The ‘conservation conflict’: Is a referendum the answer?

Is a referendum on hunting the only solution to resolve the conflict between hunters and conservationists, or do opportunities exist for cooperation?

There are many things over which hunters and conservations could work on common grounds, BirdLife President Mark Sultana said, but this is highly unlikely when it comes to spring hunting.

“The reason for this is that the issue of protecting birds migrating to their breeding ground is a conservation value that we strongly believe in,” he said.

Sultana was reacting to points raised in an article titled To Ban or Not to Ban: Is That the Question?, published on Maltese webzine Isles of The Left.

The article by Brian Campbell and Diogo Verisimmo – respectively Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, and Oxford Martin Fellow at the University of Oxford – suggested, among other things, that conservationists and hunters ought to work together to strike a compromise on issues including spring hunting, and that a referendum was only strengthening the divide between the two camps – even going as far as to say that the two camps have “developed a contentious history of nasty (and sometimes violent) encounters that only served to worsen how they view each other.”

“I’m not sure what the author is concluding here, but surely any nasty encounters were never triggered by BirdLife Malta,” Sultana said. “We never burnt trees, sprayed on historical monuments, destroyed cars, shot at wardens, or threw bottles at the facade of Castille, offending the prime minister and his wife.”

“One has to see goodwill from all sides of any issue in order to attain harmony and an acceptable balance. Unfortunately, the path chosen by Birdlife Malta couldn’t be any further from achieving this goal,” President of Saint Hubert Hunters (KSU) Mark Mifsud Bonnici said.

Mifsud Bonnici went on to explain that spring hunting was one of the special arrangements negotiated by Government with the EU Commission in accession negotiations, and that the government at the time had the assurance of Birdlife on derogation.

St Hubert Hunters Nyal Xuereb
St Hubert Hunters Nyal Xuereb

“Since then, BirdLife’s rational leadership succumbed to pressure from its international partners, who were literally ignorant of the reason for derogation, and literally went on the warpath against spring hunting,” Mifsud Bonnici told this newspaper.

Mifsud Bonnici said that KSU have no problem working on common grounds with ornithologists (those who study birds). “We collaborate with an independent group of ornithologists that fell out with Birdlife Malta due to its aggressive stance,” he said, explaining that the organisation has embarked upon a project to install nest boxes as a result of this collaboration.

A number of KSU hunters participate in bird photography with the group of ornithologists, and the organisation has also taken part in a series of lectures given by an ornithologist for hunters.

“Yet nothing seems to appease what can only be termed as an anti-spring hunting crusade by BirdLife Malta and its like-minded partners. Clearly there is no intention on their part to reach a compromise and in their view the question whether to ban or not to ban is not up for discussion.”

But Sultana said that BirdLife, likewise, have had a number of ad-hoc working experiences with hunters. When a number of swans needed help as they were stranded in a valley in Gozo, BirdLife organised feeding timetables which they shared with hunters until the birds regained their strength and flew off. "We also participated in tree planting activities and clean-ups with hunters,” he said.

“I do, however, think that it is time to sit around a table and get things clear to work on common ground. We could start by identifying what we do not agree on and cannot budge on, and agree to leave those out. But on so many grounds, we can still work together,” Sultana said.

In February, BirdLife toyed with the idea of a second referendum in response to the decision by the Ornis Committee to recommend moving the spring hunting season forward by two weeks.

This suggestion was subsequently met and appeased by the government, which then moved the spring hunting dates forward, thereby coinciding it with the peak migration of the protected turtle dove.

Fast forward the end of the new spring hunting season, and surely enough, a significant number of protected birds were shot, with BirdLife Malta claiming that the vast majority of hunters spotted were hunting illegally for turtle dove and not quail.

Mifsud Bonnici doesn’t believe that another referendum would solve the conservation conflict. “The current conflict can only escalate to the detriment of tackling common issues that put conservation at risk.”

KSU committee member Nyal Xuereb said that the socio-economic and political perspective must be analysed prior to a referendum, as he believes that the spring hunting referendum further emphasised a social divide. “The referendum attracted social participation in the run-up to the actual vote. Such participation progressed into an ‘us’ and ‘them’ issue.”

“One must hence ask: did society benefit from such a divide? How will another social divide, within such a short time-frame, benefit society?”

