E is for Environment

August 8, 2011

Maltatoday, Sunday 7th August, 2011

E is for Environment ___________________________________________________________________________________ Despite occasional improvements, Malta’s environmental standards remain below expectations raised by EU accession. ALFRED E. BALDACCHINO, the man who was involved in the transposition of the acquis communautaire into Maltese law, offers an insight into why. ___________________________________________________________________________________

As environmentalists go, few can lay claim to the epithet ‘tree-hugger’ quite as convincingly as Alfred E. Baldacchino. An author of numerous books on Malta’s indigenous wildlife (and biodiversity in general), his very name is now practically synonymous with all matters arboreal. More significantly still, he is often heard on the radio, where he discusses the regular ‘massacre’ of roadside trees in the name of ‘pruning’ and ‘landscaping’… as well as what appears to be our national predilection for choosing the species most unsuited to our islands’ particular ecosystem.

I meet Baldacchino at his Attard home, and I am soon introduced to his private collection of indigenous Maltese saplings – all taken from seeds and cuttings, and grown in pots on a small and crowded verandah. As he talks me through the different species, it quickly becomes apparent that behind his regular complaints about our national treatment of trees and plants, there lies a deeper and altogether more pressing concern with the lack of comprehensive planning and co-ordination: a state of affairs affecting our country’s entire attitude towards all aspects of the environment, with results that can be seen all around us.

Back on the terrace, he points to a specimen of Fraxinus angustifolia (Fraxxnu in Maltese) on his terrace. “If I can grow this from a seed here in my own home – and believe me, I am no expert in cultivation – why can’t we do the same elsewhere? Why do we have to import harmful and invasive species, sometimes spreading diseases and unwanted alien pests like the red palm weevil, when we can invest the same energy into preserving our own natural biodiversity?”

He promptly answers his own question: because commercial interests have meanwhile overtaken all other considerations… including our country’s legal and moral obligations to manage and protect the environment. As an example he turns to his hobbyhorse: environmental landscaping.

“Just this morning I talked about this on the radio, and I was surprised by the reaction: some 12 phone-calls throughout the programme… of which only one was critical, accusing me of being ‘too negative’.” Baldacchino’s point on that programme (of which I had caught snatches while driving) was that pruning of trees – which used to be carried out under the auspices of the Agriculture Department, but has now been farmed out to the private sector – is now being done at the wrong time of the year, and in a slapdash way that reduces many of the trees concerned to mere stumps.

“Just a few moths ago, the trees outside my own home were being ‘pruned’ (or rather, ‘hewn’) and when I popped my head out of the balcony and asked the landscapers why they were doing this now – and more to the point why they were chopping them down to the trunk – they replied ‘because cars pass from here’. What sort of answer is that? Did cars suddenly start passing this way only now…?”

Baldacchino suspects the reason is another: that the job of environmental landscaping has since been taken over by a ‘public private partnership’, or ‘PPP’. “If you ask me, it more like ‘Pee Pee Pee’,” he says… spelling out the ‘double-E’ each time. “The problem is that private concerns like these are driven by commercial interests, and commercial interests that simply do not mix with environmental protection.” For instance, Baldacchino argues that landscapers have taken to using herbicides on roundabouts and pathways. “Not a good idea,” he intones. “These herbicides will be washed away by the rain, only to find their way into valleys and possible reach the watertable. Why is this being allowed to happen? Why isn’t MEPA coming down like a tonne of bricks?”

Even the choice of plants and flowers for these roundabout displays is at best questionable. “Recently, the Prime Minister was on TV talking about government investment in embellishment projects. He was saying things like: ‘when did we ever see so many flowers blooming in August, when it is normally dry as dust?’ Personally I don’t blame the PM himself for saying things like that, but somebody should really tell him that this sort of landscaping goes against his own environmental credentials. These take substantial amount of precious water, especially those laid out with turf. Their temporary aesthetic impact carries hidden costs carried by society.…” Baldacchino explains that ‘alien’ flowers like (for instance) petunias tend to guzzle enormous amounts of water – itself a precious resource that the country can ill-afford to waste – and some species also have the potential to ‘escape’ and take root elsewhere in the wild. “Some of the plants used have microscopic seeds that get easily blown about by the currents as cars drive past, or carried by the wind, washed away by the rain, and so on. It is easy for them to end up germinating in a valley somewhere. What happens if they start to spread? They will become an invasive species, competing with other indigenous plants and ultimately become a threat toMalta’s natural biodiversity.” Some established invasives include the south and Central American Nasturtium, and the south African Hottentot Fig, the latter also used in landscaping.

