Grain fields at il-Busbesija heights, not far from the Mġarr-Mosta roundabout, are at present full of yellow stubble as farmers wonder whether they should risk planting next year’s crop. These golden fields are now the target for a plan to build a massive shooting range complex just a stone’s throw from Mount St Joseph retreat house, run by the Jesuits and highly valued as a place of restful silence.
A plateau of historical note, the fields under Dwejra have yielded prehistoric, Roman and even more recent remains. An old coach road runs past a watering station by a rustic stone building attributed to the Knights. In its day, the coach station, which still stands today, provided shelter for waiting passengers as the horses drank their fill on the uphill route from Mosta to Mdina. Nearby, a World War II anti-aircraft battery and barracks has been dormant since the war,
Ironically, this WWII military landscape heritage site is being used as leverage to gain planning approval for a national range as the Maltese shooting federation reveals itself as a useful accessory to neo-colonialism.
The barracks showed up on a 2013 government list of sites in a call for expressions to restore historical buildings. Of 28 proposals submitted, the one gunning for Malta’s largest shooting range has found favour.
The proposed development at Il-Busbesija is over 10 times the size of the original military huts earmarked by government for conservation and management.
Not everyone warms to the ‘gun culture’ that has been gradually spreading on these islands for the past decade, following a change in the law. Sport shooting, on the other hand, is a discipline, except when it crosses the boundary of what makes environmental good sense.
Next thing we know, a bullet, similar to the type of high-quality ammunition used in 9mm Makarov pistols by security forces in Malta, shows up with a threatening letter at the retreat house, following the Jesuits’ objections to the project.
A common retort from some of the more undisciplined shooters was that the Jesuits must have written the letter then posted it with a bullet to themselves. That type of bullet type is normally used only by certain sections of Malta’s security services. It is available online only to shooting license holders or on the black market.
At least Malta doesn’t yet have a ‘gun culture’ problem in the way the US does, where sensitivities run high over classroom guns. The community of Niles, Illinois, is suing the village board for approving a shooting range incorporating a gun shop that is planned for a site near a school.
It has to be said that shooting is something Malta has been doing well (and relatively safely) for over a hundred years. With help from the government of the day, a clay pigeon shooting range was laid out and an international shooting competition held at Bidnija as part of the 2003 Games of the Small States of Europe.
Malta’s shooting stars and gold medallists frequently hit the sports pages with sharp shooter and Armed Forces of Malta gunner William Chetcuti representing Malta at the 2012 London Olympics.
Yet, according to one local enthusiast, although Maltese shooters have earned a good reputation abroad in European competitions, little is published in the media because of “the phobia of guns” and the idea that whoever owns a gun must be up to no good.
Certainly, the Malta Sports Shooting Federation (MSSF) has long been in the habit of bidding for Malta to host competitions despite there being no acceptable shooting ranges for such a big event to be staged here.
A restoration plan submitted by a heritage NGO in May 2012 may have been hijacked by those with an interest in the shooting range project
Would we rush off to build an Olympic stadium in pristine countryside if some sports committee came home in a panic from winning an arbitrary deal with Tokyo to host the 2020 games in Malta?
With the easing of weapons restrictions 10 years ago, a licensed range became a place where people without a shooting licence could practise firing a variety of permitted arms.
A 2005 Arms Act handed enthusiasts a wider choice of firearms but also upped the pressure for a national shooting range despite the fact that there are already around 10 licensed shooting ranges. Fourteen-year-olds can now fire airguns at licensed ranges under supervision before moving on to other arms at the age of 16. To give credit where due, the government of the time held fast against the shooting federation’s attempt to introduce minors under 14 to guns.
In 2008, the MSSF celebrated its centennial year. In a 100th anniversary speech the federation’s president spoke of the goal to have a new shooting complex for international events and hold training camps for foreign teams since ranges in the far north would be closed in winter.
The event was attended by oligarch, Olympic official and president of both the European Shooting Federation and Russian Shooting Union, Vladimir Lisin. Famed for his attempt to boost Russia’s image by offering a million dollars to each Russian shooter who brought home a gold medal,
Lisin has been darkly linked to a Syrian arms deal controversy. Technically, an arms shipment was not in violation of international law although the controversy sparked cries to ban the publicity-shy steel magnate from the London Olympics. Malta’s transport authority reported at the time that it was monitoring the Russian ship since its ownership fell under a Maltese subsidiary.
The Russia-Malta connection does not stop there. Last December, the Malta Sports Shooting Federation popped up, claiming to have made a ‘compromise’ deal with the Russians. At the Russians’ request, during a meeting in Munich they withdrew their bid for the 2017 championships on the promise of a specially concocted ‘World Cup of Shooting’ to be held the same year.
The MSSF delegation flew back to Malta with an edict that a large-scale range had to be built in a hurry for an international event with thousands of competitors arriving in 2017. This was a commitment that should not have been made without due public and planning consultations.
On their part, the Russian branch of the international federation, despite their country’s poor performance on the world political front, managed to convince an ISSF panel of their suitability to host the 2017 shooting championship in Russia. With the Maltese mollified, the Russian bid won on the basis of a choice of 10 hotels, English-speaking staff to help the teams, a large welcome area, expo area, covered tribunes for spectators and several catering opportunities to be made available at the venue.
These details are repeated here to give an idea of what type of land uptake is to be expected from sporting events of this scale. So far, no formal planning application has appeared on the planning authority’s website, leaving those who wish to submit their objections at a loss and depriving the public of their rights.
A restoration plan submitted by a heritage non-governmental organisation in May 2012 may have been hijacked by those with an interest in the shooting range project. A proposal to restore and manage the scheduled WWII site, sent to the Mosta local council by heritage group Ħarsien Patrimonju Mosti, was never acknowledged, despite reminders.
The NGO was planning to transform the site into a military history centre, museum and reenactment venue “in collaboration with a number of other organisations”. Was the heritage group tapped for its knowledge only to be used as a springboard to gain planning permission?
It seems that the Russians had been positioning themselves all along. A good two years before the Malta-Russia connivance on hosting shooting events, plans for an international shooting complex had already been quietly filed for screening on New Year’s Eve by U-Group (Malta) Ltd.
The executive director of U-Group is also the representative in Malta for the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Once the proposal was safely tucked away at the Malta Environment and Planning Authority, a request for proposals for the conservation and management of the Busbesija anti-aircraft battery and barracks was then issued by government.
Expressions of interest submitted had to prove that any proposal was economically viable. Evaluators took a particular interest in their ‘financial viability’ – that is, a project’s capacity to generate revenue for the government property division. The shooters snapped it up.
In another ironic twist, an existing military firing range at Pembroke was tagged for relocation in a 2006 draft planning guidance document. But the Armed Forces refused to budge and the policy remained a draft. Ironically the recommendation was to relocate the Pembroke range to the Xagħra-Marsascala coast, below Fort St Leonard, where another environmental battle rages.
Malta’s Chamber of Commerce has expressed reservations over the ill-conceived plan for an American university at Żonqor. Yet when it comes to the Busbesija shooting range, the Chamber may have unwittingly muzzled itself after extending a hand to the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry in a 2014 accord to enhance international trade ties “…and pave the way for the development”.
Carrying out a noise impact assessment for the Mosta shooting range is a technically complex exercise and predicting what noise it will generate is subject to many variables in flux.
Perhaps the shooting World Cup should be sent to pour its benefits elsewhere while 27 other proposals for more compatible activities at Il-Busbesija, such as horse-riding, could be discussed at a public meeting to better gauge the wider public sentiment on these developments.