THE RAMBLERS’ ASSOCIATION OF MALTA
NEWSLETTER NO. 24 – APRIL 2012
Dear Ramblers, it is with pleasure that I send you this month’s newsletter;
it is an issue which is packed with interesting news and updates about the work of our association.
First of all, let me say that the committee is benefiting enormously from the help being given by Richard Weninger and Louise Cassar Davies, and that we are very grateful for their enthusiasm and hard work.
In this issue, you will be able to read about our environmental activism and the difficulties we are encountering. The fight against the construction of high walls continues, and we have further updates on the Simblija, Ta’ Baldu and Fomm ir-Riħ issues. We have also opposed other abusive devel- opment with mixed results, and have some news about our Baħrija court case against MEPA.
With the systematic abuse it is being subjected to, our environment can only be saved with the involvement and hard work of all persons of good- will. It is an uphill struggle against powerful forces, and we can only suc- ceed with your help, the cooperation of local councils, and the founding of residents’ associations which take responsibility in monitoring attacks against the public interest in their respective localities. These aspects are also treated at greater length inside.
RAM has also continued to work on a number of projects during these months. We have updates about the Targa Gap Battery project, and also intend to film a number of specially prepared walks in order to promote the sporting, cultural and environmental aspects of rambling.
Finally, we also have an important notification about the planned Norway trip, which should be of interest to those planning to attend.
Sincerely, Ingram Bondin Hon. Secretary
From the Committee 2
Projects in Hand 2
Citizen Involvement 5
Articles on ILLUM 5
Norway Trip 6
NEW HELPERS FOR THE COMMITTEE
We are pleased to announce that the committee is now being assisted by Richard Weninger and Louise Cutajar Davies. Richard is helping us to track and object to development applications in ODZ areas more ef- ficiently, while Louise has taken over the task of keeping our membership database up to date. In response to the need for a more directed effort towards securing EU funding for several projects which we intend to em- bark on, the committee has also created an EU Funding and Special Projects sub-committee, which will meet and advise on actions related to this issue. We thank Richard and Louise for sitting on this sub-committee, along with committee members Mario Butigieg and Alan Bonnici.
Louise and Richard have also agreed to sit as substitute members on a committee dedicated to the moni- toring of EU funds for NGOs, which is affiliated with the Ministry for Tourism and Culture. This committee has two posts assigned for NGOs, one for the environment and one for heritage, and Richard and Louise will be taking up these posts whenever Prof. Mallia and Miriam Cremona would be unavailable. We appeal for more members to emulate Richard and Louise.
Our hard-working Sam Grech who, among other things, issues your membership cards, leads many of your walks, and furnishes our Cashier with the necessary information, reminds me that there is quite a number of members who have not renewed and paid their yearly fee. Remember that our Association derives its strength from the large number of its subscribers. We will not be happy to understand that our members do not pay their yearly subscription just because they do not intend to walk any more. Our Association is much more than that: it is a non-profit organization that strives for justice where justice is lacking: and everybody and his dog knows that justice is not being done, both with our natural and built-up environment. There is no- body to speak up for and defend our environment. Nor can it speak for itself. RAM, together with a handful of other eNGOs, fills the gap, and your support has to viewed in this light. You signed your membership form declaring your support to the objectives of the Association. Walking is a complimentary activity. Your dedi- cation to those objectives is confirmed only when your membership is renewed, to keep up the strength of numbers which RAM has always enjoyed.
All members’ help is expected on Saturday 5th May, which is our next appointment with the wheel-barrow and shovel for another clean-up at the Majjistral National Park. We left cleaned up quarters and an impres- sive load of gathered garbage the last time some fifty of us turned up for the job, and those who partici- pated proudly declared they want to do it again. This time we hope for a record-breaking response so that Ramblers’ can claim highest turn-out of the Majjistral campaign.
PROJECTS IN HAND
During these last few months, RAM has embarked on three main projects. The first concerns the rehabilita- tion and restoration of the Targa Gap Battery, which RAM has asked the Government Property Division to trust with its care and management. There was agreement in principle on this point, which will be subject to fur- ther study. In the meantime, plans for the site are being drawn up after visits to the battery. When these be-
come available RAM will draw up a business plan for the future use of the site. This idea has also been taken up by the Faculty of Architecture of the University of Malta, which has committed a number of 4th year stu- dents to work on the project as part of their course. Our delegation has already met with the students and explained to them what we have in mind. Now we await to see what bright ideas they will come up with, hoping to incorporate them with ours in the business plan. Once we have settled on what the project will look like, the next step will be to come up with concrete cost estimates and prospective sourcing of funds.
