Hands off Miżieb and l-Aħrax: this is about land use, not hunting

We need a popular alliance that helps us fight for the public’s right of access to the countryside, which – apart from being a right recognised by the Constitution – also has implications for the country’s mental health

The issue of who ‘owns’ the areas known as Il-Miżieb and l- Aħrax Tal-Mellieħa – two of Malta’s largest stretches of undeveloped woodland – is nothing new. In fact, it has been ongoing for over 30 years. 

The hunters’ federation FKNK has long claimed that Miżieb is a legal hunting reserve: by virtue of an agreement signed in 1986 by former Prime Minister Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, which placed the woodland under the “administration” of the FKNK.  

However, this claim has been disputed ever since, and has never been backed by solid documentary evidence. This was most clearly illustrated in 2017, when the hunters’ federation filed a police report against a Birdlife volunteer for accompanying BBC journalist Chris Packham to the area… an act which the FKNK interpreted as ‘trespassing’. 

However, magistrate Charmaine Galea dismissed the FKNK’s claims, noting they had failed to present a site plan of Miżieb and an authentic copy of the elusive 1986 agreement.  

As things stand, then, the FKNK has no right to deny people entry to those areas; or to assume the mantle of ‘custodian’ of public land. But all this could be about to change. 

It is against this backdrop that Prime Minister Robert Abela has chosen to resuscitate the issue: proposing to Cabinet that both Miżieb and l-Aħrax be turned over to hunters under a formal management agreement… thus ‘legitimising’ the FKNK’s claims. 

But the real problem has little to do with hunting, conservation or even basic park management. This is ultimately about Malta’s land-use policy: it is about the public’s right of access to the countryside, which – apart from being a right recognised by the Constitution – also has implications for the country’s mental health. 

The reality is that we are living at a time when an unprecedented percentage of Malta’s natural landscape is being lost to construction and urbanisation. Already there are reports indicating that the lack of access to nature is having deleterious effects on the population’ well-being: we are in danger of raising future generations of children who will never see a tree, encounter any wildlife, or even hear the sound of birdsong. 

If government goes ahead with this proposal, it would be intentionally depriving the public of access to Malta’s largest open woodland areas. For past experience indicates the FKNK will prevent the public from entering the sites... and this time, their claims of ‘trespassing’ will not be so easily rejected by the courts: given that a legal agreement would, in fact, exist. 

Effectively, it would mean barring entry to people during five months of autumn hunting season, and the beginning of spring in April: i.e., the ideal time of year for the Maltese public to enjoy such spaces. 

Regardless of one’s views of hunting, this is simply unacceptable. With public land increasingly becoming an endangered resource, it is unconscionable to simply donate such a large swathe of pristine countryside to only one select lobby. 

But the proposal must also be countered for reasons of social justice. Time and again we have seen powerful lobbies secure special privileges, to the detriment of all other concerns. This generates a deep feeling of helplessness and frustration in the face of greed and egoism, that in turn contributes to a downward psychological spiral.  

For this reason, the effort requires a popular alliance not just of environmental NGOs, but also civil action groups – including resident groups who are trying to fight the attack on their own urban centres from unbridle construction – as well as professional associations and institutions. People who can help in this regard include the Chamber of Architects, the Chamber of Psychologists (as well as other ancillary health workers), the Chamber of Advocates, and also people who are in the creative industry: artists, writers and musicians. 

Why? Because there is far more at stake here than wildlife conservation alone: however important that consideration may be. This is a primarily a land-use issue, with far-reaching implications for our mental wellbeing, and the meaning of what it is to be a citizen in Malta today.  

Clearly, the proper way forward is to propose the equivalent of a Natural Parks Authority (as exist in other countries), in which all stakeholders are represented to ensure proper management of the site in question; and to ensure the widest possible enjoyment of the land, with strict rules in place. 

Nonetheless, it must start with civil society action. For if people do not form a front for common decency, of vocal anger and indignation… we will remain powerless forever.