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Everyone’s right to ramble

Public interest in phy­sical recrea­tional pursuits has increased and diversified enor­mously in the last two decades with rambling emerging as a highly popular exercise.

This has led to the need for greater access in rural and coastal areas. Instead of the inevitability of progress we see only the negation of what other EU countries take for granted, namely pathways that for generations were open to all.

For over seven decades I have personally trodden without any hindrance the scenic and historical pathways of Baħrija, Tas-Salib, Gomerino and is-Simblija where for generations genuine farmers have tilled and cultivated the fertile land rendering this pastoral zone an earthly paradise.

Lately, barriers, warnings and notices of every description have mushroomed over the whole area that previously welcomed the lonely rambler with offers of freshly picked plums; now the rambler feels like a plum ready for the picking intimidated by stray dogs or with lead pellets raining down on him. This malaise could be indicative of a recurrence of strange dealings reported in the local press a few years ago.

There was a fever in the land a decade ago when from online investigations there were strong indications that one of the most scenic spots on the Maltese islands, stretching from Ġnejna to Baħrija was being offered to foreigners.

The strange events occurring in the area at the time gave more meaning to this: a well-known Maltese landscape painter during a walk along Baħrija Valley for inspiration, proved to be a very hazardous experience as she was faced with irate farmers claiming that the land, including the long standing pathway had been sold to an Italian baron.

A few weeks later a young rambler who camped overnight at idyllic Fomm ir-Riħ was rudely expelled from the area by an irate Greek who at the time lived in the area also claiming the vast expanse of land below.

On one occasion farmers in the area introduced us to a Sicilian baroness who had just taken possession of the site. More recently a part-time farmer brandishing a shotgun expelled us from the Punico-Roman site of Ras ir-Raħeb, a promontory expropriated by the government in 1975 for its archaeological ruins but still in private hands.

The same situation occurs on the Qlejgħa tal-Baħrija the site of a Bronze Age Village on land belonging to Government but still leased to third parties. In such a situation the patriotic verses from The Patriot by Walter Scott (1771-1832) come to mind. “Breathes there a man with soul so dead/ Who never to himself hath said /This is my own my native land”.

Unfortunately, the farmers’ lobby wants to give the impression that John Citizen represented by the docile Green Movement is intent on taking away their land. Nothing is further from the truth. On the contrary, we acknowledge their rights not least because it is the hard work of the farmer that makes our landscape so unique.

All we demand is the right of passage to view the countryside. Unobstructed. Unfortunately land tenure in Malta is still governed by archaic medieval laws that have been ditched all over Europe years ago in the spirit of the great French revolution when innate civil rights were universally recognised.

Many EU countries have adopted an extensive trail system in conjunction with owners of private land because the land that constitutes landscape is a legal entity.

It is property with ownership allocated to farmers and institutions. Very often on these islands the result is social friction between owners and users, between one class of use and another as the “battles” of the Ramblers’ Association to reopen pathways and the coastal zone demonstrate.

There is a delicate struggle, both actual and symbolical with the overworked Land Department for accessibility. Once again I have to point out that the ramblers’ massive representations to recover that which has been lost is threatening the little that has survived.

Sadly, instead of progress we witness only decay because having idealised that which is lost, the next step is to recover it in its idealised form.

Maltese history is replete with episodes when the islanders, poor illiterate peasants but steadfast for their rights rebelled against such a situation. The most outstanding is the Consalvo Monroy incident of 1427 when King Alphonse pawned the islands against the people’s wishes.

The Maltese led by the Mdina-based Universita rose against the feudal lord.

Eventually the Maltese came to an agreement with the king a year later when they raised 30,000 florins for the redemp­tion of the Maltese islands.

In this way, Malta was restored to the Royal Domain with the right of armed resistance to any future attempt to grant them as fief or pawn. Until this very day the Monroy incident is still etched in a marble plaque dated 1447 fixed on the majestic Mdina Gate by order of the king himself stating publicly that the Maltese islands were annexed to the Royal Crown.

As Prof. Mario Buhagiar and Prof. Stamley Fiorini point out in their remarkable book Mdina – The Cathedral City these dramatic events “can be interpreted as representing the nascent aspirations for nationhood”.

Following this, our forefathers enjoyed the longest period of self-rule until the cessation of the islands to the Order of St John in 1530.

Another period of privilege and autochratic rule followed as in the case of Mattew (Gius­eppe) Callus at Ta’ Callus in is-Simblija and to Mattew Falzon at Girgenti whose lands were arbitrarily usurped by the Order. And the saga over land use continues unabated.

My generation firmly asserts that Malta is the countryside; and the countryside is Malta. It strongly believes that the pen is mightier than the sword and that national issues should be decided around the conference table in the pious hope that the recommendation by The Sustainable Development Com­mission 2006-2016 are fully endorsed.

The bane of all this emanates from the fact that the Green Movement speaks with one clear voice but the farmers’ lobby presents different interpretations.

Mr Bugeja is Honorary President of the Ramblers’ Association.

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