Land use - National Responses (Malta)

SOER 2010 Common environmental theme (Deprecated) expired
Topics: ,
This page was archived on 21 Mar 2015 with reason: A new version has been published
SOER Common environmental theme from Malta
Land Land
Published: 30 Nov 2010 Modified: 21 Mar 2015

Activities undertaken to improve the rural environment

The rural environment is shaped by a large number of inter-related human activities and natural processes. The integrated management of agricultural, recreational, quarrying and other activities, as well as natural heritage protection, is the key to an improved rural environment. This section describes the principal measures being adopted to mitigate the impacts of agriculture and other activities on the countryside. These include rural development policy, nature protection policy, organic farming, afforestation, quarry restoration, and measures taken through the planning system such as the Environmental Projects in Partnerships (EIPP).

Rural development policy

The application of the Code of Good Agricultural Practice (CoGAP) and use of agri-environmental schemes within the framework of the Common Agriculture Policy is the principal EU-related mechanism for improving the environmental performance of the agriculture sector. The CoGAP was developed as part of Malta’s obligations under the Nitrates Directive. It is a compilation of good farming practices pertinent to all the other Directives, prevailing national legislation, and good farming practices and consists of a list of codes of good practices on animal husbandry, manure handling, application of fertilisers, irrigation and plant protection.

Agri-environment schemes and the EU’s Less Favoured Areas (LFAs) measures have been established in Malta through both the 2004-2006 Rural Development Plan and the 2007-2013 Rural Development Programme.

The 2004-2006 plan contained an agri-environment scheme to promote the protection, maintenance and enhancement of the traditional rural environment of the Maltese islands. Three sub-measures offered were:

  • Sub-measure A: restoration of retaining terraced dry-stone walls;
  • Sub-measure B: maintaining biodiversity by conserving and enhancing autochthonous species – this measure was made available for the conservation of the Maltese ox Breed (Il-Baqra Maltija) and the holm oak (Il-Balluta, Quercus ilex);
  • Sub-measure C: encouraging the use of simple environmental practices through the promotion of organic farming methods.


Area of agricultural land provided with financial support under the agri-environment support scheme or through the LFA scheme (2004-2006)

Source: Rural Development Department

Figure 4.2 Area of agricultural land provided with financial support under the agri-environment support scheme or through the LFA scheme (2004-2006)


Between 2004 and 2006, 1 642 farmers benefited from Sub-measure A, through which approximately 28 ha of rubble walls were funded for restoration (Chart 4.2). Agri-environment support has been provided to eight beneficiaries who sought to adopt organic farming practices, over 15 ha of agricultural land.  During the same period, six beneficiaries received funding for Sub-measure B, related to the maintenance and conservation of the holm oak. This sub-measure covered an area of approximately 2.7 ha of agricultural land, and ensured that, in order to protect this tree, beneficiaries refrained from applying any herbicide on their land.

Figure 4.2 indicates that the application of sub-measures gained momentum in 2006. Sub-measure A was widely applied, increasing the area of dry-stone walls from 9.2 ha in 2004 to 11.7 ha in 2006; land affected by Sub-measure B increased from 0.21 ha in 2005 to 13 ha in 2006. However the agri-environment measures (AEMs) fell short of targets set in the 2004-2006 Rural Development Plan. Nevertheless factors resulting in difficulties with the application of the sub-measures have been taken into consideration when designing the new environment measures for 2007-2013.

The 2007-2013 Rural Development Programme has established nine AEMs (Table 4.2), bringing forward and widening the scope of the previous agri-environmental schemes relating to dry-stone walls, the breeding and protection of autochthonous species, and organic farming. The previous Sub-measure A has been incorporated within the new AEM 6 for the conservation of rural structures providing a natural habitat for fauna and flora, which now also seeks the protection of other rural structures such as the girna (stone huts), water reservoirs and water channels. Sub-measure B has been incorporated in AEM 9, which continues to encourage the breeding of the Maltese ox, and has expanded the list of qualifying trees species. The previous Sub-measure C has been incorporated within AEM 8, which offers support for organic farming.

