We are not ‘derogating’ from the Birds Directive. We’re just breaking it, that’s all

What we are looking at now is an actual, full-blown, environmental emergency. There is, at the end of it all, a bird species that is threatened with possible extinction, no less

It’s not very often that I have high hopes for newly-appointed Environment Ministers… and let’s face it: that’s probably just as well, too. (To quote a wise old friend of mine: ‘Blessed is he who expects nothing; for he shall not be disappointed!’)

But, well, let’s just say that I made the tragic mistake of allowing myself the luxury of ‘expectation’, this time round. When I first heard that Robert Abela had stripped Aaron Farrugia of the environment portfolio, and entrusted it to Miriam Dalli instead… I actually took that as a positive sign, myself.

For a fleeting moment, it even seemed as though the Labour government intended to finally deliver on that (oh, so poignant!) 2013 campaign promise: “So the environment gets the protection it truly deserves”.

And not, in case you’re wondering, because of any specific qualities Miriam Dalli herself might possess, that make her more qualified for the role than anyone else. (Though there is a bit of that, too: the former MEP was, after all, chosen by the European Socialists to spearhead the so-called ‘Green Deal’…)

No, my optimism – misplaced though it turned out to be - was built on two main factors, at the end of the day. The first takes the form of Robert Abela’s other bold choice: which was to conjoin the Environment and Energy portfolios into a single ‘super-ministry’.

At a glance this seems to break with a decades-old tradition, whereby the environment was always simply lumped together with any old ministry deemed ‘unimportant’ enough for such a patently useless, and unwanted, portfolio. (Back in the early 1990s, for instance, it was usually relegated to a sub-section of the ‘Ministry for Youth, Culture and Sports’.)

So by linking it to what is arguably the single most critical sector, for any government – energy, no less: an issue so vital, that I wouldn’t even be able to write this article without it – Abela seemed to making a powerful statement.  If nothing else, the new configuration suggested that this government really would attach as much importance to Malta’s environmental concerns, as it does to our national energy requirements (as, indeed, was all along implied by that earlier slogan).

Besides, the merger makes eminent sense for a host of other reasons. Energy and Environment are, after all, intimately related anyway. Our ability (or rather, inability) to meet our Climate Change targets, hinges exclusively on the need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels; and on top of that, some of Malta’s more pressing environmental problems today – including air pollution, respiratory diseases, etc. - arise directly from the combustion of fossil fuels in our cars.

And this brings us to the second factor: which does, admittedly, concern the actual choice of minister to replace Aaron Farrugia.

No offence to the latter, of course (who, to be fair, wasn’t even the worst specimen of Environment Minister we’ve ever had.) But, at the time of his appointment in 2020, Aaron Farrugia was something of an unknown quantity, in local politics: one of the Labour Party’s newer, less familiar faces, who had previously served only in such invisible roles as ‘Parliamentary Secretary for European Funds and Social Dialogue’.

You can’t exactly say the same for Miriam Dalli though, can you? Leaving aside that she is (second only to Roberta Metsola) far and away the most widely recognisable face in Maltese politics, both locally and abroad; she is also probably the most experienced, and capable, of all the options Robert Abela actually had at his disposal. (It wasn’t that long ago that her name was being bandied about as a possible future Labour Party leader, for instance).

All things considered, then: I don’t it was altogether unreasonable of me to assume that Miriam Dalli’s credentials in the environmental department – coupled with her long experience in European politics – would have rubbed off on her, at least a tiny bit (enough, for instance, for her to understand that an Environment Minister’s job is actually to ‘protect the environment’ … and NOT to facilitate its continued destruction, by any means necessary, for purely political reasons.)…

But, oh well… it was a nice illusion, while it actually lasted: in other words, for the grand total of one, measly little week.

As it turns out, Dalli’s first-ever action as Environment Minister – on April 8: just 10 days after her appointment - was to announce yet another ‘derogation’ from the European Wild Birds Directive: this time, to permit the hunting of an endangered species (the turtle-dove) during its breeding season.

