Comino’s pig farm descends into state of total neglect

The future of Comino is for ‘previously developed’ sites to turn into tourism projects, but MEPA says its new policy is only a ‘general principle’

The Malta Environment and Planning Authority is not excluding redevelopment of the former pig farm in Comino, located near a coastal gun battery on the side facing the Malta shore, for tourism purposes. 

The farm, which was built on pristine land in the 1979 and returned to government in 2011, lies in a state of complete abandonment despite repeated calls by environment NGO Din l-Art Helwa for the government to rehabilitate the site.

A consultation document on the Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development specifically refers to tourism development on “previously developed land” in Comino.

The new draft document ambiguously refers to the need to make “better use” of “previously developed land” in Comino for “tourism and recreation purposes”.

When asked whether the pig farm is one of the sites where such development can take place, a MEPA spokesperson insisted that the reference to tourism development in Comino is a “general principle… the proposed SPED document is intended to give strategic direction and does not refer to specific sites.”

Questions sent to former parliamentary secretary for planning, Michael Farrugia, on whether the government has any plans for the Comino pig farm have remained unanswered. 

Comino is designated as a Natura 2000 site in its entirety. But although mostly pristine, it also includes a number of developed sites, including a police station, an isolation hospital, a hotel, a cemetery, and an abandoned pig farm.

The abandoned pig farm dates back to the 1970s when it was built to take advantage of Comino’s isolation in order to restock Malta’s pig population, which had been totally destroyed by a vicious outbreak of African Swine Fever. 

In 2011, MEPA approved a permit to relocate the few remaining pigs to a more organised farm in Ghammieri. One of the sticking points was who was responsible for cleaning the site.

Ultimately MEPA decided that the pig farmers’ cooperative would have to be responsible for cleaning up the area. But no details were given on how this was going to take place. Three years later, the place is still littered with rubbish, including telephones, beds and files inside the abandoned buildings. 

For the past years, Din l-Art Helwa has been calling on the government to rehabilitate the land. But instead of restoring the site to its natural state, the government could be tempted to offer the site for tourist development, now that the principle is accepted in the structure plan.

Educational farm

Din l-Art Helwa council member Alan Deidun thinks that the former pig farm should be used for educational purposes. “The former pig farm on Comino would make an ideal environmental education centre, with dormitories and lecture rooms for small groups of students on the same lines as a similar Centre at Xrobb l-Ghagin and Villa Psaigon in Buskett.”

It could also serve as a wildlife and astronomy observatory, in view of the remoteness of the site and its larger dark sky area.

The area also could offer facilities which give respite for ramblers, especially during inclement weather when the boat transport service might be stopped at short notice. 

Din l-Art Helwa insists that MEPA should not only limit development to the footprint of any existing development, but importantly limit the height of any development. “Any proposals for development or re-development on Comino must be subject to the most rigorous of scrutiny. The low-lying contours along certain parts of the island should not be intruded upon by visually obtrusive (high-rising) development”.

He also insists that the definition of what constitutes ‘disturbed’ and ‘committed’ land should be left in the hands of MEPA’s Environment Protection  Directorate… and not in the hands of developers’ architects.

With the exception of the pig farm, no construction has taken place on Comino during the last 34 years

All eyes on Comino 

With the exception of the pig farm, no construction has taken place on Comino during the past 34 years. Historically, the island was leased for 150 years to Comino Development Co. Ltd, a company owned by John Gaul, at the annual rent of £100. 

The Borg Olivier government negotiated a new deal to reduce Gaul’s ownership to the area presently occupied by the Comino Hotel, at San Niklaw Bay and the bungalows at Santa Marija Bay. But it also refused the development of a restaurant on sister island Cominotto, to be connected by means of a suspension bridge.

In the late 1960s the Comino Hotel was acquired by Cecil Pace, but when the banker was arrested over misappropriation of funds and his BICAL bank licence suspended, the hotel was indiscriminately returned to John Gaul.

An application for the extension of the Comino Hotel was presented 15 years ago and then suspended by MEPA in 2003, when the architect failed to submit the required documents within the legal timeframe.

In 2007, the hotel changed ownership after entrepreneurs Joseph Gasan and George Fenech bought a share in Kemmuna Ltd, which runs the Comino Hotel and bungalows on the island, after acquiring Ropes Services Ltd in November 2007, a company registered in the Isle of Man. Ropes Services then acquired 551,470 ordinary shares in Kemmuna Ltd, with the remaining 698,530 belonging to Mizzi Associated Enterprises, owned by property magnate Albert Mizzi.

The company’s objectives include the administration of yacht charter, property development, and to develop new residential and commercial properties. Subsequently the developers presented two reports to MEPA but no further progress was made on this application.

The local plan for Comino accords the island the status of Special Area of Conservation and nature reserve, and only allows developers to “upgrade” the existing tourist complex and hotel if it is “compatible with the sensitivity of the surrounding context”.