Baldacchino points towards the profit margins of the private companies involved in the partnership as the main reason for both the use of herbicides, and the inauspicious choice of flowers. The reasoning is one we have all heard before, perhaps in relation to other issues and scenarios: ‘someone’ will be importing a certain type of herbicide, or a certain type of plant… “None of this is necessary,” Baldacchino asserts. “This is the result of having lost our way when it comes to environmental issues.”

But we have raced ahead of ourselves. Part of the reason I came here was to talk about these issues, true; but I also wanted to ask for a historical perspective on what exactly went awry. Baldacchino has after all been involved in the country’s environmental sector…  having kick-started the government’s environmental department in the early 1980s. At that time, the environment fell loosely under the portfolio of Health Minister Vincent Moran… though Baldacchino doesn’t count Moran as one of Malta’s environment ministers, for the simple reason that the word ‘environment’ had yet to achieve practical relevance back then. It was only later – and very gradually – that the concept began to take root in Malta’s subconscious, slowly rising to become a major concern. “Since the 1980s I have worked under six ministers and one parliamentary secretary,” Baldacchino recalls: adding the curious detail that three of them (apart from Moran) were doctors –Daniel Micallef, Stanley Zammit and George Vella. “Doctors make good environment ministers,” he asserts. “I think it’s partly to do with their scientific academic background, and also their charisma with people as doctors. In fact it was with Daniel Micallef that environmental awareness began to take off; and things reached a peak with Stanley Zammit, who had by far the longest time to deliver.”

Baldacchino also acknowledges the input of lawyers who took over the portfolio – namely Ugo Mifsud Bonnici and Francis Zammit Dimech – considering that by their time Malta had to face the voluminous legal international obligations including those of the EU. He was less enthusiastic about role of architect ministers who came in their wake. “Doctors immediately grasped the scientific concept of environmental conservation, while the legal aspect was also quickly picked up by lawyers… But something that took maybe five minutes to explain to the doctors, would take up to five hours with the lawyers…” As for the architects, Baldacchino makes an exception for Michael Falzon, who had the benefit of being helped by Stanley Zammit as his parliamentary secretary. I point out that this leaves us with only one architect who was also environment minister – George Pullicino, with whom Baldacchino had a very public and very acrimonious fall-out. However, he had no intention of being drawn into a discussion about that difference – which erupted after his retirement from the Environment Protection Directorate.

Instead we talked about what he defines as the two ‘fatal errors’ that have undermined previous efforts to create a functional environmental protection regime. “Initially, all the people involved in the department were chosen on the strength of their scientific background. Despite the paucity of human resources, we had the best available people. We needed them, too. Back then we were screening Maltese legislation with a view to transposing the EU’s acquis communautaire: a massive job and we had problems – big problems – at the beginning. But we also had a wealth of highly scientifically qualified and motivated people, enabling the department to be professionally run at the time.”

And then, out of the blue… the catastrophe. Baldacchino explains how the government suddenly decided to strip the environment of its own ministry, and instead transfer it lock, stock and barrel to the Planning Authority. “I think I was as surprised as Minister Zammit Dimech at the time,” Baldacchino recalls, referring to the decision as an environmental disaster from which the country has never fully recovered. “We were like a round peg in a square hole. Suddenly, decisions started being taken without any consideration or even idea of the country’s legal international obligations. Scientific and technical expertise was put aside in favour of other, more commercial considerations. From that point on, we started heading downhill.”

Baldacchino observes that – with the exception of occasional improvements – the trajectory has remained downhill ever since, in part thanks to a second and equally damning mishap. “The second major mistake was to allow the National Sustainable Development Commission (NSDC) to fizzle out. Whether intentionally, or through ignorance, or out of our national tendency to simply ‘postpone’ problems for future generations, the commission was never set in motion …” Originally set up in 2002 – significantly, before the decision to rob the environment of a ministry of its own – the NSDC initially aimed to provide an umbrella organization to integrate and amalgamate all economic, social and environmental considerations. “It has been years since the Commission last met,” Baldacchino says in regretful tones. “Today, decisions which have huge impact on the environment are taken in the absence of any framework organization. Development planning has hijacked all other considerations.”

