Open spaces and the 15-minute city

Having a substantially increased area of open spaces and ensuring that these spaces are accessible for all is good policy. The fact that currently we lack accessible open spaces is a failure of land use planning as practised in Malta, which is unfortunately speculation oriented instead of being focused on optimisation of land use as a contribution towards an improvement in the quality of life for all.

Government is embarking on a €700 million project in order to enhance existing open spaces as well as to create or to encourage the creation of new ones. No one would object to that provided that it is not an excuse for a different and undeclared objective.

In order for such a project to be successful it must be part of a long-term view of enhancing our surroundings such that we bridge the substantial and ever-widening gap which separates us from nature. However, what is really needed is a change in attitude towards the availability of public space as an essential element in the basic infrastructure required for an enhanced healthy quality of life.

While it is definitely an acceptable objective to create new open spaces, we could do much better if, as an essential first step we strive to retain existent open spaces and save them from destruction. Private gardens, some of them of a substantial size, forming an integral part of our urban areas and village cores have for quite some time been making way for the development of blocks of flats. These should be the first obvious open spaces which we should seek to protect if we are serious about the importance of open spaces. Such gardens have served as the lungs of our local communities for ages. They are in private ownership but they still contribute substantially to the wellbeing of our communities. This does not entail any expense. All it requires is a dose of consistency and plenty of goodwill.

Next on the protection list would be agricultural land which is being lost at an ever-accelerating rate. When agricultural land is not being engulfed by road-building or building development it is being taken up by those who want to transform it into BBQ or picnic land, as their private recreational hideout.  In the process they squeeze out farmers who have tilled the land for ages and contributed continuously to the national food production effort. Even this does not entail any expense. All it requires is properly functioning authorities, which we lack!

The urge for more open spaces is a longing to re-establish contacts with our roots, that is with nature. Nature has a role in every aspect of our life. We can only keep ignoring it at our peril. This would primarily signify that open spaces need to reintroduce nature into our localities and not introduce a number of token planters in concrete pots. Open spaces are about nature and not about the increased domination of our localities by concrete in whatever shape or form! Nor should they be used as parking spaces.

It has been emphasised that the current project of investing in open spaces aims to ensure that each and every one of us will have access to a public open space not more than ten minutes away from where he or she resides. This objective ties in with a current initiative in various European towns of developing a 15-minute city: that is a local community which is almost self-sufficient, all needs, or most of them being available not more than 15 minutes away. It is not just public open spaces which ought to be close by: all our basic needs should be within easy reach.

This would necessitate that we examine closely our urban fabric to realise that the small commercial outlets which have served our local communities for ages are heading towards extinction. They are being squeezed out of the market through the ever-increasing number of supermarkets and large commercial establishments.

The idea of ‘the 15-minute city’ initially put forward by Carlos Moreno, an architect advising the Paris mayor, but adopted by an ever-increasing number of cities entails turning current urban planning on its head to ensure that all our needs are available not more than 15 minutes away.

Carlos Moreno speaks of a social circularity for living in our urban spaces based on six essential functions: to live in good housing, to work close by, to reach supplies and services easily, to access education, healthcare and cultural entitlement locally by low-carbon means.

Can we reassess the nature and quality of our urban lifestyles within these parameters?

Small commercial outlets in our towns and villages require support as they are an essential help to make our communities vibrant: being of service and creating local employment in the process. Encouraging the local commercial outlets also reduces traffic at all times of the day as there will be less need to travel. It would also directly help in achieving that other objective of reducing cars from our roads.

Land use planning is for people. It is about time that this is put into practice. It is only within this context that the funding of community greening projects makes any sense.

published in The Independent on Sunday 29 January 2023

Il-qerda aċċelerata tar-raba’

Aħna ngħixu f’eko-sistema li qed tinqered ftit ftit. Dan hu rikonoxxut minn kulħadd.  

Ħarsu ftit, per eżempju, lejn l-ewwel sentenzi tal-White Paper intitolata Riforma fil-qasam tar-Raba’, White Paper ippubblikata għall-konsultazzjoni mill-Ministeru għall-Agrikultura f’Ottubru li għadda.

Dakinnhar kien intqal li: Il-ħarsien tar-raba’ huwa fundamentali biex niggarantixxu s-sostenibbiltà tal-biedja, il-produzzjoni tal-ikel, u l-ħarsien tal-ambjent rurali. Huwa għalhekk li meta jkun hemm problemi f’dan il-qasam, dawn ma jolqtux biss lill-bdiewa, iżda għandhom impatt qawwi fuq il-provista u s-sigurtà tal-ikel, u l-kwalità tal-ambjent li jista’ jitgawda mis-soċjetà.

L-art agrikola għandha valur: valur imma li mhux biss wieħed ekonomiku. Għandha valur ambjentali u soċjali. Dan hu rikonoxxut anke mill-Ministeru għall-Agrikultura. Għalfejn, mela, nistaqsu, dan il-Ministeru ma jieħux posizzjoni iebsa kullmeta Ministeri oħra jagħtihom l-estru għall-qerda ta’ art agrikola?

