Mosta councillors have refused to react to the uproar caused by the ‘pruning’ of protected trees in the locality’s square, despite mounting anger which culminated in a brief spat between the police and activists on Tuesday afternoon.

The authorities said the trees will be transplanted to another part of the locality as embellishment works get underway around the main parish church.

The 12 ficus trees, which have adorned the side of the Mosta Rotunda for half a century, have had their canopies cut down in preparation for uprooting and transplanting to the Santa Margerita area. The decision has sparked anger among many who insist that no more trees should be sacrificed to pave the way for ‘development’.

On Monday morning, environmentalists expressed concern about the many birds that roost in the trees at night-fall. By the evening, footage of birds frantically flying over the area looking for a roosting place went viral, drawing even more condemnation on social media.

The decision to uproot the trees, which the Mosta local councillors had agreed upon unanimously, was greenlighted by the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA). When contacted by Times of Malta, Mosta deputy mayor Rachel Abela and councillor Angele Rapa, whose responsibilities include legal advice, refused to comment.

Times of Malta tried getting comments from mayor Christopher Grech and the remaining 10 councillors at the local council’s offices in Mosta through social media or by phone. None were reachable.

However, the Nationalist Party said in the evening that its councillors had requested an urgent council meeting for the decision to be reconsidered.

According to the Environment and Resources Authority’s case officers’ report on the transplanting of the trees, the council wants to remove the trees for design purposes.

The local council, which applied for the transplanting of the trees on October 31, “advised that the interventions are required to improve the overall design of the square by transplanting the ficus trees that are considered as alien species from site and to replace them with indigenous species”.

The report also notes that the trees are considered protected in view of the location they are in within an urban public open space.

Meanwhile, the architects behind the square refurbishments distanced themselves from the decision to uproot the trees in the area.

“It is indeed a pity that these mature trees have been removed as, in our projects, whenever possible… we always seek to incorporate trees and other natural elements,” architectural firm Studjurban said yesterday.

‘Are you mad?’

On Tuesday morning, Moviment Graffitti activists who turned up at the Mosta Square said they had halted workers from uprooting the trees.

Standing in the workers’ way while holding placards reading “Are you mad?”, they also called a protest for today at 6.30pm in front of the council’s offices.

Moviment Graffitti’s Andre Callus was at one point even dragged away and handcuffed by police before returning to the scene 30 minutes later.  The police’s heavy-handed approach, caught on video, drew condemnation from the Opposition and civil society. 

“Those who protest to protect trees are arrested while those who stole millions remain free,” PN leader Bernard Grech wrote. Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri said people have the right to protest peacefully and nobody, not even the police, can impinge on this right.

Callus, who grew up in Mosta, said fellow residents were shocked at the sight of the ‘pruned’ trees.

“This is nonsensical. It’s irrelevant if they will transplant the trees somewhere else.

Residents want them here. They are part of our collective memories. There is no reason for this atrocity,” he said.

Trees will be transplanted in a small Mosta grove on Triq l-Isaqqfin, where workers said they will replace “sick trees” they were chopping down.

Times of Malta was unable to find a removal permit for the trees in question on the ERA website and questions have been sent to the authority.

ERA said on Monday that ficus trees usually survive transplanting and this is the best time to relocate them. The environmental watchdog also noted that removing the canopy and the smaller branches ensured the trees’ survival during transplanting. Somewhat confusingly, that appears to contradict the authority’s own guidelines.

According to its 2019 Guidelines on Works involving Trees, “in general, not more than 25% of the overall crown and no major boughs should be removed”.

The same guidelines note that “transplanting shall be carried out as a last resort only when all the other project options have been exhausted”.

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