The second project involves the development of a series of short films with Ramblers’ walks as subject. The intention is to illustrate what a typical walk is all about, underlining the social, educational, and health bene- fits for the participants as well as the profit that they can bestow on the environment. The production could then be used to promote rambling in the Maltese Islands with locals and foreigners alike. It is our intention to propose both these projects for EU funding and discussions will be held with MEUSAC to identify which schemes could be sourced.
The third project will focus on the modernization of the Ramblers’ Website. After completing works on the Ramblers database, through which we now keep effective track of membership and payment information, we will set up an efficient website that will be able to disseminate information about our activities and their relevance for the protection of the environment and for the right of access to the countryside.
ACTIVISM ON ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES
Monthly meetings with MEPA and other NGOs which relate to environmental issues, such as the Water Conference organised by Zminijietna, have proceeded normally. Although the former are informative, we have been feeling for a long time that they ought to have an interrogative format, wherein we could ask questions about specific issues beforehand and have them answered during such meetings. Since it was ar- gued that different NGOs have different interests, we have arrived at a compromise solution by which NGO could request individual interrogative meetings for issues they wanted to discuss. We await to see whether these interrogative meetings will be useful and whether we will find the cooperation of MEPA on the issues we raise.
Hot issues affecting rambling access and the environment continue to dominate our attention:
High walls sprouting up all around not only obstruct views in the country side, but also hide illegalities from the public view. Although there is a legal height limit of 1.2.metres, abuse is blatant, with MEPA doing nothing about it except condoning it. We are currently exploring options for closing loopholes in the law before all country lanes are turned into corridors. The public is encouraged to report the construction of high walls to RAM, along with their location and possibly with pictures. We will report these to MEPA and keep up the pres- sure for direct action to follow enforcement orders.
In our opinion, the attitude taken by certain case officers during public hearings and board meetings has be- come increasingly arrogant. Apparently, they no longer represent the interests of the public who pays them but they brazenly behave in favour of developers and their projects. At a recent meeting of the MEPA Board which deliberated on a group of applications from a single developer in ODZ at Wied il-Ghasel, the presenta-
tion by the case officer seemed to us scandalous to say the least. Suffice it to say that thirteen of the fifteen applications under review were for sanctioning of illegalities already committed, and yet the case officer never mentioned the fact. To the members of RAM who were hearing his presentation, it sounded nothing but apologetic, appraising the project in ODZ, based on an Outline Application approved in 2003 ON HIS OWN RECOMMENDATION. We think that what is going on in MEPA is outrageous and shocking, and draining public funds to boot. In fact, could it be a coincidence, that this episode is related to the case involving the Winery at Tas-Salib, which again, by coincidence, involved exactly the same case officer which had ensured the granting of the permit in that case? Even worse, it appears that all this is happening with the blessing of the heads of the Authority who never took up our request to carry out an investigation based on the Tas-Salib Audit Report which found flagrant irregularities in the award of the permit. RAM was forced to refer the case to the Police, and shall continue to provide more evidence to ensure that justice is made.
Simblija and the problems connected with its accessibility are also being seriously tackled, and a member of the committee presented a comprehensive report to the Commission against Corruption when asked to produce evidence. The possibility of playing into the hands of politicians was avoided when the board of the Commission tried to pose the questions it wanted, but our representative stressed home the point that the commission must either listen to all that he had to say or not hear anything at all.
The Natura 2000 sites at Fomm ir-Rih and Ta’ Baldu have also been subjected to our representations on the various applications for more development thereon. At the same time we have unsuccessfully opposed ap- plications for the development of Stables in Sannat, Gozo, and for the development of an Industrial Park in Wied il-Ghasel, referred to above. On the latter at least our intervention obtained the imposition of additional fines and the subjection of the permit to stricter conditions for the protection of the environment. However we referred both cases to the Audit Office of Mepa. On the former we are keeping pressure on the Government Property Division as the stables are planned to be situated on Government land. Our position on the applica- tion of the fruit-vendor at Xemxija, who wanted to take up public land in the car-park for a permanent struc- ture thereon, has been upheld by the Board, but the applicant has appealed from the decision. We are now parties to that Appeal.
