The Mosta trees debacle

The problem is that the lack of discussion with residents before the plans were put into action has created a situation of antagonism that clouds any form of proper judgement

The anger generated by the decision to uproot the ficus trees that have been gracing the car park next to Mosta’s parish church is understandable.

The trees are part of the locality’s collective memory apart from providing shade that helps lower the surface temperature in a hot climate like Malta. They also served as roosting sites for wagtails, sparrows and other birds.

Any decision to prune them to a barren trunk and eventually uproot them for transport to a different location was bound to cause outrage, especially when government is constantly flaunting what it believes are its green credentials.

The mere scene of barren trunks and disoriented birds flying around their vanished roosting site led to an emotional response from ordinary people.

This should have been foreseen by the Mosta council when it proposed the uprooting of these trees to replace them with indigenous species as part of the main square’s regeneration.

Unfortunately, the council and its mayor have been conspicuous by their absence ever since bulldozers moved in and workers sawed off the branches. The public reaction was left to the Environment and Resources Authority that justified its decision to give the plans a green light.

ERA said the uprooted trees will be transplanted in another area in Mosta and replaced with Holm Oaks and Judas trees, whose roots are less invasive than ficus trees.

There may be valid and practical reasons to justify the removal of trees from a location, or their replacement with other species.

The roots of ficus trees are aggressive and cause damage to building foundations, road surfaces, pavements and underground services.

It would make little sense to pave Mosta’s main square, change all underground essential services, and ensure surfaces are flat and accessible for everyone, only to have these damaged within a couple of years because of the trees’ roots.

But none of this was explained to the public, leaving everyone questioning as to whether this was the latest bout of tree felling to satisfy someone’s need to make a statement.

If new, different trees make more sense for that particular location then it should be less of a problem to adopt the council’s chosen course of action, controversial as it may be.

The problem, however, with projects like these has always been that the replacement trees are saplings, which leave the space denuded for many years to come, rather than plant trees that would have matured to a certain level and which would provide better foliage cover in the shorter term.

The Paola square regeneration is one such example. The square today provides a bigger and continuous space where people can meet and organise activities. The problem is that the trees planted instead of the mature ficus trees that had been removed are still growing thus providing no shade.

It is obvious that planting more mature trees, specifically pruned for public areas is costlier but it makes more sense to spend more and reap the benefits earlier.

But there is also another consideration that cannot be dismissed easily. Trees, like buildings, are part of the urban fabric that gives a place its characteristics. They are part of the collective memory of a place. Removing them is like erasing a memory forever.

This is why any decision to re-engineer a public space by removing trees or replacing existing ones with different ones, has to be taken with extreme caution.

It is absurd that the Mosta tree debacle led to the arrest of Graffitti activist Andre Callus during yesterday’s peaceful action to stop workers from moving ahead with the tree-chopping exercise. It has been a long time since activists have been arrested during protests, which is also testament to the current administration’s lack of sensitivity in situations like these.

Greater sensitivity must be shown to the community and if works can be done in such a way that preserve existing tree landmarks the plans should be amended to incorporate the current landscape.

The problem is that the lack of discussion with residents before the plans were put into action has created a situation of antagonism that clouds any form of proper judgement.