Article First Published on Tuesday, 4th March 2008
Upgrading the law of the land
The massive campaign by the Ramblers Association of Malta to promote rambling as a means to enhance the quality of life is gaining ground.
More members are joining our ranks in order to discover the natural beauty of our islands particularly the countryside and coastal zones. We take heart from the fact that our honest endeavours in collaboration with other green NGOs have recently been instrumental in retrieving land that belongs to us all. However, to our utter dismay, the rape of the countryside continues unabated as we sadly witness more public land usurped by unscrupulous grabbers, developers, pseudo-farmers and squatters, all intent on clawing away pathways, garigue and prime areas of scenic beauty.
In these last 10 years we have seen the unauthorised closure of at least 45 pathways along the stretch of land from Ġebel Ciantar, along Dingli Cliffs, down to Miġra Ferħa and beyond to Fomm ir-Riħ. And this illegal dispossession, in just one segment, continues with impunity even in acclaimed areas of great historical areas (like Simblija) and those of archaeological importance as in Qlejjgħa tal-Baħrija with its picturesque Bronze Age Village.
Needless to point out, this a legal aspect which cries out for immediate legislation covering accessibility to the countryside. Unfortunately, Malta is the only EU country not to have the relevant legislation. Yet, it appears that all those with the political responsibility to address this unbearable situation are adopting the ostrich mentality or sweeping it under the carpet as if this perennial problem does not exist.
In no other EU country is accessibility to the countryside, foreshore and coastal cliffs so restricted and abusively barred as in the Maltese Islands. In all civilised countries, the state, in association with local councils, issues guide books and definitive maps in order to ensure that public spaces and pathways are open to all and not misappropriated or barred by selfish individuals who arrogantly ride roughshod over the rights of the citizen. They firmly believe that right of way may only be restricted by official prohibition enforced by public authorities and signs around restricted areas have to name the authority in question. Ideally the age-old concept of every man's right gives everyone the basic right to roam freely in the countryside as long as this causes no harm to property or nature.
According to a Finnish Ministry of the Environment publication of February, 1999 "everyone's right has evolved in Finland over the centuries from a largely unwritten code of practice to become a fundamental legal right. Every man's right does not however cover activities which damage the environment or disturb others".
Understandably, with the freedom to enjoy the countryside and coastal zones comes the obligation to leave the environment undisturbed and preserve its rich natural and historical heritage for future generations to enjoy.
In pursuance of one of its major objectives, the Ramblers Association of Malta fully endorses the recommendations submitted by the National Commission for a Sustainable Development Strategy for the Maltese Islands 2006-2016 which state inter alia that "the enjoyment of coastal areas depends on accessibility.
Some areas are not accessible due to land ownership issues. Measures need to be taken so that access to the coast is possible whether the land is private or owned by government" (section 3.1.7).
With regard to leisure and the environment, this section recommends that "places that combine leisure with enjoyment of the natural environment could be a source of improved health and therefore accessibility to such places should be improved. It is therefore desirable that public footpaths are identified in the countryside and false claims to land title checked. Paths that are abusively closed to the public should be opened" (section 3.1.11).
The Ramblers Association of Malta pleads to all concerned for the immediate implementation of these recommendations and for protection against the constant threats from presumed owners and usurpers whose illegal actions and harassment have been stepped up in recent months.
Mr Bugeja is president of the Ramblers Association of Malta.