Still in time to save Majjistral Park | Sammy Vella

Plans are afoot to extend hunting and trapping hours at Majjistral nature park: a move that would transform an area almost the size of Comino into an unofficial hunting reserve. Park chairman Sammy Vella makes a last-ditch attempt to stop this ‘folly’ from happening 

Former Mellieha mayor Sammy Vella is worried about possible longer hunting hours at ‘Majjistral Nature and History Park’
Former Mellieha mayor Sammy Vella is worried about possible longer hunting hours at ‘Majjistral Nature and History Park’

There are few things in Malta that do not include some form of political controversy in their ancestry: and it seems the ‘Majjistral Nature and History Park’, covering the Xaghra l-Hamra area in the northwest of the island, is no exception. 

Indeed, the park itself can be said to have been born of precisely such a controversy back in 2007 (it is in fact celebrating its 10th anniversary). In the early days of the Gonzi administration, the area had been earmarked for the development of a golf course. But following a concerted campaign by civil society, the plans were eventually dropped in favour of a natural park. Even then, however, a new controversy arose. Within a few years, government decided to permit hunting and trapping to take place in the park until 9am. With the advent of a Labour administration in 2013, the hunting hours were extended until 10am. 

Now, the same government is proposing to extend them once more: until 12.30 in the case of hunting, and 2.30pm for trapping. Yet all along, Majjistral Park still doubles up as a tourist attraction, a popular site for visits by schoolchildren, among other frequenters. It seems at a glance that one set of visitors is about to be given privileged rights of access over all others... and it doesn’t help that the activity favoured by the bias is largely viewed as ‘incompatible’ with all other uses for a national park.

Irony: It is ironic that the same lobby that owes its continued activities there – as limited as they were – to the NGOs that manage the park, are now taking up arms against the same NGOs

None of this is to the liking of Sammy Vella: the outspoken former Mellieha mayor, now the chairman of an eight-man board entrusted with the park’s management.

“It’s ultimately a management problem,” he will later tell me. “I cannot envisage how the park can be managed properly, when you have cultural, educational and tourist activities at the same time as there are hunters prowling around with guns and dogs. That’s absolutely folly. It’s just asking for trouble. That is why I appeal to the authorities: reconsider. This is a bad decision. This is wrong. It is unsustainable, and it should be changed. There is still time to change it: nothing is etched in granite. I really think there should be a rethink at Cabinet level...”

Before coming to the rethink, however, let’s start with the thought processes that led us to this situation in the first place.  We are talking about an ‘extension’ to hunting hours: almost as though we have all tacitly accepted the idea that hunting should even be permitted in a nature reserve in the first place. So isn’t part of the damage already done?

“It wasn’t the original idea to permit hunting and trapping there. In fact, the facility’s full name is ‘Majjistral Nature and History Park’. It was supposed to be a place where families, schoolchildren, researchers, nature photographers, eco-tourists, could go and visit, enjoy nature, the geological formations, the biodiversity... without being disturbed by anything else. But even at that time, in 2007, the administration felt pressured to allow the hunting and trapping lobby some concessions. It was decided that hunting and trapping would be allowed until 9 o clock; so that after that time, park management could host other activities. For a time, that worked. 

But in 2013, a new administration came in, and eventually, after a lot of lobbying, it was decided to extend hunting hours until 10. The park management had to revise its schedules, so that they would not accept schoolchildren before 10; they would recommend that tour operators would not bring tourists to the park before 10... etc, etc. Activities would not be organised before that time, to avoid any confrontation between these very antagonistic types of activities...”

Speaking of which: has there ever been any incident involving ‘confrontations’ of this nature? 

“It’s been limited. What we do get all the time are complaints and funny questions from tourists. They can’t understand this strange cohabitation between hunting, and a nature and history park. We try to explain to them that they [the hunters] used to hunt there before the park was instituted, and therefore we allowed some concessions. That is why we try to divide the time allotted to these contradictory activities. But if tourists wander in before 10am; or hikers, or photographers... how can you tell a photographer - who came to photograph birds or other creatures at dawn, when the light is crystal clear, or when cobwebs are covered in dew - to come back after 10? Can we postpone dawn? 

