Malta living up to the EU Habitats Directive
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Malta living up to the EU Habitats Directive

In his "awareness raising" article The EU Habitats Directive, the former Malta Environment and Planning Authority assistant director for Nature Protection, Alfred Baldacchino, gives a detailed account of the aims and obligations of the directive and concludes by sarcastically questioning whether Mepa, which is the competent Authority for this directive, is oblivious to these obligations (July 13).

While the Authority respects the expertise of Mr Baldacchino in the field of nature protection, and does not want to fall for Mr Baldacchino's childish tit-for-tat play, it feels it has an obligation and a duty to inform readers on the achievements Malta has attained over these past years. The first six-year report on the implementation of the Habitats Directive which Malta had presented to the EU Commission way back in 2008, but which Mr Baldacchino still thinks needs to be drafted by a "public officer" at Mepa, highlighted that, as obliged by the Directive, Malta has already designated nearly 14 per cent of the national land territory as Natura 2000 sites, which is a very high percentage noting the small size of the islands and very much in line with the EU average.

While designation was a key obligation, site management is also mandatory by the EC Habitats Directive. Malta, as well as all other EU Member States, has six years from the declaration of the Natura 2000 sites by the Commission (2008-2009) to finalise its management plans. Here, despite various incorrect statements, Malta's work on the management of Natura 2000 sites is also continuing in line with the Commission's timeframes and it will by 2014/15 have developed the management plans for all the sites. In fact, Mepa has also applied for a €6 million project to complete this process which will be developed together with the participation of all the relevant stakeholders.

Today, Mepa meticulously assesses and screens all development applications that fall within or adjacent to a Natura 2000 site with the appropriate assessment procedure, and includes alternative site assessments and impacts on the animals, plants and habitats in the area. The Authority finds no difficulty with having to reject a proposal that can result in a significant negative impact but it is an ill-conceived principle to classify a Natura 2000 site as a Nature Reserve, free from any form of human activity or development. Indeed many Natura 2000 sites across Europe include built-up areas as well as other structures and host a number of human activities. Any development in Natura 2000 sites is to be based on the principle of sustainable development, with the aim of maintaining the status of the plants, animals or habitats for which the areas were designated. In fact, while one acknowledges that the Directive imposes a series of safeguards, such as the appropriate assessment procedure, it should be noted that these safeguards do not automatically preclude development or other plans or projects in such areas. Obviously, projects and activities that are incompatible with the conservation objectives of the site are prohibited. These conservation objectives vary from site to site in view of the wide range of species and habitats that are protected.

The Authority has made considerable progress in developing Malta's National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan while significant work has been carried out in the promotion of biodiversity research whereby Mepa has already carried out and commissioned a number of scientific surveys to update the National Red Data List.

Lastly, the Authority is constantly informing the public through the media and carrying out initiatives with the aim of raising the public's awareness on issues pertaining to nature protection and has, in effect, recently launched a new Campaign on the Promotion of Biodiversity.

Although it is clear that more work is required in this field, one cannot deny that Malta has passed its first six years of implementation of the EC Habitats Directive in a positive manner. While the results so far are very encouraging, Malta is moving to the next step of the implementation phase, with management of protected areas and species action plans.

While this will be another challenge, we are confident that with the contribution of local councils, NGOs and society as a whole, we can live up to the challenge, and be proactive in habitat and species conservation and management.

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