Why do we have an Environment Ministry, anyway?

Does he himself agree with Malta’s obstinacy in permitting finch-trapping, even in the face of an ECJ court-case? If so, can he justify that decision on any purely environmental grounds?

OK, that’s probably a headline I’ve used before – after all, it gets a little difficult to remember them all, after your first… ooh, let’s see now: four years of writing regular articles in newspapers (which, in my case, would have been back in 1999) – but I won’t apologise for repeating it today, because…

Well, there are two reasons: one, nobody has ever come up with a convincing answer, in all that time; and two, the question itself is arguably more relevant than ever before.

Seriously, though: why do we have an Environment Ministry, exactly? What is its wherefore, and whither is it withering? (And, while I’m at it… what the heck do its employees even do all day, to fill up all those endless hours of entirely pointless, purposeless existence?)

Reason I ask (yet again) is that… let’s just say I was struck by something Minister Aaron Farrugia said this week. Not, I hasten to add, in the sense that ‘he actually said something, for a change’…  for while he is not exactly what you’d call a ‘chatterbox’; the Environment Minister does, at least, speak out from time to time… even if it is mostly to boast about all the ‘wonderful things’ his ministry will ‘soon be doing’ (like, um, reforming the entire planning sector: which also happens to fall within his remit)…

But no matter: in this case, what he actually said turned out to be a good deal more noteworthy. Asked to justify his government’s decision to open a finch-trapping season this year - in defiance of ongoing infringe proceedings by the European Commission - the Environment Minister replied:

“This is not something that falls within my remit, but the government believes that what it is doing is just and it will fight for and defend its position with the Commission.”

Hmm. Ok, there’s a lot to chew on there, for such a short statement. Starting with: ‘This’ – i.e., ‘hunting and trapping’ – ‘is not something that falls within [the Environment Minister’s] remit.’

Of course, he’s perfectly right: and we all know perfectly why, too. One of Robert Abela’s very first decisions as Prime Minister – taken in January 2020, no less – was to remove hunting from the environment portfolio, and hand it over to Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri instead.

But still… let’s just pause for a second, to admire the sheer earth-shattering nonsensicality of that very fact: Hunting and trapping, moved from ‘The Environment’, to… erm… ‘Gozo’.

I mean, come on. That’s so daft, you can’t even realistically call it ‘bird-brained’. (And I mean that, too: there are some birds – including crows and ravens – that are intelligent enough to count up to at least four. Those would certainly be able to understand the absurdity, even if some humans might struggle slightly…)

And I won’t waste too much time explaining why, either. Let’s just say that – whatever one’s personal opinion in the matter – hunting and trapping both involve ‘removing’ (or ‘taking’, to use the altogether more apt conservationist term) wild birds from their natural habitat…. and this is very obviously going to have far-reaching consequences on a wide variety of purely environmental concerns.

To some degree or other, it is going to impact the global populations of the wild birds themselves. And while this might not be a major concern with any of the seven species of finch that are trapped in Malta: two of those species – the serin and linnet – are ‘in decline’ (albeit not alarmingly, for now).

In the broader picture, however, the continued depletion of wild birdlife (whether caused by hunting, or not) may even have serious long-term global consequences. Not to bore you with the whole ‘butterfly-wing effect’ principle, and all that, but… some birds are instrumental in controlling the populations of certain pests; and some birds are themselves preyed upon by other animals (and so on, ad infinitum).

So a severe population decline in any particular bird species, may conceivably result in the unchecked spread of, say, a particular kind of vermin…

… and, oh look, what a coincidence: Malta succeeded in exterminating its resident breeding Kestrel and Barn Owl populations decades ago… and the population of rats has meanwhile - by some unknown, utterly mysterious force of nature – exponentially exploded, almost to the point where we need to call in the ‘Pied Piper of Hamrun’ (again)…

And on and on the butterfly effect goes, until it eventually starts to impact even such unlikely things as Climate Change: one of the EU’s core ‘Development Targets’… and as far as I know, still part of Aaron Farrugia’s remit to this day (unless, of course, they moved it to the ‘Ministry of Funny Walks’ while I wasn’t looking...)