Now: obviously, I won’t bore you with all the reasons why I personally think this is a very, VERY bad idea. I’ve written about it often enough in the past: so all I’ll say for now is that Spring hunting – for any species – is, by its very definition, ‘unsustainable’ at the best of times…

… but when the species we are talking about is also listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as ‘vulnerable’ (especially in Europe, where turtle-dove populations have been plummeting for years)…

… and when, in its own justification for the Red-List category, the IUCN itself declares that the turtle-dove has “undergone rapid declines in much of its European range […] Declines are thought to be driven by a number of factors including loss of foraging and nesting sites as well as disease and HUNTING ALONG ITS MIGRATION ROUTES (!!!)”…

Sorry, but that puts a whole different perspective on things. It is no longer merely a question of the ‘sustainability’, or otherwise, of Spring hunting, as a matter of principle. No, what we are looking at now is an actual, full-blown, environmental emergency. There is, at the end of it all, a bird species that is threatened with possible EXTINCTION, no less – OK, not imminently, perhaps; but… well, that’s the whole point, isn’t it?

If we are criminally irresponsible enough to even think of permitting the hunting of a vulnerable bird, at any time at all (but especially, during its breeding season)… what are we actually doing, if not hastening its eventual demise? By adding to all the pressures already faced by this species – and wildlife in general – which, for the record, also include Climate Change… itself one of Miriam Dalli’s other self-avowed ‘priorities’?

There is, I am sorry to say, no other way to describe this decision, than… ‘eco-cidal’ (and yes, I am aware that the word doesn’t actually exist. But then again, that’s probably because the very concept is too unthinkable to even be named at all…)

And from that point of view, alone: Miriam Dalli has a little explaining to do, don’t you think? She is, after all, Malta’s ‘Environment Minister’… and therefore – unlike Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri (who also signed the legal notice, in his capacity as the minister responsible for hunting) - the protection of wildlife happens to be her own, direct political responsibility.

At the very least, then, I would say that she now owes us a proper, scientific explanation – along the lines as the IUCN’s, above – as to why she feels it is ‘sustainable’ (or even remotely justifiable) to permit the wholesale slaughter of a bird that is effectively ENDANGERED… and even then, at the most crucial stage of its life-cycle.

While I’m at it: she also owes the European Commission a justification for what is effectively a clear, emphatic breach of European law. It is not enough to simply claim ‘the right to derogate’ (as every Maltese government has done, ever since we joined the EU in 2004).

No, Miriam Dalli also has to tell us specifically how a ‘spring hunting season for turtle-dove’ – under any circumstances: still less, those of today - actually conforms with the legal requirements for such derogations, as listed under Article 9 of the Birds Directive.

Is it “in the interests of public health and safety”, for instance? Or “air safety”? Or “to prevent serious damage to crops, livestock, forests, fisheries and water”? (Note: I won’t even bother with “for the protection of flora and fauna”, because, erm… there wouldn’t be any point, would there?)

But of course, Miriam Dalli needn’t bother actually replying to any of that. We all know what the ‘justification’ really amounts to, in the end. It has nothing to do with ‘the environment’… and everything to do with a greedy, pre-election scramble for votes, by a party that was heading towards an enormous victory anyway.

And… well, that’s the whole cause of my disappointment, right there. It is not so much that our newly-appointed Environment Minister – who had shown so much promise, too! - has chosen to kick-start her new career by committing what can only be described as a ‘crime against wildlife’…

… it’s also that – in so doing – she signalled that she will simply carry on, where all her failed predecessors had left off. Just like Aaron Farrugia, before her… and Jose Herrera before him… and pretty much every Environment Minister we’ve ever had (under both administrations)… she will simply cave in to all the powerful lobby-groups - including, but not limited to, hunters and trappers – that have had successive Maltese governments eating out of their hands, like frightened sparrows, for decades…

And if that’s the case: well, Robert Abela might just as well have buried the environment portfolio in one of the usual ‘unimportant’ ministries… and assigned it to any old political ‘newbie’. After all, it doesn’t take very much ‘experience’, or ‘capability’, to simply retain the status quo...