the economy was more important” (NEP Consultation phase 1 – issue paper page 44)

Most of all, Dr de Marco desperately needs the help of his Cabinet colleagues. And this can only be achieved if the Prime Minister resuscitates the now long dormant NSDC to give more clout to environmental responsibilities. Dealing with such matters in a piecemeal manner can only contribute to more borrowed time, which can be convenient for some but certainly not for the environment.

aebaldacchino@gmail.com

alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com

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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 »


Environment: a new beginning?

March 7, 2010

 

  Thursday, 4th March 2010

 Environment: A new beginning?

Alfred E. Baldacchino

 

The Parliamentary Secretary for Tourism, the Environment and Culture,  Mario de Marco made his first public statement on the environment following the latest adjustments to his portfolio (The Times, February 19). This, I am glad to say, provides a lot of food for thought and hope for the ever-increasing number of citizens who are convinced that the environment is the platform on which all decisions have to be based. “And so it should be,” said Dr de Marco, adding that decisions and actions have to take into consideration the economic, social and ecological aspect. “It places sustainable development even more at the centre of the government and as the building block on which all policies, not just environment policies, are built.” Very well said. Expectations that the dormant National Commission for Sustainable Development will be given the breath of life must now be very high.

Dr de Marco may still be trying to find his feet under the added weight of his responsibilities but his first official comment on the environment augurs well for the environment and he should not only be congratulated but also encouraged and given all possible help. His understanding of the interdependence of the biotic (life on earth) and the abiotic (the physical environment such as water, air, light and land) is indeed a very good start. It is an understanding that is so conspicuous by its absence in so many decision-making public bodies.

Admittedly, the “task at hand is by no means an easy one”. If I may borrow a slogan from the party in government, that “together everything is possible”, then, if all the social entities are involved and are made to feel they belong and are part of such a vision, the task may not be as difficult as one thinks. These social entities include, among others, the political, religious, commercial, educational, judicial, medical, trade unionist, scientific and non-governmental bodies.

Dr de Marco also correctly made emphasis on the EU environment legislation, with its obligations with regard to the biotic and abiotic environment, and the need for this to be the platform for implementing such a vision if “we want to bring our environment up to European standards”. We are more than capable as a nation of meeting the environmental challenges… when there is the will.

Dr de Marco wrote that the Environment Protection Directorate will be strengthened, a very urgent and long overdue measure following the depletion and mutilation of the Environment Protection Department after its “merger” with the Planning Authority. I wrote and even publicly stated during the public discussion meeting with the Prime Minister on December 14, 2009, that it is a big mistake to leave the Environment Protection Directorate “merged” with the planning authority. From past experience and public knowledge, since this “merger” in 2002, not only has the EPD been emarginated, bruised, maimed, exploited and raped but also the environment in general. This is why the separation of the EPD and the Planning Directorate is a sine qua non. It has been stifled (not because of Hexagon House conditions) for far too long now.

This does not mean that the EPD should necessarily be an authority on its own but it can be part of or a directorate within another authority; for example, the Malta Resource Authority, naturally within the portfolio of the minister responsible for the environment.

The vision, the understanding, the legal framework and the need of action plans to bring the environment up to EU standards are all outlined in Dr De Marco’s contribution; a very big step forward, in such a short time. Dr de Marco concludes that “we now have a clear idea of where our problems lie”.

Having been deeply involved for so long in the protection of the environment on a national and international level, the greatest problem in achieving such a vision is the lack of a political will. Without such a will, it will be completely impossible to achieve Dr de Marco’s aim of bringing the environment up to EU standards.

Dr de Marco deserves all the possible help and all the necessary resources to achieve such an official vision. There is no doubt that a lot of pieces have got to be picked up from the floor and put together again and others have to be resurfaced, having been thrown overboard. I would like to wish him all the best of luck and success in achieving this, not only for the benefit of the present generation but also for future generations from whom we have temporarily borrowed such an intricate web of life.

