Birżebbuġa residents want plans for a miniature airstrip to be scrapped and for the land to be declared an outside development zone.

In a protest organised by Moviment Graffiti and BirdLife Malta, dozens of Birżebbuġa residents, as well as NGOs, gathered on Saturday to protest an agreement that will seven football pitches worth of land in Wied Żnuber handed over to the Ħal Far Model Flying Association.

Times of Malta first reported about the concerns of farmers in the area back in February. Farmers were informed they would have to vacate their land to make way for the airstrip.

The site in question is adjacent to a protected Natura 2000 site and would infringe on the buffer zone of the Grade A listed Wied Żnuber dolmen. 

BirdLife Malta has said the project could disturb the nesting grounds of vulnerable seabirds that are sensitive to sound and light, with the Birżebbuġa local council also voicing concern about the project. 

The Environment and Resources Authority has said that it has not yet received any application for a model airstrip next to the protected land. 

Despite several reminders, questions sent by Times of Malta to the Planning Authority, the Education Ministry and the Economy Ministry have gone unanswered. 

Protesters of all kinds

On Saturday, Birżebbuġa residents from all walks of life turned up to voice their disapproval of the project, with many pointing out that the village has borne the brunt of environmental damage caused by the freeport and industrial estate over the years. 

“I grew up going to the fields with my grandfather, I know every inch of this valley,” said 30-year-old Dylan Polidano. 

Andre Vella and  Rafaella Baldacchino speak at the demonstration. Video: Chris Sant Fournier

“I seek out Wied Żnuber to get away from a fast-paced lifestyle and to farm the fields we have left. If this project should go ahead, this kind of life will be lost forever and we will only be able to leave our children the memory of this valley and not the land that we love so much.” 

Should plans for the airstrip go ahead, Birżebbuġa would be losing some of its invaluable cultural heritage, Konrad D’Amato from the Għaqda Storja u Kultura Birżebbuġa said.

“The valley is home to historic relics that hold huge ecological and archaeological value,” he said. 

“When the Bronze-age dolmen was found over a century ago by the British, they knew to build a fence around it and avoid it when making plans for their military airfield. If these plans go unchallenged, we would be destroying what the British were wise enough to preserve for us.”

He added that a WW2 shelter in the area would also fall victim to the project.

'Why all this destruction?' 

George Farrugia, 67, who is Birżebbuġa’s former water polo club president, said that while he respected the right for every club to enjoy their hobby, this should not come at the expense of environmental destruction. 

“In the past, we did not speak up because our priorities were different,” he said. 

“We needed jobs and we wanted to keep our children from emigrating so we closed an eye to the destruction of a field or a tree here and there to make way for another factory. 

Residents, farmers and activists gathered on Saturday. Photo: Chris Sant FournierResidents, farmers and activists gathered on Saturday. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

“But thankfully things have changed. The Prime Minister himself tells us that unemployment is the lowest it has ever been.” 

“So why all this destruction? We have the luxury to choose where to develop and we don’t need to keep eating away at the countryside.”

“I have nothing against the model aeroplane club, but I'm sure that this project can be adapted and relocated somewhere more appropriate.”

NGOs call for alternative sites

In a joint statement, ten NGOs expressed concern at how the project was conceived in secret and without public consultation, given that it would have a wide impact on a sensitive Natura 2000 site, protected historical remains as well as farmers. 

“The airstrip project is unacceptable because it will destroy virgin land and disastrously impact the surrounding areas,” they said. 

Karen Theuma addresses the protesters. Video: Chris Sant Fournier

“We respect the hobbyists concerned but see no justice in a project that will hurt residents and farmers and unleash extensive damage on the environment. We also believe that alternative sites may be found for this project.” 

“We therefore call for the immediate dissolution of the plan and a change in the local plan that would see the site become ODZ. In this manner, it can act as a buffer between the industrial area and Wied Znuber.”

“We are determined to oppose the plan until it is scrapped.” 

The letter was signed by Għaqda Storika u Kultura Birżebbuġa, ZAK Birżebbuġa, Birżebbuġa Girl Guides, Moviment Graffiti, Birdlife Malta, Din l-Art Ħelwa, Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar, Friends of the Earth Malta, Extinction Rebellion Malta and the Archaeological Society Malta. 

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