My daily habit of logging on to the Times of Malta website has become depressing of late. The ongoing migrant crisis, and the ships that are refused the right to dock; the failures and delays in bringing the killers of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia to justice, and now the news that almost 500 trees on the island have been cut down this year, to make room for road-widening schemes and even more building. The environmental disaster continues, and the state does nothing to stop it.
On a politically polarised island, trees too are political, and afforestation projects – the one thing you would imagine everyone could agree about – deeply controversial.
In my dreams I often return to St Edward’s College, Malta, a place I have not seen since I was 12. This must be a sign of getting old. Our history teacher there was the inspiring Helen Vella Bonavita, who told us that in the medieval period the once fertile island was despoiled by pirates who cut down all the trees. This led to soil erosion and the emergence of the present rocky (and in many ways beautiful) landscape, apart from a few surviving pockets of fertility in the valleys. As a result, Malta ceased to be able to feed itself at some point in the 16th century.
The Knights of Malta employed a “wheat ambassador” to buy the staple abroad. By the late 18th century, Malta’s wheat came from Russia. The Russians took an unhealthy interest in the island and its superb harbour, which in turn led to the French and the British both trying to keep them out. The result was Malta falling under French domination in 1798, and then under British control from 1800.
At the start of World War II, Malta was importing 85 per cent of its food. Thus, during the siege by the Luftwaffe, the island came close to starvation. As a child, I well remember older people talking about how they had had nothing to eat but tomatoes for months before the Santa Maria convoy arrived on August 15, 1942. Nowadays the Russian connection is back – as Daphne Caruana Galizia let us know.
The Knights of Malta planted numerous citrus trees. Later these supplied the British Navy with lemons. The British encouraged the cultivation of cotton, and also started the first attempts at reforestation. This meant the planting of Aleppo pines, which are native to Malta. It is these pines that the government is now planning to cut down.
The trees are mature, but rather stunted, given the shallowness of Maltese soil. While an Aleppo pine may grow to almost 100ft in good soil, the typical Maltese example won’t make it past 20ft. But how beautiful these trees are, particularly in a hot country. Growing up in Malta, you adore trees, any trees, because they are rare and beautiful.
This time last year I was in Paola, a town in Malta’s south-eastern region. I was visiting its spectacular modern church, the largest on the island, so beautifully maintained by its parish priest, Fr Marc Andre Camilleri, who has commissioned a young artist, Manuel Farrugia, to complete its interior decoration, with stunning results.
The village square outside was a shady spot, full of ficus trees. This species is not native, but a British colonial import from India. Since my visit, the square has become a hideous sun-baked wilderness thanks to the removal of its trees, on the grounds that they create a mess, are non-native and their roots damage underground wiring and pipes.
In this age of arboreal political correctness, it may be best not to mention the afforestation projects undertaken in the 1960s by the Israelis at the behest of Malta’s then Nationalist government.
As a child I remember picnicking at Israeli Grove, as it was called. That name has been consigned to the dustbin of history, though the trees, happily, survive.
It was once claimed that trees would attract rainfall. I am not sure that this makes scientific sense, but one thing is for sure: if you want to create environmental catastrophe, or just make a place look plain ugly, cut down all its trees. In this age of Pope Francis, author of the environmental encyclical Laudato Si’, we need to take tree-planting seriously.
Benito Mussolini was a great tree-planter. He too believed that planting trees would change the climate. If Italy were a colder, wetter country, it would toughen up the Italians and make them more warlike, or so he thought.
There was a plantation of trees on Mount Giano, meant to be visible 50 miles away in Rome, which spelled out the word Dux, Latin for Duce. Unfortunately these pines were destroyed in a forest fire last year, which may have been the work of arsonists. Certainly, some people were not sorry to see this arboreal monument to the great tree-planter destroyed. But you couldn’t see the plantation from Rome when I lived there, thanks to the choking pollution caused by cars.
Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith is a moral theologian and a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald