Playing with pretty words: ‘Minimal intervention’ at Wied Żnuber

Earlier this month, it was announced that a site on the periphery of Ħal Far was to be transformed into an airstrip for model aircraft. This development would be carried out according to Planning Authority permits, taking into consideration the classification of the site as a Natura 2000 site. Intervention is ‘minimal’, so we are told. 

It is innocent enough to the general reader. However, it appears that many facts have been glossed over. The site in question, equivalent in size to five football grounds, is in Wied Żnuber, stretching along a designated Natura 2000 site. It has been highlighted that this move will translate into the destruction of agricultural land as well as the spoiling of ecologically important zones. Non-governmental organisations – Moviment Graffiti, Birdlife Malta, Għaqda Storja u Kultura Birżebbuġa – have spoken against the proposed development in this ecologically sensitive and culturally important site. The Birżebbuġa local council has also expressed their concern about the issue. 

Following the uproar, it was reported that the land earmarked for the development is ‘disturbed’ land. What exactly is meant by the seemingly innocent choice of word?  Is tilled agricultural land to be described as ‘disturbed’?  Tilling arguably involves human intervention for the preparation of soil for the sowing of crops. However, to label this land as ‘disturbed’ so as to make it more palatable to the general public and play down the irrevocable damage is disturbing, pun intended. 

When referring to a Natura 2000 site, we are talking of a network of core breeding and resting sites for rare and threatened species across the European Union. According to the EU environmental rules, the aim of having such a network is to “ensure the long-term survival of Europe’s most valuable and threatened species and habitats, listed under both the Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive”. While the European Commission acknowledges that such core breeding sites do not exclude human activities, it is also understood that any human activity involving Natura 2000 sites should in principle be “largely centred on people working with nature rather than against it”.

It may be argued that farming is a human activity that may have an impact in such an ecologically sensitive area, but this is nowhere close to the destruction associated with the paving of agricultural land and landfilling of garigue for the construction of a miniature airstrip and clubhouse. These are bound to increase human activity exponentially. This cannot be defined as working with nature.

The area may be peripheral, but this project will certainly have repercussions on Birżebbuġa and neighbouring villages. We have witnessed the industrialisation of the area and in the process, we have sacrificed much of our natural heritage, much of which can only be recalled through old photographs. We do not need paved spaces in exchange for our natural heritage. If this is what the Partit Laburista means by pledging to green our island, with no reaction from the Partit Nazzjonalista, I believe it is time to remove the partisan ribbon off our eyes and demand that we deserve better for our natural heritage. Stop playing with pretty words and empty promises made on the eve of an election. 

Melissa Bagley
ADPD Candidate on the Districts 5 and 10
Published in The Malta Independent – Sunday 27 February 2022