crown capital eco management

Natura 2000 sites must be protected

Just before the last election, the then Minister for the Environment had announced imaginative plans for the creation of a Nature Agency tasked with managing Malta’s 34 Natura 2000 sites. The areas designated for protection represent a significant proportion of our precious natural environment. In some cases, species in these sites are not found anywhere else in the world, thus constituting a crucial part not only of Malta’s natural heritage but also the world’s.

Natura 2000 sites constitute a vital element in the safeguarding of this country’s remaining natural heritage landscape. Their efficient management, oversight protection and administration should be matters of paramount importance.

It would appear, however, that the excellent initiative by the previous administration to set up a Nature Agency has fallen victim to the limbo into which the environment has been cast by the new Labour government.

Almost a year after the election, the much-vaunted (though also highly criticised) splitting of the Environmental Directorate from Mepa has still not happened. The Minister for Sustainable Development, the Environment and Climate Change has effectively been neutered.

An excellent example of this vacuum in administration has arisen at one of the Natura 2000 sites, Il-Magħluq tal-Baħar at Marsascala, one of Malta’s last marshlands.

The site is in a pitiful and derelict state. The main culvert channel, which links the marshland to the sea, is constantly clogged up. The use of fertilisers in the adjacent farmland leads to a process in which a body of water acquires a high concentration of nutrients causing excessive algae growth. Duck excrement and piles of litter, including plastic bottles and car tyres, leave what was once crystal clear water murky looking. Ducks, geese and fish sharing this environment are thus placed at high risk.

What is to be done? The mayor of Marsascala blames Mepa since the site is their responsibility. But the watchdog appears to have washed its hands of the environment and is concentrating solely on construction development. Although an environmental and planning consultancy firm will be completing a management plan for the site, the government’s own bureaucratic environmental structures do not appear to be in place and may, therefore, not be in a position to take the necessary action on the plan.

Meanwhile, the Natura 2000 site at Il-Magħluq tal-Baħar festers and rots to the chagrin of the local residents. It is about time the Minister for the Environment took responsibility for Natura 2000 sites and demonstrated that his ministry has the necessary teeth to protect the environment.

The next logical step in the process is to ensure the proper management of all these sites. Hence, the creation of the Nature Agency whose task will be to oversee the detailed management work, including monitoring and surveillance, of those organisations and other individual stakeholders (in some cases these may be the farmers who own and till the land) designated to protect these sites.

A national biodiversity strategy and action plan has been drawn up by the Nature Protection Unit of Mepa and this should, in due course, form the basis of the Nature Agency’s work.

But more than that, the head of the Nature Agency will also be responsible for alerting the regulator, Mepa, if any threat to the integrity of habitats or species present on Natura 2000 sites arises in any way, whether, for example, from proposed development, any disturbance of the habitats, pollution, natural disasters, or any of the depredations that the impact of human activity on the countryside may bring.

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