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.

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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.


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