Sunday 20 August 2017

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“Daddy, what is a tree?”

This article first appeared on Malta Today

I can appreciate that when our many Government ministers travel to their various high-flying conferences and summits all over Europe and around the world, they often just see the inside of large conference rooms and their hotel. But, surely, at some point, they must be taken through the actual city or the suburban outskirts and there they witness with their own eyes those marvelous things called parks, replete with shrubbery and trees. I also assume that, while being driven around, they also register the fact that the streets are lined with luscious trees of all types, providing shade and much-needed oxygen, apart from being aesthetically pleasing to look at.

Or maybe I am mistaken, and they are driven blindfolded, straight from the airport to conference and back again, much like held-against-their-will kidnap victims, so that their senses are unable to take in the greenery (and the cleanliness) and afterwards, they are then similarly dispatched back to home base to this barren, crane-infested rock, and therefore have absolutely no opportunity to make any comparisons, odious or otherwise. After all, we can’t have them getting any fancy ideas about making Malta look better, now can we?

Yes, I definitely think the latter option must be the case, because it is the only plausible explanation for the fact that throughout the years, successive Environment Ministers have been completely oblivious to the fact that infrastructural and planning decisions taken in this country, much-needed as they are, are being carried out at the expense of the few trees we still have left.

The most recent case, that of the trees near the Lija cemetery, which were chopped down to make way for the widening of the road, is a depressing case in point. As usual, there are the different versions of what actually happened:

Version A: they were not chopped down but were uprooted, some people insisted. This would have been terrific, because that means they can be planted elsewhere.

Version B: eyewitnesses, as well as photographs, tell a different story, showing the 100 year-old oak tress, chopped savagely with no attempt at saving them. This means that not only were they literally given the chop, but that no one thought of carrying out the operation with sensitivity towards this scarce resource, in order to plant them where they can continue to be appreciated.

Apart from these two quite contrasting versions, which would, you will agree, make all the difference, there were also conflicting reasons given for why the trees needed to be removed:

Reason 1: the road needs to be widened to ease congestion at this bottleneck which sees 2,400 cars per hour drive through this junction. To quote the Transport Malta press release: “the road works being carried out consist of the realignment and widening of parts of Triq il-Mosta, Triq in-Naxxar and Triq il-Kbira.”

Reason 2: the Holm Oak Trees (Sigar Tal-Ballut) do not technically fall under “protected” species.
According to the Environment Resources Authority, “this is not an Urban Conservation Area (UCA) nor a protected area. Thereby, given that the species of the trees (Quercus ilex) are listed in Schedule II, these specimens are not protected through the Trees and Woodlands (Protection) Regulations, 2011 and no permit from ERA is required for their removal.”

Reason 3: some have even suggested that the roots of the trees were causing damage to the roads, but this could not be confirmed.

And inevitably, the counter arguments are just as compelling:

Argument 1: better foresight to save the trees could have been used to allow them to remain where they were, while carrying out improvements to the secondary road which already exists to ease the traffic flow

Argument 2: if we keep chopping down trees to widen roads, then where will this leave us in the years to come as construction continues unabated with stance consideration for the environment? Is there anyone currently in Government who actually thinks about the need to have ‘lungs’ for us to breathe in a congested, polluted island overwhelmed by car fumes?

Argument 3: if we keep widening the roads, aren’t we simply encouraging the use of more private cars, which is in direct contradiction to Transport Malta’s aims to get us to use alternative means of transport?

The ‘solution’ which was accepted by the Lija council, that ten other trees would be planted elsewhere, is really a half-baked attempt at appeasement. It is no wonder that the current perception is that those in authority ‘hate trees’, because everything points to this sentiment. A whole change in mindset has to occur, not among the public (because the uproar shows that the average person does value the importance of trees) but among those who are taking these unilateral decisions without the briefest of nods to environmental awareness, or even common sense.

If this culture change by those in charge doesn’t happen fast, we will one day wake up to a world where little children look up from their electronic devices, turn to their parents and ask in all seriousness, “Daddy (or Mummy), what is a tree?”

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