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  1. Newstatesman Gibraltar
6 October 2014

Booted eagles and Barbary macaques: how Gibraltar balances green with growth

Managing nature conservation and economic development in one of the smallest and most biodiverse spots in Europe is no mean feat, says environmental minister Dr John Cortes.

By John Cortes

For a territory tiny by most standards, a springtime walk high on the Rock of Gibraltar is fascinating. By any comparison, the diversity of plants and animals – and the uniqueness of its natural community – is truly amazing.

The top of the Rock is a special place too.  Almost 400 metres shear up from the deep blue Mediterranean, the Rif mountains of Morocco look almost at arm’s reach to the south, while the hillsides of Andalusia stretch north and then east to the Sierra Nevada. The city of Gibraltar buzzes below, at the foot of a slope of Mediterranean scrubland scented with rosemary, lavender and a very special Gibraltar thyme.  In spring, the shrubs shelter resting migrating songbirds, not persecuted on this patch of British soil, while overhead groups of birds of prey, black kites, honey buzzards, Egyptian vultures, booted eagles and many more soar lazily before gliding off over the hinterland and towards their European nesting grounds.

As they move north, they overfly a nature reserve that covers 50 per cent of Gibraltar and holds a rich diversity of plants (including at least five found nowhere else in Europe) and hundreds of species of beetles and other invertebrates (some indigenous to the Rock), before gliding over a city with one of the strongest per capita economies anywhere.

The uninitiated visitor likely knows more about Gibraltar’s economy than its biodiversity. The business man might not notice the thousands of birds of prey and hundreds of storks overhead, or the monarch butterfly gliding by as he shops in Main Street, or sips a cool drink in Ocean Village marina.  The businesswoman who works in one of the Europort offices may think that Gibraltar has little more than Barbary macaques on the hillside, although she will know that Gibraltar had a record budget surplus if £65m last year.

A look around Gibraltar today shows a dynamic world of contrast; of the old and the new.  It will show construction projects: most of the housing estates are being extensively renovated for the first time since they were built decades ago, and three new affordable housing estates are being built to slash the housing waiting list. There is a new World Trade Centre under construction, and plans have been approved for a hotel, and office and residential accommodation near the city centre. New tourist and residential complexes, to be built on reclaimed land on the east side, are also being considered.  Amid all this you will see a botanic garden, and a brand new city park, complete with grass, plane trees, ponds, weeping willow and bandstand, with another park planned for next year.  And of course there is the picturesque old town, currently seeing an unprecedented spate of renewal, such as the historic stretch of defensive wall along the Wellington Front currently being restored as a north-south walk and cycle lane along the town.

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However, none of these major projects will destroy wildlife or their habitats. For instance, all are required to provide nest sites for swifts and roosts for bats, while some – like the new park – will actually enhance the natural environment. Quite how Gibraltar has been able to develop as it has, with unemployment now dropped to about 1 per cent, and yet keep its biodiversity and protected areas intact may seem miraculous, and has certainly been no mean feat.  The present government, elected in December 2011, is ensuring that this remains so.  It set up a “green filter” for all Government projects, and converted a formerly in-camera planning system into an open, public process, where all are welcome to express their views.

Gibraltar is also revolutionising how it looks at energy.  A key decision to change plans to replace our creaking diesel power plants with more diesel generators, and instead to develop a natural gas-fired plant in the industrialised port area, proved Gibraltar’s new-found commitment to tackle pollution and energy needs and to work towards a sustainable future. Solar power is at last being tapped, with pilot projects to use energy from the sea and other renewable sources also being encouraged.  The aim is to produce at least 20 per cent of power from renewables by 2020, and 40 per cent or more by 2030.  All new buildings now comply with European energy efficiency standards, and many are being fitted with solar panels and smart meters.  Combined with the new power station and a shift to low energy devices in both public and private lighting, as well as an aggressive energy-efficiency strategy, these policies will give Gibraltar responsible, low-polluting power resilience that will be an example to the world.

The promotion of recycling, of electric and hybrid vehicles (including in the government’s own fleet), and a definite move towards non-polluting methods of waste treatment are now the way things are done in Gibraltar.  This in itself is encouraging the development of a whole new industry in the private sector. As the “green” sector expands exponentially worldwide, Gibraltar is ready to respond and welcome it.

The government’s department of the environment has grown from humble beginnings to include a dynamic team of young scientists, enforcement and support staff, who work closely with non-governmental organisations nationally and with professionals in other countries, mainly the United Kingdom and the other UK Overseas Territories. Gibraltar also promotes the message outwards, with an ever increasing presence in meetings and conferences around the world, including the United Nations Climate Summit in New York last September.

One major thrust of the department’s work is environmental education.  This is key not only in spreading the message, but also in ensuring that future generations have a solid grasp of sustainability.  Apart from reaching out to schools and youth groups, the department has developed a presence on social media, is working on a series of apps, and created and continuously expands its “Thinking Green” website.

The department also supports practical conservation projects.  For example, it directs vegetation management work within the Gibraltar Nature Reserve and is collaborating with the Gibraltar Ornithological and Natural History Society in a programme to stabilise and enhance the Rock’s population of the Barbary partridge, a species which on mainland Europe only occurs within this reserve.

It has also recently established a presence at sea, with new vessels to monitor marine life and assess conservation problems.  The seas around Gibraltar – British Gibraltar Territorial Waters extend three miles to the east and south and midway across the Bay of Gibraltar – are, like the mainland, a mix of human industry and rich marine life. Alongside bunkering and recreational vessels, hundreds of common and striped dolphins use the waters as feeding and breeding areas as well as large populations of migrating and wintering seabirds.

The Gibraltarians are a proud people.  And we take pride in everything that gives us an identity.  It may be the iconic limestone Rock, or our national football team, now a member of UEFA.  But increasingly our unique and diverse natural history is recognised as an asset of which to be proud.  The logic of developing in a sustainable way, of controlling how we produce and use energy so that we improve air quality and reduce unnecessary cost, tied with an unstoppable ambition to succeed as a community – socially and economically – make Gibraltar the place to watch.

About the author

Dr John Cortes MBE JP CBiol FLS is Minister for Health and the Environment in Her Majesty’s Government of Gibraltar.  He Graduated in Botany and Zoology in Royal Holloway College, London in 1979.  He became Doctor of Philosophy at Magdalen College, Oxford in 1983.  Between 1991 and 2011 he was Director of the Gibraltar Botanic Gardens and between 1976 and 2011 he was Genereal Secretary of the Gibraltar Ornithological & Natural history Society, the BirdLife Partner in Gibraltar.  He has published in the natural sciences, including botany, ornithology and macaque biology.