The dusk of ‘traditional’ hunting in MaIta is near, but the coalition of NGOs is not the one that will put an end to it.
by Raisa Galea and Francois Zammit
Collage by the IotL Magazine
The powerful influence of two interest groups—construction and hunting—has clearly shown itself once again during the current pandemic. Both have been permitted to carry on with their activities despite the quarantine measures to which other sectors were subjected.
A total of 6,148 hunters were eligible to hunt during the spring hunting season of 2020—a number that excludes 1,247 persons aged 65 or older. Meanwhile, busy and noisy construction sites particularly stood out against the backdrop of empty streets, and have made isolating at home too hard to bear for their neighbours.
Besides the apparent sources of their power—a sizable share in the national GDP in the case of the construction sector and a few thousand strong hunters’ lobby—there are other aspects to their influence. The exceptional dominance of the two lobbies, however, contains a curious paradox: as a vehicle of urbanisation, the construction sector should be the chief enemy of hunting, a so-called tradition performed in the countryside.
The exceptional dominance of the two lobbies contains a curious paradox: as a vehicle of urbanisation, the construction sector should be the chief enemy of hunting, a so-called tradition performed in the countryside.
In theory, the construction sector—the agent of ‘progress’ and modernisation in Malta—should be at odds with a guardian of ‘tradition’, as the hunting lobby positions itself. The two concepts—progress and tradition—are locked in inherent antagonism, since the former strives to erode the latter. However, in the Maltese political context, this antagonism is ambiguous and remains concealed.
To determine the reasons precluding construction and hunting from opposing each other as could be expected, we need to examine their relations to one another and the rest of Malta’s political actors.
Spring Hunting as a Symbol of National Sovereignty
Contemporary politics in Malta unfolds along two axes. On the one axis, it has been an ongoing trade-off between ‘progress’ and ‘tradition’. On the other, it’s defined by a rivalry between the country’s desire to demonstrate its European belonging versus preserving its supposed cultural authenticity.
For the past few decades, the young independent republic sought to establish itself as a modern European state—a path that led to joining the EU in 2004, while at the same time remaining under a tight grip of conservative lobbies, with the Catholic Church being the most powerful of them. Until 2011, Malta’s integration into the EU co-existed with the country’s legislation not permitting divorce. To this day, it remains the only member of the European Union with a total ban on abortion, which makes the country distinct and authentic in the eyes of the majority of its citizens—as a citadel of Catholicism that does not give up its values under secular pressure.
Spring hunting of birds, also clashing with EU regulations, remains among the most controversial and debated issues, unresolved by the 2015 referendum. Although not influenced by the Church and not a uniquely Maltese phenomenon, spring hunting has a similar significance in national politics: it is a bone of contention in the rivalry between perceived national uniqueness and questions about EU integration. To some, it exemplifies the country’s respect for local customs, while others see it as a national scourge and a failure to fully recognise the authority of the EU stance on conservation.
Spring hunting is a bone of contention in the rivalry between perceived national uniqueness and questions about EU integration.
As observed by anthropologists Brian Campbell and Diogo Veríssimo, the referendum transcended conservation-related matters. It was “an emotionally-charged moment where a ‘nation’ chose which values it wanted to be seen as having.” The pronounced goal of the anti-hunting lobby was to assert Malta’s keenness on doing away with such antics for the sake of complete EU-integration—a mission which, contrary to expectations, failed by 2,200 votes.
Recently, the Federation for Hunting & Conservation (FKNK) has appealed to the President of Malta, requesting that he suggest amendments to the Referenda Act. The petition, originally addressed to parliamentarians and signed by over 104,000 persons back in 2014, called for the safeguarding of a “legal, socio-cultural tradition”. Ironically, the hunters’ lobby chose to identify as a “minority” whose cultural practices must be secured from “capricious” reasons for calling an abrogative referendum.
Despite this strategic self-description, the FKNK is by far the largest NGO in the Maltese Islands with circa 10,000 adult paid-up members. It is therefore unsurprising that spring hunting enjoys the support of Maltese politicians, including MEPs.
Prior to the European Parliament elections in 2019, the majority of Malta’s MEP candidates, with the exception of Alternattiva Demokratika and Partit Demokratiku, promised to defend spring hunting at EU level if elected. Labour MEP Alex Agius Saliba—who was recently elected Vice-President of the Hunting Intergroup of the European Parliament—claimed that Malta will have a much stronger voice in the EU to protect the hobby “that forms an integral part of our culture and tradition.”
Political actors often justify their actions by referring to concepts presented as sacrosanct and fundamental. Among these justifications are national culture and identity, with tradition being their elementary building block.
Tradition is portrayed as something to be protected at all costs since it seems to have withstood the test of time and has supposedly existed for hundreds of years. Following this line of thought, a traditional way of life provides the necessary basis for being a member of the community and must be treated as a symbol of national identity and pride.
Examples of lobbying for ‘traditional’ practices abound. In Spain, bullfighting is defended as a tradition and the same applies to fox hunting in the UK. Bird hunting and trapping in Malta neatly fit into this category of ‘traditions’ to be safeguarded from extinction.
However, this form of reasoning is flawed.
Most of the time, so-called traditional practices are in themselves recent constructs that have been created in order to sustain a narrative of a shared national past. In the past, hunting of quail and grouse was not performed as a ‘tradition’ for its own sake. It was most commonly done for a practical reason: to obtain meat at a time when industrial farming did not exist. Also, since guns were not available back then, anyone keen on traditions should put away their hunting rifle and revert back to bow and arrow, or simple traps.
Rather than a commitment to preserving a supposedly unique way of life, upholding spring hunting is a cocky way of telling the EU to let Malta decide on its internal matters. Independent from the United Kingdom for a little longer than half a century, the country is still savouring its self-governance.
It is no coincidence that the two controversial national ‘traditions’—a total ban on abortion and spring hunting—were juxtaposed in a statement by President George Vella. “I cannot understand, how on a European level they take you to the European Court of Justice over the killing of turtle doves but then you’re frowned upon if you do not accept abortion.” The President thus implied inconsistency of the EU legislators and undermined the moral authority of the European Court of Justice, which criminalises the killing of protected migratory birds but not the ‘killing’ of embryos.
Spring hunting serves as a manifestation of national sovereignty and unwillingness to bow down to external power.
“Ewros fuckers”, as the anonymous hunter featuring in the most famous Maltese video ever eloquently put it, are not to tell the Maltese what to do in ‘their own’ country. In other words, spring hunting serves as a manifestation of national sovereignty and unwillingness to bow down to external power.
Construction as Progress
While FKNK lobbies for the preservation of a “Maltese traditional socio-cultural passion”, the construction and real estate sector have a contrasting mission—to advance progress and modernisation.
The Maltese word żvilupp stands for both ‘development’ and ‘progress’. In the eyes of many Maltese, hyper-modern tall buildings are associated with ‘progress’ and ‘modernity’. Following this line of thought, resisting the ongoing defacement of the countryside as well as of urban areas equals opposing progress and holding on to the past.
A few years ago, the narrative linking construction to progress took off with a blessing from none other than Malta Developers Association President Sandro Chetcuti: “Development can never stop, and if it does stop it means that the country has stagnated. Progress must continue as it is crucial for any country”, he said in an interview to The Malta Independent.
“Progress must continue as it is crucial for any country”—Sandro Chetcuti
Advertising the new plans for a “six-star” mega-project at St George’s Bay, Corinthia chairman and founder Alfred Pisani urged his compatriots to “always accept progress.” Even the marketing of this project stood in opposition to anything traditional: the only other mega hotels classified as being six- or seven-star are those in the Gulf, mainly Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Although heritage conservation activists decry highrise developments and the swift urbanisation of the countryside as distorting Malta’s authentic image, ‘safeguarding tradition’ is certainly not a priority when it comes to political decisions on urban planning and construction.
We can therefore conclude that an ambiguous compromise between embracing progress and preserving traditions has been reached on the basis of two criteria: profit-making and national pride. Respect for traditions is restricted to either profitable cases—for example, tourism-boosting colourful Catholic festivities—or practices that can be utilised for asserting national sovereignty, such as spring hunting.
On the other hand, upholding such ‘traditions’ may also function as an apparent compensation for the loss of natural and architectural heritage, sacrificed on the altar of economic ‘progress’. The effective role of ‘traditions’ that are compatible with the cause of profit-making is to signify stability.
Tradition and Progress in Malta: Allies, not Enemies
As a supreme guardian of conservative traditions in Malta, the Church does treat the construction industry as its antagonist: the Church’s Environment Commission warned about the “vain promises” of progress made by construction moguls.
Even if covertly, festa enthusiasts also do their bit in protecting open spaces serving as firework launching sites from over-building. Paradoxically, the hunting lobby has never openly voiced any concerns about the threat posed to its ‘tradition’ by the encroaching urbanisation and the swift disappearance of the countryside.
It would be logical to expect FKNK to be the most vociferous objector to proposed developments in the Outside Development Zone and the most ardent critic of architectural projects failing to comply with the ‘traditional’ image of Malta.
In theory, hunters, heritage conservationists and ENGOs have a common interest: preservation of rural spaces from development. Together, the hunters and the NGOs could have built a strategic unified opposition to the construction sector that is rapidly devouring these spaces. In practice, however, the situation is contrary to what could be expected: potential allies are mortal enemies.
In theory, hunters, heritage conservationists and ENGOs have a common interest: preservation of rural spaces from development.
The Hunters’ Federation may have numerous reasons for complicity with over-building: its members, too, may be driven by contradictory urges and may be investing in development projects or work in the construction sector. However, there seems to be more than mere neutrality between the presumed antagonists—MDA and FKNK practically act like partners. What could possibly explain such bizarre power dynamics?
One of the most plausible explanations of this strategic conundrum is the presence of a common enemy—a broad coalition of NGOs and individuals, the majority of whom hail from an urban middle class background.
In the eyes of the hunters’ lobby, the threat to their rural way of life comes from a ‘progressive’ urban middle class whose delegates seek to align Malta with the European liberal democracies, thus ready to give up the country’s supposed sovereignty. In their 2015 referendum campaign, hunters fittingly instigated fear that other hobbies—fireworks and horse racing—will be next in line to be banned.
Antagonism between hunters and the urban middle class is mutual and deeply ideological. The ‘traditional’ Maltese folk and urban cosmopolitans espouse contrasting sociocultural values. According to one of the hunters’ spokespersons, the “extremist” anti-hunting campaigners are “often influenced by foreigners who come to our shores.” Regarded by the rural folk as agents of alien influence, environmental activists themselves detest hunters as a national scourge and personification of backwardness trapping the country “in Medieval times.”
The demand by FKNK for ‘public access’ to the nature reserves, currently administered by NGOs, simply verges on absurd since it goes against conservation. Again, the argument is clearly ideological and not about hunting per se: by making this request “on behalf of the Maltese people”, the Hunters’ Federation draws the line between ‘the people’ and the NGOs.
Thus, instead of mobilising against MDA’s detrimental effect to their interests, hunters shift the blame onto eco-activists who fight both lobbies simultaneously, on all fronts. The same coalition of NGOs opposing the construction lobby also clashes with hunters over the control of rural space and scolds firework enthusiasts (also potential allies for preservation of open space) over noise and air pollution.
Instead of mobilising against MDA’s detrimental effect to their interests, hunters shift the blame onto eco-activists who fight both lobbies simultaneously, on all fronts.
In other words, environmental NGOs and civil society groups are the conspicuous adversaries of—and are outnumbered by—the most powerful interest groups in Malta: the self-appointed guardians of ‘tradition’ and the self-proclaimed ambassadors of ‘progress’ alike. Having a common enemy turns intrinsic antagonists into allies and thus achieves the impossible by reconciling the opposites of construction and hunting.
‘Tradition’ vs ‘Progress’: What Will the Future Bring?
Given the special significance of ‘traditional’ spring hunting to Malta’s display of national sovereignty, it comes as no surprise that the government considers a stewardship agreement for hunters over lands at Miżieb and l-Aħrax tal-Mellieħa. However, in the long run, practicing this ‘tradition’ is likely to be reserved to such specifically dedicated areas only, as hunters are bound to be squeezed out of the countryside by the urban sprawl.
Evidently, there can be no hunting without the countryside. With or without future referenda on spring hunting, a continuation of over-building would eventually succeed in achieving what the 2015 referendum failed to do: eliminating this practice by simply taking over the space where it is performed—the remnants of the countryside.
Evidently, there can be no hunting without the countryside.
The hunters’ lobby does not seem to understand that tradition and economic leverage are hard to reconcile, and mistakenly regards the environmentally-minded middle class and ENGOs as its chief enemies. The dusk of hunting in MaIta is near, but the coalition of NGOs is not the one that will eventually put an end to it. The final blow will come from MDA.
In a concealed battle between the ‘tradition’ of hunting and the ‘progress’ of construction, the more economically significant latter is the likely winner. Unfortunately, this kind of ‘progress’ would be detrimental not only to the imagined ‘tradition’ of the hunting ‘minority’ but also to the majority of Maltese residents, not to mention the migratory birds. Public health and wellbeing would be compromised even further due to aggravated ecological degradation.
One day, a popular joke might become reality: construction cranes would replace all birds in Malta.