Thursday, 3 March 2011

Sword of Damocles still hangs over idyllic paradise in Baħrija

Published in the Times of Malta, 3rd March 2011

Lino Bugeja

Synonymous with pastoral scenes, alternating with frightening sheer cliffs, rock formations and rugged wilderness, the Baħrija zone is more than a ramblers’ paradise; in the Maltese psyche it is “a state of mind”, a world apart, an ideal location for the “feel good” factor rightly depicted as an environment to soothe the mind, body and spirit.

Baħrija and its environs which include Fomm ir-Riħ, Ras ir-Raħeb, Il-Qlejgħa tal-Baħrija, Mtaħleb and Wied Ħażrun, are rightly considered as the showcase of the Maltese countryside
encapsulating areas of great scenic beauty, enhanced by unique geological features and remarkable extensive archaeological and historical remains stretching from the pre-history to the Roman and mediaeval periods.

Given such an idyllic setting with its remarkable flora and fauna, it is hardly surprising that the Ramblers’ Association of Malta is extremely sensitive to any disturbance, development or
impediments that prevents genuine ramblers from the physical, mental and spiritual enjoyment that this remote location in the northwest of Malta offers.
While acknowledging the government’s efforts to restore some semblance of order in the chaotic land tenure in the area it is well to point out that for over five years the Ramblers’ Association has
been constantly making representations to the Land Department to open up decent and safe access to the bay of Fomm ir-Riħ. I recall our early meetings with officials from the Attorney General’s
Office, with the then Justice Minister and other senior members from other departments with the sole aim – namely to give back to the people what was their patrimony from time immemorial. The
saga of access to the pristine bay of Fomm ir-Riħ (mouth of the wind) begins to unfold when a beach post with surrounding land was bought in the late 1960s.
Immediately, access to the only pathway leading down to the secluded beach was blocked by a high wall which also encircles the beach post. Subsequently, the matter was raised in Parliament
in 1969-1970 but nothing changed. Other developments followed and in 1984 a hazardous pathway was carved out of the cliff face from the Baħrija side leading to the beach after meandering
through some fields.
When two years ago Parliamentary Secretary Jason Azzopardi made that notable historic breakthrough in reclaiming a sizable tract of land on the shoreline of Fomm ir-Riħ, the Ramblers’
Association felt a welcoming breath of fresh air, which it publicly acknowledged in the media. However, the long-standing issue of safe and proper accessibility to Fomm ir-Riħ has not yet been
satisfactorily solved in spite of the many meetings involving the Land Department, Mepa and the Ramblers’ Association.
For a small island state, governed by special EU rules that give additional protection to its citizens where beach accessibility is concerned, the loss of Fomm ir-Riħ for over 32 years is very
disturbing. The ramblers’ persistent efforts to reclaim the bay is supported by the National Commission For Sustainable Development 2006-16 which states inter alia “measures need to be taken
so that access to the coast is possible whether the land is private or owned by government” (Marine and Coastal Environment 3.1.7).
The secluded bay of Fomm ir-Riħ is flanked on one side by an expansive plateau known as Ras ir-Raħeb (headland of the hermit) and Ras il-Knejjes (headland of the churches), remarkable for
its extensive scenic views but mainly for its archaeological remains first noted by the Order’s historian G. Bosio and subsequently described by G.F. Abela in his Descrittione di Malta (1647) as
“rovine anticaglie di fabriche”. Recent history of this remote site reveals that in 1922 the owner of the land Count Stagno-Palermo informed the well-known archaeologist Sir Temi Zammit that the
farmer who tilled the land had come across some interesting remains. Subsequent excavations indicate that, as the two toponyms of the locality might suggest, an edifice of the Roman period
may have been re-utilised as a religious site in the Middle Ages. Intimidating tactics and increasing hostility have made accessibility to this important archaeological site which should have been
public domain with effect from July 1975 almost impossible.
Dominating the sheer wilderness beauty of the area, south of Fomm ir-Riħ lies the prehistoric settlement of Qlejgħa tal-Baħrija; and here the daring rambler, who ignores barriers and No Entry
signs, takes in one of the most spectacular viewpoints in the whole Mediterranean basin. Sadly, regrettably, this extraordinary impressive Bronze Age Village replete with bell-shaped pits for the
storage of grain and water, protected on all sides by sheer cliffs, which our remote ancestors in Homeric times inhabited, is also privately owned making it inaccessible to this new generation of
Maltese citizens, the proud heirs of this national patrimony. Other sites in the Baħrija zone are also deserving of similar concern. Inevitably the genuine ramblers’ outrage is directed against the
fact of ownership because the land that constitutes most of our countryside is a legal entity; it is property with ownership allocated to institutions, the nobility, various persons, farmers and others.
The result is a social friction between owner and user which all civilised countries have patiently resolved by enacting laws of “right of way” for all. It is heartening to point out that, according to
informed sources, international bodies like the Council of Europe are working on proposals to extend protection policies to all ramblers, hikers and trekkers by considering the whole countryside
and coastal zones as one unified “landscape heritage” deserving the full enjoyment of all. Given the complexity of land tenure in the Maltese islands, even this European initiative may not be to impliment but it is definitely the way forward.

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