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Let’s occupy trees instead - Michela Spiteri

I’ve started taking pictures of gardens and trees, starting with those below my rear balcony. They’re not mine, but I admire them all the same and feel increasingly protective. There’s something about other people’s houses and gardens that is endlessly fascinating.

But it’s more than that. We are living at a time when you can wake up to a cluster of beautiful trees on your street and return to find them gone. We are residents of a vanishing Malta never to return.  

In 2009, when the St Julian’s local council proposed building an electric bus terminus and underground car park in much-loved Balluta Square, the Labour Party (in Opposition) voiced its disapproval of a ‘green urban transport terminal’. Environmental NGOs and AD’s Green Party followed suit.

Needless to say, petitions were furiously signed and anger swept the St Julian’s and Sliema communities. But there was something hugely reassuring about having the Labour Party on board, especially when faced with the usual empty assurances from scripted ‘spokespersons’ to the effect that the removal of certain trees was necessary because they were ‘sick’ and/or causing damage to pavements and neighbouring buildings.   

The project was eventually ditched. The trees stayed, even the ‘sick’ (sic!) ones. Nine years on, we didn’t need a report to show us that those same trees, once doomed, were still perfectly healthy and of no danger to the public. And anyway, the underground car park would only have attracted more cars and congestion.

If you want to reduce traffic on the roads, the way to do it is to reduce cars and incentivise other forms of transport. An electric cab, like the one operating in Valletta, would work well in Sliema/St Julian’s over short ‘downtown’ distances in a way that wouldn’t suit buses or conventional taxis. Short-hop private vehicles – my parents’, aunts’ and uncles’ cars spring to mind – would then be unnecessary.

So why aren’t tuk-tuks the talk-talk of our Maltese towns, given their nimbleness in narrow streets and their general flexibility? On a recent visit to Budapest, the rickshaw trumped all other forms of transport. Yes, I should much rather be taken for a ride by a tuk-tuk than by the Transport Ministry.  Of course, that’s one of the least enviable ministries because it rarely, if ever, offers quick fixes or easy solutions. Yet the minister, Ian Borg, has made great strides, although I must confess I am not convinced by tree-transplantation and its success-rate. 

That’s because some months ago, when Aleppo Pines were scheduled for uprooting to make way for the widening of the scenic Selmun road linking Xemxija with Mellieħa, Prof. Alan Deidun dismissed transplantation claims as ‘utter bollocks’, the shrivelled Aleppo Pines at the Qormi roundabout being the evidence. 

Those Selmun trees have so far been spared. However, the fact remains that 480 others have been lost to development, with 500 more on death row in anticipation of the Marsa project. And now there are at least 60 more (down to 15?) on the Rabat Road, this time sacrificial offerings to the €55m Central Link project. 

People are becoming very angry and fed up. They felt that way against PN in 2009. Now it’s PL

You don’t have to be an expert to know that moving trees causes serious root damage and is no guarantee of survival. But it helps to be one, or to have one close at hand. We have him in Alfred E. Baldacchino, who sees the Rabat project as yet another example of unprecedented environmental destruction. 

But even more depressing is the bottom line: we are losing trees that have been a part of our heritage and skyline for a hundred years. And all to facilitate the gratuitous widening of a perfectly functional road. It’s absolutely bonkers. Rather than cut trees, the ministry should be working with contractors, environment ministry, NGOs, landscape architects and environmental experts, to find alternative solutions. 

This is not an area where the government can afford to be either complacent or doctrinaire. Trees, as natural resources providing shade and purifying air, are already in very short supply in Malta. They also promote mental well-being. Their destruction would be disproportionate to their greater importance in the way we see ourselves and the way we want to be seen by visitors. Did you know that in Ireland every tree has its own ‘birth certificate’ and ‘identity card’?

Now, nine years after the Balluta Square controversy, it’s the turn of  St Julian’s local council to issue stern warnings. It was heartening to read deputy mayor Albert Buttigieg’s Facebook post applauding MP Jason Azzopardi’s request for a meeting with Parliament’s environmental committee. Yes, I’d sooner Occupy Trees than Justice. 

Democracy is about having a say about what happens both on – and to – our streets. People are becoming very angry and fed up. They felt that way against PN in 2009. Now it’s PL.

The old German saying that old people are happiest left in familiar surroundings interestingly uses ‘old trees’ (alte Bäume) and transplanting dangers to drive the point ‘home’. German Novelist Hermann Hesse wrote that trees are sanctuaries, the key to belonging, home and happiness, and encourages listening to them. 

Closer to home, University lecturer Michelle Attard Tonna makes a similar philosophical case: “When we chop off trees, we ‘displace’ people who can no longer connect to the area which was once their home. Apart from all their environmental and practical benefits, trees are a part of our heritage and our collective memory. Removing them taints our bond with that locality. With every tree that is felled, a place becomes increasingly more unfamiliar, as the memories we once cherished become more and more surreal.”

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