Dwejra: Gone with the wind – Alfred E. Baldacchino
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Dwejra is a special area of conservation forming part of the EU Natura 2000 sites according to the Habitats Directive, as locally transposed by legal notice 311 of 2006. Nature Trust (Malta), in 2003, in partnership with the Malta Environment and Planning Authority and WWF Italy, acquired an EU LIFE grant for Dwejra, amounting to €324,000. An action plan was drawn up by a steering committee and approved by the Mepa board and endorsed by the government on November 29, 2005 – www.mepa.org.mt/LpDocumentDetails?syskey=%20541.
Once completed in 2007, the project had to have an integrated conservation and management plan for the area, complete conservation and full protection of the site, increased environmental awareness, a stronger enforcement function in the areas, a long-term sustainability plan for the site and had to serve as a guide of good practice for the setting-up of other coastal nature reserves in the Mediterranean basin. And I am not joking.
During the implementation of the project, work was stopped for a number of months because of the building of a restaurant on the site. An EU delegation visited the island, and Nature Trust subsequently resigned from the steering committee commenting that, since 2007, the site has been left to deteriorate and “the place is now unmanaged and abandoned”. The only progress registered was the building of the restaurant.
This November 1st, six NGOs drew Mepa’s attention to the scandalous disaster at Dwejra Natura 2000 site, following a Mepa permit issued to Fire and Blood Productions. A substantial area of the rocky coast was covered with crushed construction waste of hardstone aggregate, rich in lime which kills micro-organisms, with disastrous effects. The company filming Gate Of Throne apologised and blamed the subcontractor. The planning director was quoted as saying the least sensitive zone (sic!), about 750 square metres, had been specially earmarked for filming, blaming the production company for not informing Mepa when it started laying the sand and using plastic mesh. Mepa said in a briefing it would be making a case to withdraw part of or the entire €15,000 bank guarantee and it was not ruling out other measures of redress. Mepa also said it wanted to send out a clear message the company could still be held liable for other damages through criminal and civil proceeding and the bank guarantee did not exonerate it from other penalties.
It is quite customary now for Mepa to lock the stable doors after the horse has bolted.
In one of the news bulletins it was remarked how nice the cleaned rocks looked and how the filming works generated €5million. I believe the filming company would gladly have paid €150,000 to construct such a film set. Forfeiting €15,000 is quite a discount bargain. Sedentary species present in the area covered by the plastic mesh had heavy weight dumped on them, trampled upon when the sand was laid and again when it was removed. Furthermore, the left over quarry limestone sand which passed through the mesh will continue to impact the habitat until this disappears. The brushing up process carried out to “clean” the Natura 2000 site also has a negative impact and may damage biota, sweep it up with the sand or will sweep up naturally occurring sediment as well, thus changing the habitat characteristics. Species included in the Species Data Form forwarded by Mepa to the EU when Dwejra was proposed as a special area of conservation includes plants, lichens and small crevice-dwelling invertebrates. The area harbours two endemic woodlice, an endemic pseudoscorpion and also endemic snails, not excluding other species, such as insects. A permit allowing the covering of such a footprint with crushed construction waste of hardstone aggregate, even if carried out to the letter of the conditions, would also have resulted in negative impact. The director of environment, the person responsible for the implementation of the Habitats Directive, knowing full well there should have been a prior environment impact assessment for any commercial activity not related to the management of the Natura 2000 site, was quoted as saying residual damage was still being quantified but it was not looking bad (sic). Perhaps the scientific studies that led to such a statement can be officially published in connection with such a permit which could not, and should not, have been issued.
If I did not personally follow the evolvements of such shameful episodes in an EU member state’s Natura 2000 site, I would have thought all this is fiction. But, then, fiction meant to please should have as much resemblance as possible to truth. In its role as the protector of the environment, both in the national and in a European Community context, Mepa has lost the game of thrones. It is such an impotent weakling in the field of environmental protection when faced by glamorous commercial projects.
With apologies to J. B. Priestley’s classic play An Inspector Calls, “…I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood…” The EU DG Environment should investigate how Natura 2000 sites in Malta are being brought to disrepute.
Alfred E. Baldacchino