B’mod kontinwu, l-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar tirċievi u tipproċessa applikazzjonijiet għal żvilupp li jeqred art li tinħadem jew li kienet tinħadem. Dan isir għar-raġuni sempliċi li l-pjani lokali huma msejsa fuq filosofija tal-ippjanar għall-użu tal-art li tonqos milli tħares il-valur intrinsiku tal-biedja.  Tqis li l-biedja hi xi ħaġa ta’ bla siwi u li nistgħu ngħaddu mingħajrha. F’din is-sitwazzjoni l-Ministeru tal-Agrikultura jibqa’ sieket, kontinwament!

Sfortunatament, l-uniku valur li l-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar tifhem u tapprezza hu dak li jiffaċilità l-ħolqien tal-opportunitajiet għal min irid idawwar lira ta’ malajr. Kontinwament, l-Awtorità  tal-Ippjanar hi kompliċi fil-qerda gradwali ta’ kull ma hawn madwarna.

Xogħol mhux meħtieġ fuq l-infrastruttura tat-toroq, tul dawn l-aħħar snin, qered meded kbar ta’ raba’. Is-settur privat ilu għaddej jittrasforma ammont mhux żgħir ta’ raba’ f’art għar-rikrejazzjoni privata, għal xi barbeque jew għal xi picnic. Bħala konsegwenza ta’ dan qed jeqred komunitajiet ta’ bdiewa. L-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar, minkejja li għandha is-saħħa legali li dan kollu twaqqfu, ma għamlet xejn.   Hu biss dan l-aħħar, wara l-għagħa li rriżulta minn numru ta’ deċiżjonijiet tal-Qorti dwar il-qbiela li l-Ministeru għall-Agrikultura qam minn raqda twila u ma baqax sieket!

Jiġu f’moħħi żewġ applikazzjonijiet għal żvilupp, applikazzjonijiet li għadhom pendenti: waħda f’Ħal-Qormi biex jinbena u jkun operat supermarket fuq art agrikola barra miż-żona tal-iżvilupp (ODZ). L-oħra dwar il-bini ta’ skola f’Ħal-Għaxaq, anke din fuq art agrikola.

Għaddejna minn dawn l-argumenti diversi drabi, b’mod partikolari fid-dibattitu nazzjonali dwar l-eżerċizzju biex tintgħażel l-art għall-Università Amerikana f’Marsaskala xi snin ilu! L-argumenti ta’ dakinnhar għadhom jgħoddu anke illum. Ma nistgħux nibqgħu nissagrifikaw ir-raba’. Għandna ftit wisq raba’ u jeħtieġ li nibżgħu għall-ftit li għandna.

Il-formola tal-applikazzjoni biex tinbena l-iskola f’Ħal-Għaxaq tgħid ċar u tond, bl-iswed fuq l-abjad, li l-użu tal-lum tal-art hu wieħed agrikolu. Dan jgħodd għal kull wieħed mill-35,970 metru kwadru li hu propost li jinbnew. Il-formola tal-applikazzjoni l-oħra dwar is-sit f’Ħal-Qormi, min-naħa l-oħra, tgħid li l-art f’dan il-kaz b’qies ta’ 4708 metru kwadru u li hi pproġettata li tkun żviluppata f’supermarket, bħalissa mhux użata!

Dawn l-applikazzjonijiet tal-ippjanar għadhom fi stadju bikri avolja dwar l-iżvilupp propost f’Ħal-Għaxaq għadu kif ġie ippubblikat studju dwar l-impatti ambjentali (EIA) reċentement.

F’dan l-istadju l-mistoqsija toħroġ waħedha: hemm ħtieġa għall-iżvilupp propost? It-tweġiba, fil-fehma tiegħi, hi ċara: le ma hemmx ħtieġa. M’għandniex bżonn iktar supermarkets. Pjuttost li diġa għandna iżżejjed minnhom!  

Dwar l-iskola proposta f’Ħal-Għaxaq l-istorja hi ftit iktar kumplessa. Imma xorta mhux iġġustifikat li tkun issagrifikata art agrikola. Għandhom ikunu esplorati soluzzjonijiet oħra, avolja naf li ilu żmien mhux ħażin isir (bla suċċess) tiftix għal sit alternattiv.  Is-soluzzjoni tista’ tinstab fl-iżvilupp mill-ġdid ta’ bini mitluq u dilapidat, li minnu għandna bosta, mxerred mal-gżejjer tagħna.

Neħtieġu fuq kollox politika koerenti dwar il-ħarsien tar-raba’. Flok ma jorqod, u kultant jistenbaħ, il-Ministeru għall-Agrikultura għandu jkun fuq quddiem nett f’din il-ħidma. Jista’ jibda billi jassigura li l-proġetti pubbliċi u l-politika tal-Gvern jagħrfu l-valur intrinsiku tal-biedja. Minn hemm irridu nibdew għax jekk is-settur pubbliku ma jkunx ta’ eżempju xejn mhu ser jinbidel: nibqgħu għan-niżla!

ippubblikat fuq Illum: 8 ta’ Jannar 2023

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

The war on nature is suicidal

If we are to register any significant progress in addressing our quality of life we must once and for all end the war on nature. This has been emphasised by Inger Anderson, the Executive Director of UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) when she was addressing the Conference of the Parties of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, currently in session at Montreal.

This has been also emphasised by a multitude of speakers within other fora, notably those related to climate, most recently in Sharm El Sheikh during the latest Climate Summit.

The Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity are just two of the many efforts and initiatives of the international community in order to end the continuous human war on nature.

Small steps forward have been made but they are nowhere near being enough in order to have any significant impact in halting the damage done to date as well as reversing its consequences.

It has been an uphill struggle for more than fifty years. It was in Stockholm fifty years ago, in June 1972, that the international community agreed for the first time ever, to recognise the environment as an important issue to be delt with by the global political agenda.

The UN Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972 laid the foundations for international environmental governance. The Stockholm Conference is in fact credited with introducing the environment in the contemporary political lexicon.

Opening the United Nations Montreal Biodiversity Conference, this week, Antonio Guterres-UN Secretary General, said that humans are treating nature “as a toilet”. Nature, said Guterres, is humanity’s best friend: without nature, we have nothing, without nature we are nothing!

We threaten nature in many ways: urbanisation, deforestation, agricultural intensification, all forms of pollution, climate change as well as the spread of invasive species. Possibly these are the primary vehicles used in the intensive war waged by humanity against nature.

It is about time that we seek ways to make peace. With nature, however, there is no room for negotiation! We must seek to make peace before nature strikes back with full force. It is already retaliating, and this will definitely get much worse.

There is no possibility to negotiate with nature, her demands are clear and simple: unconditional surrender. We need to change our ways and habits. Nature can be a reliable friend but if transformed into an enemy, it is ruthless, as climate change shows continuously and unequivocally.

Nature is what sustains everything on earth, yet it is declining on a global level. The rate of extinction of species is increasing exponentially.

Expanding protected areas is not enough to arrest nature’s decline. We need to change our behaviour through seriously addressing the various environmental threats. We must limit the spread of invasive species, and halt deforestation. We need to protect agricultural land. It is imperative that we drive some sense into land use planning. We also need to eliminate environmentally harmful subsidies. We need to protect what’s left of the natural resources which we have been provided with!

It is only when our actions match our nice words that we can start achieving the required results. Until then, we inch closer to a collective suicide.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 11 December 2022

Inħarsu l-art agrikola: kollha

Tul is-snin il-Gvern dejjem kien fuq quddiem fil-ħidma biex tinqered il-biedja. Kontinwament il-Gvern jagħmilha iktar faċli biex art agrikola tingħata għall-iżvilupp. Huwa l-Gvern li kontinwament jidentifika art agrikola tajba għal toroq ġodda (mhux meħtieġa) inkella biex jestendi toroq eżistenti.

Il-White Paper li ippubblika iktar kmieni din il-ġimgħa l-Ministeru tal-Agrikultura, intitolata Riforma fil-Qasam tar-Raba’  tfittex li tirregola l-assalt tas-settur privat fuq l-art agrikola. Imma ma issemmi xejn dwar l-assalt li għaddej mis-settur pubbliku: dak għall-Gvern hu aċċettabbli! Imma m’għandux ikun għax ir-raba’ kollha teħtieġ li tkun imħarsa.

Awtoritajiet eżistenti, bħall-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar, diġa għandhom il-poteri bil-liġi biex jieħdu passi u ma jħallux l-art agrikola tinbidel f’art għall-picnics jew għall-barbeques! Imma tul is-snin din l-awtorità ma għamlet xejn minn dan. Għalqet għajnejha.

Id-Dipartiment tal-Agrikultura imbagħad, dejjem jispiċċa jiddefendi id-deċiżjonijiet tal-Gvern favur il-qerda tar-raba’ għal toroq inutli. Is-Central Link hi waħda mill-aħħar eżempji li miegħu aħna familjari. Hemmhekk raba’ saqwi f’Ħ’Attard inqerdet fl-interess tal-karozzi. L-għixien ta’ numru ta’ bdiewa inqered. L-anqas ħoss mill-awtoritajiet fid-Dipartiment tal-Agrikultura ma nstema’ biex jiddefendu lill-bdiewa li laqqtuha.

B’dawn it-tip ta’ awtoritajiet li mhux kapaċi jaħdmu, x’sens hemm fil-ħolqien ta’ iktar awtoritajiet bħalhom? Mhux aħjar li jitneħħew is-sriep mill-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar u mid-Dipartiment tal-Agrikultura u flokhom ikunu ngaġġati persuni kwalifikati u motivati biex jaħdmu? Għax jekk l-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar u d-Dipartiment tal-Agrikultura jitħallew jaħdmu sewwa, bi tmexxija tajba u kapaċi, parti mdaqqsa mill-kontenut tal-White Paper ma jkunx hemm ħtieġa għalih!

Lejn l-aħħar tas-sena 2021 l-Imħallef Wenzu Mintoff, f’deċiżjoni tiegħu dwar applikazzjoni kostituzzjonali fuq raba’ fil-Qrendi kien emfasizza li l-valur realistiku tar-raba’ għandu jkun rifless ta’ dak li l-istess raba’ tista’ tipproduċi. Dan hu punt li l-White Paper tibni fuqu meta titkellem dwar il-valur esaġerat li r-raba’ qed jinbiegħ jew jiġi stmat kif ukoll dwar kif għandha tkun ikkalkulata l-valur tal-qbiela. Il-White Paper fil-fatt tipproponi li l-qbiela għandhom ikunu 1.5 fil-mija tal-valur realistiku tar-raba’. Għad irridu naraw, iżda, kemm dan kollu ser jiflaħ għall-battalji legali li inevitabilment ser ifaqqsu da parti ta’ min ma jridx din ir-regolamentazzjoni.