Agri-environ-ment measure




Use of environmentally-friendly plant protection products in vineyards

To reduce the amount of pesticides used in vineyards, whilst encouraging environment-friendly methods of pest control


Traditional cultivation of sulla through crop rotation

To reduce soil degradation, encouraging the use of traditional crop rotation, aimed at increasing soil organic matter, and reducing the use of chemical fertiliser


Low input farming

To reduce the use of plant protection products in the production of fodder, while encouraging manual weeding in order to reduce the use of pesticides, thus reducing the likelihood of ground water and surface water contamination


Suppression of the use of herbicides in vineyards and fruit orchards


Establishment and maintenance of conservation buffer strips


Conservation of rural structures providing a natural habitat for fauna and flora

To provide protection to wildlife through the protection of rustic features that provide a habitat for various flora and fauna species


Provision of a healthy forage area for bees

To provide more diverse forage for bees, whilst raising awareness about the farmer’s role in supporting biodiversity


Support for organic farming

To encourage further conversion of agricultural land to organic farming


Support for the conservation of species in danger of genetic erosion

To encourage the preservation of native varieties and the maintenance of habitats associated with endangered fauna and flora

Source: Ministry for Rural Affairs and the Environment (MRAE). 2007. Rural Development Programme 2007-2013, MRAE, Valletta. 

Table 4.2 Agri-environmental measures established under the Rural Development Programme 2007-2013

The application of the LFAs measure aims to ensure sustainable agricultural land use, in order to maintain the countryside in areas that face natural disadvantages. All 11 017 ha of Malta’s agricultural land qualifies for funds under the LFAs measure in view of the natural and geographical characteristics of the islands. The LFAs measure aims to ensure the continued use of agricultural land over a 5-year commitment period. The measure covered approximately 8 600 ha of agricultural land during 2006, declining slightly from 8 892 ha in 2004, and is available for all farmers who have been working the land for a specified period. 


Nature Protection

Nature protection, reflecting EU policy in this area, also contains important measures that will have significant impacts on rural areas. Since the end of 2008, 20.4% of Malta's land area has been under protective designations, while 13.06 % had been accepted as part of the Natura 2000 network. Under this scheme, all Natura 2000 sites will need to be formally managed within six years of designation. Area management has significant potential for resolving some of the user conflicts that result in degradation of rural areas.


Organic farming

Council Regulation 2092/91, and later amendments, provide a legal framework for organic farming in the EU. There were 14 registered producers of organic products in the islands at end 2008. The years 2005-2008 saw an increase in the amount of land used for organic produce from 14 ha to 21.78 ha. This is approximately 0.19 % of total agricultural land, and 0.21 % of utilised agricultural Area. However there was a decrease in organically cultivated area between 2006 and 2007, from 20.1 ha to 17.3 ha. It is estimated that in 2008, 50 % of organically cultivated land was used for the production of vegetables, melons and strawberries, 11 % for the production of root crops, and, in 2007, another 11% for the production of olives. Nevertheless, in comparison with other EU countries, Malta, in 2007, had a very low share of organic agriculture.

While organic farming is still an emerging practice in Malta, its potential is increasingly being recognised through institutional changes. The past five years have seen the establishment of an Organic Farming Unit within the Ministry for Resources and Rural Affairs, a legal framework to govern the activity, a certification body – the Malta Standards Authority, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) promoting organic farming, such as the Malta Organic and Agriculture Movement and the Genista Foundation. As noted above, organic farming is also supported by the Rural Development Programme 2007-2013. Work has also been directed towards providing a national strategy for the promotion of organic agriculture, and the development of multifunctional organic farming. The 2002 strategy identified areas that require development in order to support the application of relevant EU legislation and identified a need for: the provision of training for institutions, as well as individuals and associated farms; the development of organic farming in Malta through experimentation and demonstration of the application and management techniques suitable in the Maltese context; the implementation of a dissemination plan encouraging the further development of organic farming through already established entities; and encouraging the establishment of a producers’ association in order to overcome the constraints related to farm size. There are mixed prospects for the increase of organic farming in the Maltese Islands, however the political commitment to make Gozo an eco-island suggests that these prospects could improve, at least there.



