A cowardly government held at gun-point

Labour has concretised the popular perception of a government that is – almost literally, in this case – held at gun-point by a single lobby-group. Will the EU continue to tolerate such a blatant travesty of environmental management, in one of its member states?

Although not immediately connected, two stories that emerged this week (on the same day, in fact) speak volumes about the sheer extent to which Malta’s political establishment is enthralled to certain powerful lobby-groups.

The first was the announcement of a deal between government and the federations representing the local hunting community, whereby the latter were granted control over two large tracts of public land, in Miżieb and L-Aħrax respectively.

The second was the umpteenth report of a massacre of protected species, during what has proven to be the worst Autumn season on record for hunting illegalities: this time, a flock of at least 12 short-toed eagles gunned down in Gozo.

In different ways, both these events illustrate how the present government has simply caved in to all the hunters’ demands – without achieving any visible progress when it comes to properly regulating the practice of hunting in Malta.

It is, in fact, no coincidence at all that the illegal hunting situation has deteriorated so drastically in recent months and years. Those 12 short-toed eagles have to be added to at least 618 protected species that were retrieved by Birdlife Malta, after being shot by hunters, since 2013: 70% of which were shot over the last four years.

And this can only be described as the inevitable result of Abela’s policy to appease the hunting community at all costs.

Over the past 12 months alone, government has taken a number of initiatives aimed at weakening Malta’s environmental enforcement infrastructure. These include the bizarre and inexplicable decision to remove the Wild Birds Regulatory Unit from the auspices of the Environment Ministry – where is so clearly belongs – and place it instead within the remit of the Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri: who is himself a hunter, and therefore caught up in a clear and unequivocal conflict of interest.

Another was the decision to limit the number of Administrative Law Enforcement officers to a mere handful; whilst also permitting the Spring season to open as usual, despite the health restrictions imposed on practically all other activities because of COVID-19.

In a nutshell, the present government has on the one hand maximized the scope for illegal hunting to take place; and on the other, minimised the ability of law enforcement to monitor the countryside for illegalities.

Hardly surprising, then, that an already lawless situation would spiral so completely out of control.

It is against this backdrop that the Miżieb and L-Aħrax hand-over must be adjudicated: all the more so, because Minister Ian Borg justified this decision by claiming that the hunters “had done a good job” of administering those sites in the past.

Even if true, this is hardly a valid excuse to sign away large areas of public land – in a country where open spaces are already at a premium – and limit public accessibility only to when there is no hunting season: which includes both the two-week spring hunting season, but also an autumn season that lasts five whole months (from September to January).

Unfortunately, however, Borg’s claim is anything but the truth: as can be attested by the sheer amount of illegalities reported in those areas in the past.

In 2009 and 2010, for instance, birdwatchers had found a ‘cemetery’ of more than 270 dead protected birds in all parts of Miżieb: and similar macabre discoveries were sporadically made – albeit on a smaller scale – until at least 2014.

Il-Miżieb was also the scene of at least two violent assaults on birdwatchers by hunters; and while it would be unfair to hold associations like the FKNK directly responsible for such crimes, these incidents amply suggest that the hunters’ federation is – at best – unable to control the more lawless elements within its community.

As such, it is unconscionable that the same organisation would be granted full control over the areas in question, for a mere €400 a year; and even, under the terms of the agreement signed yesterday, permitted to draw up their own project plan to determine which areas are accessible to the public or not in both sites.

To add insult to injury, the FKNK has only been obliged to ensure that no illegalities take place in the sites “within [the FKNK’s] reasonable power”. Given its past track record, it is clear that the hunters’ federation has neither the ‘reasonable power’, nor even the will to tackle illegalities: not in Il-Miżieb or l-Aħrax, or even anywhere else where hunting and trapping is practised – with impunity - in Malta.

Perhaps the shabbiest aspect of this deal, however, is that it merely concretises the popular perception of a government that is – almost literally, in this case – held at gun-point by a single lobby-group.

One can only wonder how long the European Union will continue to tolerate such a blatant travesty of environmental management, in one of its member states.