There are a lot of activities that can only be carried out at that early hour, and at that time you do encounter hunters and trappers. But besides a few altercations, we haven’t had that many problems. We had found a modus vivendi. But now, with this amendment... basically, the whole day is finished. The only way to avoid confrontation now, is to chase all other activities out of the park...”

Nonetheless, Vella concedes that – so far – hunters who actually make use of the Majjistral park are few.  “There are not that many. But that was because a lot of hunters wouldn’t bother coming to the park if they had to leave by 10. If they could occupy a hunting position elsewhere, they knew it would be taken up by others by the time they got there after leaving the park.  But now, with this extension, the whole hunting day is available at Majjistral. And it’s a sprawling area, a very large expanse of land. It’s easy for a hunter to lose himself there. Surveillance is very difficult...”

There is also an irony in this situation. Vella reminds me that, were it not for the efforts of past environmentalist campaigns, there wouldn’t even be a park for them to hunt in at Xaghra l-Hamra.

“Ten years ago, several NGOs and organisations fought against the idea of converting that whole area of garigue into a golf course. They militated against that proposal; they organised a campaign against it; until finally, the administration of that time gave in, and accepted the proposal that the area be declared a national park.  That way there could never again be the possibility of developing that area into something artificial and unnatural.  So basically, if that hadn’t happened – if those NGOs had not campaigned for the formation of a park, that area would now be a golf course. This is something that the hunting and trapping lobby fails to acknowledge. If it hadn’t been declared a park, there would definitely be no hunting or trapping in that area whatsoever. And there would be no agricultural land there, either. So it is ironic that the same lobby that owes its continued activities there – as limited as they were – to the NGOs that manage the park, are now taking up arms against the same NGOs...”

On a practical level, the extension would also entail safety issues: and with it, added responsibility (and expense) for the park management itself.

“Normally, when we have school visits, we ask if the children will be accompanied by a teacher who is already aware of the nature of the park, and would be able to guide their own students themselves. If not, we appoint one of our guides. But of course, if you have four or five school visits at the same time, we don’t have the personnel to provide guides for everyone. And the personnel we do have are volunteers. 

The park gets E69,000 a year in grants. That barely covers the salaries of two full-time and two part-time rangers. We can’t afford four full-time rangers. So we certainly do not have surplus cash to pay for extra guides. Therefore, we have so far charged a fee of around E5 a child, if they come for a guided walk. Now, we can’t afford to allow any group of schoolchildren wander around the park on their own. We have to send a ranger with them... to make sure that, if there is some form of confrontation, they would be able to iron it out. Because we can’t afford to have schoolchildren in any kind of hazardous or doubtful situation...”

Folly: I cannot envisage how the park can be managed properly, when you have cultural, educational and tourist activities at the same time as there are hunters prowling around with guns and dogs. That’s absolute folly

Aside from ‘confrontation’, there are certain self-evident dangers involving the use of firearms in close proximity with other people: especially children. In the (admittedly hypothetical) scenario of an accidental shotgun injury – such things have been known to happen – how would the question of culpable responsibility pan out?

“To be fair, accidents can always happen. Geographically, the park has certain features that can be hazardous. There is a very long cliff edge, for example. We always warn groups with children to be watchful: the cliff edge is very dangerous; some of it is crumbling. I’ve been present when a tour guide was addressing a group,  and some of the tourists were standing with their backs to the cliff... only about a foot away. If one of them took a step back to look at a plant the guide was talking about, he would probably push the one behind him over the edge. 

So there are hazardous situations that have to be addressed. We have to continuously brief our guides to make sure they do not lead their guests into any kind of danger...”