There are a number of afforestation initiatives that seek to increase the percentage of forested area on the islands, while also seeking to reintroduce native tree species and provide a means of improving the landscape. The Common Agricultural Policy also encourages afforestation to protect the soil resource and thus the environment. Afforestation is encouraged by the Ministry for Resources and Rural Affairs through its 34U Campaign under which 50 000 tress were planted in 2007-2008, and also by NGOs through individual projects at Xrobb il-Għaġin, Wied Għollieqa, Il-Għadira areas, or through the Foresta 2000 initiative. NGOs are also carrying out a number of smaller afforestation projects linked to the rehabilitation of historical sites such as Din L-Art Ħelwa’s site at Bir Miftuħ. There was a noticeable increase in the number of trees planted between 2003 and 2007, with an increase of approximately 14 % between 2006 and 2007 alone (Figure 4.3).

A total of 33 278 trees were planted in 2007. Between 2006 and 2007 trees planted by Government, excluding Foresta 2000, increased by 13 % and by the Environmental Landscapes Consortium Limited by 23 %.

Trees planted, 2003-2007

Source: MRRA, Din l-Art Ħelwa, Nature Trust (Malta), The GAIA Foundation and Birdlife (Malta)

Figure 4.3 Trees planted, 2003-2007


The major tree species being planted in the projects managed by Nature Trust (Malta) and the GAIA Foundation are the chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus), sandarac gum (Tetraclinis articulata), dwarf palm (Chamaerops humilis), olive (Olea europea), lentisk (Pistacia lentiscus), carob  (Ceratonia siliqua), holm oak (Quercus ilex), myrtle (Myrtus communis), Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis) and tamarisk (Tamarix africana). While afforestation has definite benefits for the environment afforestation projects are sometimes approached as a monoculture rather than an ecological project seeking the restoration of an entire habitat type. The ecosystem approach to afforestation has been adopted in the Foresta 2000 project, a conservation project designed to re-establish the Mediterranean woodland in the Mellieħa area. 


Restoration of quarries

Minerals extraction is a major source of dust, vibrations, noise and landscape degradation, particularly during the extraction phase. As a result, the restoration of quarries is becoming an increasingly important aspect of minerals planning. Restoration is encouraged through the Structure Plan, the Minerals Subject Plan and the various local plans, where priority is given to the restoration for agricultural use. The Structure Plan built upon the existing quarry regulatory framework, which was based on a police licensing regime which did not address the need for the eventual restoration of the quarry. However conditions were being imposed by the then Department of Environment, requiring the removal of the plant and equipment, and ensuring that the operator had a responsibility to leave the quarry in a state suitable for agriculture. A system of bonds was introduced by MEPA to ensure the restoration of quarries, the completion of landscaping and the removal of the plant and machinery after the completion of extraction. As a result, quarry restoration has been ongoing for a number of years.

There have been a number of development permissions issued for the restoration of quarries, where works only consider infilling with inert waste, while other applications seek to rehabilitate the area to arable agricultural use. A few restoration projects have been of an industrial nature, and there have also been a number of permissions for housing in former quarries. Quarries are also being used for animal husbandry. However the reuse and restoration of quarries does not necessarily need to be limited to these traditional uses. International examples of restoration of mining sites show their potential in terms of biodiversity and geo-diversity. This aspect of quarry restoration deserves further exploration. Indeed, the meeting of national biodiversity targets could be assisted through the creation of wildlife habitats in disused quarries. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds indicates that spent quarries can be transformed into such habitats as woodland and reed beds to support wildlife and provide natural space for people. Restoration of disused quarries for bio-conservation purposes could, for example, display special geological features such as karstic structures.


