Shooting down political interference

One expects that any future decision – not just on Mizieb and Ahrax; but on public land in general – will not be taken for political reasons; but instead, according to very strict criteria and only under prior consultation with the public

An Appeals Court ruling handed down last week did more than just ‘shoot down’ the government’s 2020 decision to cede Mizieb and L-Ahrax – two woodland areas in the north of Malta, covering an area larger than Buskett - to the custodianship of the hunters’ federation, FKNK.

It also established that the deal itself was all along illegal; exposing an uncomfortable degree of political interference, in the process.

The concession itself was granted in a private meeting with FKNK in October 2020 – to which the media were not invited – attended by Transport Minister Ian Borg, Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia, Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri and Parliamentary Secretary Chris Agius.

In his ruling, Mr Justice Lawrence Mintoff declared that this deal was now “null and without effect”, because it had not been carried out according to the formalities of the law in force.

Effectively, the Lands Authority had no legal right to concede to the FKNK a “personal right” to manage these sites without a formal process mandated by law.

Moreover, the Appeals Court observed that the Lands Authority was expected to have made a more rigorous examination as to whether these countryside parcels could be entrusted to the FKNK, within the parameters of the law.

But a closer examination of the details also reveals that the entire arrangement – all the way from its inception, in the distant 1980s – had been mired in other procedural flaws.

The FKNK first requested to manage the two sites in August 2014; and as title to its claim, it pointed towards a 1986 press release in which former prime minister Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici allegedly “confirmed his approval” for Miżieb to be designated as a hunting reserve.

The letter also mentions that the same applies for a project “in the limits of Mellieħa”.

Another photocopy of a press release, issued by the FKNK in 1989, claimed to contain a handwritten note by acting prime minister Guido de Marco granting the title of possession to FKNK on the same lands.

But the originals of these two documents no longer exist, and no formal supporting documentation exists, not even a site plan specifying the extent of the two sites.

Already, then, the FKNK’s claim to this land was vitiated from the start. Neither the fact that a former Prime Minister had once consented to the deal, nor that the proposal itself appeared to enjoy cross-party support, adds up to any legal justification of the concession. (Even if these claims were ever supported by evidence: which they never were).

But in September 2017, a separate court concluded that these documents did not give FKNK a legal claim over the site.

This was confirmed by a reply to an FOI request by Arnold Cassola dated May 2020, where the authority confirmed that “to date no agreement, concession, lease, emphyteusis, title of ownership, encroachment, possession, or mere tolerance management and or services and or consultancy agreement has been entered into between the GPD and or Lands Authority and the FKNK”.

But when the Lands Authority opened a new file to handle the FKNK’s 2014 request, the only documentation exhibited (in the case brought by the NGOs against the concession) were the same documents provided by FKNK in their letter. Elsewhere, the arrangement is riddled with transparency issues.

Ingram Bondin, president of the Ramblers’ Association, revealed that Lands Authority CEO James Piscopo had received ‘political direction’ to set the FKNK’s annual fee at just €400: without any standard procedure used to determine the amount.

And to add insult to injury: it turns out the €400 was a further reduction from the initial amount of about €1,000.

Bondin also observes that “none of the meetings [between government officials and FKNK] were minuted and everything was done verbally. No related documents were found to exist, either in the archives of the ministry for transport led by Ian Borg or in the underlying parliamentary secretariat of Agius.”

“During these discussions, FKNK provided its own site plans and the government simply included the specified areas in Aħrax and Miżieb in the annulled concession. This area included Qammiegħ, which had never been mentioned before in the Mifsud Bonnici and de Marco documents.”

Bondin adds that a subsequent memorandum of understanding with the Environment and Resources Authority appears to have been an afterthought. One can only concur with the Rambler’s president, then, that when he concludes that all this “illustrates the failure of governance at all levels which has taken place during the award of this concession.”

Nonetheless, there are indications that government may intend to persist in the same illegality.

The FKNK has reacted to the ruling by seeking fresh meetings with government; and Environment Minister Miriam Dalli stopped short of excluding any future repetition of the same mistakes: saying simply that the government will be ‘studying the court ruling’.

Clearly, this not enough.

One expects that any future decision – not just on Mizieb and Ahrax; but on public land in general – will not be taken for political reasons; but instead, according to very strict criteria and only under prior consultation with the public.

Anything less would be both illegal, and – quite frankly – shameful.