Environmental disorientation

January 31, 2014

times of malta

January 31, 2014

Environmental disorientation

Alfred E. Baldacchino

Political environmental awareness reached its climax in 2004 before accession to the EU. Membership achieved, environment started a political nose­dive. ‘Merged’ with the Planning Authority, it was hijacked, destabilised and emarginated. Look at how environmental matters are being handled today by MEPA, politically referred to only just for convenience sake with no conviction at all. This led nine environment NGOs to show their disapproval of the lack of professional management of the environment.

2013 can be regarded as the year when environment disorientation reached its peak, and environment conservation hit rock bottom. To the extent that MEPA ­ the competent authority for the EU Environment Acquis is not within the control and not in the portfolio of the Minister for the Environment, but managed and run by the Office of the Prime Minister, through a Parliamentary Secretary.  MEPA, who never really showed any zeal or understanding of environmental responsibilities, except for producing nicely coloured publications and policies, which nobody takes any notice of, not even Mepa itself, had a field day. Stable doors were flung wide open allowing horses not only to gallop out but to stampede over all environmental and social considerations. Reason for this sad and sorry state of affairs is that the environment and planning directorates are going to be separated. All environmental matters are in deep freeze, till the day, when the surgical operation of dismembering Mepa will see the light of day. In the meantime development permits are being dished out with little, if any, environmental or social concern. When the environment is given the kiss of life, then it won’t be MEPA problem any more to see how the vacated stables door can be closed to keep the freed horse inside.

Why was MEPA not included in the environment portfolio until the operation takes place, and then the planning directorate passed to the appropriate Minister? Because environment is not a priority. It never was.

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One of the expensive muddles regarding EU obligations is the Water Framework Directive: not an easy Directive by all means, the more so since Malta is an island. This Directive covers both surface, and underground water: a matter of life and death for all life in the country. 2013 saw this resource in such a pitiful state as it has never been since the advent of man on these islands. Projects inherited from previous water-drop1years, included an educational programme piloted by one Minister and sponsored by a local bank to catch every drop of water, while another Minister happily boasting and spending 57 million euros or more, mostly coming from the EU, excavating underground tunnels so that every drop of rain­water caught is swept into the sea, after bulldozing biodiversity in valleys. Yet another Minister responsible for EU funds to see to the purification of drainage water, not to harvest such resource, but to dispose of it into the sea with a certain pride and satisfaction of

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Rain water which comes for free is chanelled to the sea. Then sea water is pumped up to be desalinated by energy consuming desalinators!

being unique in the EU! Still another Minister trying to find his way through an inherited tangled cobweb, trying to plug the holes through which water tankers plying the local streets, selling water extracted for free from the aquifers. Another Minister is financing the desalination of sea water (containing dumped purified drainage water) by energy consuming desalination plants. I cannot not mention water park, the dancing fountains and the expanses of turf being laid, taking gallons and gallons of water sprinkled everyday with the approval of the Ministry for landscaping. And a postponed and postponed national water policy, in the face of a possible EU infraction.  Great Political management of the environment! Shall we soon be singing ring a ring o’roses? God forbid.

“Environment destruction is turning our lives upside-down”

The monument for environmental and social destruction during 2013, without doubt was the Nadur cemetery in Gozo; built on a priceless ecological water catchment area, destroying works of the Knights to harvest rain water, and putting the ecosystem and the life of a farming community in danger, by depriving them of water and by flooding other farmers’ fields because of the hydrological changes in the area. A 600­ grave cemetery to be run on a time share basis blessed by that Competent Authority for the Environment, MEPA; blessed by the local politicians; helped by the Environment and Planning Review Tribunal who like Pontius Pilate washed its hands from such a catastrophic social and environmental crime; and developed, built and blessed by the Gozo Church Diocese. A cemetery whose first intakes were Mepa’s and

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the Gozo Diocese’s environmental and social conscience. Only God can forgive such an environmental and social crime, approved in 2013. To add insult to injury, this happened in Eco ­Gozo, cementing the lip service for ecological protection and the lack of understanding of biodiversity.

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The good thing about environment in 2013 is that I have run out of space, and cannot delve deeper on the proposed changes to the Outside Development Zones, and Structure Plan; the Xemxija scandalous planning decision, biodiversity loss and the invasion of alien species, and other policies in the pipeline in favour of further myopic development, such as land reclamation, Hondoq ir-Rummien, the Malta-­Gozo tunnel both in Eco Gozo, all burdening the environment and society with more hidden costs and destruction.

What of 2014 one might ask? Following the liaise-faire in environmental and social awareness by politicians and other social entities since accession to the EU, one can only say that environmentalists, socialists and nationalists (nothing to do with politicians) atheists and believers alike, would better fasten their seat belts. Past decisions can only reflect further destruction of the environmental and social fabric, rendering our country a difficult and unhealthy place to live in. The momentum of these negative impacts on society and the environment can already be seen and felt. Development and money matters are holding the political decision makers of this country at gun point, at a cost to the environment and society.

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Photo and caption in the Times: Changes burdening the environment and society with more hidden costs and destruction were also proposed for Eco-Gozo. Photo: viewingmalta.com

Every time I get to think about this, with every thought of where all this will lead us to, makes me feel that I can’t tell the bottom from the top. Am I standing on my head or on my heels? Is it cloudy is it bright? Is it day or is it night? Am I wrong or am I right? And is it real?

