Saturday, 2 July 2011

Who owns our rich national heritage?

Who owns our rich national heritage?

The Ramblers’ Association has recently been inundated with a flurry of reports filed by veteran ramblers complaining about the sudden closure of pathways in the open countryside, which they clearly recall as having been “Crown Colony Property” during the British period. Many of these pathways, which for generations had been used by farmers, goatherds and other humble farming folk, still lead to historical and archaeological sites such as Bronze Age villages and mediaeval settlements, tangible structures that are an essential part of our national heritage. In all honesty, after years of controversy, I humbly ask: Have we as Maltese citizens, supposedly heirs of these sites, lost this inheritance?

In many European countries, pathways become automatically “rights of way” when it can be proved that they had been used by generations of villagers as “green lanes” to access their church, market or communal services. In this regard, local councils play a major role and share the responsibility to ensure that nobody impedes their use.

In England, parts of the “Pennine Way”, which I trekked in my days of youth, originated in mediaeval times. Others, like the Ridge Way that stretches from sleepy Wiltshire to the lush greenery of Buckinghamshire, date back to pre-history.

In our dear little island, who owns acknowledged public paths handed over to us by the British and which had previously belonged to the Knights of St John? The non-existence of a definitive map of the Maltese islands, despite our impassioned pleas for one, gives massive advantages to presumed land owners, a situation that cannot be tolerated any longer as ramblers have to face increased hostility and intimidation. Unless immediate steps are taken to restore to the Maltese citizens the rights of past generations there will be social friction as ramblers and nature lovers are hampered and obstructed in their pursuit of a better quality of life.

There is a wealth of documents at the perfectly preserved National Archives in Rabat relating to government properties in rural areas, particularly The Descriptive Plans Of The Crown Property In Malta And Its Dependencies, and we expect more than lip-service to our pleas for a sense of direction.

The Ramblers’ Association can proudly reveal it was instrumental in giving back to the public picturesque Munxar Point in St Thomas Bay, Marsascala. It managed to rally enthusiastic support from the local council and, by carrying out meticulous documentary research proving that pathways running along this promontory were military property and, consequently, they belong to the state. But the association has neither the means nor the personnel to embark on this laborious task for the Maltese islands.

In the light of the above, there are many queries about the ownership of the pathways in Is-Simblija, that idyllic and iconic agricultural zone limits of Dingli. Is-Simblija is considered by mediaevalists as a hamlet that encapsulates mediaeval life complete with chapel, communal flour-mill, bakery and other amenities for the mediaeval farming community in Wied ir-Rum and the surrounding area. It is a priceless jewel of our tangible mediaeval heritage, professionally and beautifully restored about a decade ago by the government, assisted by EU funds as part of the Aramis Project (Arab mills and irrigation systems).

It is also an essential element of our intangible legacy as this was land confiscated by the Order of St John from a Maltese hero, Giuseppe (Mattew) Callus. Is-Simblija, which also incorporated the mediaeval chapel of Sta Maria ta’ Callus, was subsequently administered by the Venerable Assembly of the Con­ventual Church of the Order (Veneranda Assemblea), hence Is-Simblija.

A high-powered international conference addressed by academic and erudite professors, focusing mainly on the historical, agricultural and social significance of this unique site was held at a St Julians hotel on February 8, 2003.

On the official opening of Is-Simblija settlement a commemorative plaque and a direction and explanatory map were displayed on site. Yet, on several occasions, members of our organisation have been turned away

In my opinion, the Maltese citizens as veritable heirs of this farming mediaeval community and have a birth right to access the public pathways of this communal site. Furthermore, a document dated October 14, 1621 states that “To the east, the territory was bordered in part by a public path and in part by the garden of Nardo Greg. On the south, it was bordered by a public path”. Regrettably, I could not identify exactly the location of these “public paths”.

