The topic of this article is the state of Nature in the Maltese Islands and why Government policy should include provisions for the protection and restoration of the natural environment.
Nature surrounds and envelope us. Our very existence is inextricably intertwined with the natural world. Our physical bodies are built up from the elements, and according to the laws, of Nature. So what is our place in Nature? This is an important question to ask as every journey must start from a point and not knowing where you are standing before you take your first step means that you are lost and would be destined to wander aimlessly.Chart showing land cover use in Malta in 2012
We are one of millions of species in Nature on this planet Earth, with each species having evolved in collaborative, intricate and wonderful ways over the 14 billion years of the Universe’s existence. What mainly sets us apart from other life on Earth is that we have evolved to be the dominant species. Sadly, we have so far used our dominant status over millennia to increase our power for the purpose of destroying everything that stands in the way of our greed. Humanity’s objective seems to be to subjugate, consume or destroy all other free life forms.
“Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents. It was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children.” This American Indian proverb teaches us that the tribes that thrived on the North American continent before the European invasion and ensuing genocide were more knowledgeable of their place in Nature than we are today or even hope to be in any near future.
Harrison Ford of Conservation International speaking as ‘The Ocean’ puts it brilliantly when he says “Nature does not need People”. If we continue to behave so irresponsibly there will come a time when the human race will become extinct, however Nature will continue as it had before our particular species came into being. Nature does not deal in human cycles. Nature deals in life cycles of species.
The 2012 Maltese Islands land use and cover survey shown in the chart illustrates that only 32% of the land mass of Malta is still in some sort of natural state – the 32% is made up of woodlands, grasslands, water & wetlands and shrublands (garigue). We would expect that the situation has deteriorated further in the 4 years since the survey.
It is interesting to note that, in the 20 years from 1995 to 2015, as many as 12,500 development permits have been granted in these natural areas as well as on agricultural land. This means that we do not really have any pristine natural land left anywhere in the Maltese Islands and no ecosystem that we can speak of. The destruction of the environment in our country is all but complete.
Overpopulation is another issue. If one tots up the 34,000 expatriates living in the Maltese Islands and the 2,000,000 tourists that visit Malta annually and then adds this to the number of Maltese people, we can estimate that the daily population on our islands is around 500,000 (1,600 people per square km). This gives us an odd 200 square meters each of natural, albeit tainted, environment which is just about enough to build one largish terraced house – which is probably what we will end up doing with it.
Urban areas cover 33% of the surface area of the Maltese islands and agricultural land covers 27%. The natural environment in 60% of our country no longer exists. Contrary to popular belief, agricultural land is not a natural environment. Croplands are totally managed and engineered by humans and contaminated with fertilizer, pesticides and copper from hunters’ pellets. Any form of wildlife entering agricultural land is considered a pest and is exterminated.
We also witness annually the wanton slaughter and trapping of migrating birds by the tens of thousands. There was a time when humans needed to kill in order to survive. We must now stop killing if we want to have a future. I entreat our hunters and trappers to lay down their arms and pack away their trapping nets, for all our sakes. I do not wish to single out hunters and trappers as we are all to blame for what is soon to be the irreversible degradation of the Maltese natural environment.
Our islands find themselves in the middle of this precious Mediterranean Sea that is overfished and polluted – plastic present in our Sea has now entered our food chain – we are eating it.
Looking at all this we must conclude that our country is fast becoming unliveable. The natural environment should be a functioning ecosystem, not token patches of trees and grass. In my opinion we should realise that there are limits. The economy, like life, is a balance and it not all about growth and progress. The notion that bigger is always better is delusional. There is a limit to the number of buildings our islands can sustain. There is also a limit to how many people our islands can maintain. Our infrastructure and health services are feeling the stress. The economy, prosperous or otherwise, needs to be managed and not allowed to spin out of control and overheat.
There is a limit to the noise and light pollution we can tolerate. There is a limit to the waste we can produce and manage. There is a limit to the air pollution we can sustain. Every generation takes the Natural environment it inherits from its parents for granted and the killing and the destruction continues.
We are told by the Chairman of the Environment and Resources Authority that the environmental degradation across the board is also negatively affecting our health. I am not surprised.
Nature is not a resource to be exploited, it is our habitat and what gives us context. We need Nature like the air we breathe. Did you know that each person breaths around 7 to 8 litres of air per minute? This is over 4 million liters of air annually? All persons living in the Maltese Islands would in one year breathe over 2,000 trillion liters of air. That is a lot of air. This air is very precious. We should be aware that Nature actually produces this air for us. Not to put too fine a point on it, without the air that Nature provides we would all be dead in five minutes.
We labour under the misconception that we own Nature. We are deceived into believing that Nature is a resource to be exploited and that we can dispose of it at will. This is absurd. It is like a tree holding the very soil that nourishes it to ransom. The fact is that Nature owns us. Nature provides us with a habitable home, literally the only home we have, and only a madman would burn down his only home.
Sources: 2012 Land use/cover area frame survey (LUCAS); MEPA