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Constitutional protection for special areas

Rock formation along Malta’s northwest coast.

Rock formation along Malta’s northwest coast.

Breathes there the man with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said:
This is my own, my native land.

Sir Walter Scott, The Patriot.

An ancient archway at remote Il-Qammiegħ, limits of Mellieħa. Photos courtesy of Romano CassarAn ancient archway at remote Il-Qammiegħ, limits of Mellieħa. Photos courtesy of Romano Cassar

As I impotently witness the ongoing rape of the Maltese islands, lip service shrouded in hypocrisy lulls us into thinking that all is well in the State of Malta. The Nationalist Party, which 10 years ago spurned an attempt by the Ramblers Association for Parliament to discuss a White Paper on the environment, recently presented to Parliament a very important Public Domain Bill that amends the Civil Code, giving more protection to the islands’ natural environment and historical heritage.

This offers both parties in Parliament a window of opportunity to rectify past gross mistakes and gives meaning to their declared love of ‘our fair land’. The Bill would empower the public and NGOs to recommend public land that should on no account be commercialised or encroached upon. It will offer constitutional protection not only to natural sites like the seashore, coastal zones, cliffs and valleys but also historical and archaeological sites, including bastions and fortifications that have been willed to the nation by birthright as national patrimony. Access to sites in public domain should also be ensured.

Ruins of a medieval chapel and graveyard overlooking the fertile Tal-Isqof Valley. Its history is shrouded in legend and tradition.Ruins of a medieval chapel and graveyard overlooking the fertile Tal-Isqof Valley. Its history is shrouded in legend and tradition.

We face a massive task to recover that which we have lost or that threatens all that still remains or survives. The countryside is replete with illegal or unlicensed, arrogant notices stating ‘Keep out’, ‘Private property’, ‘Beware of the dogs’; Ancient paths are blocked and we are dispossessed of historic fortifications and ditches, as in the Cottonera area.

In the more advanced countries of Europe the post-war years saw accelerated environmental reform and updating archaic laws of pseudo-titles and privilege governing the countryside and coastal zones in order to meet ever-increasing demand for more open spaces and the opportunity to practise outdoor pursuits. With the full support of international agencies and institutions, particularly the Council of Europe, environmental NGOs in Europe submitted proposals to extend protection and accessibility as a birthright as well as ‘heritage landscape’ that belongs to all.

Your countryside and architectural heritage, your coastal zones, the sea surrounding you... have been and are still being raped- Prof. Jeremy Boissevain, March 26, 2006

In Malta over the past decades we have seen a gradual drift away from crowded towns and cities to relatively more remote areas such as Baħrija, Għargħur, Madliena, Mġarr, Mellieħa, Marsascala, Żurrieq and other such areas, which have all seen high population growth. This gradual suburbanisation coupled with the conversion of pseudo-farmhouses to fulfil the dream of having ‘a house in the countryside’ has now reached alarming proportions and is turning our island into a concrete jungle.

Access to certain coastal cliffs is blocked. The Sustainable Development Report of 2006-16 had recommended that access to areas of scenic beauty, whether public or private, should be open to all.Access to certain coastal cliffs is blocked. The Sustainable Development Report of 2006-16 had recommended that access to areas of scenic beauty, whether public or private, should be open to all.

The iconic promontory of Ras ir-Raħeb (Headland of the Hermit), flanking Fomm ir-Riħ, enhanced by Punic, Roman and medieval remains.The iconic promontory of Ras ir-Raħeb (Headland of the Hermit), flanking Fomm ir-Riħ, enhanced by Punic, Roman and medieval remains.

This unbridled development is clogging ancient paths trodden by our forefathers for generations and eroding historical remains, such as the fabled Ta’ Haġrat in Mġarr, now sitting next to a housing estate which has detracted so much from its erstwhile glamour and mystery.

This dismal situation was expertly foreseen by the eminent Prof. Quintin Hughes, former lecturer at the University of Malta and a prolific writer on Malta’s unique architectural landscape. In July 1969 edition of the magazine The Architect, he had warned in no uncertain terms: “If Malta accepts laissez-faire development, the whole island will be obliterated by buildings. And this will take very little time. This will happen unless planners, architects and the legislators take action very soon... it could become through laissez-faire attitude, just another blighted area of exploitation.”