Baldacchino argues that we are literally paying a high price due to the lack of any clear planning strategy… as an example, he singles out Malta’s policy regarding water. “The Knights of St John handed everything to us on a silver platter. They left us an entire aqueduct and water storing system, and more importantly they had drawn up laws whereby all houses had to have their own wells.” He points out that technically, these laws are still in the statue books. “But are they being implemented? No. Today, MEPA merely issues compliance certificates in cases where houses are illegally built without wells. And just look at the homes we are building: any space for reservoirs is today taken up by garages instead.” Ironically, then, it seems that Maltawas more conscious of water conservation 500 years ago … despite the fact that population pressures, coupled with the demands of a thirsty tourism industry, have resulted in skyrocketing water demands.

From this perspective, environmentalists like Baldacchino were ‘scandalised’ to hear Infrastructure Minister Austin Gatt cavalierly announcing that excess water produced by sewage treatment would be pumped into the sea because it “had no economic value”. “No economic value? That’s blasphemy. What economic value is there is throwing away 50% pure water, when only a few metres away we have Reverse Osmosis plants pumping up 100% concentrated water from the sea? Considering how much we are paying for water produced in this way, can we afford to throw away water that would actually cost us less? So much for economic value…”

Baldacchino argues that the whole system was geared up from the outset with a view to pumping the water into the sea. No thought was given to the possibility of re-utilising that precious resource, “How else do you explain that all the country’s sewage treatment plants were sited near the sea to begin with?”

All this is symptomatic of a system which has fallen apart at the seams – almost an inevitability, Baldacchino suggests, when one considers how the environment itself was divorced from its original ministry, and instead spread among different entities, all of which work independently of one another without any cohesive framework policy. Again, water provides a good example; being a resource which falls under no fewer than three separate ministries. “MEPA is responsible for Malta’s surface water policy, and this falls under the office of the Prime Minister. But the Water Services Corporation – which handles distribution of water – falls under the Finance Ministry, whereas groundwater extraction, among others, falls under the MRRA.” So who takes ultimate responsibility for water-related problems when they arise? Baldacchino suggests the answer, as things stand, is ‘nobody’… coming back to his earlier point that the current set-up encourages government to put off existing problems, leaving future generations to cope with them as best they can.

“It’s a little like what happened with Bisazza Street, but on a national scale,” he remarks. “In the case of Bisazza Street, we had one ministry planning for pedestrianisation, and another ministry planning for traffic, and they only realized there was a problem when the two came together. Why? How is this possible? But at least,” he adds with a twinkle in his eye, “in the case of Bisazza street, a few ‘heads’ did actually roll…”

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Landscaping with native flowers

May 19, 2011

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.

Crown Daisy - Lellux

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.

Year after year sizeable patches of Bindweed along the Imriehel bypass, were shaved to the ground untill they finally succumb.

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.

When have you seen your last 7-spot Ladybird?

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.

Mallow - Ħubbejż - did not escape the herbicide or shaving either.

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.

The dreaded invasive alien species, Hottentot Fig, which despite competing with endangered indigenous species, is being planted, with government funds.

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 wild Sweet Alison (Buttuniera) does not look so sweet for the commercial landscapers.

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 Wild Artichoke (Qaqoċċ salvagg)

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!

Following the publication of the above article, a reader kindly sent me this photo showing what nature can give for free, which unfortunately is not appreciated at all.


That business-as-usual stand

January 15, 2011

Saturday, 15th January 2011

That business-as-usual stand

Alfred E. Baldacchino

The conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity was first discussed at length at the Earth summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 giving birth to the Convention on Biological Diversity, today having 193 parties. The European Union, a party to theConvention, in a 2001 summit initiated ambitious commitments agreed upon by heads of state and of government to halt the loss of biodiversity in the EU by the end of 2010. This became one of the main targets for managing and conservingnatural resources and was later endorsed by the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002.To achieve such targets and put biodiversity on course to recovery, the EU, in 2006, approved a detailed action plan, aiming primarily to clarify responsibilities concerning the implementation of legislation already in place. As a sign of further support, in 2007, the UN declared 2010 as the International Year for Biological Diversity. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stressed that “business as usual is not an option” and that “new targets and a new vision is indeed urgentlyneeded”. Such concept was elaborated in September 2010 at a high-level meeting of the UN with the participation of heads of state and of government.