These are all issues that already exist independently of the proposed extension. Naturally, one assumes they will magnify in direct proportion to the extended hours... if, that is, the proposal goes through. What stage are we at, exactly? 

“What happened was that [Environment Minister Jose Herrera] sent a message that he wanted to meet the board to discuss ‘certain issues’, without specifying exactly what those issues were. At the time, however, (it was late August or early September), half of the board was away from the island. The others were either unavailable... one member, for instance, is the Mellieha mayor. He was busy organising the Mellieha festival. Others had work appointments, etc. I ended up having to go to that meeting by myself. The minister was a bit... well, let’s say ‘disappointed’ that no one else came. So the meeting took place between myself, the minister and the parliamentary secretary [Clint Camilleri]. It was quite.... well, ‘interesting’.” 

That last word came out as a short laugh. “As soon I realised what was being reaction was very contrary. Actually, it was quite hostile.  It became a sparring contest between myself and Clint Camilleri, who is the Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Fisheries and [pause] Animal Rights. Camilleri, as everybody knows, is a hunter himself. He was very sympathetic to the hunting lobby; he made it clear that he had been authorised by Cabinet to push this amendment to the legal notice that regulates the park...”

Was there any discussion with any other group, apart from the hunters, before this meeting?

“I can’t even say I’m aware of any discussion with the hunters. I have no idea, to be honest. We were not told. After the discussion was over, I sent an email to the minister, to register in writing what I thought about the proposal: what the repercussions might be, and why it is completely unacceptable. Afterwards he convened another meeting, and this time the rest of the board was able to come. There was a lot of very lengthy discussion, in which all the board members – except for the representative of the Mellieha local council – made it very clear that they were completely against these amendments. The Mellieha local council, in the person of its mayor John Buttigieg, declared that the council had discussed the issue, and had voted unanimously in favour of the extension. Later, when I asked some council members how it was even possible that a local council - split almost 50/50 between two political parties which rarely agree on anything - actually agreed on this issue... well, it turned out that not all council members were present for the vote. In any case: the Mellieha local council agreed with the proposal; everyone else disagreed. However, we weren’t all in agreement on what our counter-proposal should be.... 

Why should there even be a counter proposal, though? If the argument is that hunting and trapping is incompatible with the other uses of the park... how can there be any ‘compromise’?

“The situation is this: the amendment is being pushed by the parliamentary secretary... but the minister disagrees with it. He declared as much during the meeting. He said, ‘Let me make it clear. I am not a hunter; and I am sympathetic to your position. But the proposal has the backing of a large part of the cabinet; I am part of the cabinet, I have to act in a collegial way.’”

That meeting was on a Monday; and Herrera also informed the board that the following day, Cabinet would be convening to decide on this issue. 

“So unless the board came up with a counter-proposal, the decision would be taken the next day. He [Herrera] made it very clear what that decision would be... to extend those hunting hours. So we decided to convene a board meeting right there and then: the minister even lent us his own boardroom. We had another lengthy discussion. Somebody suggested that we might apportion the days of the week: extend the hours on Monday, Wednesday and Friday; but not on Tuesday and Thursday. But that was not at all satisfactory... how can you tell tourists not to come on certain days of the week? Some of them come on cruise liners. Anyway: I did not feel I should curtail even a single hour of the public’s enjoyment of the park. So I disagreed with that. Then something occurred to me:  there is an extensive tract of agricultural land in the park, and we always tell our visitors not to trespass on agricultural land, unless a farmer invites you in. Since our visitors do not go to these areas of the park at all, I suggested that we extend the hunting and trapping hours only on officially leased agricultural land. That way, we would have extended the hours, but still avoid unnecessary problems. Most of the board seemed to like that, though the three NGOs continued to insist we should not budge an inch. But to cut a long story short, we proposed that as a compromise...”

What was the response? 

“It seems it upset the plans to take a decision that Tuesday. I can’t say for certain, but the decision wasn’t taken after all. That’s why I said earlier that nothing has been etched in granite. We are still in time to reconsider.”