NGOs suing Lands on Miżieb and Aħrax say handover is illegal

NGOs say handover of woodlands to FKNK was without scrutiny and equivalent to a land transfer under the government Lands Act, but without public call for tenders

Full support: four ministers preside over the agreement to give hunters two woodlands under their stewardship
Full support: four ministers preside over the agreement to give hunters two woodlands under their stewardship

A group of NGOs suing the Lands Authority and the transport ministry over the handover of woodlands at l-Aħrax tal-Mellieha and Mizieb to hunting lobby FKNK, have argued that the absence of environmental studies and public consultation before the handover rendered it illegal.

The NGOs said the decision was equivalent to a land transfer under the government Lands Act, but had not been done in the manner stipulated by that law, in that there was no public call for tenders or prior mention in the Government Gazette.

Among other grounds raised by Birdlife Malta, Moviment Graffitti, Din L-Art Helwa, Friends of the Earth Malta, Flimkien Ghal Ambjent Ahjar, it was argued that the contract was a simulation of a management agreement, when in fact it was a transfer. This rendered it null, they said.

In the reply by the Lands Authority, signed by lawyer Robert Musumeci, the authority argued that the land transfer was legal, and that government-owned land could be leased for “humanitarian, philanthropic, cultural or social” reasons.

“It is undisputed that the FKNK has a cultural and social dimension in this country and had been leased land in the same manner as other NGOs over the years. Perhaps by coincidence, one of these arrangements took place precisely with BirdLife (one of the plaintiffs).”

The Authority said the agreement describes the grant as a “personal right competent solely to the guardian of the site and is restricted solely and exclusively to the operation of the site” and that the FKNK was not exempt from obatining all the necessary permits required by law for tge implementation of the services and tasks referred to in the MOU.

The NGOs have told the court the decision to pass large tracts of public land to a private entity took place without scrutiny, valuation and the necessary considerations. This contrasted with the manner in which requests for the transfer of public land to individuals and other organisations were handled, they said. This indicated discrimination was at play.

In addition, the zones in question are part of the SPED framework, which was subject to the Protocol on Integrated Coastal Zone Management in the Mediterranean, ratified by Malta and the EU. It would be shown at a later stage how the defendant authority failed to abide by the objectives of the protocol. This, apart from being Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protected Areas under the Natura 2000 regime under the EU’s Habitats Directive and Birds Directive.

Under those directives, it was mandatory to carry out studies and public consultation before issuing plans or projects in such areas. But these were not and neither had environmental impact assessments been carried out. The defendant ministry had not even given a justification for its divergence from the legal requirements, said the NGOs.

They argued that the defendant had rewarded the FKNK with a generous agreement whilst ignoring the many illegal structures and practises its members would carry out in the Aħrax and Miżieb areas. These had been formally reported by the plaintiffs and were easily ascertainable by the Authority. This whittled away at the principles of good governance in a country where the Rule of Law supposedly reigns, submitted the plaintiffs.

Lawyers Claire Bonello and Christine Bellizzi signed the court application.

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