The Bahrija Court Case of RAM vs Mepa came to an abrupt end when the judge delivered sentence on the preliminaries of the case, determining that although RAM had the recognition at law to present a case in court, it did not have vested juridical interest to entitle it to treat such a case. The Court also concluded that it is not within the competence of the said Court to rule over planning issues which fell under MEPA. The first conclusion is important for RAM, because it sets a precedent for future court cases. We are appealing the other decisions on grounds that if associations like ours cannot speak out in defense of the environment and public interest, then who could? In addition, our request was for the Court to rule over MEPA not applying its own rules, and not to rule over planning issues. The Environment and public interest cannot be left at the mercy of institutions like MEPA, which are hardly infallible. If the sentence is confirmed on appeal, we will take the case to the European Court of Justice.
ONLY CITIZEN INVOLVEMENT CAN SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT
Environmental Activism by NGOs like RAM is not enough and it is vital that communities involve themselves too if our environment is to be saved. We think there is nothing more effective than residents associations to care about the wellbeing of their own area. RAM will be encouraging local councils to help the setting up of such residents associations, and to provide them with professional help to enable them to function effectiv e- ly. In addition, the councils themselves will be encouraged to take the initiative of protecting the public inter- est with every means possible. The Rabat and Dingli councils have already sought and found our co- operation in this respect regarding the Ta’ Baldu and Is-Simblija issues, and have filed representations against the sanctioning of a gate, swimming pool and alterations to the building already present there. We propose to write individually to all Local Councils to propagate the idea of residents’ associations.
We would also like to see more active involvement from RAM members in saving our environment. Even if one is not part of a residents’ association, one can still help out by keeping an eye open for abusive deve l- opments and reporting them to RAM, preferably supplemented by photographic evidence. The exact loca- tion is important - if possible please provide the coordinates or the position on a map, using Google Earth for example. We also appreciate help in attending MEPA board meetings which decide whether permits are approved or not - it doesn’t take long to learn the ropes and RAM is able to provide training and advice on this matter. If you have the time and feel you should do your part to lend a hand, please send an email. Re- member our dying environment does not have a voice to cry out in pain - If we do not intervene who will come to its rescue from unscrupulous developers? Soon there will be nothing left to enjoy.
For example, at the moment MEPA has called for public consultation on four policy documents that are of extreme importance: National Strategy for Biodiversity, Strategic Plan for Environment and Development (SPED), Framework to Guide Open Storage Areas and Way Forward for Areas of Containment. These policy documents can all be downloaded from: www.mepa.org.mt/public-consultation and their main importance for us is that they all influence the all-so-important countryside which we enjoy rambling in. Many times de- mands on pristine natural and agricultural land should not even be entertained because other options within the development zones exist and need to be considered first. All of us can vouch that there are vacant areas and derelict factories within Industrial Zones that can be taken up for storage and related use. Then there are unused quarries which serve the purpose well. But it is always easier and cheaper to take up virgin land. All sorts of excuses have been used to usurp virgin and agricultural land in ODZ, sometimes with impunity: farms, stables, fire-work factories, hotels, discos, shanty towns, scrap yards, cemeteries, supermarkets, schools, infor- mation centres, tool-rooms, factories, marble workshops, boat yards, batching plants… you name it and it is inevitably there. Considering the limited open space in Malta everything possible to restrain the shrinkage rate of our ODZ must be considered.
ARTICLES ON ILLUM
The last Sundays of January, February and March have each seen an article by RAM appearing on the newspaper ILLUM. January’s article, treated several interesting topics, such as the delays in implementing the Legal Notice which introduces fines for infringements of MEPA regulations, the water situation in Malta, the Nadur Cemetry, the Armier Squatters and the issue on il-Hotba ta’ Gaba. February’s article illustrated various
lawful actions which citizens can take in order to fight abusive development, while March’s article by our Ho- norary President Lino Bugeja talked about the praise various foreigners have had for the beauty of our coun- tryside throughout the years, as well as making a passionate appeal to the Maltese people to organize them- selves to protect what is left. You are encouraged to follow these articles and to spread them around to i n- crease consciousness about our cause.
Our plans for the Norway trip in September have met an unexpected hitch. The Norwegian organizers of the Conference of the European Ramblers’ Association have decided to provide only for the delegates a t- tending the conference, and surprisingly are not taking the opportunity to show off the country’s sights to the rest of Europe. This has thrown us back on to the drawing board and it is hoped that together with the Italians, who are also stranded, a memorable programme will be drawn up soon. We will let members know by a lat- er memo as soon as the plans have been decisively drawn up.
In the meantime, enjoy the programme of walks that has been drawn up in the usual masterly fashion by Romano. We will let you know in good time about the Norway visit in September and the relative pro- gramme.
Contact Information – Post: Po Box 108, Sliema, Malta, SLM 1000 –
Tel/Fax: 21342121/2702277 – Email: email@example.com –