Malta has been hit by a wave of protests as residents, farmers and environmentalists joined forces to express their anger at the uprooting of hundreds of trees to make way for new roads.
More than 1,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Attard, a town in central Malta, and scores of people tied themselves to trees in a last-ditch attempt to save trees earmarked for removal under the controversial Central Link project.
While these olive trees stand a chance of being spared since there is an attempt to transplant them, other trees in the area which have been marked with a green cross will be chopped soon.
The €55 million ($61 million) project was given the go-ahead in July, although the country’s environmental watchdog had expressed concerns over the uprooting of 549 mature trees (272 of which were protected) plus a further 250 earmarked for transplantation.
While an environmental impact assessment (EIA) warned that 48,466 square meters (12 acres) of good quality agricultural land would be lost; Infrastructure Malta, the new body responsible for road building, claimed that the traffic easing project would result in cleaner air, shorter travel times and bring 285 extra trees to the area.
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At least 47 farmers feared to lose their livelihoods along with their land and said they felt let down by the lack of consultation. They pleaded with the authorities to come up with an alternative solution.
Opponents to the project were not appeased by reassurances that the 549 trees would be replanted and pointed out that Aleppo pines were a symbol of Malta’s national heritage as well as the poor success rate of replanting the species
More than 760 new trees, including 84 olive trees and 130 Aleppo pines, will compensate for the lost ones. This figure meets the bare minimum demanded by the EIA and is about 50 percent less than the 1,649 trees recommended by Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) regulations.
Three hundred trees in Santa Luċija, 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) southeast of Attard, have also been earmarked for removal to make way for a €20 million ($22.2 million) underpass aimed at easing traffic congestion around the Santa Luċija roundabout and reducing travel time by 30 percent.
To make way for the tunnel which was given the go-ahead last September, 547 mature trees including 210 Mediterranean cypresses would need to be uprooted of which 262 would be transplanted. Some of the doomed trees are located in a tree protected area and 7,000 square meters (1.7 acres) of agricultural land will also be lost.
Earlier this month a vigil of hope was held at the Santa Luċija jogging track following an earlier protest during which activists put up posters bearing black crosses on the condemned trees.
One batch of trees earmarked for removal was identified by the green crosses sprayed onto their trunks while a further 250 trees in the vicinity were already being uprooted for transplanting elsewhere. Infrastructure Malta had pledged to relocate the trees in the same zone where possible.
An on-site inspection carried out by Times of Malta at the end of July confirmed that several mature trees, including cypress, bore this mark and that works to start transplanting the nearby olive trees were at an advanced stage.
Residents demanded to be told the fate of several olive trees that had already been uprooted by Infrastructure Malta and replanted in a privately owned field 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) away in Dingli. Around 20 other trees had been relocated to the far end of the jogging track, according to a report by Malta Independent.
Malta’s environmental watchdog defended the project on the grounds that plans to transplant and grow new trees would compensate for the 293 trees due to be axed.
Times of Malta reported that they had received dozens of complaints about olive trees being aggressively pruned with a chainsaw along the Santa Luċija jogging track, fueling fears they were facing the chop.
According to the Times of Malta, an anonymous source close to Infrastructure Malta said that the pruning of olive trees in Santa Luċija was just the start.
“While these olive trees stand a chance of being spared since there is an attempt to transplant them, other trees in the area which have been marked with a green cross will be chopped soon,” the source reportedly told the Times of Malta.
Although Infrastructure Malta pledged to transplant 262 trees, skeptical locals pointed out that this type of operation required meticulous planning and was rarely successful for cypress trees.
Anna Fava, co-founder of the climate action group Extinction Rebellion Malta (XR Malta) told Olive Oil Times that the group were opposed to the Central Link project and had attended the tree vigil in Santa Luċija,
Fava said that while these two road infrastructure projects and their associated tree uprootings had made headlines, other more subtle uprootings were occurring in several areas with people posting pictures on social media.