The IYB’s main aim is to raise awareness on the importance of biodiversity with a view of engaging all stakeholders for protecting life on earth, to influence decision-makers and to raise biological diversity to the top of the political agenda. Everyone has to do one’s part. It is unacceptable not to take immediate and effective action. There cannot be a new vision excluding stakeholders. Only such a broad-based partnership, commitment, cooperation, coordination andcommunication can ensure life can continue to flourish on this planet for the benefit of species, naturally including humankind. This is the only way a commitment can be acquired to reinforce the implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity. An evaluation report has to be submitted to the UN General Assembly in 2011.

As a member state of the CBD, the UN and the EU, Malta is bound by all these commitments. What were Malta’scontributions towards halting biodiversity loss? Apart from the official periodic educational snippets, on the line of what environmental NGOs used to do more than 40 years ago, there is little one can highlight except for the occasional declaration of a protected area without any follow-up whatsoever. On the other hand, however, there is, unfortunately, quite a long list of decisions, actions or lack of them, which not only did not contribute to the prevention of biological loss but had a completely diametrically opposite effect. Considering the source of such negative impacts on biodiversity, this shows the importance of Mr Ban’s emphasis that “business asusual is not an option” and that “new targets and a new vision is indeed urgently needed”.

An off-the-cuff glance at some local “contributions” is a sine qua non. What comes to mind first is the number of alien invasive species that established themselves in the wild these last few years. Some have already managed to prove very costly not only economically but also ecologically and socially. Some of these introductions, albeit not all intentional but all due to lack of any foresight, include the red palm weevil, geranium bronze butterfly, the mulberry longhorn beetle, the tomato leaf miner, the Levantine water frog and about a dozen molluscs(snails) spreading from around some garden centres. Others might not have yet made an impact but when they do it will be too late for any action.

Climate change increases additional costs to control IAS. Britain spends £1.7 billion a year and EU costs amount to about €12 billion. No official figures are available for Malta despite the fact that IAS’s negative impacts are becoming more widespread. And the importation of flora and fauna, the main carriers of IAS,  goes on without any hindrance at all,  except, perhaps, for a phytosanitary/veterinary certificate on which some IAS have travelled.

More of a concern is the fact that the authority responsible to control and eliminate such IAS hinted at the possible intoxication of a fresh water pool to eliminate an alien frog in eco- Gozo. Much the same like advice from Josef Fritzl on how to protect children from sex abuse!

Still very unfortunate were development permits (none related to the management of the areas) issued inside EU Natura 2000 sites. A quick recollection reveals Mistra, Baħrija, and Dwejra – again in eco-Gozo. And, naturally, Buskett, another Natura 2000 site, saved by the skin of its teeth from becoming a public garden where, possibly, pansies and geraniums would have joined the numbers of IAS at this site.The business-as-usual stand adopted by Malta in international fora on the listing of the bluefin tuna in the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of  Wild Flora and Fauna and against adjusted quotas, both raised within the EU, is perhaps the cherry on the IYB’s cake.  Mr Ban’s emphasis that “business as usual is not an option” and that “new targets and a new vision is indeed urgently needed” seem specifically coined for the political fraternity.

The year 2010 has come and gone and with it a number of species of wild flora and fauna, which either gave up the ghost in the year of deliverance or else have been pushed to the brink of doing so. The target date has now been extended to 2020. By that time, today’s actors’ names will be engraved in stone – as a reminder of who was accountable for preventing biodiversity loss by 2010.


