Vigilo magazine, October 2009

Two years ago I had reported that an important step to preserve our countryside had been taken. The Government had announced that the area around Xaghra il-Hamra was to be turned into a National Park. This was after consistent lobbying for over three years by Din l-Art Helwa. Perhaps recognizing this, the Government decided that we would play an active part in running the park.

We have now been effectively on the board of management for two years and I can only report minimal progress so far. Much groundwork has been done and the detailed management plan (a considerable document) has been approved by Government and the Malta Environment and Planning Authority. We have initiated patrols and organized clean ups, removed a huge rubbish dump and planted trees. In truth we would have expected to do much more. However we are hamstrung by political issues which are beyond our control.

There was the issue of hunting of course but in this case we understood that this is a highly charged political hot potato and that the argument would take time to run its course. Indeed at the beginning of summer the board of management took a vote to allow restricted hunting in the park before 9.00 am. The NGOs on the board wanted a full ban and therefore voted against. In the circumstances this is an acceptable solution although the hunting lobby is up in arms at this restriction.

Another important issue is to have vehicular access to the park restricted. One would have thought that this would be easily settled. You cannot have a nature and heritage park with uncontrolled access by cars. Yet to date we are still arguing for this to be implemented. This is a fundamental step which will allow us to restore the damaged garrigue areas, ensure that the area is kept clean and that the illegal structures are removed. No real work can start until access to the park by car is controlled. Yet we are still waiting.

Doubts were expressed about this approach and we have had an open and frank meeting with the Minister responsible, George Pullicino to find the way forward. Progress has been made and it seems we are able to find a way, whereby the role of the Board of Management and the Managers (ie the NGOs managing the park) are better defined and indeed retain their independence. The NGOs will always feel very strongly about their independence and cannot be subject to the strictures of a management board for the day to day running of the park. They can have government employees for this.

NGOs are made up largely of volunteers and whilst we accept obligations as regards financial reporting or procedures (which we always have), we cannot be micro-managed on projects. This I would imagine is why we have been brought on board, to be given some responsibility on projects connected with our environment. I think this was understood and accepted and hopefully we can move on.

However the issue of access is now of critical importance and needs to be resolved immediately if we are not to remain stalled. At present much of the clean up work is for nothing as individuals with or without an ulterior motive dump mounds of rubbish as soon as we are able to clean up an area.

It is important to remember the vision we had when we started this project. We felt that this was the start of a bid to save what is left of the countryside in the north-west, from Cirkewwa running down past Dingli to Wied iz-Zurrieq. This is an area which is largely unspoilt but which is rapidly deteriorating under the pressures of development.

The idea is to have a National Park which would manage the area and rehabilitate the damaged areas, rebuilding rubble walls, removing rubbish and illegal structures and planting trees and other endemic bushes. These would be controlled, some would be accessible by foot alone and other areas by car, principally where roads exist. Farmers would be encouraged to use organic methods and Maltese and tourists alike would be encouraged to visit and take walks among our most spectacular countryside.So far we are still stuck at port, perhaps only having loosened the guy ropes.

I recently travelled to Sicily and Croatia and saw how they look after their countryside and the extensive network of national parks they have. These have been built up over years of work, they contain cabins which are open to the public and can be used by anyone. I can’t really see this happening in Malta for some years to come. Public property is something few understand here – perhaps more see it as something ripe to take over until the new Parliamentary Secretary for Lands (who is doing a great job reclaiming public land for all of us) finds out.

Malta has beautiful countryside – but it is fast disappearing. In the last 40 years we have lost much and we don’t have much time to save the rest. The concept of the National Parks has been understood and even started – but we need to move fast and start implementing the project seriously.