For Xuereb, the reason behind the previous referendum result is obvious. “Having self-declared majority backing for years, arrogance took over and they lost touch with the social fabric of the Maltese society,” he said, explaining that extremist and abolitionist positions are not backed by the majority of the electorate.

Birdlife miss a very important aspect of Maltese society, according to Xuereb. “Practically, in each and every family, even if at an extended level – a hunter is present.” It comes as no surprise that attachment to family members wins over the hearts and minds of Maltese voters.

Xuereb is also concerned by the cost of running another referendum, especially within a short-time frame. He insisted that the cost is not justified, especially considering that BirdLife “acknowledges errors in its campaign”. He said this should instead be considered as an “admittance, from the entity itself, of gross negligence and incompetence” as well as “a lack of respect for society.”

The previous referendum cost society millions, according to Xuereb, who has ethical objections to this. “Shall society keep on funding its ‘training’ games, till the entity produces a winning strategy?” he said. This is seen as particularly unfair since hunters have to pay licences which could otherwise be funnelled into conservation projects.

Conservationists, including BirdLife, tend to believe that scientific facts and dialogue should be enough for a government to take the right decisions

There may also be an ideological side to the spring hunting debate, which makes a victory for anti-hunting conservationists even less likely. “Europe – and that includes Malta – has seen a popular gain in liberal ideologies,” Xuereb said, noting that Birdlife proposals are inherently illiberal. A referendum “seeks to restrict rather than grant rights” to only a “fraction of society.”

But BirdLife say that they would not opt for a referendum unless they believed that it would bring about positive change. “While building bridges and working on common grounds would remain a valid tool and method to safeguard nature through collaboration, we still need to work on having legislation changed so as not to allow for spring hunting,” BirdLife CEO Mark Sultana said.

This might only come about through a referendum, and Sultana thinks that we should not shy away from it simply due to potential collateral damage.

Conservationists, including BirdLife, tend to believe that scientific facts and dialogue should be enough for a government to take the right decisions. “But if this does not happen, and the enforcement authorities, including the EU Commission, do not act against the wrong decision, then surely the referendum would remain the last resort and should be used as told to bring about change – albeit a bit ‘forceful’,” Sultana said.

Besides, a referendum is not there to resolve any conflicts. “A referendum is designed to allow the people to decide on a matter in which the government doesn’t feel it has remit,” Sultana said. “Another referendum, if necessary, would mean that it is the only hope to seek the right decision on spring hunting, but it is obviously not going to change the opinions of hunters – so an element of conflict will remain, and hopefully dwindle over time.”

But what about other issues? The article published by the Isle of the Left suggested that both parties could hold similar views on issues such as urban development. “Calls for them to work together in greater coalitions to protect encroachment into Outside Development Zones (ODZ) might well represent those few opportunities left for reconciliation, which are essential if conservation is to succeed,” it read.

But Sultana thinks that the hunting lobby does not work quite the same way as an NGO. “The hunters would be welcomed to join the rest of civil society and protests and policy work on such an issue,” he said, explaining that BirdLife is not all about birds and hunting. In fact, the organisation works tirelessly to push for environmental consciousness, particularly with regard to the development sector in the country.

BirdLife CEO Mark Sultana
BirdLife CEO Mark Sultana

“We can work with government one day, and criticise it on the same day, mainly because what we work on is not for our members but for the common good of the country,” Sultana said. “Unfortunately, the hunting lobby only has interest in the good of its members, so they have yet to earn that level of respect. Surely they do not feel comfortable in criticising government policy on anything but hunting and trapping.” If true, such a position would make it endlessly difficult for environmentalist groups and hunters to work together.

Sultana recognises that a referendum would not solve all problems, but that’s not what a referendum would be aiming to do anyway. “We are not working on one front only,” he told us, explaining that BirdLife works towards policy change in other ways, and thinks long-term.

The eNGO focuses on education, especially with children, to foster respect towards nature, and pours its efforts into enforcement – either by doing it themselves or by pressuring authorities to act. They have also incessantly demanded for a wildlife crime unit to be set up within the police force, and collaborated with various stakeholders – including hunters. “Our hands are reaching out to start discussing issues,” Sultana confirmed.

In fact, he said that he would fully support managing the conflict between the two camps and reaching an agreement.

Just not on spring hunting: “The two lobbies cannot agree or compromise, because on values, you do not compromise.”

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