Environment destruction is turning our living upside-down. But why cannot this country ever grow up?

I have as yet refrained from answering my question as to whether all this is sheer inexperience in good governance, or a shrewd diabolical political psychology.

aebaldacchino@gmail.com

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Trees and GDP

January 3, 2010

21 June 2009

Trees and GDP

 

Alfred E. Baldacchino

Some people might think that tree planting is just putting the potted tree into a hole in the ground, and perhaps watering it. Tree planting however involves much more than this and requires a plan of action, unless of course such tree planting is done for convenience rather than conviction. When planting a tree, one has also to take into consideration the economic, ecological and social aspects.

Ecologic aspects

There are trees and trees. Different trees grow in different types of habitats. One would not, for example, plant a tree, which grows along watercourses, such as a poplar or a willow tree, in a salt marsh. Neither should trees be planted on garigue, the richest habitat, as unfortunately happened in both cases. Similarly, no one would plant a salt loving tree, like the tamarix, in a valley. These would jar with the environment, as much as a girl in bikini would be out of place in church. These are but some elementary points with regard to the planting of indigenous tress propagated from local stock.

Imported alien species of trees should be handled with the utmost attention and planning. Some of these imported alien species can, and have, become invasive because of lack of planning. As examples one can mention the eucalyptus, the  acacia, the castor oil tree, the tree-of-heaven and the Brazilian pepper, among others. The application of precautionary principle is of utmost importance when it comes to importing living species, not excluding trees, be they exotic or  indigenous. Such imported species also carry with them the possibility of giving a free ride to other species, which can have a very negative ecological, economical and social impact. The recent introduction of the red palm weevil, the mulberry longhorn beetle, the tomato leaf miner, the citrus white fly, the Geranium Bronze Butterfly, and a number of other species including molluscs, flies, wasps, are all taking a stronger hold and impacting the Maltese ecosystem.

Social aspects

Planting trees without any plan of action can also have a social impact, both if the trees are planted in the wild and also if they are planted in urban areas. As an example, take the number of imported Australian eucalyptus trees planted both in the rural and urban environment. Besides the negative aesthetic impact they have, eucalyptus trees rely heavily on underground water; in fact, they are used to dry marshes. The number of eucalyptus groves growing in rural areas, notably in Gozo, without doubt are affecting the supply of underground water in the island, particularly the surrounding fields, to the extent that farmers have to look for alternative sources of water, either from ‘new’ boreholes, or by obtaining water from other sources. The domino effect of having eucalyptus trees growing next to farmers’ fields, are making it more difficult and problematic for farmers to cultivate their fields, with the result that there is a possible smaller output from the cultivated fields, and more expensive produce. Naturally, the unnecessary waste of this natural resource – ground water – cannot be ignored.

Economic aspect

The more the social and ecologic considerations are ignored, the more negative the economic impacts are. Without a proper plan of action, society is burdened with cost externalities, that is, costs which are not borne by those involved in tree planting – mainly the importers of trees, or landscapers.

As an example, one can refer to the now established invasive alien species, the red palm weevil (RPW), which was imported with palm trees. The RPW is devastating palm trees in the Maltese Islands, be they historic, aesthetic, indigenous, public, or private. Many are spraying living palm trees in the hope of saving them, or cutting and transporting dead trees, naturally personally paying for such unforeseen and unwanted costs. These are some of the externalities being paid by society due to the lack of an official policy and lack of foresight and planning by those who were involved in the introduction, naturally unintentionally, of the RPW, but who, notwithstanding, pocketed the profits from such commercial activities.

Growing indigenous trees locally

The Gross Domestic Product is the monetary value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country’s borders and sold on the market in a specific time period, usually one year. Tree planting can contribute to the GDP of the country, if there is a proper plan of action.

In another section of the press, it was officially stated that seeds from local indigenous trees are being sent to Italy so that they can be propagated there, and then re-imported as potted plants. This is indeed unbelievable in this day and age when Malta is party to a number of international biodiversity conventions, all of which highlight the need to protect indigenous biodiversity. This might also give the impression that Maltese gardeners, who have been handling seeds ever since man set foot on these islands, are today incapable of propagating indigenous trees. It can also give the impression that there is some sort of Midas magic touch in this policy.

A proper plan of action for the planting of indigenous trees, besides contributing to the Maltese GDP, can also contribute to the balance of payments. This can be achieved if indigenous seeds are collected, sown, cared for, distributed, sold, planted and distributed locally. This creates a number of different unlimited green jobs, besides completely eliminating the possibility of importing any IAS, diseases or viruses, which are all possible under the present policy of importing plants and trees, and which has happened in some cases. It would also ensure that the local gene pool of indigenous trees is not polluted. Besides, it contributes to the better balance of payments, less money going overseas for something that can be done much better and more efficiently locally. Furthermore, money, which is being uselessly spent overseas, can have a much needed multiplier effect if it is spent locally. New green jobs for locals will be created, the ecosystem will benefit, and society will not be asked to pay, in cash or in kind, for externalities, as it is doing at present. The value of such goods and services would also be reflected in the local GDP.

An official urgent policy in this field is urgently needed if, IF, what is officially said and written on the protection of biodiversity, is to be taken seriously.

Mr Baldacchino is a Planning and Environmental manager

aebaldacchino@gmail.com