Shall we see a new beginning for the environment? If there is a will, there is a way. Time will tell.

 aebaldacchino@gmail.com


Two EU Natura 2000 sites threatened by a TEN-T road at Ghadira

February 21, 2010

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Two EU Natura 2000 sites threatened by a TEN-T road at Ghadira

Alfred E. Baldacchino

The recent proposal to build a road at Ghadira is indeed alarming. The reasons advanced to justify such a road sound more like the environmental joke of the week, rivalled only by the same Minster’s environmental statement that the second class water produced by the drainage purification plant has no economic value. No scientific reports or studies were published with regard to the proposed road. Everyone would have loved to see these, rightly so because of other international obligations. The statement by the Minister concerned, as reported in the press, could lead one to think that the plans to build such a road were hurriedly drawn up before the deadline to apply for EU funds expired, not primarily for the sake of the road, but to obtain and utilise funds. Once this news and maps have been officially released by the DOI, one presumes that Cabinet has approved it.

The green and red arrows are inserted by the author, the former indicating the amount of sound and light pollution, disturbance and impact of the new road, and the latter indicating the area that will be at the mercy of strong easterly winds. These were inserted on the original photo montage issued by the DOI showing the new road and the removal of the existent road.

As an EU member State, Malta is bound by the EU legal obligations of the treaty it signed on 1 May 2004. One such legal instrument of this treaty is Council Directive 92/43 EEC of 21 May 1992 on the Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Fauna and Flora, or as it is better known, the Habitats Directive. According to Government Notice 112 of 2007, Malta proposed the Ghadira Reserve as a Site of Community Interest (pSCI), which means a site in the biogeographic region (i.e. the Mediterranean) that contributes significantly to the maintenance or restoration, at a favourable conservation status, of a natural habitat type listed in Annex I, or of a species in Annex II of the Habitats Directive, and which may also contribute significantly to the coherence of the EU Natura 2000 network, and/or contributes significantly to the maintenance of biological diversity in the biogeographic region concerned. The Għadira Reserve, together with the other Sites of Community Interests proposed by Government Notice 112 of 2007 (among them also il-Qammieh) was approved by the EU as Special Areas of Conservation. According to the Habitats Directive, a Special Area of Conservation means a site of Community Importance designated by the member State through a statutory, administrative and/or contractual act where the necessary conservation measures are applied for the maintenance or restoration, at a favourable conservation status, of the natural habitats and/or the populations of the species for which the site is designated. Moreover, the Malta Government also declared Ghadira Reserve, through the same Government Notice 112 of 2007, as a Special Protection Area (SPA) under the Council Directive 79/409/EEC of 2 April 1979 on the Conservation of Wild Birds, better known as the Birds Directive. Today, Ghadira Reserve forms part of the EU Natura 2000 sites. According to the Habitats Directive, Natura 2000 sites are a coherent European ecological network of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs). This network enables the natural habitat types and the species’ habitats concerned, to be maintained or where appropriate, restored at a favourable conservation status in their natural range. The Natura 2000 network also includes the Special Protection Areas (SPAs) classified by the Member States according to the Birds Directive.

L-Għadira Natura 2000 site as per G.N. 112 of 2007

Il-Qammieh Natura 2000 site as per G.N. 112 of 2007

As indicated above, the boundary of the Ghadira SAC touches the boundary of another SAC – il-Qammieh, also proposed by the government through Government Notice 112 of 2007, and now endorsed by the EU. The two site plans published with the G.N. 112 of 2007 are being included. Therefore, the new road will cut through two SACs, both forming part of Natura 2000. And such a proposal for such a new road has to follow the procedure of the obligations of the Habitat Directive. Article 6 of the Habitats Directive obliges Member States to “…take appropriate steps to avoid, in the Special Areas of Conservation, the deterioration of natural habitats and the habitats of species as well as disturbance of the species for which the areas have been designated, in so far as such disturbance could be significant in relation to the objectives of this Directive.”

