One step forward, two steps back

More illegal hunting, more massacres of protected birds… and, I fear, more complacency from a general public lulled into believing that all those ‘reforms’ have actually made any difference whatsoever

Ever get the feeling that – in spite of so many undeniable surface improvements, in terms of legislation, regulation, investment in infrastructure, and so on – in some respects, we seem to keep moving backwards instead of forwards?

Admittedly, it’s one of those things that are much easier to talk about in generic than specific terms. Take the construction and development sector, for instance. It would be facile to deny that all the regulation in place today – between the PA’s meticulous permit application processes; the existence of a ‘Building Regulation Office’; public consultation on all major projects; an Appeals Tribunal, and all the rest – is technically far superior to whatever existed before the ‘Malta Environment and Planning Authority’ was first established in 1992.

Yet even just by looking out of your window - and choking on all the incoming dust as you open it – you can tell at a glance that the environmental and social impact of this sector is infinitely worse today, than anything we can remember from the distant 1980s.

Extend the view further, and you will realise that development has also been permitted to eat into far more previously virgin land – including arable land, or ODZ areas – than ever before: notwithstanding all the Constitutional and other legal instruments that supposedly exist to protect those areas; as well as the fact that environmental awareness (and, specifically, public resistance to over-development) is also arguably at an all-time high.

But much more importantly: the cost in terms of human life and limb is much, much higher than ever before, too. Over the past three years alone, more people have died in construction accidents – either in the form of workers killed on building sites, or people buried under the rubble of their own home – than in the preceding decade.

The most recent such headline (‘Worker Killed in Cospicua Wall Collapse’) dates back to July: almost a year after new building safety regulations had come into force, specifically in response to three previous fatalities also caused by building collapses.

And apart from instantly refocusing the spotlight on health and safety, that particular case also reminded us that there are other issues that are also supposed to be well-regulated at law, but which consistently keep rearing their ugly heads regardless. Like the exploitation of vulnerable people (usually African migrants) for cheap labour… which is about as close to ‘slavery’ as you can get, without chains, whips and active slave markets.

Sticking only to the construction example, then: there almost seems to be inverse proportionality between the amount of official regulation that exists on paper… and how well that sector is actually regulated in practice.

And I hate to say it, but this paradox is by no means limited to construction and development: or even to the environment in general. You could, in fact, apply it to almost any other issue you care to name. (For the sake of another quick example: today, there is much more detailed, specific legislation targeting mafia/money laundering than we ever had before; yet at the same time, we also have much, MUCH more in the way of money laundering and organised crime. Funny, huh?)

But we are still talking in purely generic – and therefore easy – terms. Matters become slightly harder when it comes to answering more specific questions: like why, exactly, does ‘more legislation’ always seem to always translate into ‘less regulation’?

OK, in some cases the answer might seem painfully obvious: and nowhere more so than the construction sector itself, where there are undisguised vested economic interests which outweigh virtually all other considerations (as can be attested by all those PA public hearings we read about so often, where the voices of concerned residents are routinely drowned out, and all reasonable objections instantly overruled, in the mad scramble to churn out as many building permits as possible.)   

But the mechanics of how it actually happens are slightly less clear-cut. Are the regulations themselves flawed? And if so, is it simply a case of having been poorly cobbled together… or were certain loopholes intentionally built into the system itself, so as to ensure a pre-ordained outcome?

Alternatively, it could also be that there is nothing effectively wrong with the regulation side of things; but that, for various reasons – including unwillingness, but also lack of manpower, resources, etc. – it is the enforcement side that is constantly found lacking or unprepared.

In any case, the precise answer is obviously going to vary from scenario to scenario. So for the rest of this article, I will limit myself to just one other example (and I think you’ll agree that it has certain parallels with the one I’ve been talking about so far).

Hunting.

It has, in fact, been a while since I’ve written about this particular topic; and this also ties in with that ‘inverse proportionality’ paradox I mentioned earlier.