Secluded Fomm ir-Riħ (Mouth of the Wind), a showcase of Malta’s rugged coastal and geological rock formation, which was rendered inaccessible after Independence in 1964.Secluded Fomm ir-Riħ (Mouth of the Wind), a showcase of Malta’s rugged coastal and geological rock formation, which was rendered inaccessible after Independence in 1964.

This clarion call was taken up, ironically not by a Maltese but by another foreign guest, the late Prof. Jeremy Boissevain, a distinguished anthropologist and former lecturer at the University of Malta, who during a business breakfast on March 26, 2006, was very outspoken about the state of the environment, quoting passages from the official 2005 report on this subject: “the landscape is threatened by increasing built-up areas. Industrial and coastal developments, taller buildings on urban fringes obstructing views of historical centres, modern agricultural practices, increasing vehicular access, littering, poor standard of design and lack of maintennance”.

His indictment of successive governments to remedy the situation was received in utter silence with no dissenting voice as Boissevain hit home with this forceful statement:

May our legislators become fully conscious that a high quality of life does not consist only of economic development but also the safeguarding and full protection of our countryside and coastal zones

“One problem in particular has struck me most forcefully. This is the massive destruction of the environment since you achieved independence. Your countryside and archi­tectural heritage, your coastal zones, the sea surrounding you... have been and are still being raped”. Hard, bitter words indeed.

In the aftermath of this wake-up call the government set up a national commission entitled Sustainable Development of The Maltese Islands ( 2006-2016), which produced a number of comprehensive reports that forcefully addressed many of the grievances of the Ramblers’ Association and other green NGOs. However the outcome was extremely disappointing, forcing the Ramblers’ Association to recommend a White Paper to Parliament but all its efforts fell on deaf ears.

The Public Domain Bill offers protection to Malta’s unique lines of fortifications such as these landfront fortifications of Vittoriosa.The Public Domain Bill offers protection to Malta’s unique lines of fortifications such as these landfront fortifications of Vittoriosa.

The White Cliffs of Il-Munxar at Xrobb l-Għaġin in Marsascala.The White Cliffs of Il-Munxar at Xrobb l-Għaġin in Marsascala.

As a rambler, one the first areas that I would like to see protected as a result of the Public Domain Bill is Baħrija zone, with its pastoral areas alternating with frightening sheer cliffs and rugged wilderness. This area is not only a ramblers’ paradise; for the Maltese it is a world apart, an ideal location to enjoy a ‘feel good’ factor; it has been rightly described as an environment to soothe the body, mind and spirit.

In the Ramblers’ Association’s long-running discussions with government bodies it has always suggested that we should put our house in order by initially focusing on certain segments of the environment which showcase Malta’s exceptional coastal zones and its historical and archaeological heritage.

A wayside chapel, testimony of our faith. Such chapels that dot our countryside are also architectural gems.A wayside chapel, testimony of our faith. Such chapels that dot our countryside are also architectural gems.

In this respect the Baħrija area takes pride of place. In this iconic zone one can experience some of the best wilderness rambling in the Maltese islands, particularly on the Bronze Age plateau of Il-Qlejjgħa tal Baħrija, with its panoramic view stretching as far as Gozo, remote and secluded Ras ir-Raħeb, replete with archaeological remains, and remote Fomm ir-Riħ. However, these sites cannot be accessed because they have been leased by previous administrations to private owners or because their new owners have completely barred ancient paths to the beach.

The Ramblers’ Association urges all those who have Malta’s natural environment and cultural heritage at heart to unite to stop once and for all, the environmental rot that has plagued our island since independence.

My final plea to both political parties emanates from these inspiring lines from our national anthem: “Agħti Mulej, id-dehen lil min jahkimha” (Grant, O Lord, wisdom to those who govern her). May our legislators become fully conscious that a high quality of life does not consist only of economic development but also the safeguarding and full protection of our countryside and coastal zones which are enhanced by historical, architectural and artistic gems enjoyed by past generations of Maltese but are at present under constant threat.

Let us believe that this spring of hope will blossom into a summer of nature delights. Failing this, I will silently murmur the sad lament that nothing is sacred anymore.

Lino Bugeja is honorary president of the Ramblers’ Association of Malta.

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