Punt interessanti li joħrog mill-White Paper hi l-introduzzjoni ta’ taxxa li hu propost li titħallas fuq ir-raba’ li ma tibqax tintuża għal skop agrikolu. Din il-proposta hi simili għall-proposti tal-partit tiegħi dwar taxxa fuq propjetajet vojta liema proposti saru f’diversi manifesti elettorali tul is-snin.  

Safejn niftakar, din hi l-ewwel darba li l-Partit Laburista qed jipproponi li jagħmel użu mit-tassazzjoni bħala għodda biex jilħaq oġġettiv politiku: f’dan il-każ il-ħarsien tar-raba’.  Ma naħsibx li din il-proposta partikolari ser timmaterjalizza u dan minħabba li l-Partit Laburista kontinwament jitkellem b’ċerta qawwa kontra l-użu tat-tassazzjoni bħala strument politiku fi kwalunkwe forma. Imma l-fatt li l-proposta qed issir, minnu nnifsu hu pass tajjeb.

Il-proposti fil-White Paper fuq ir-riforma meħtieġa dwar ir-raba’ huma l-ewwel pass lejn diskussjoni serja u matura. Imma għadhom il-bogħod  minn dak li hu meħtieġ.  

L-ewwel pass għandu jsir biex ikun stabilit element ta’ rieda tajba. B’dan il-ħsieb nistieden lill-Gvern biex jippreżenta mozzjoni fil-Parlament biex iħassar l-eżerċizzju ta’ razzjonalizzazzjoni approvat mill-Parlament fl-2006 u li permezz tiegħu eluf ta’ metri kwadri ta’ raba’ spiċċaw tajba biex jinbnew. Naħseb li l-Ministru tal-Agrikultura tal-lum, Anton Refalo, għandu l-kredibilità biex jagħmel dan il-pass. Hu wieħed mill-ftit Membri Parlamentari li għadhom fil-Kamra u li fl-2006 kienu ivvutaw kontra li din l-art tingħata għal-iżvilupp. Għamel dan flimkien ma sħabu tal-Grupp Parlamentari Laburista ta’ dakinnhar!

Bħala t-tieni pass il-Ministru responsabbli mill-Ippjanar għall-Iżvilupp tal-Art jista jħaffef ftit il-pass li bih għandhom ikunu reveduti r-regoli dwar id-diżinn għall-iżvilupp rurali (Rural Design Guidelines). Forsi, ma tafx kif, jingħalqu darba għal dejjem it-toqob fir-regoli, li bihom qed ikun imħeġġeg l-iżvilupp fil-kampanja.

Imbagħad, kieku dan kellu jsir, il-Gvern ikun kredibbli fil-proposti li qed jagħmel dwar il-ħarsien tar-raba’.  Għax ir-raba’ kollha teħtieġ il-ħarsien mingħandna. Dan hu meħtieġ dejjem, mhux biss meta jkun politikament konvenjenti.

ippubblikat fuq Illum: il-Ħadd 9 t’Ottubru 2022

Protecting agricultural land: all of it

Over the years government has been actively at the forefront in the assault on agricultural land. It continuously makes it easier for agricultural land to be developed. It also takes up good quality agricultural land in order to develop new (and many times unnecessary) roads or else to extend existing ones.

The White Paper published earlier this week by the Ministry for Agriculture, entitled Agricultural Land Reform seeks to control the private sector assault on agricultural land. By omission, the assault being carried out by the public sector is being deemed acceptable!

Existing authorities like the Planning Authority already have the legal powers to stop agricultural land being transformed into picnic or barbeque areas. Yet it has done nothing to stop this over the years.

The Department of Agriculture always ends up defending the uptake of good agricultural land by Government for unnecessary roads. The Central Link is one of the latest examples as a result of which naturally irrigated agricultural land at Attard was destroyed in order to make way for more cars. The livelihood of a number of full-time farmers was destroyed. Not even a whimper from the authorities at the Department of Agriculture was heard.

Faced with existing authorities which are not functioning properly what sense does it make to create more authorities, as proposed by the agricultural reform White Paper? Would it not be better to remove the snakes from the Planning Authority and the Department of Agriculture and replace them with suitably qualified and motivated personnel? If the Planning Authority and the Department of Agriculture are allowed to function properly, with suitable leadership and expertise, most of the contents of the White Paper would not even be required!

Towards the end of 2021 Mr Justice Lawrence Mintoff, in his decision on a constitutional application relative to agricultural land at Qrendi had emphasised that the realistic value of agricultural land ought to be a reflection of what that agricultural land can produce. This is a point validly taken up by the White Paper when discussing the value currently being attached to agricultural holdings. The White Paper also proposes that the rental value of agricultural holdings should be determined at 1.5 per cent of their realistic value.  It remains to be seen whether and to what extent these limitations on the determination of value and rental value will be able to withstand the legal assault which will inevitably follow once the White paper proposal in this respect is implemented.

An interesting point made by the White Paper is to introduce a tax on agricultural land which is not being used for agricultural purposes! This is similar to the proposals which my party repeatedly brought forward relative to taxes on vacant dwellings!

This is the first time, as far as I can recollect, that the Labour Party is proposing the utilisation of taxation as a tool to attain a political objective: the protection of agricultural land. I do not however think that this proposal will materialise as the Labour Party has been vociferous over the years against the use of taxation as a political instrument in any form or shape. However, it is positive that the proposal is being tabled.

The proposals in the White Paper on agricultural reform are definitely a first step towards a mature debate. They are however very far from what is required to protect agricultural land.

The first step should be to establish an element of good faith, which is currently inexistent. In this line of thought I would invite government to present a motion in Parliament to cancel the rationalisation exercise approved by Parliament in 2006 as a result of which thousands of square metres of agricultural land all over the islands were defined as being suitable for development. I believe that the current Minister for Agricultural, Anton Refalo, has the credibility to do it. He is in fact one of the few remaining Members of Parliament who way back in 2006 had voted against adopting the rationalisation exercise, together with the rest of the then Labour Party Parliamentary Group!

As a second step the Minister for Land Use Planning could accelerate the revision of the Rural Design Guidelines, thereby closing the loopholes which continuously encourage the urbanisation of the countryside.

Only then, maybe, can government be credible in its proposals to protect agricultural land. All agricultural land needs our protection. This is required all of the time, not only when it is politically convenient.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 9 October 2022

Emerġenza Klimatika: l-impatt tal-karozzi u l-avjazzjoni

Temperaturi rekord, li f’ħafna każi jaqbżu l-40 grad Celsius, nirien qerrieda u nixfa f’diversi pajjiżi. Din hi l-aħbar ewlenija mal-Ewropa kollha f’dawn il-ġranet. Din il-mewġa ta’ sħana mhiex xi sorpriża.  

Rapport mill- Joint Research Station tal-Unjoni Ewropeja li kien ippubblikat iktar kmieni din il-ġimgha, intitolat  Drought in Europe July 2022, jemfasizza li parti sostanzjali mit-teritorju tal-Unjoni Ewropeja hu soġġett għal nixfa li f’numru ta’ każi ilha tinġemgħa. Din hi in-normalità l-ġdida!

Il-klima ta’ bħalissa għandha impatt negattiv fuq l-agrikultura fl-Ewropa kollha. L-uċuħ tar-raba’ ser jirrendu ferm inqas. Fl-Italja, ġara tagħna, fuq it-TV rajna  il-livell tal-ilma tax-xmara Po li hu ferm iktar baxx mis-soltu: hemm metri inqas. L-esperti qed jgħidu li l-volum preżenti tal-ilma tax-xmara hu madwar 80 fil-mija inqas mis-soltu. Nofs l-irziezet Taljani għandhom problemi kbar ikkawżati min-nixfa u t-temperaturi għoljin li qed jiffaċċaw.

Dan m’hu xejn ġdid għall-biedja f’Malta. Ilna niffaċċjaw dawn il-kundizzjonijiet. In-nuqqas tal-ilma hi xi ħaġa normali f’Malta, in-nixfa, imma, qed issir ukoll iktar spissa. Imbagħad jiġu mumenti fejn jinfetħu s-smewwiet Ii jgħarrqu kull m’hawn b’għargħar li jkaxkar kollox.

Il-klima ilha żmien tinbidel ftit ftit u dan riżultat tal-istil ta’ ħajja li qed ngħixu. In-natura ilha żmien tagħtina s-sinjali li ma nistgħux nibqgħu għaddejjin kif aħna. Imma kontinwament ninjorawha. Riżultat ta’ hekk issa għandna din l-emerġenza klimatika, li, ġibniha b’idejna.

L-emerġenza klimatika issa hi rejaltà u hi parti integrali mill-ħajja tagħna. Biex nindirizzawha irridu nibdew nagħtu kaz dak li qed tgħidilna n-natura. Hu meħtieġ  li dan kollu jkun rifless fil-politika li tħares fit-tul. Speċifikament nistennew li l-politika li ma mhiex kompatibbli ma dak meħtieġ biex nindirizzaw it-tibdil fil-klima tkun indirizzata b’mod immedjat.  

Malta m’għandiex industrija li tagħti xi kontribut kbir għat-tibdil fil-klima. Il-problemi ewlenin fil-kaz tagħna ġejjin mit-trasport: mill-karozzi u mill-ajruplani.

In-numru ta’ karozzi fit-toroq għadu qed jiżdied kontinwament. Ix-xogħolijiet konnessi mat-titjib fl-infrastruttura tat-toroq qed isiru bl-iskop uniku li t-toroq ikunu jifilħu għal iktar karozzi. Dan ikompli jżid mal-problema. Il-konġestjoni tat-traffiku tonqos naħa u tiżdied band’oħra! Minkejja l-ħafna kliem sabiħ ma hemmx ir-rieda politika li l-kontribut  tal-karozzi għat-tibdil fil-klima jkun indirizzat.

Il-qalba tal-karozzi għall-elettriku, waħedha, mhux ser issolvi l-problema. L-emissjonijiet jibdew jonqsu fit-toroq u jiċċaqalqu għas-sors tal-elettriku li nużaw biex niċċarġjaw il-batteriji. L-enerġija rinovabbli li qed niġġeneraw hi ta’ kwantità insinifikanti!

Parti mill-problema nesportawha lejn Sqallija billi nużaw l-interconnector, li flok wieħed issa hu ippjanat li jkollna tnejn. B’hekk inkomplu inżidu  d-dipendenza tagħna għall-ħtiġijiet enerġetiċi.

Flimkien mal-qalba tal-karozzi għall-elettriku irid isir sforz ġenwin biex jonqsu sostanzjalment il-karozzi mit-toroq tagħna. Iċ-ċokon tal-gżejjer Maltin jagħmilha iktar possibli li nindirizzaw id-dipendenza tagħna fuq il-karozza u li din tkun sostitwita bi transport pubbliku effiċjenti. Kważi kullimkien jista’ jintlaħaq b’faċilità.

F’ Ottubru t-trasport pubbliku ser ikun b’xejn. Dan waħdu mhux biżżejjed: jinħtieġ trasport pubbliku li jkun effiċjenti.  Hu biss meta t-trasport pubbliku jkun alternattiva tajba li jkun jagħmel sens għall-gvernijiet li jibdew il-proċess biex jonqsu b’mod sostanzjali l-karozzi mit-toroq tagħna.

Biex nindirizzaw l-impatti tal-avjazzjoni l-istorja hi iktar ikkumplikata.  Id-dibattitu kurrenti dwar taxxa fuq il-fuel tal-avjazzjoni, kif diġa ġie emfasizzat, ser ikollu impatt sproporzjonat fuq il-gżejjer periferali fl-Unjoni Ewropeja. Imma l-problema hi waħda reali u teħtieġ li tkun indirizzata bla iktar dewmien.

Il-qalba tal-argument fid-diskussjoni li għaddejja hi dwar l-impatt ta’ taxxa fuq il-fuel tal-avjazzjoni fuq it-turiżmu. Mhux biss it-turiżmu lejn il-gżejjer Maltin, imma dak lejn kull rokna tal-Unjoni Ewropeja. Ilkoll kemm aħna naċċettaw il-prinċipju ambjentali bażiku li min iħammeġ jeħtieġ li jħallas (polluter pays principle) li illum il-ġurnata jifforma parti kemm mill-liġi Ewropeja kif ukoll minn dik Maltija.  Anke it-turiżmu għandu jerfa’ l-piż tal-impatti li jiġġenera, in partikolari l-impatti ambjentali tiegħu. Dak hu l-iskop tat-taxxa proposta fuq il-fuel tal-avjazzjoni.

Wasal iż-żmien li t-turiżmu ukoll jibda jirristrittura ruħu u jibda jagħti każ tal-impatti ambjentali tiegħu. Bl-emerġenza klimatika wara l-bieb ma jagħmilx sens li nibqgħu għaddejjin bit-tkaxkir tas-saqajn.

Żommu quddiem għajnejkom li l-gżejjer u l-komunitajiet mal-kosta jaqilgħu l-ikbar daqqa meta jibdew jiżdiedu l-impatti tat-tibdil fil-klima, billi jibda jgħola l-livell tal-baħar.  Xi gżejjer u uħud mill-komunitajiet mal-kosta l-anqas biss jibqgħu jeżistu.

Man-natura ma tistax tinnegozja, trid tbaxxi rasek!

ippubblikat fuq Illum: 24 ta’ Lulju 2022

Climate Emergency: addressing car and aviation impacts

Record breaking temperatures, in many cases exceeding 40 degrees Celsius, fires raging across a multitude of countries and drought, is the current news all over Europe. The current heatwave was not unexpected.

The European Union’s Joint Research Station in a report published earlier this week, entitled Drought in Europe July 2022, reports that a substantial portion of EU territory is exposed to warning levels of drought, or even worse. This will soon be the new normal!

The current climate will severely impact agriculture all over Europe. The impact on crop yields will be substantial. In neighbouring Italy, we have witnessed on TV the level of the waters of the river Po being several metres lower than usual: its current capacity is 80 per cent down on what’s normal at this time of the year. Fifty per cent of Italian farms are at risk, devastated by drought and high temperatures.

All this is nothing new for Maltese agriculture. We have been there before, at times due to prolonged drought, at others as a result of havoc creating floods which are increasing in frequency.

The climate has been slowly changing over the years, reacting to the changing human behaviour. Nature has been reacting slowly, signalling time and again that it will not be subdued.  Nature’s signals have been repeatedly ignored: as a result, we are now faced with a climate emergency.

The Climate Emergency is now a reality which is an integral part of our daily life. Addressing it would signify that we start taking note of nature’s signals and act accordingly. It stands to reason that this should be reflected in our country’s long-term policies. Specifically, one would expect that policies which are incompatible with responsible action to address climate change, are immediately addressed.

Malta has no heavy industry which contributes to climate change.  Our major contributor to climate change is transport, specifically road transport and aviation.

The number of cars on the roads is continuously increasing. Road infrastructure improvements taken in hand are intended to increase the capacity of Maltese roads and consequently are and will continue to add to the problem. Traffic congestion is being shifted from one area to another. Notwithstanding the political rhetoric, there is clearly no political will to act and address the contribution of road transport towards climate change.

Electrification, on its own, will not solve the problem. It will rather shift emissions from our roads to the source of electricity used in charging our cars. The renewable energy we generate is not sufficient to cater for our needs, in particular if we have to also cater for a complete electrification of our car fleet.

