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Trees are apparently wiser

The timing was a coincidence, but the day Environment Minister José Herrera announced more stringent tree regulations and the planting of many trees this year, this newspaper carried a report based on a reality that was closer to home, or closer to the truth.

On Għammar Hill, in Gozo, which overlooks the Ta’ Pinu Sanctuary, lie the remains of an afforestation project, called Ġnien il-Paċi (Peace Garden). It was inaugurated by then Gozo minister Anton Refalo just three years ago. EU funds went into the project, launched with the usual pomp we have come to expect. There were schoolchildren from Għarb present and even mayors who had contributed to the project.

There was, however, a hitch with the project, intended to create a biblical garden that would give context to the stone statues for the 14 stations of the Way of the Cross. There was no irrigation system and the project failed. Meanwhile, the Environment Minister now promises another 12,000 trees. A record number, we are told.

Dr Herrera also unveiled new regulations safeguarding trees and woodlands, announcing heftier fines of up to €85,000, the inclusion of more protected species and the introduction of licensed specialists. Protection has also been extended to “prominent landmark trees” and those having historical value.

The initiatives are commendable, provided the new measures will be strictly enforced. Sadly, experience shows otherwise.

There has been a public outcry in recent months over the removal of trees to make way for road widening projects. The minister readily admitted that, initially, coordination between his and the Transport Ministry left much to be desired. Yet, he insisted, the shortcoming had been rectified through measures such as minimising the number of uprooted trees when this could be avoided, the transplanting trees and planting new ones.

The minister defended himself saying he had no brief to shrink investment and that he stood for sustainable development. It is difficult to say whether Dr Herrera reflects public sentiment on trees. The issue is not really about planting more trees but of learning to nurture them, protect them and understanding their benefits. That calls for a new mindset.

Excessive tree pruning is not unheard of and some people do have a dislike of trees. The most recent example of tree removal was in Paola Square, a move that complemented the removal of all the trees in nearby Fgura’s main street some years go. When the Fgura trees were gone, what was revealed were the very unimpressive, if not distasteful, architectural styles. Inversely, the trees had style.

Some people, on the other hand, take the initiative to plant trees, or crawlers, just outside their doorway. A simple bougainvillea tree can work wonders in an otherwise drab street. Well pruned, not to hinder the passage way on the pavement, it brings passers-by momentarily close to the fast-receding countryside. Trees are a relief for the eyes, a break from the sun’s glare and, simply put, look much better than anything man can build.

It is all fine that the Environment Ministry plants more trees, assuming it nurtures them. Trees, even the most common and simple, become landmarks as they grow older and bigger. They become an integral part of the community, to whom they belong, and can often outlive them, in their silent wisdom.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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