The accelerated destruction of agricultural land

We live in an eco-system which is being slowly destroyed. This is recognised by one and all.

Consider, for example the introductory sentences in the White Paper entitled Acquisition and ownership of agricultural land published for public consultation by the Ministry for Agriculture last October. We were then told that: Controlling the acquisition and ownership of land is fundamental to guaranteeing the sustainability of agriculture and food production, as well as the protection of the rural environment. For this reason, whenever there are issues in this area, these not only affect farmers but also have a strong impact on the supply and security of food and the quality of the environment that can be enjoyed by society.

Agricultural land has value. Its value is not just economic. It has an environmental and social value. This is recognised as a fact even by the Ministry for Agriculture. Why then, may we ask, does the Ministry not take a robust stand whenever other Ministries embark on a spree of accelerated destruction of agriculture land?

On a continuous basis the Planning Authority receives and processes applications for development which seek to obliterate agricultural land. This is done for the simple reason that the local plans are buttressed by a land use planning philosophy which fails to protect the intrinsic value of agriculture. It is deemed to be expendable. The Ministry for Agriculture, in this situation, is conspicuously silent, continuously!

Unfortunately, the only value which the Planning Authority understands and appreciates is that which facilitates “making hay while the sun shines”. It has been continuously an accomplice in the gradual destruction of all that surrounds us.

Unnecessary road infrastructure has gobbled up considerable swathes of agricultural land over the past years. The private sector has been transforming considerable agricultural tracts into barbeque or picnic areas squeezing out the farming community in the process. The Planning Authority has the legal remit to stop this but it has continuously failed to act. Until the recent public outcry in response to a number of Court decisions relative to agricultural leases, the Ministry for Agriculture has been silent on this matter too!

Two specific planning development applications (currently still pending) come to mind: one in Qormi to construct and operate a supermarket on agricultural land Outside the Development Zone (ODZ). The other relative to the construction of a school on agricultural land at Għaxaq.

We have been through the relative arguments many a time, in particular when debating the site selection exercise for the American University at Marsaskala some years back! The arguments made then are still valid today. We cannot keep sacrificing agricultural land. We have too little of it and we have to take care of the little we have.

The application form for the Għaxaq school declares black on white that the current use of the site is agricultural: each and every one of the 35,970 square metres of the site. The application form for the Qormi site, on the other hand states that the site measuring 4708 square metres which it is proposed to develop into a supermarket is currently “un-used”.

These planning applications are still in their early stages, even though an EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) has been produced for the proposed Għaxaq development.

At this point we need to query: do we need the development proposed? The answer, in my opinion is a clear no. We definitely do not need more supermarkets. There are already too many of them.

As to the proposed school at Għaxaq the issue is much more complex. It does not however justify sacrificing more agricultural land. Other solutions should be explored, even though a search for an alternative has been going on unsuccessfully for quite some time. The solution lies in the redevelopment of existing dilapidated buildings of which we have quite a number.

We do however need policy coherence in respect of the protection of agricultural land. The Ministry of Agriculture should be at the forefront in such an exercise. It could definitely start by ensuring that public projects as well as policies factor in agriculture’s intrinsic value. This is the required starting point. The public sector sets the benchmark. If it fails to turn the page, matters will definitely change from bad to worse!

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 8 January 2023


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