Furthermore, Article 6 of the Habitat Directive obliges that: “Any plan or project not directly connected with or necessary to the management of the site but likely to have a significant effect thereon, either individually or in combination with other plans or projects, shall be subject to appropriate assessment of its implications for the site in view of the site’s conservation objectives. In the light of the conclusions of the assessment of the implications for the site and subject to the provisions of paragraph 4, the competent national authorities shall agree to the plan or project only after having ascertained that it will not adversely affect the integrity of the site concerned and, if appropriate, after having obtained the opinion of the general public.” (my emphasis)

Malta is also a Contracting Party to the Ramsar Convention – the Convention on Wetlands, which is an intergovernmental treaty providing the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. On accession, Malta designated Ghadira as the suitable wetland in its territory for inclusion in the List of Wetlands of International Importance. As a contracting party, Malta is obliged to formulate and implement its planning to promote the conservation of the wetlands included in the List and, as far as possible, the wise use of wetlands in its territory.

A number of environmental NGOs, and a substantial number of the public who really and sincerely have the environment at heart, not for any personal gain, have expressed their concern saying that there is no need for such a road. Indeed a comment by one NGO – Din l-Art Helwa – expressed fears that this would open virgin land to speculation. I cannot for a moment imagine such a road with no adjacent “landscaping”, with bungalows and possibly a high-rise tower similar to the one at Mistra. The present four-carriageway road is quite good and adequate enough. The removal of this road would threaten and possibly eliminate the Ghadira Reserve – a Natura 2000 site.

If one were to look at old maps of the area, the present Ghadira Special Area of Conservation was once a salt pan because the sea had access to the deepest inland part of the area, which is below or at sea level. When the strong easterly winds blow, the big waves are kept at bay by the road. It would take only one such strong storm to sweep over and eliminate the Natura 2000 site, including the adjacent surrounding agricultural land. I witnessed such storms twice during the habitat engineering works at Ghadira in the early 1980s. The negative impact of the removal of the present four-carriageway road, would be augmented by those from the building of the new proposed road at the back of the Natura 2000 site, with sound and light pollution, other disturbances and the alteration of the hydrology of the area, besides obliterating pristine natural habitat. These would render the Ghadira Natura 2000 site a mere glorified duck pond, and would also negatively impact il-Qammieh Natura 2000 site too. In brief, the proposed new road does not have any economical benefits, it does not benefit the social environment and it negatively impacts the ecological environment. It is not sustainable, but is merely a “free market concept” without any social or environmental considerations. In the run up to the last general election, and in the first public meeting after the general election, the Prime Minister repeated, wrote and stressed, that the environment is one of the three pillars of his government. I have been trying hard to find a reason, following such a commitment, why the Prime Minister, who is also the Minister responsible for the Environment, as well as the chairman of the National Commission for Sustainable Development (NCSD), is finding it difficult to activate such Commission, which was set up in 2002, in terms of the Environment Protection Act (2001). The main remit of the NCSD is to advocate a national sustainable development across all sectors, to review progress in the achievement of such sustainable development and to build consensus on action needed to achieve further progress, besides being an obligation as a member of the European Union. This lack of action with regard to the NCSD is also further surprising when during a business breakfast organised by the Nationalist Party, The Times (10 September) reported that “Dr Gonzi said the time had come for the pendulum to swing towards the environment. He argued that the country is at a crossroads in terms of how it views the environment and stressed that a strategic decision on sustainable development needs to be taken now.” I am informed that during another recent business breakfast held on 20 November, a member of the NCSD Commission remarked that the Commission has not met for the last two years! The workings of such a Commission would definitely put an end to such environmental antics. It would also be of help to the Prime Minister and his government in honouring their commitments with regard to their environment pillar, both to the local community, to future generations, and also its international obligations. It would also help the people of Malta to avoid embarrassment vis-à-vis their international obligations, especially those of the European Union environment acquis. Present and future generations will doubtlessly ask why EU funds were spent in a way that threaten two Maltese EU Natura 2000 sites. They will also ask why more natural protected environment of international importance was taken to build a road when a four carriageway one existed and was adequate. They will, without doubt, ask which Minister was responsible who approved such a project when historical, archaeological sites and other roads are crying for maintenance and restoration. Certainly they will ask who the Minister was who had the responsibility to protect their environment, which they had lent us, and more so since it was one of the main pillars of his government. Those responsible may not be here to answer such questions.

aebaldacchino@gmail.com