Measures taken through the planning system to improve the countryside

The Structure Plan for the Maltese Islands seeks to ‘radically improve the quality of all aspects of the environment of both urban and rural areas’. To this end, the planning system employs a number of tools to facilitate better protection and management of the countryside. These include the scheduling of natural areas for their ecological, scientific or geo-morphological interest, and preparation of action plans to ensure their management, the designation of areas of landscape value, the provision of Supplementary Planning Guidelines for agricultural development, and the carrying out of environmental improvement projects in partnership with environmental NGOs and other actors.

The primary mechanism for the protection and enhancement of countryside areas through the planning system may be found in the legislative framework provided through the Development Planning Act. This provides for the scheduling of areas of ecological and scientific importance (Structure Plan Policy RCO 1) according to a hierarchy of levels. Approximately 15 % of the islands is protected as of 2008 under this Act. In such areas, clear guidance is provided as to what type of development may take place. The Structure Plan Explanatory Memorandum stipulates the nature of permitted activity and development within Areas of Ecological Importance and Sites of Scientific Importance, the boundaries of which are outlined in the various local plans. 

The planning system also gives specific protection to landscape. The Maltese landscape has been moulded over time by natural and anthropological forces and can be described as a cultural rather than a natural landscape. It is characterised by karstic rock formations, the closely-knit geometric forms of settlements dominated by domes and steeples, terraced agricultural fields and Mediterranean flora. A total of 51 % of Malta’s land area was characterised as being of high or very high landscape sensitivity in the assessment study of 2004. The Structure Plan also provides for the designation of Areas of High Landscape Value (AHLV). The number of AHLVs increased by more than 200 % following the approval of the last five local plans in 2006 (Map 4.2), so that the total area designated for landscape value constituted 33 % of the islands’ total land area by end 2007 (Map 4.2). However the Maltese rural landscape remains threatened by various socio-economic processes, including the intensification of agriculture, dumping, and sporadic development.

Map 4.2  Areas protected for landscape value

Source: MEPA

Map 4.2  Areas protected for landscape value


An important policy instrument that emerged in the review period is the 2007 MEPA Policy and Design Guidance on Agriculture, Farm Diversification and Stables, which aims to support development that is essential and genuine to the needs of sustainable agriculture and rural development. This would enhance the competitiveness of the rural economy and encourage farmers to diversify their principal agricultural activities. The guidance seeks to discourage proliferation of unnecessary new buildings outside the development zone and to ensure proper conservation and management of the countryside.

The EIPP is a MEPA funding scheme that benefits both natural and cultural heritage through direct and active involvement with the other governmental and non-governmental organisations.  The fund is sourced through planning gain and forfeited bank guarantees.[1] In its years of operation since mid-2005, some €1.17 million have been committed.

A number of projects have been initiated since the establishment of EIPP, most of which focus on the protection of historic and natural areas. Other projects included the enhancement of archaeological sites, the management of marine protected areas, and the funding of large-scale projects that contribute to better environmental management. 


This brief review of trends and issues in the rural environment has noted that it remains largely dominated by agriculture, which has an important stewardship role in ensuring countryside quality. It also notes, however, that the rural environment faces threats such as land abandonment, loss of dry-stone walls, dumping, agricultural land reclamation. It also highlights that the Rural Development Plan’s agri-environmental measures exploit the synergies between agriculture and environment and should be sustained and resourced in the future. A high quality rural environment has a major role in providing an improved quality of life. The recent initiatives to develop management plans, which facilitate the improved management of competitive land uses within designated areas, facilitate a comprehensive approach to countryside management. These management plans will also play an important role in ensuring countryside quality.

[1] A bank guarantee is an agreed sum of money placed in a bank by an applicant for development permission, to safeguard natural or cultural heritage. The competent authority can claim the money should the permit conditions be breached.  


The country assessments are the sole responsibility of the EEA member and cooperating countries supported by the EEA through guidance, translation and editing.

Filed under: ,
Sign up to receive our reports (print and/or electronic) and quarterly e-newsletter.
Follow us
European Environment Agency (EEA)
Kongens Nytorv 6
1050 Copenhagen K
Phone: +45 3336 7100