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 »


The introduction of alien species into the natural environment – a European concern

June 21, 2010

22 June 2008

Alfred E. baldacchino 

Alien species are not extraterrestrial species, as one could be led to believe by the word “alien”. From a biological perspective, alien species are living species of flora and fauna which, in an unnatural way, are introduced into a natural habitat where they have never occurred before, and as such are not indigenous to that area. Some of these species may be quite harmless. But others can be very dangerous from an ecological and an economical aspect. The introduction of alien species can be either accidental or intentional, but in both cases the species introduced can became invasive, competing with the local species for space and food and thus threatening the survival of indigenous species, sometimes even by predation. Invasive alien species (IAS) can be a serious threat to biodiversity and contribute to its loss. Aided by other environmental threats, IAS weaken the resilience of natural systems and reduce their ability to adapt to new conditions generated by climate change. An example of a local intentionally introduced floral species is the eucalyptus tree. The latest introduced faunal species recorded towards the end of 2007, and officially declared invasive, is the red palm weevil. This is but a brief and simple definition of an alien species. The ever-increasing international demand for exotic species, whether animal or plant, for commercial trade, aided by modern means of transportation, make it easier for species to establish themselves in countries where they have never previously been present. The increasing illegal trafficking in exotic wild species on a global scale (which is only second to illegal drug trafficking) further enhances the possibilities of species invading other countries. Having seen the negative impact of IAS, the international community introduced legislation to control them. Below is a very brief general look at some of this legislation and its provisions and obligations, which is aimed at controlling introduced aliens species, and to which the signatories have committed themselves.

Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) The Convention on Biological Diversity, which was signed at Rio de Janeiro on 5 June 1992, is the most recent international convention and embraces the most modern scientific principles in the conservation of biological diversity. It lays down measures regarding the conservation of species and the contracting parties will, as far as possible and as appropriate, achieve this by establishing or maintaining the means to regulate, manage or control the risks associated with the use and release of living modified organisms resulting from biotechnology that are likely to have an adverse environmental impact that could affect the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, taking also into account the risk to human health. Furthermore, the signatories are also obliged to prevent the introduction of, see to the control of or the eradication of those alien species that threaten ecosystems, habitats or species. Malta became a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity on 29 December 2000.

Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (Bern)  was signed in Bern on 19 October 1979 under the auspices of the Council of Europe. The signatories to this convention are obliged to undertake strict control of the introduction of non-native species. Malta became a signatory to this convention on 26 November 1993.

Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (Bonn) The United Nations Environment Programme is the Secretariat of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals. The signatories to this convention, which came into force in 1985, agree to endeavour – to the extent that is feasible and appropriate – to prevent, reduce or control factors that are endangering or are likely to further endanger the species listed in an annex of the convention. Signatories are also obliged to strictly control the introduction of, or control or elimination of, already introduced exotic species. Malta became a signatory to this convention on 13 February 2001.

United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) UNCLOS also addresses the protection and preservation of the marine environment. The signatories to this convention, which came into force in 1994, are to take all measures necessary to prevent, reduce and control pollution of the marine environment resulting from the use of technologies under their jurisdiction or control, or the intentional or accidental introduction of species, alien or new, to a particular part of the marine environment, which may cause significant and harmful changes thereto. The cleaning of ships’ hulls and the ballast water carried by ships are the main contributors to such alien introduced species. Malta became a signatory to this convention on 25 May 1993.

EU Council Directive 92/43/EEC of 21 May 1992 on the Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Fauna and Flora    This European Union legislation also addresses the issue of the introduction of alien species with regard to the conservation of European natural habitats and wild species of flora and fauna. In implementing the provisions of this Directive, also referred to as the Habitats Directive, member states are to ensure that the deliberate introduction into the wild of any species that is not native to their territory is regulated so as not to prejudice natural habitats within their natural range or the wild native fauna and flora and, if they consider it necessary, prohibit such introduction into their country. This Directive became applicable to Malta when it joined the European Union on 1 May 2004. The European Union also has other decisions and regulations that support and encourage member states to honour the international conventions that incorporate such principles. These include, amongst others, the above-mentioned conventions. It has to be admitted that such concepts are relatively new to all the social entities in the Maltese Islands, where a lot still has to be done so that they can be understood, accepted and implemented. Nevertheless, these are Malta’s legal obligations under the international treaties to which Malta is a contracting party. aebaldacchino@gmail.com


International Day for Biological Diversity

February 8, 2010

             12 July 2009

International Day for Biological Diversity

Alfred E. Baldacchino

Every year, the International Day for Biological Diversity is celebrated (internationally, but not in Malta) on 22 May, as declared by the United Nations for the promotion of biodiversity issues. This year, the International Day for Biological Diversity appropriately chose as its theme the issue of the introduction of invasive alien species (IAS). The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) defines invasive alien species “as an alien species which becomes established in natural or semi natural ecosystems or habitat, an agent of change, and threatens native biological diversity. These invasive are widely distributed in all kinds of ecosystems throughout the world, and include all categories of living organisms.” Plants, mammals and insects are the most common types of invasive alien species in terrestrial environments. The threat to biodiversity due to IAS is considered second only to that of destruction of natural habitats.

