Minister is not the hero of the Europa foreshore

Dear Sir,

Minister for Environment Dr John Cortes recently published a press release with pictures of himself at Europa Foreshore. I read that press release that was published in your media, with growing dismay. Minister Cortes makes it look as if he’s the “hero of Europa Foreshore” although his involvement has been most minimal or even destructive, definitely nothing he should be proud of or take credit for.

Being an environmentalist myself with a Masters of Science degree, six years ago I proposed to do some voluntary work at Europa Foreshore, an area of the Gibraltar Nature Reserve that over tens of years had been converted in a rubbish and rubble dump infested with rats. 80% of the area, three times the size of Commonwealth Park, had lost it’s natural state as invasive plants had been allowed to overwhelm and destroy the indigenous biodiversity and related wildlife, these areas had become ecological deserts with almost no value at all.

Over the years my clean up voluntary efforts have been well documented in the local press. What is not well known though is that I have also constantly run a behind the scenes campaign to get some official involvement to e.g. better indicate were the paths were so people would not accidentally trample over valuable plants; I have been begging for years to get rubbish bins there; I proposed to convert an ugly eyesore (a huge disused concrete antenna platform from the 1960s) into a viewing platform; above all I have been asking over and over again for decent information panels to educate the many visitors why Europa Foreshore is important and unique. My campaign went on for years but at Government level nobody was really interested.

About a year ago the Department of Environment contacted me to inform me they had some leftover budget and they had found a contractor that was willing to do the job at almost cost price. For several months I was consulted as to what the best options could be and which possibilities I saw for the area at minimal cost. Other stake holders like e.g. GONHS were also asked for their input. I am proud to say that most of my ideas and proposals were taken on board. The unsightly concrete antenna post (too costly to remove) is now indeed a viewing platform and nicely blends in to its surroundings, the paths are now indicated with wooden balustrades and this indeed helped the vegetation to recover in a spectacular way. When the idea of balustrades was first proposed I made it very clear that natural materials (wood) were preferable to better blend in to the natural environment around it. I heavily opposed the ugly and rusting steel balustrades used on the Upper Rock that are way too expensive and maintenance intensive. Instead wood was used for the barriers and proves now to be almost maintenance free and repairs can be done at very low cost. Still more balustrades are needed though, that part of the project isn’t finished yet, Minister Cortes forgot to mention that in his press release.

Interpretation panels were at last also installed. It has every indication though that these panels were a hush hush effort for the Minister’s press release as they are ridiculous for lack of information. The “nature panel” e.g. informs visitors that two birds, one lizard and one plant can be seen on the Foreshore. In reality there are 135 different indigenous plant species and several gecko and snake species and bats. Nothing is mentioned about the huge variety of interesting plants unique for that harsh habitat very close to the seashore. Loads of birds now feed in that area on seeds and insects, the same birds that had gone long ago as the abandoned and unloved Foreshore was allowed to become an ecological desert. Nothing about the Common Kestrel that can be seen there every day, just to mention one bit of information that indeed would have been useful. Better throw this interpretation panel straight into a recycle bin and get something much more informative instead. Using tax payer’s money to hush hush prepare for a Minister’s photo shoot is not what I would call responsible government.

The “heritage panel” is even worse. There is a superbly boring story about renaming of search light positions without any pictures so no one has a clue what to look for. On the other hand there is absolutely nothing about the impressive historic walls that surround the Foreshore and nothing about the remarkable prehistoric occupation in that area although all that research was already done for the documentary made about my voluntary project two years ago. The Gibraltar Museum gave fantastic input for this. To my further utter astonishment part of the information I personally discovered (the old pictures of the 1930s showing the wireless transmitter station on the Foreshore) was simply copied by the Gibraltar Heritage Trust and they even take credit for my investigation work without mentioning me or my research. It shows again that that useless organisation will do almost everything and anything to try to give themselves some credibility.

The rosy picture Minister Cortes, the “hero of Europa Foreshore”, is trying to create with his press release and photo shoot is though a far cry from reality. There are still rubble piles in the Europa Foreshore part of Gibraltar’s Nature Reserve, the damage of the recent tunnel clean up there has not been repaired at all, parts of my voluntary work remain destroyed by a Government project and there is a continuous refusal from the highest levels to provide me with the low cost materials I need to repair the damage. To add insult to injury, Minister Cortes and the Government he is part of refuse to consider my British Citizenship application for over two years. My file has been checked by the Gibraltar Ombudsman and found to be perfectly in order. But in one letter to me from the Civil Status and Registration Office the reason for the deferral of my Citizenship application was said to be: “my voluntary work for GONHS”. So much for appreciation from a Minister for Environment who spends millions on senseless suspension bridges and fake skywalks but doesn’t show the most minimal respect for a volunteer worker who continues against all odds to clean up part of our precious and invaluable Nature Reserve. For my years of voluntary work I only got punishment in the form of the refusal of Citizenship for the Nation for which I have shown so much love.

Minister Cortes’ ongoing failures at Europa Foreshore definitely show he is not the “hero of Europa Foreshore”. I don’t see myself as such either, my voluntary project is something I do because I tremendously enjoy working in Nature and by doing so give something back to the people of Gibraltar who welcomed me so open-heartedly and treated me as one of their own. The real hero of Europa Foreshore for me is Sir Peter Caruana. During his days as Chief Minister there were some plans to build a sewage treatment plant on the Foreshore but when Sir Peter visited the area to see for himself, he was astonished by its natural beauty and decided the area had to be left as it was. Without his decision I would never have been able to do my voluntary work there and I am extremely happy for his wise decision. It is thanks to Sir Peter that we have Europa Foreshore almost entirely restored to its original natural beauty today.

In this context it would be unfair not to mention the great collaboration and help of the Department of Environment during the last few years. The DoE provided me with advice, tools and materials covering most of the costs of my voluntary efforts, what is very much appreciated. A growing number of people in that Department share my frustration with Minister Cortes’ lacklustre approach of our Nature Reserve Management. Without my years of voluntary work, several thousands of hours already, it would simply never have been possible for the Minister to do his photo shoot. All my effort was good enough for a fleeting mention of my name with a referral to some voluntary work in the Minister’s press release.

What shocked me most though in this whole saga: I was actually present at the Foreshore when the Minister was parading there in a suit for his photo shoot. That same day I was doing my voluntary work there with blood, sweat and tears, kneeling for four hours removing invasive plants and restoring another part of our beautiful Foreshore to its natural indigenous state. The Minister did not even have the courtesy to greet me, the free labour. A really nice socialist attitude indeed. So instead of the Honourable Minister taking credit in his press release for what is essentially the result of my voluntary work and five years of efforts and campaigning, he should have put his claim in a more correct perspective.

Yours sincerely,

Bart Van Thienen MSc