This column first appeared in Malta Today
Some might think that an undue fuss was made about “a few trees” at Mosta square. It would be very easy to dismiss the whole saga which unfolded this week as the over-reaction of people who have “nothing else to do with their time” or who “are always whining and criticising everything” (as some like to put it).
But the uproar which ensued on Monday morning when news spread that the 50-year-old ficus trees were being butchered and would be removed, was not simply about the trees. It was about everything.
The way the local council went about the whole thing was immediately suspicious. They met on Sunday evening, the councillors present all rubber stamped the decision (ostensibly because of a permit quickly issued by ERA) and the decision was announced at 10pm. On Monday morning, as early as 5.30am, the chopping began. It has since transpired that the application to uproot the trees was received and validated by ERA on the same day and the permit was issued a couple of days later.
It truly is amazing how swiftly things can be done by politicians and government entities when an element of stealth is involved, huh? If you have ever been at the receiving end of tortuous delays by some petty pencil pusher within an official entity, this is an even more bitter pill to swallow.
Thanks to social media, however, it did not end there; in fact it was just the beginning. A post objecting to what was happening by environmental activist and Zebbug local councillor Steve Zammit Lupi, was shared and re-shared almost 800 times. A compelling video taken by rapper Liston Bongailas, showing birds frantically searching for their nesting place, was shared an impressive 2,700 times.
The lame excuses offered by ERA and the Mosta local council only served to raise the public’s ire even more. The trees were to be “transplanted” to the Santa Margarita area because they were invasive, and would be replaced by other types of trees and potted plants. Do they think the Maltese people have collective amnesia? We all have what happened in Paola still fresh in our minds, where all the trees were removed to be replaced by a soulless concrete Pjazza. And what exactly is this manic obsession with removing age-old trees, which not only give much-needed shade and a home for birds, but are an essential part of a town’s landscape and identity, only for them to be transplanted (and end up dying in the process) with the excuse that they will be replaced by other trees? Why not just leave them there in the first place?
Other (sane) countries implement any new infrastructure around existing trees rather than going on a vengeful spree, massacring everything green in sight because some Mayor wakes up one morning and decides that’s what he wants to do. And this, essentially, is at the crux of why the majority of Mosta residents are enraged by this Mayor and his cohorts. He has turned the town into his own personal fiefdom, running roughshod over what the people want, and just stomping around getting his own way. The fact is that the trees were never meant to be removed, as a statement by the architectural firm entrusted with the project, clearly states:
“…we reiterate that our project plans never intended for these trees to be removed since our proposed plans and responsibility only revolved around ensuring the implementation of the design for the paving and other elements within the site, as outlined in the attached plan. STUDJURBAN also reiterates that at no point did we recommend the removal of these trees which provided a small green lung to the square and this decision was taken only by the local council and the authorities, as correctly reported in the media. It is indeed a pity that these mature trees have been removed as in our projects, whenever possible, and in line with our philosophy which favours the concept of Green Urbanism, we always seek to incorporate trees and other natural elements, wherever circumstances permit.”
And yet, ERA had the gall to refer to a “landscaping plan” in its statement, which effectively implies that removing the trees was all part of the project. So not only was the whole thing done in an underhanded way by the local council and ERA, but they tried to shift the decision on to the above firm.
In short, the whole thing stank from beginning to end. When Moviment Graffiti quickly organised a protest, with activists camping out near the trees which had been shorn of all their leaves and reduced to stark branches, things turned ugly. As protestors tried to prevent a fence from being put up around the trees, Police officers, acting on who knows whose orders, dragged Andre Callus away and briefly arrested him. Photos of him being manhandled were the last straw, evoking memories of a time when anyone protesting would be carted off by the Police. Saying that it backfired big time is an understatement and it is probably those images which shook a lot of people out of their complacency. Save for a few blindly loyal, diehard PL supporters who manage to excuse and justify everything this government does, no one, but no one, wants a return to those times.
As the situation escalated, PM Robert Abela stepped into the fray, criticising Mosta councillors for not adequately communicating with residents about plans to transplant the trees and asking them to reconsider their decision.
On Wednesday morning the Mayor reversed his decision, but instead of an apology and a touch of humility saying “I was wrong”, we got a bombastic, arrogant and highly hypocritical statement in which he basically tried to take credit for being such a swell guy and “listening to the people”. Also very typically, he turned it into a partisan issue claiming the U-turn was taken by himself and his fellow PL councillors. What he should have done is to offer his resignation along with the rest of the council…but then pigs would have to fly.
I have been informed that the trees, despite their naked appearance, are still salvageable, and the branches and leaves will grow again, as long as they are properly taken care of. The soil has been replaced and they are being watered (so far). The obvious question is: do we really have to go through all this, every single time? Do the residents of a town have to constantly fight back against a man with an inflated sense of self-importance, whose decisions to implement several major infrastructural projects all at once from one end of the town to the other, with no planning, no timeline and no end in sight have caused daily upheaval, chaos, traffic jams, danger to pedestrians, loss of revenue for businesses and general distress for everyone? As for the rest of the Labour councillors, it doesn’t seem any of these adults have the backbone to stand up to him either (let alone if they were fresh out of school 16-year-olds).
So no, this was not just about a bunch of trees. It is about certain local councils which have completely turned the whole concept of their very raison d’etre on its head. They are not there to serve the residents but, as so many have pointed out, only there to serve their own interests or that of third parties. Like many other towns and villages we have a local council page and a Mosta residents page, replete with complaints, anger and frustration – do they care? While the ficus tree issue was ongoing, their silence was deafening. For too many Mayors and councillors these local councils are merely a stepping stone for their own political aspirations (just look at how many end up as MPs), which completely defeats the purpose of why councils were introduced.
It is about time local councils are stripped of their political affiliations and are only contested by independent residents who truly love their town and village. If we don’t do that, these type of fiascos, where trees are senselessly uprooted on a whim, will continue.