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Bio-what? 70 per cent have never heard of biodiversity

Mepa has been described as the “number one enemy of Maltese biodiversity.” Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

Mepa has been described as the “number one enemy of Maltese biodiversity.” Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

The environment has been hijacked by property speculators, according to conservation experts who are not surprised that 70 per cent of Maltese have never heard of biodiversity.

Unsettling Eurobarometer figures, compiled earlier this week, show that the Maltese were the least knowledgeable on the subject in the 28 member states of the European Union.

The report highlighted the island’s “notable lack of green consciousness”, revealing that only 10 per cent could define biodiversity – four times below the EU average.

Some 20 per cent of the Maltese interviewed said they had heard the word but had no idea what it meant.

The umbrella term refers to the degree of variation of biological life.

Environment Minister Leo Brincat, who described the situation as endemic, pointed to the ongoing planning authority reform as a sign of the Government’s commitment to address the situation.

Former Environment Directorate assistant head Alfred Baldacchino said he was hardly shocked by the findings.

“This has been the situation now for some time. The authorities are not teaching the public enough on these issues,” he said, pointing to the planning authority as the main institution responsible for informing society.

He insisted the Malta Environment and Planning Authority had left most environmental issues on the back burner: “To Mepa, the environment is like Cinderella, playing second fiddle to property developers,” he said, calling the regulator the “number one enemy of Maltese biodiversity”.

Last week, nine environmental NGOs announced they would be marching against the “rampant” over development.

They made a call to arms after a string of contentious development decisions, including to allow a mega apartment block on Xemxija ridge.

The study is not all bad news. The island registered the third-highest increase in awareness over the past three years. Some 10 per cent more understood the biological concept than in a similar study in 2010.

Mr Baldacchino, however, insisted this was likely the result of Mepa’s “nonchalance” on environmental issues.

“The increase in awareness is the public’s reaction to Mepa’s inaction,” he said.

Marine biologist and environmentalist Alan Deidun said he too was not surprised by Malta’s poor showing.

In his opinion, the problem boiled down to most Maltese viewing biodiversity in overly abstract terms.

“We do not view the environmental diversity of our sites and species in terms of national heritage. Look at the Maltese freshwater crab or the Maltese lizard, these [species] are very important for us,” he said.

Dr Deidun said Malta had more than 80 endemic animal species and 20 plant species. Despite this, he suspected that most still believed the island was bare of any notable flora and fauna.

To Mepa, the environment is like Cinderella, playing second fiddle to property developers

“My impression is that most environmental issues for the Maltese revolve around issues with a strong social bearing,” he said.

The study found that Malta had the highest number of respondents (two thirds) who felt development in green areas had a negative effect on biodiversity.

The Maltese were also the most likely to have heard of Natura 2000 sites. Some 15 per cent of knew of the network of 26,000 protected sites across the EU.

Ninety-four per cent of Maltese respondents recognised the importance of maintaining protected areas in terms of stimulating eco-tourism.

Dr Deidun said despite the figures, many were slow to realise that safeguarding biodiversity could pay in terms of increased tourism. The recent proposal to allow construction in non-development areas was proof of this, he said.

“This would definitely undermine local biodiversity further. This is really crucial.”

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