Around 100 people protested at Mizieb on Sunday over the deal which has seen the management of the woodland and another at L-Aħrax handed to the hunters' federation (FKNK).
Some carried placards with the words Tagħna Lkoll, taking the cue from Labour electoral slogan Malta Tagħna Lkoll (Malta for all of us).
One woman carried a placard reading: “Will our next picnic be in Ian Borg’s garden?
The protest was held at the place and time where the deal was originally meant to be signed. But the signing was moved to last Friday, without prior notification to media or interested parties. Infrastructure Minister Ian Borg was one of the signatories of the deal.
Times of Malta revealed the deal on Wednesday, raising a storm of media protest from some 60 environment organisations grouped under an umbrella organisation called Spazji Miftuħa. The government has insisted it formalises an arrangement which had been in place for 34 years and will not change public access. But the designated picnic areas are tiny, and no access is allowed during the hours of hunting.
On Sunday NGOs urged people to exercise their right to hike and picnic at Mizieb.
A number did so, watched by a heavy police presence including members of the Rapid Intervention Unit.
Members of the Outdoor Recreation and Camping Association, among others, explained that the deal would limit enjoyment of the sites.
Speaking of behalf of the Spazji Miftuħa coalition, BirdLife Malta CEO Mark Sultana thanked those who showed up.
“It’s frustrating to see people who are bullies getting what they want,” Sultana said.
“It’s high time we show politicians that there aren’t only people who want to buy up and make money out of land. We are here because we want to defend our right to enjoy nature, the only activity that anyone can enjoy without having to spend money.”
Sultana said the secret deal was profoundly unfair and that the signing had been pushed forward because those involved were afraid that more people would voice their disagreement to it, to which the crowd responded by chanting “cowards!”
The FKNK earlier on Sunday described the planned protest as provocative and motivated by greed and politics and said it had cancelled an activity it planned to organise so as to avoid confrontations.
Sultana said it was political only in so much as politics was how life was conducted in a society.
“The difference is that we are not partisan, we are not associated with any political party and we will criticize any government that moves to harm the environment.”
“We came today because we’re really upset that people who are in power like, Ian Borg and other ministers, are taking away the land where we come to relax and get away from mundane life,” Lisa, 22, told Times of Malta.
“The fact that they signed it off in private infuriates me even more. They take advantage of the fact that we have no power it’s frustrating,” said Nina, 20.
“This decision violates the principle of subsidiarity, which is the spirit that decisions should be taken by the body closest to the voting public, in order to maintain fairness and transparency,” said Seb,21.
“The decision is undemocratic, un-European and doesn’t even make sense politically. Why is the government bending over backwards just to please such a slim percentage of the population.”
Members of the coalition held a cleanup in the area after the gathering.
Spazji Miftuħa said preparations are underway for another protest event.