Invasive alien species

Invasive alien species have fearsome negative impacts. They:

• are one of the greatest threats to biodiversity, and to the ecological and economic well-being of society and the planet;

• are capable of establishing, invading and outcompeting native species leading some to extinction;

• can cause changes which can be irreversible; • can act as vectors for new diseases, alter ecosystem processes, change biodiversity, disrupt cultural landscapes;

• decimate crops;

• take lifts in ballast water and on ships’ hulls, possibly upsetting ocean food chains;

• worsen human health problems, like hay fever;

• some newly introduced plant pests even cause famines, claiming the lives of millions of people and displacing millions of others;

• feed on, hybridise with, parasites and outcompete native species.

Invasive alien species are active on a global scale. With the everincreasing global markets and the rise in global trade, travel and tourism and the concept of the free movement of goods, as in the European Union, IAS have every chance of further extending their range and numbers in this century.  

Economic costs

The economical damage and control costs of introduced IAS are indeed fearsome. On a global level, the yearly costs are estimated at $1.4 trillion. In Britain, combating IAS amounts to £2 billion a year; 60 per cent of invasive plants in the UK are garden escapees. Preliminary estimates indicate that the monetary cost of IAS in Europe amounts to at least e10 billion per year, and yet almost nothing is known of the impacts, as yet, for 90 per cent of the IAS. The marine environment is not spared either, and it is estimated that overall annual European expenditure to combat IAS amounts to e8.18 million. One of the greatest problems with regard to the control of IAS is that too many governments ignore such alien species, or procrastinate sine die until the effects are visible and can no longer be swept under the carpet.

The European Union

The European Commission recently became more concerned about the impact of IAS, many of which have bene-fited from the free movement of goods concept. These are having such a negative impact on the Community and threatening European biodiversity, that a number of policy options for developing a strategy to deal with IAS have been drafted. These are aimed at a coordinated approach and measures to be put in place immediately, and include a Europe-wide early warning system for reporting IAS. Such a harmonised approach is conspicuous by its absence. European Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: “Invasive species are a major threat to biodiversity. Halting the loss of biodiversity in the EU will not be possible without tackling the problem of these unwelcome visitors. Given the way that these quickly become established and spread, measures taken by one member state can have no effect if neighbouring countries fail to take action or respond in an uncoordinated manner. The ecological, economic and social consequences of the spread of invasive species for EU countries are serious and need a harmonised response.” The journal Science1 recently published a paper that suggests that legislation is not enough to tackle IAS. It also points out that Europe lacks appropriate governance and institutional coordination across member states to tackle the IAS invasion effectively.

The Maltese scenario

In recent years, the number of IAS in the Maltese Islands has been increasing alarmingly. The most popular seems to be the red palm weevil, which, since its introduction, has devastated at least 300 mature adult palm trees. How did Malta commemorate International Day for Biological Diversity on 22 May, with the present theme of controlling Invasive Alien Species? The only reference to the subject was a press release from the Department of Information dated 25 May, in which the ministry responsible for agriculture informed the public that another introduced alien species – the tomato leaf miner – had, since April 2009, set up house in the Maltese Islands. It also informed the general public about the insecticides to use to eliminate this IAS. But worse still is the fact that when some species are declared as IAS locally, or on a European scale, these are still locally traded. To add insult to injury, invasive alien plants are planted by a government contractor, who is paid out of public funds. A case in point is the Hottentot Fig, a flat evergreen South African succulent plant with large magenta or yellow flowers, which spreads along cliffs, and spreads aggressively once it becomes established in the environment. All one has to do is take a look at the planted specimens on the roundabout leading to Malta International Airport, and at those established invasive specimens along the cliff faces on the southern coasts of the island. The Hottentot Fig is one of the IAS on the elimination target list of some EU member states, and is also declared as such by Mepa.

