Pathways to public property
Over the last few months the Ramblers' Association of Malta has been inundated with reports of the sudden closure of countryside pathways throughout the Maltese islands. Many of these paths have been used by generations of villagers, hikers, farmers and foreign visitors for generations. However, lately, as the Ramblers' Association steps up its campaign to present rambling as a means to improve the quality of life, hostility to ramblers and trekkers from farmers, pseudo-owners, trappers and hunters has become more aggressive.
The nonexistence of a definitive map of the Maltese islands, identifying which land is public and which is privately owned, has exacerbated the situation. Furthermore, our island state is still bogged down by archaic laws of land tenure that make a mockery of the much vaunted stature of our legislators.
As things stand, the law is heavily tilted in favour of the presumed landowners but, despite all the difficulties, the Ramblers' Association, with the support of other environmental NGOs is determined to reverse the process. Our petition to Parliament to rectify matters and bring land regulations in line with European Union standards has fallen on deaf ears. Our pleas to various ministers and government departments have brought into perspective the "belling the cat syndrome" when all pay lip service to our cause without lifting a finger. The fact that a small island needs more protection and safeguards, when it comes to land use and open spaces, is completely ignored.
Having idealised the lost countryside, the next move of the Ramblers' Association is to recover it, if possible in its idealised form. Inevitably, the feeling of land loss comes up against the fact of ownership because the land that constitutes our landscape is a legal entity: It is property with ownership allocated to the state, persons and institutions.
Unless immediate steps are taken to identify ownership through a definitive map, there will be social friction between presumed owner and would-be user as the battles of the Ramblers' Association to reopen paths amply demonstrates. We see a struggle both actual and symbolic in the battles for access to cliff paths, fore-shore and heritage sites.
Unfortunately, not all local councils are fully convinced of the benefits of rambling. In England they share the responsibility with other agencies to identify, protect and conserve the countryside. They also assume the role of watchdogs against the closure of paths.
The Ramblers' Association can reveal that it was instrumental in saving picturesque Munxar Point, in Marsascala, from development because it rallied support and also because it carried out documentary research proving that pathways along this promontory were military property and, consequently, are state-owned. But the association has neither the means nor the personnel to embark on this laborious task for the whole of the Maltese islands.
The Ramblers' Association is fully aware of the EU directive that became effective on February 14, 2005 whereby Maltese citizens are given the right of access to environmental information.
Malta is one of the few EU countries that have not yet transposed the directive regarding the identification of public/private pathways into its laws.
But the real irony is that the persistent drive of the Ramblers' Association to recover what has been lost threatens that which survives as the dispossession and rape of the countryside continues unabated.
In such dire circumstances the hoarse chorus of voices raising the red alarm for the whole nation to listen to the voice of reason will eventually demand proof of ownership from presumed owners if access to previously opened pathways is barred.