The Maldives Police Service (MPS) and the Ministry of Environment and Energy have announced the formation of a new unit that will assign 22 trained officers to deal with ecological violations across the country.
The Environmental Police Unit, formed through a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed on June 6, will aim to investigate and punish violations of laws relating to biodiversity and littering, the Environment Ministry claimed in an email to Minivan News.
Formation of the new unit comes as NGOs and not for profit groups have raised individual concerns over a perceived lack of enforcement or a clear legal framework to uphold environmental protection efforts across the country.
These ongoing concerns over enforcement are said to already directly impact both the country’s fledgling national parks and marine reserves, as well as on individual inhabited islands.
According to the Environment Ministry, officers from the new police unit will be required to assist the state in enforcing national regulations such as in providing sports fines related to vehicular emissions or cases of illegal sand-mining, or dealing with poaching of protected species in the country.
Police will also be required to share details of environmental crimes to the ministry, which did not share any further information on the specific offences that police will asked to focus on at time of press.
Under the MOU, the Environment Ministry will be required to give technical advice on the formation of the environment unit, including training for 22 officers in dealing with environmental crime.
The ministry is also called on to host workshops and awareness events for various agencies within the police force, as well as for customs officials, port authorities and the coast guard.
Environment authorities are also required through the MOU to provide all necessary information on laws and regulations, as well as other treaties and agreements signed by the Maldives as part of the country’s wider sustainability aims.
Numerous stakeholders in Maldives’ environment sector have meanwhile this week told Minivan News that a perceived lack enforcement as well as concise national legislation has in recent years held back ecological protection efforts.
For Ali Rilwan, Executive Director for local NGO BluePeace, a lack of enforcement of the country’s environmental regulations was believed to be the most pertinent long-standing issue setting back conservation and protection efforts at present.
Rilwan claimed that a lack of national mechanisms to report and enforce environmental crimes continued to hamper state initiatives to curb practices such as harvesting of turtles eggs and the export of shark.
In the case of national parks and biospheres, Rilwan alleged that a lack of enforcement was a particular problem for any conservation attempts.
He claimed that without such regulation, marine reserves and other conservation zones currently established in the country were operating more as “paper parks” than designated protected areas.
According to Rilwan, the lack of a nationwide enforcement mechanism to protect environmental laws was presently most apparent in smaller islands where police presence was often limited, making it difficult to report suspected offences.
“The police are supposed to have already been enforcing laws and regulations for environmental protection. But enforcement is something that we have not seen attempted,” he said.
Rilwan added that with the Environment Ministry not having representation within island councils, monitoring potential abuses of environmental law on more than 1,000 islands across the country would limit the effectiveness.
“There are local councils who can focus on the issue, but in the case of any criminal acts, councillors themselves would not be able to investigate or penalise any perpetrators contravening environmental law,” he said.
Rilwan added that with the training of environmental police in the country, he believed there could be an opportunity for effective enforcement going forward.
However, Mohamed Hameed, Promoter of the Edu Faru Marine National Park project in Noonu Atoll, has said he believes the Maldives main challenge regarding ecological protection was the continued lack of a holistic legal framework to protect the environment.
“The Maldives at present is an example of a very sensitive environment. You can get police to check on it, but you need a legal framework to protect these places,” he said. “At present, this legislative framework is lacking.”
Despite successive government in the Maldives playing up sustainability as a key part of their national development plans, Hameed said that current legislation on the environment was presently “all over the place” with various laws overlapping ad contradicting each other in some cases.
Taking successful international examples of marine reserves such as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef or the Kosterhavet National Park in Sweden, he claimed that both parks were protected within the respective legal frameworks of both nations.
Without similar amendments being considered in the Maldives, Hameed said that it would be very difficult to ensure projects like the Edu Faru MNP were properly protected.
He claimed from his own experience of trying to establish the country’s first MNP, a process said to have taken over two decades, efforts to set up an environmental not for profit organisation had been complicated by the fragmented legislative framework presently used in the country.
Hameed claimed that despite both President Dr Mohamed Waheed and former President Mohamed Nasheed supporting the MNP’s formation, he was still waiting for official paperwork and all the agreed lands to be handed over to him so work could fully begin on the site.
The MNP, which was established through a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Environment Ministry back in 2011, is designed to protect nine islets by keeping them in a “pristine” state and undeveloped for future research.
National parks and reserves are expected to become an increasingly important part of the Maldives conservation efforts on the back of a pledge by the current government to make the country the world’s largest marine reserve by 2017.
The government has is committed to move ahead with plans to transform the Maldives into a biosphere reserve through the designation of zones across the country that would earmark land use for specific purposes such as tourism development or conservation.