“We are losing trees that have been a part of our heritage and skyline for a hundred years. And all to facilitate the gratuitous widening of a perfectly functional road. It’s absolutely bonkers. Rather than cut trees, the ministry should be working with contractors, the environment ministry, NGOs, landscape architects and environmental experts to find alternative solutions. 

“This is not an area where the government can afford to be either complacent or doctrinaire. Trees, as natural resources providing shade and purifying air, are already in very short supply in Malta. They also promote mental well-being. Did you know that in Ireland every tree has its own ‘birth certificate’ and ‘identity card’?”

These are words quoted from my article “Let’s occupy trees instead” published in the Sunday Times of Malta on June 24, 2018. 

This excerpt, now written over a year ago, applies just as forcefully today – perhaps even more. Interestingly, I wrote it at about the same time that the vexed issue of the Rabat Road trees first became news. Two hundred mature trees in the upper part of Mdina Road, we were told, would be uprooted to make way for the €55 million Central Link Project. 

There was, of course, widespread public outrage. The furore eventually led to the ministry going back to the drawing board. The usual statements of denial were issued, plans were revised over and over again, and we were even told that Transport Malta architects had discussed the project with the Environmental Resources Authority to ensure the least possible environmental impact. 

What finally emerged was that the majority of the trees, hitherto threatened, would actually remain in place on a dedicated central strip. An additional 212 trees would also be planted. And, in yet another of the changed plans, we were assured that only 15 of the 76 Aleppo Pines earmarked for uprooting would actually be removed.  

But, inevitably, there was the small print. Reading carefully between the lines, the caveats and the provisos, a shrewd citizen would have been able to work out that the entire project still required the uprooting of some 135 trees.

And yet, after so much chopping and changing, after so many facts and figures and assurances being bandied about, comparatively few would have arrived at that conclusion.

Trees are symbols of life and yet, here in Malta, the Transport Minister is allowed to bulldoze them into oblivion

Perfectly understandable of course, given our busy lives and all our other preoccupations. But hope is always the last to die and I, as one of the less shrewd, was hopeful that the iconic and scenic Rabat Road would withstand the ravages of time and change, not to mention the machinations of Transport Minister Ian Borg.     

So imagine my horror when I woke up on Tuesday morning to a picture of the aforementioned Borg (looking increasingly like a pallbearer in his white shirt, ill-fitting black suit and subfusc tie) below a Times of Malta headline reading that the Rabat Road was on track for approval.

The environmental impact seemed side-lined and we were back to square one with a vengeance, as the devastating news sunk in that no less than 549 trees would be uprooted and 49,000 square metres of virgin land lost.

The loss of a number of historic buildings, thought to be among the oldest in Attard, seemed at the time negligible. On another day, their possible loss would have been banner headlines.

So how did we suddenly go from 15, 135, 200 to 549 trees? And how can this mass genocide of our environment possibly correspond to “least environmental impact”?

I can’t even begin to wrap my head around 49,000 square metres of virgin land, but it’s apparently the size of six football pitches. That may sound small in the Panhandle of Texas but on tiny Malta it’s devastating.

No, it’s actually hugely depressing, if not disgusting. And just like those plans, I have revised my opinion about Minister Borg whom I now regard as the Grim Reaper of trees and the wider environment.

I see him there with his scythe. Trees are symbols of life and yet, here in Malta, the Transport Minister is allowed to bulldoze them into oblivion. What inalienable right has he to ‘defecate’, from a great height, on one of the most beautiful and sacrosanct stretches of road we possess, and do it all with the combined approval, nay blessings, of the Environmental Ministry and Planning Authority? And for what? To pave the way for more cars? 

It’s the height of bad taste and bad planning and really gives new meaning to the expression “breeding will out”. The problem of course is that Malta is being permanently and irreversibly ruined in the process and there will be no ‘going back’.

One comment I read underneath that article was written by a discerning Englishman who had obviously spent part of his childhood in Malta, an island then so different from – for all I know – his suburban street back home. It merits repetition – or rather paraphrasing – especially on this saddest of occasions. The guy clearly loved Malta as much as he loved his granny:

“Those trees are part of the very essence of Malta and are about to die, more so be killed. It’s utter stupidity and vandalism. It’s a grove, a boulevard, not just any old lane. 

“The gentle climb to Mdina, through sun, then shade given by evenly spaced pines, is about to become a historical memory.

“Featured heavily in the 1953 British war-film Malta Story, the road and trees are perhaps as holy to Malta as The Mall is to London or the Champs-Élysées to France. 

“As a child, with my granny, we would drive up that hill, and I would say it was, and is, as fine a view or prospect as any other anywhere. In the pre-AC car she would dwell and pause under the shade and whizz through the scorching sun, windows down. The anticipation in seeing the citadel was a tease. The fields had deep red soil and lush productive vegetation. There was no litter and the rubble walls were scruffy but intact. You could smell the pine…

“Malta has not got a lot left to ruin, yet it’s slashing away at the remnants… You mad bloody dogs left alone to your own devices: deviant planning, arboricultural molestation, civil engineering overkill! They are killing your homeland. Remove 549 of them instead.”

This really hit home. So hard, in fact, I could actually smell those pine trees and feel the shade – things I have come to appreciate so much more as I advance in years.

And that last sentence! It certainly takes no prisoners. It’s 24-carat gold and sums up the situation perfectly. 

If the Environmental Authority, or whatever it is called nowadays, doesn’t flag the new-look Rabat Road as a complete no-no, then it’s high time it gets on its collective bike (though preferably not in Tal-Balal!) and pedals off to Dubai.

Unfortunately, however, these are people who have only imaginative space for the motor car. For them, ‘regeneration’ means creating a concrete, odourless (or, still worse, diesel-smelling) brave new world for these contraptions. Where were such men bred? On what small and still half-lovely island did they grow up?


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