11th July 2012, Times of Malta

TEN-T is the European Commission acronym for Trans European Network – Transport, a plan for integrating transport across the EU, a project which has been deemed fundamental for the smooth operation of the common market. The plan defines a number of access corridors of which the so-called Helsinki-Malta corridor forms an integral part. Its purpose is to increase maritime and terrestrial links between Malta and Sicily by providing better infrastructure connecting the ports of Valletta, Marsaxlokk and Palermo.

The Malta portion of the TEN-T road network connects the most Northern part of the Maltese Islands (Dwejra Gozo) and continues to the Southernmost town in Malta (Birzebbuga).Various projects have been completed or are in the pipeline to upgrade the roads that form part of it: the reconstruction and upgrading of the Council of Europe Avenue and Garibaldi Avenue in Luqa, Marfa Road, Mellieha, the Kappara junction and the Coast Road. The EU provides various instruments for funding projects aimed at achieving this policy and healthy funding has been allocated for them, funding which Malta has been most proficient in tapping. All this indeed should prove to be very good news, except for Malta’s trees.

We might ask what have trees to do with the Ten T project and the significant European funding that ironically should be improving our natural environment? It transpires that the plans for the Coast Road include Kennedy Drive – a beautiful kilometre long avenue and its grove, lined with hundreds of magnificent two and three storey high trees which are the result of many years of fund raising work and many a ministerial tree planting event. We all remember the Tree4You scheme. This access road provides a most pleasurable drive through a shady green tunnel with a wide view of open agricultural land and is nature’s sitting room to the many families who picnic there. The Ten T plan involves the uprooting of an unspecified number of trees here (some hundred in total) with vaguely phrased intentions of replanting, relocating and/or replacing them.

Kennedy Drive and Kennedy Grove are not the only cases where trees are suffering on account of infrastructural works. Hundreds of citrus trees in the moat surrounding Mdina are making way for a recreation park complete with the ubiquitous thirsty non-indigenous turf and the neighbouring shaded and popular childrens playground is making way so parking to Mdina can be improved. Mature trees at Villa Rundle in Victoria, Gozo have been inexplicably uprooted while the 50 year old trees lining the road leading to Victoria have been lost to the new access road. At the same time, the ancient trees of the Tokk have been shaved down because we cannot cope with bird droppings. In Zebbug, Malta, a previously green area is being ‘upgraded into a landscaped area with benches’, the trees have been mercilessly pruned down to bare stumps, some of them almost to ground level. Again in Zebbug, the main road into the town used to be lined with lovely orange trees which have all been decimated.

There is a growing awareness and frustration among the public about this widespread destruction of mature trees as many of us find we are unable to prevent this devastation which comes hard in the wake of the ravages to green areas brought by over development. Campaigns are cropping up in media aimed at protecting what is left of these magnificent mature trees in various places all over the islands.

Of grave concern is that these trees are actually well protected by existing laws and regulations. The 1990 Structure Plan for the Maltese Islands which is still binding provides for “specified trees or groups of trees of aesthetic, historical, cultural, arboriculture and/or scientific interest to be protected such that uprooting, destruction or damage to trees growing in the wild or in public parks, gardens is prohibited.” The wording is specific and unequivocal – damage to these trees in any way constitutes an infringement of the Structure Plan. The next paragraph of the same Structure Plan also provides that, particularly within rural conservation area, areas of scenic value will be protected and enhanced. Resorting to transplanting these trees, as seems to be solution resorted to by developers and road contractors, is not adequate as most are transplanted at the wrong time of the year, to the wrong place, remain unwatered and are soon left to wither and die.

Even more legal protection for our trees comes from the more recent Legal Notice 200 of 2011 which says that any trees of age fifty years or older qualify as ‘Protected Trees’ provided that they are not causing any damage or adverse effect to the environment or to structures or features of natural or cultural heritage value.

Then there is also the Conifer Trees Preservation Regulations of 1949, still applicable to this day, which say it shall not be lawful to destroy, cut down or uproot any conifer tree wherever situated.

As has proved generally to be the case, these wise and well planned regulations are totally ignored. Malta is losing its beautiful mature trees because the funding coming in from Europe has to be spent fast, even if unwisely. We are losing them because there is inadequate planning and no overall central vision amongst those responsible for coordinating road building, infrastructural works and local councils’ development projects. We are losing them because the same people are totally insensitive and do not really care about anything green. Before more trees are lost, cannot some urgent planning be done so that new roads, such as Malta’s Ten T Superhighway from Marsaxlokk to Dwejra be carried out without such sacrifice? Trees cannot think, neither can they talk, but we can. 

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