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NEWS | Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Mission impossible

Ten years ago SAVIOUR BALZAN was roped in by the government for the preparation of negotiations with the EU, the hunters and BirdLife over the future of hunting and trapping. In this two-part series he reveals the behind-the-scenes story

I cannot quite remember how it all started. But some 10 years ago, I was asked by the government to tackle the issue of hunting. I was Richard Cachia Caruana’s unlikely candidate, a brusque, anti-hunting and independent minded man, not a Nationalist, and too green. And working with RCC was not exactly pleasant, but surely stimulating.
I knew the language of the hunters and greens more than anyone else. My younger days were spent with the Malta Ornithological Society (now BirdLife). I revitalised their youth section from its 42 members to a more militant 600, and later founding the protest group Zghazagh ghall-Ambjent and of course, the Green party Alternattiva Demokratika in 1989. I was a biologist by profession and a keen ornithologist. In 1997 I left politics to turn to full-time journalism.
When I was asked to see how the hunting and trapping debacle could be seen to, it was clear that the major preoccupation was Malta’s accession to the European Union. Hunters and trappers had blackmailed political parties into submission and neither of the parties was willing to lose crucial votes.
From the onset I detailed a road map. I felt very strongly that EU accession was the only way of solving many of our environmental ills. I asked RCC for a free hand. I was mistrusted by mostly everyone: even individuals in BirdLife questioned my intentions. So-called colleagues in the media questioned the wisdom of such a committee. Even the Sunday Times, traditionally a bastion for the PN, queried the initiative.
I knew that the only way forward was to bring the hunters and the greens to start talking again. Even if it meant discussing the impossible.
Later the hunters would accuse me of having purposely deceived them and leading them down the garden path. I do not deny that I was economical with the news with all sides, but I also sought to find a way out for bona fide hunters. And I tried hard to make myself believe that they did exist.
Hand on heart, I believe the transitional period and concessions acquired during the negotiations, and discarded after 2004 by both government and the hunters, would have left the hunters with a workable situation... were it not for the pride of one man, Lino Farrugia, and the incompetence of another, George Pullicino.

The Ornis Committee
In 1999, I set up the Ornis Committee with representatives from the hunters and BirdLife. It was primarily concerned with enforcing the law. The EU was sensitive to the fact that Malta had such a bad reputation. Year after year, red-listed birds were shot in their hundreds, and nature reserves trespassed upon by poachers.
The hunters’ representatives were at first willing to play ball. Saviour Buttigieg, the president of the association, turned out to be the most reasonable of the hunters’ representatives. It was clear that the hunter’s association had no control over most of its members. Illegal hunting was rife and widespread and was near to impossible to control.
As the Ornis Committee met to discuss innumerable issues, including whether hunters could hunt at sea or hunt on feast days, it was clear that the preparations for aligning Malta to the EU directives were clearly not in place. MEPA’s unit on nature protection was not only badly staffed, but managed in such a way that it served no purpose other than stifling adherence to the EU. The civil service attitude, quoting the Birds’ Directive verbatim, allowed for no leeway and would have led to open confrontation with the hunting lobby. Worse still, scientific data was available but not collated.
I asked RCC to be given the freedom to tackle the issue of collating data for the annexes for the Habitats and Birds directives. There was initial opposition from MEPA officials, but again RCC overruled and doors simply opened.
More importantly Malta not only appeared to be falling in line but proposing additions to the European Union’s list of animal and plant species. One special addition which I have no compunction taking credit for was the Yelkouan Shearwater. It was accepted and automatically added to the list of specially protected European species and with it the habitat it nested in – the one at l-Ahrax tal-Mellieha would be automatically protected – and more importantly funding under the EU Life project turned into a reality.
Stupidly, Lino Farrugia objected to this proposal.

The real negotiations
Nonetheless the real crucial issue was the issue of spring hunting and trapping. It was difficult convincing the politicians of the difficulty of getting such concessions on these matters. Over and over again, they believed Lino Farrugia’s arguments that Malta had a special status and should be considered to be different.
The hunters were convinced it was in their interest to annotate the numbers of birds shot and trapped. But the numbers listed in the carnet de chasse turned out to be a farce.
I told Lino Farrugia that the only way hunting would be tolerated in spring would be to reduce the numbers and putting a quota on the number of Turtle Dove and Quail shot. It was difficult for him to take in this message. Lino would not accept that Turtle Dove and Quail were species facing serious decline in populations. Again he thought that Malta would be considered to be special case. He was wrong.
Farrugia was blinded by the prospect that without a green card, hunting in spring would end.
But as we talked Farrugia was more concerned with being the only hunting organisation represented in the talks. He could not accept that other smaller organisations would be consulted. Not surprisingly his organisation was interested in also raking all the insurance monies related to cover for hunters.
I realised that the issue of representation was an important trump card and asked the politicians to give me time to allow this issue to drag on.
Another issue was the hunting and trapping laws. There were so many amendments that it was difficult to comprehend where all the changes to the regulations had taken place. Rightly so, the EU wanted to see whether Maltese legislation would be compliant with the Birds Directive. It was the beginning of a new phase with open-ended regulations that left much to be interpreted and allowed for politicians to close and open spring hunting seasons.
Godwin Grima, now the principal permanent secretary, was asked to liaise with me over the matter. I immediately asked to do away with the private law firm at MEPA who did not have time to look into the matter.
There were long discussions with Godwin on the words ‘take’ and ‘hunt’. We opted for the word ‘take’ to give the impression that ‘take’ could mean hunting or trapping. But at the same time we could not refer to the word trapping or the use of trapping devices.
Lino Farrugia was no fool. It took many Scotches to try to convince him that there was no game involved or other alternative. In the end the winner turned out to be the birds. The loser… my liver!

Next Sunday: negotiating with the EU and what happened afterwards



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