Now that I think about it, part of the reason I stopped paying so much attention was that (naively, I now realise) I was under the impression that the hunting situation had actually improved quite a bit in recent years.

Yet this week – and we’re not even halfway through the autumn season yet – Birdlife Malta described the present scenario as ‘the worst year for illegal hunting’: having received more injured birds over the past nine months, than over the previous eight years put together.

And OK: Birdlife Malta chose to only go back eight years in their search for a ‘worse year for illegal hunting in Malta’. Had they extended their time-frame by a couple more decades, we would have gone back to a time when there were no such things as ‘hunting regulations’ at all (and, more to the point, when being ‘an anti-hunting activist in Malta’ was the closest you’d ever get to actually experiencing the Vietnam War).

Nearly everything we now associate with regulation in that area – e.g., that certain birds (the vast majority, as it happens) are supposedly ‘protected’; that hunting is not permitted in certain reservations (or near schools, or in cemeteries, etc.); that there are limitations on the type of firearm, ammunition, traps or calling devices used; even the existence of such things as ‘hunting seasons’ – pretty much all of it was introduced for the first time in 1981… only to be pretty much ignored anyway, for the better part of the next three decades.

From that perspective, it would be patently absurd to argue that there has been no improvement at all since those distant times. But then again, there’s a reason why BirdLife Malta limited their comparison only to the past eight years.

That, roughly, is how long ago (May 2013, to be precise) the Wild Birds Regulatory Unit was first set up within the Parliamentary Secretariat for Agriculture, Fisheries and Animal Rights; and the WBRU itself was only one small part of a much wider reform of hunting regulations at the time.

In October that year, Parliamentary Secretary Roderick Galdes announced other important amendments to hunting legislation: including doubling the fines for illegal hunting, and suspending hunting licences for repeat offenders.  Interestingly enough, these measures followed the umpteenth massacre of protected birds – Booted Eagles, I believe – suggesting that, from 2013 onwards, the government intended to finally clamp down on illegal hunting, once and for all.

Galdes even hailed his own amendment as “the most comprehensive revision of hunting legislation in Malta since the transposition of the EC Birds Directive into Maltese law in 2006”. Yet fast-forward only seven years, and – just like what happened in the construction sector, and so many others – the incidence of illegal hunting can once again demonstrably seen to have skyrocketed, in spite of all the recent amendments and ‘improvements’.

And once again, it appears to be a case of having all the necessary regulatory paraphernalia in place – in this case, successfully ticking off all the European Wild Birds Directive boxes as we went along: WBRU? Check. Administrative Law Enforcement Agency? Check…

… yet at every level, not a single one of those ‘checks’ really corresponds to a tangible reality on the ground.

The WBRU? It exists, yes… but ever since its inception in 2013, it has consistently been more concerned with seeking further derogations from the European Directive, than with enforcing the laws that are already in place.

And besides: since last January, it has been transplanted from the Animal Rights secretariat to (unaccountably) the Gozo Ministry: i.e., from the auspices of a parliamentary secretary (Galdes) who actually seemed to give a toss about regulating the sector… to a minister who just happens to be a very outspoken, very enthusiastic practitioner of hunting himself (and boy, does it show...)

Likewise, the ALE remains directly responsible for the full spectrum of hunting law enforcement of hunting laws; but where its staff complement has until recently always been beefed up to coincide with the hunting season – this year, the department was left with only 15 officers (and one vehicle) to monitor the activities of over 10,000 licensed hunters and trappers.

The result? More illegal hunting, more massacres of protected birds… and, I fear, more complacency from a general public which – like myself, until this week – has been lulled into believing that all those ‘reforms’ have actually made any difference whatsoever.

And this, I suspect, is why ‘more legislation’ so often translates into ‘less regulation’. It might not solve the problem at hand… but it does create the illusion that there isn’t even any problem to begin with...

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