While realising the uniqueness and fragility of Is-Simblija mediaeval settlement, I honestly feel this idyllic spot so generously blessed with rich cultural and historical heritage as well as great natural beauty should be carefully and sensitively shared by all, Maltese and visitors alike. It is high time for whoever is responsible to determine whether the paths and edifices that were recently skilfully repaired and restored by government funds, in collaboration with the European Commission through CNR (Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche), are accessible without any harassment.

The author is honorary president of the Ramblers’ Association.

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9 Comments

Mr Joe Mallia

Yesterday, 15:00

We heard so much talk of more access to public land. It seems that the results are far from what has been promised.

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Mr phil sam

Yesterday, 14:44

Even at the Boat houses ?,at The Salt Pans in Qawra, there signs are saying "private road, boat owners only".
I have witnessed, people (tourists), turn around and walk up to the main, road and continue their journey to Qawra, because they think they are trespassing. That is besides the furniture and other structures built across accessible walks. Wake up MEPA., come and see for yourselves.

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Mr Charles Falzon

Yesterday, 12:31

Malta is too small and heavily populated to still have large tracts of open land reserved only to the few. Land is a national asset bestowed by God and evolution to all. The land itself should be public property and not just the access. Such a valuable national asset should only be allocated by Government for stipulated temporary periods to people who put it to good use and returned in its natural state when agreed periods are over, or if whoever leases the land does not take care of it. But then one Government after another smell of corruption and so the story goes on and on to cookooland. Thanks for your contribution and wishing you success in our genuine endeavours to protect Malta and its (true) citizens.

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Mr G Vella

Yesterday, 12:04

All very true. A few weeks ago, I was walking in Gozo along a path leading from St Dimitri Point to Wied ir-Raheb just north of Gharb. I have used this path for several years, but this time I found that somebody had erected a gate closing off the path and two vicious-looking barking dogs were running around in the area behind this gate. Very soon, most of the country-side will be off limits to ramblers.

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Mr John Azzopoardi

Yesterday, 11:51

I have waked in what is perceived to public pathways on the shorelines and I must say, it feels pretty intimidating. There are also part of the island in both Malta and Gozo where they say no entrace or ma jista jidhol hadd an this is a public pathway. This is really a shame and the authorities should enforce the law. If we want to encourage tours of our coast and have people - both tourist and maltese - being intimated by either these signs or at times verbally, then that is an infrigment on our human rights, especially if the passage is public and anyone can pass through it.

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Tony Caruana

Yesterday, 11:28

Buy your own land and then ramble to your heart's content.

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Alfred Fenech

Yesterday, 10:51

What rich national heritage!! Can the people take out a loan using St. Johns cocathedral as
collateral. How about the caravaggio. The little we can enjoy is the little country side which
is slowly but surely being taken over by greedy .....

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Mr Saliba Francis

Yesterday, 10:20

For years the residents around Mellieha Heights, directly and through the Mellieha Local Council, have been urging the authorities to preserve a hundred year old public path, cut in solid rock, giving access to a marvellous scenic site on this inland cliff edge with unrivalled views of Mellieha Bay, Comino, Gozo and on favouravble days as far as Sicily and mount Etna. The inestimable loss, to the local public and to the tourist industry, of this splendid panoramic site could have been prevented because the site is protected by an Emergency Conservation Order and MEPA has always rejected all applications by the owners to build a boundary wall denying access to the cliff edge.

Nevertheless, the closure of this traditional path is now a fait accompli' despite the efforts of the Mellieha Local Council to establish this area as a European Destination of Excellence! What MEPA repeatedly refused to the owners was accomplished, on behalf of the owners and against the public interest,
by the Department of Lands itself, using the taxpayers money and in flagrant contravention of the Emergency Conservation Order . It is outrageous to witness the harangues hurled at any passer by who dares to sit on the low public street wall to admire what is left of this stupendous view.

At the time of last enquiry we were promised, by the Mayor of Mellieha, that a solution was at hand. That was months ago but things have not changed at all.

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Frank Portelli 2BFRANK

Yesterday, 09:49

Very Informative

Prosit Lino

Keep up the good work

Dr Frank Portelli

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