Part of the problem will be exported to the Sicilian mainland through the submarine energy cables and will be serve to increase our energy dependency.

Electrification of our roads must be coupled with a drive to substantially reduce cars from our roads. The relative smallness of the Maltese islands makes it much easier than elsewhere to substitute our car dependency with an efficient public transport. Almost everywhere is within easy reach.

Come October public transport will be free of charge. This must be coupled with an effort to increase its efficiency and reliability. It is only when public transport is a suitable alternative that it makes sense for governments to start a campaign to substantially reduce cars from our roads.  

Addressing the impacts of aviation is more complicated. The current debate on an aviation fuel tax, as pointed out by various political observers, will impact the peripheral islands within the EU in a disproportionate manner. At the end of the day some solution will have to be found to this aspect of the problem, without further delay.

The crux of the issue, however, is the impact of such an aviation fuel tax on tourism, not just tourism directed towards Malta but that directed to all areas within the EU. All of us accept the basic “polluter pays principle” which is enshrined not only in EU legislation but also in local laws and regulations. Even tourism should internalise its environmental costs. That is the purpose of the proposed aviation fuel tax.

It is time that the tourism industry starts its much-delayed restructuring. With the climate emergency on our doorstep there is no purpose in delaying any further.

Kindly keep in mind that islands and coastal communities will be the worst hit when the impacts of climate change increase substantially through a sea-level rise. Some islands, as well as a number of coastal communities, as a result, will simply cease to exist.

One cannot bargain with nature; you have to follow its instructions!

published on The Malta Independent on Sunday : 24 July 2022

After the agricultural fair has ended

The onslaught on agricultural land is continuous. It is unfortunately many a time abated by land use planning operatives. It would be an understatement to emphasise that they should know better.

Among the countless examples faced on a continuous basis I can list the following: the over-development of road infrastructure, quarries, boatyards, solar farms and fireworks factories proposed in rural areas and in lieu of agricultural land. Added to these examples one can add the craze of changing the use of agricultural land into picnic or barbeque areas. This creation of recreational areas is squeezing out agriculture! All this would not happen without the complicity of the Planning Authority and those appointed to lead it.

The agricultural fair organised last week exposed another aspect: the anguish of the farming community. A discussion organised within the precincts of the grounds of the agricultural fair focused on food security. The spiralling cost of imported animal feed fuelled by the Russian invasion of Ukraine as well as international business pressures are adding to the problems of those involved in animal husbandry.

Farmers are being pushed out of the land they have been tilling at an increasing rate. No one in his right senses would dare invest in the modernisation of an agricultural holding in such a climate. The banks, on the other hand, emphasised the farmers who took part in the discussion, are not forthcoming with loans to facilitate matters, most probably as they consider the risks involved too high.

In the meantime, eviction of farmers from the land they have tilled for generations continues unabated as government takes too long to come up with a reform of the agricultural lease legal setup.

Government has, for all intents and purposes, abandoned the agricultural community. In addition, it has repeatedly carved agricultural land into new or widened roads. The irrigated agricultural land at Attard had to make way for the so-called Central Link. Shortly more agricultural land on the outskirts of  Qormi will make way for improvements to the Mrieħel bypass project.  Add this to the planned havoc continuously emanating from the Planning Authority and you can easily understand what the agricultural community has to bear.

It is indeed ironic that a government which boasts of a programme which is intended to create more open spaces is at the same time determined to ruin more natural open spaces on the outskirts of our towns and villages.

It is clear that government has taken a basic political decision: cars have a priority over agriculture. This decision is clearly manifested in the manner of operation of Infrastructure Malta which is gobbling up extensive agricultural land which stands in the way of its projects. It is further manifested in the absolute silence of the Agricultural Ministry when it is faced with this behaviour. The agricultural minister is apparently more interested in our heritage which leaves him little time to focus on the needs of agriculture and the farmers who depend on it for their livelihood.

Given the ever-increasing population on these islands it was always very clear that local agriculture could never, on its own, suffice to cater for our needs. Supplementing local agricultural produce with imported produce should be done with care as there is always a danger that the local market can be flooded with low priced goods which make the life of our farmers more miserable than it already is!

The organisation of the agricultural fair was a good idea. It must however be supplemented with a heavy dose of good faith which is missing in the attitudes of the holders of political office in the Ministry of Agriculture through the rest of the year, that is when there is no agricultural fair!

published on the Malta Independent on Sunday : 29 May 2022

Ir-raba’ qed isejħilna

Diversi tefgħu għajnejhom fuq art agrikola biex jixtruha. Ma jriduhiex għax għandhom xi interess fl-agrikultura iżda għal diversi raġunijiet oħra. Hemm min iridha għal investiment u hemm min iridha biex fiha jqatta’ l-ħin liberu tiegħu, għall-kwiet, il-bogħod mill-istorbju madwar l-inħawi fejn noqgħodu jew naħdmu.

Dawn, għax jifilħu jħallsu qed jgħollu l-prezz li qed joffru u bi prezz għoli qed jispiċċaw jixtru bosta tmiem raba’ f’diversi partijiet ta’ Malta u Għawdex.

Billi bħalissa din it-tip ta’ domanda qed tikber qed jinħoloq suq li fih il-prezz offrut għal art agrikola hu għoli, għax hemm min jiflaħ u jrid iħallas. Dan qed iħajjar sewwa lil min ibiegħ.