Besides a strong pair of hands and a virtual environmental column, a clear official vision, an iron will and a Minister for the Environment are urgently needed to give the environment the much needed boost on the lines of the obligations outlined in the EU environmental acquis. The aliens are here, there and everywhere, and in strong numbers.

aebaldacchino@gmail.com


In search of tiger’s documents

January 11, 2010

Tuesday, 15th September 2009

Talking Point

In search of tiger’s documents

Alfred E. Baldacchino

Following the red palm weevil, the Geranium bronze butterfly and other alien species, which got a foothold on these islands, now a Bengal tiger has surfaced on a rooftop! Without doubt, this felid was brought to Malta, either imported from a country outside the European Union or transported from one of the EU member states.

The Bengal tiger hunts medium to large prey such as wild pigs, deer, antelopes and buffalo. This second largest wild big cat can reach a length of three metres from head to tail and weigh about 250 kilogrammes. It can jump a horizontal leap of 10 metres and a vertical jump of five metres. It is estimated that there are fewer than 3,000 wild Bengal tigers, each having a minimum territory of 20 square kilometres.

Because of widespread illegal trade in wild animals and plants, which, incidentally, is second only to international drug trafficking, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) came into force in 1973. The Bengal tiger is listed in the convention’s Appendix I, which includes the most endangered animals and plants threatened with extinction. International trade in such species is prohibited. In exceptional cases trade may take place provided it is authorised by the granting of both an import permit and an export permit. This means that:

If the Bengal tiger was legally imported from outside the EU, the Maltese Cites management authority, which is Mepa, had to issue an import permit after the scientific authority had given its advice that the import will not be detrimental to the species involved. An importation and export permit from country of origin had to be surrendered to Mepa.

If the Bengal tiger was transported to Malta from within the EU, then two EU wildlife trade regulations, (EC) 338 of 1997 and (EC) 865 of 2006, which implement the provision of Cites, come in play. The object of these regulations is to protect species of wild fauna and flora and to guarantee their conservation by regulation trade therein. The introduction into the Community of specimens of the species listed in Cites Appendix I is subject to the completion of the necessary checks and the prior presentation of documents at the border Customs office at the point of introduction, which member states have designated and notified the EU and Cites secretariat accordingly.

If the Bengal tiger was imported legally, then Mepa, which is the management authority both for Cites and also for the EU regulations, should have all the documents at its finger tips. If it does not have any, then the Bengal tiger was imported into Malta, and into the EU, illegally.

The importation and exportation of wild flora and fauna is not just the responsibility of Mepa, which is just concerned with the ecological aspect. Nonetheless, the importation of living species can have a social and an economical negative impact, something the local administrative entitles are finding it so difficult to apprehend. Poisonous species like snakes and spiders are of concern to the Ministry for Social Policy, responsible for health. Dangerous animals, like felids, chimpanzees and also reptiles, also fall within the wing of the ministry responsible for veterinary services.

The Veterinary Service Act designates a “border inspection post” for carrying out veterinary inspections by veterinary officers on imported live animals. The EU and Cites both have been notified of these specific posts. This means that the Bengal tiger had to enter Malta through one of these designated posts, accompanied not only by the Cites/EU documentation but also by a veterinary health certificate issued by the country of origin. The Animal Welfare Act, administered by the veterinary services within the Ministry of Resources and Rural Affairs, is also responsible for the monitoring of ill treatment of animals and aggressive animals that may present a danger to the safety of man or other animals and which are classified as such by the minister. These animals shall not be bred, imported or sold in Malta.

In another section of the press, the Director of Animal Welfare is reported as having said that the Bengal tiger is being taken good care of, has an air-conditioned room, is fed chickens and there are no indications that it has bothered anyone from the surroundings. Yet, no mention has been made of any veterinary health certificate that had to be surrendered to the veterinary services at the border inspection post, more important as felids are included in the Fourth Schedule of the Veterinary Service Act.

So while a search for the importation and veterinary documents is being conducted, the Bengal tiger is comfortably in an airconditioned room, eating chickens. And during such search for the legal documents, will it come of age and start searching for a mate? Will it do the Houdini act? When pigs can fly in Malta, why cannot their predator fly too? Will it be infected by some endemic virus and be eaten by rats overnight? Time will tell. In the meantime, the search from all sides goes on. But the most important question, considering the above legal provisions, is: But how on earth did such a blessed tiger manage to surface on an urban rooftop?

aebaldacchino@gmail.com