Yes, folks. Climate Change. After all, we don’t use the expression ‘the birds and the bees’ for nothing, do we? OK, the bees might do most of the actual work… but the birds also help a little, in the pollination process that permits plant-life to properly propagate on this planet… thus increasing the volume of CO2 removed from the atmosphere; reducing the ‘greenhouse effect’; and above all, allowing me to set a new World Record for the number of ‘p’ sounds used in a single sentence….

But anyway: like I said, I could go on about the ‘environmental relevance’ of hunting and trapping forever… because it literally is that obvious.

And incidentally, this also explains why the ‘European Wild Birds Directive’, happens to fall under the remit of… ‘Ou-la-la, quelle surprise!’… the Environment Commissioner, of all people. Fancy that…

Oh, and also why the European Commission itself is threatening legal action against Malta in the first place. There is, after all, a little more to the broader issue of ‘hunting’, as a whole. It just so happens that all the wild birds we shoot and trap each year, would have been migrating over Malta on their way to somewhere else.

And in most cases, that ‘somewhere else’ would be none other than Europe (at least, during the spring migration phase). That flock of storks that got shot in Malta, on the way back to its nesting grounds in (say) Germany? Those Germans will probably notice that they didn’t quite make it back to their chimney stacks that year…

… and, let’s face it: we all know what those ‘Eurosf*ckers’ are like, at the end of the day. They have this entirely unreasonable attachment to an obscure thing called ‘Nature’.  And they tend to get rather ‘verärgert’ - ‘stocksauer’, even - when they see us so casually killing (and ‘kaputting’) what they not-unreasonably view as THEIR ‘vogels’…

Heck, they even come here each year, to try and do what the Administrative Law Agency is clearly too over-stretched and under-resourced to do itself… and actually ‘reglementieren’ the practice on the ground.

I guess you could say this makes hunting and trapping as much of a European issue, as it is a Maltese one. And in any case: there is more at stake than just birdlife here in Malta, too.

Both those issues also have rather glaring implications for -among countless other things - land-use. And without even examining their actual impact on the surrounding environment – e.g., the fact that trapping often involves the removal and/or alteration of garigue landscape; or that the lead which leaches out of spent shotgun cartridges may find its way into the groundwater we drink, or the vegetables we eat – it is simply absurd to suggest that the issue itself has absolutely no relevance to the entire Environment Portfolio… AT ALL.

But this only brings me back to the original question. It’s not so much that the transfer itself was done, and for clearly underhand reasons – namely, because a majority in Gozo look favourably upon that particular pastime (as illustrated by the Spring hunting referendum result); and also because Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri is himself (doink!) a hunter, and therefore – even if unintentionally, to be fair – he would be naturally biased in favour of the practitioners of said pastime…

… no, it’s more that the Environment Minister himself simply ‘went along with it’; just as he is now ‘going along’ with his government’s defiance of European Commission infringement proceedings…

… or is he? Because that’s the ‘noteworthy’ aspect I mentioned earlier: his actual choice of words – i.e., “the government believes that what it is doing is just, and it will fight for and defend its position” - tells us a lot more about the government’s position, than his own.

And the distinction becomes even more emphatic, when you listen to the original soundbite. At one point, Aaron Farrugia even underscores that: ‘I am giving you the position of the Maltese government’ (unwittingly echoing the Nun’s Priest from Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ - and a tale about birds, too! – “Thise been the cokkes wordes, and nat myne…”)

What about Aaron Farrugia’s own position on the issue, however? Even if just in his capacity as the minister responsible for… erm… all the rest of the Maltese environment?

Does he himself agree with Malta’s obstinacy in permitting finch-trapping, even in the face of an ECJ court-case?  If so, can he justify that decision on any purely environmental grounds?

And besides: was he even comfortable with the removal of those issues from his portfolio to begin with? Why did he not put up a fight to retain them, at the time; and why is he not – even now – lifting a finger to at least try and influence his government in a more eco-sustainable direction… so that maybe, just maybe, it might actually succeed in living up to its environmental obligations, and all its own lofty environmental promises (‘best in the world’, remember?)

That, I would have thought, was the whole point of even having such a thing as an ‘Environment Ministry’.

And… well… we have the ‘ministry’, no doubt about that; but… the point? I just don’t see it, myself.