Ma hemmx għalfejn ngħidilkom li bosta sidien tar-raba’ jippreferu somma tajba milli l-ftit ċekċik ta’ euro li bħalissa qed idaħħlu mill-qbiela.

Fin-nofs, imma, hemm il-bidwi li l-qbiela li illum iħallas hi baxxa wisq, ftit euro fis-sena. Bla dubju l-qbiela trid tiżdied. Id-diffikultà hi dwar kemm għandha tkun din iż-żieda. Għax ir-raba’ anke jekk fgata bil-kimika, prinċipalment fil-forma ta’ pestiċidi, ftit tista’ tikkompetti ma dawk li għandhom but fond ħafna. Dan apparti l-fatt li l-kimika fir-raba’ teħtieġ li tonqos sewwa, u preferibilment ma tintużax iktar!

Il-biedja ma tirrendix qliegħ biżżejjed biex tagħmel tajjeb għal dawn il-prezzijiet li qed jintalbu. Għal uħud dan ifisser li l-biedja allura għandha tagħmel il-wisa’ għal min jiflaħ iħallas. Il-bdiewa allura, x’ser jiġri minnhom? L-ikel meħtieġ minn artna, min ser jieħu ħsiebu? Ma nistgħux niddependu biss minn ikel impurtat.

Sa ftit ġranet ilu dan kien l-argument li f’każ wara l-ieħor il-Qrati tagħna kienu qed jaċċettaw. Il-każijiet kienu qed jinqatgħu wieħed wara l-ieħor a bażi ta’ din il-liġi tal-ġungla: li min jiflaħ għall-prezz tas-suq għandu d-dritt li jħawwel lil min ma jiflaħx għalih.

Iżda din il-ġimgħa kellna każ interessanti li poġġa l-argumenti li smajna s’issa rashom l-isfel.

F’sentenza mogħtija nhar it-Tlieta li għaddew l-Imħallef Wenzu Mintoff għamel l-argument favur il-biedja. Argument li rari, jekk qatt, instema’ fl-awli tal-Qrati tagħna. Il-pajjiż, qal l-Imħallef, għandu jħares il-biedja u japprezza iktar dak li tirrendi. Jekk ma nħarsux il-biedja, x’ser nieklu? Il-kummerċ ma’ barra mhux dejjem jipprovdi, biżżejjed jew fil-ħin.  Ma nistgħux nistrieħu fuq il-kummerċ ma’ barra biss. L-art tagħna, jekk tinħadem tista’ tipprovdi, kif ipprovdiet iktar minn biżżejjed fil-passat. Imma jeħtieġ li l-art inħarsuha.

L-imħallef Mintoff għamel tlett osservazzjonijiet importanti.

Fl-1967 il-Parlament Malti, osserva l-Imħallef, approva liġi dwar il-qbiela. Dan għamlu biex iħares l-użu tal-art agrikola, għax anke dakinnhar kien ikkunsidrat li kien hemm il-ħtieġa għal dan il-ħarsien. Dan kien skop leġittimu tal-Parlament Malti.

L-Imħallef kompla josserva li l-istat għandu r-responsabbiltà li jassigura li pajjiż ikollu biżżejjed prodotti tal-ikel għall-ħtiġijiet tal-pajjiż. Dan kien rifess tal-qagħda ekonomika u finanzjarja tal-pajjiż.

Ikompli josserva li minkejja l-liberalizzazzjoni tal-kummerċ u l-importazzjoni tal-ikel minn barra, l-istat xorta jibqalu l-obbligu li jassigura ruħu li l-pajjiż ma jkunx jiddependi iżżejjed fuq l-importazzjoni. Jekk dan ma jsirx, l-agrikultura, ftit ftit tispiċċa, darba għal dejjem.

Dan kollu għandu jseħħ f’kuntest ta’ rispett sħih tad-drittijiet fundamentali ta’ kulħadd.

Huwa fid-dawl ta’ dan kollu li jridu nfasslu u niddeċiedu t-triq il-quddiem.

Fid-deċiżjoni tiegħu l-Imħallef Wenzu Mintoff jemfasizza li l-valur reali tar-raba’ jrid ikun rifless ta’ dak li l-art verament tirrendi. L-argumenti legali li tagħmel il-Qorti huma kumplessi ħafna iktar minn hekk, imma essenzjalment il-Qorti qed tgħid li l-biedja għandha valur fih innifsu u huwa f’dan il-valur li wieħed irid isib is-soluzzjoni għall-problema li għandna quddiemna.

Il-kobba hi mħabbla sewwa u każ wieħed mhux ser isolvi l-biżibilju kawżi li bħalissa deħlin fil-Qrati biex ikunu żgumbrati l-bdiewa minn raba’ li ġieb prezz tajjeb fis-suq tal-propjetà. Apparti dan, hu fatt li l-messaġġ ċar u etiku tal-Imħallef Mintoff idarras lil bosta li l-unika valur li jafu bih u japprezzaw hu il-valur tal-flus.

Din hi l-problema reali li minħabba fiha r-raba’ qed isejħilna. Qed jgħajjat u jokrob, imma ħafna mhux qed jagħtu każ.

Ippubblikat fuq Illum: il-Ħadd 26 ta’ Diċembru 2021