If Miżieb and l-Aħrax are to be run by an NGO, why not give it to conservationists?

The Nationalist Party is open to Mizieb and L-Ahrax tal-Mellieha being managed and run by conservationist NGOs such as BirdLife as long as certain criteria, including allowing public access to the land, were met.

Opposition Shadow Minister David Thake told The Shift that the PN was “non-discriminatory” about which NGO was given the role of managing the two pieces of land. This also meant that hunting lobby group FKNK was also included in the list of potentials – as long as a number of specific conditions were met.

The Shift turned to Thake for comment in wake of movements by Prime Minister Robert Abela to draw up a deal that would allow FKNK to manage these two woodland areas in Malta.

Abela presented the proposal during a recent Cabinet meeting and no objection was raised. The Shift turned to the PN and asked whether it is open to another NGO such as BirdLife running it instead of  FKNK.

Thake argued that the PN was “non-discriminatory” about which NGO received a management agreement to nurture the land, even whether it was the FKNK, as long as a number of specific conditions – including public access unless in exceptional circumstances – were met.

Discussions with the authorities are being held with the Lands Authority to write up a formal management agreement with the FKNK, allowing the hunters exclusive use of the land during hunting season. This would mean that the area would be inaccessible to the public nine months out of a year.

When asked about the Opposition’s silence on the matter, Thake said the PN would not respond to “kite-flying”.  “There is still no concrete proposal by the government for discussion so far, but rather talk about Cabinet discussions,” he said.

Although the PN might not yet want to take a concrete stand on Abela’s proposal to hand over the running of the land to Mizieb, the argument of having an NGO to care for the land can easily be used to include environmental groups such as BirdLife Malta in charge.

For many years, Mizieb has been claimed by the hunting lobby as a legal hunting reserve as they argue that former Labour prime minister Karmenu signed an agreement with them to administer the area.

This argument, however, has been shot down by information provided by former greens politician Arnold Cassola through a Freedom of Information request that he filed with the Environment and Resources Authority. This was also confirmed by the Lands Authority, which stated that the FKNK has no title whatsoever over Mizieb or l-Ahrax.

Thake pointed out that the role of the caretaker by an NGO should not mean closing off public access.

“Public land should be open to the public all year round… and closed only in exceptions well backed up by document and scientific research,” he said. Nesting season, for example, could be an exception when a short closure may be considered.

Also, if the organisation was paid a management fee, then the value to the public must also be a priority.

The Opposition was also strongly in favour of introducing park rangers to make sure that everything was being done within the limits of the law, he said.

Legal experts explained to The Shift that land was usually transferred to a private entity in two ways: a public call for tenders or a special resolution through the House of Representatives. However, land could also be transferred in other ways, such as through a title of temporary emphyteusis, which would, in turn, change the rules and procedures of the transfer.

This sentiment was reiterated by Spazji Miftuha – a coalition of 60 environmental and cultural NGOs – which collected more than 16,200 signatures for Ahrax and Mizieb to be placed under the management of Ambjent Malta and not the FKNK.

Also, illegal structures should be removed from the two areas, which amount to five times the size of Buskett.

Spazji Miftuha pointed out that, over the past years, the FKNK had taken control of these areas without any legal backing, which meant that the public had been obstructed from entering the woodlands.

It called on the Planning Authority and Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia to take action against the illegal structures that were built in the area.

“It is high time these areas are given back to the public through a proper management plan handled by Ambjent Malta with adequate resources to keep the place secure and open for everyone to enjoy,” it said.

The group highlighted that most of the trees in Mizieb were planted in the 1970s by environmental NGOs. The Miżieb afforestation project, between Mellieħa and St Paul’s Bay, started in the late 1950s when the Israeli government donated approximately 10,000 trees to the Maltese. Dynamite was used to create cracks in the bedrock in Mizieb to allow the tree roots to gain hold.

A petition has been launched by the Outdoor Recreation and Camping Association against Abela’s proposal and collected more than 16,000 signatories, appealing to the government to keep Malta’s public places public.

                           
                               
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