Precious mangrove under threat as government plans airport in Kulhudhuffushi

Environmental NGO Ecocare has expressed concern that government proposals for an airport on Kulhudhuffushi island will result in the destruction of environmentally sensitive wetland areas.

“Though the constitution it self calls for sustainable development, it is sad and absurd when politicians care less about the vulnerability of Maldives and of its ecological diversity,” read an Ecocare press release.

Minister of State for Transport and Communication Mohamed Ibrahim today admitted that, should the proposed plan go ahead, there are few options but to encroach upon the island’s only remaining mangrove.

“We don’t have the details, but the new government plans to build an airport. We have prepared concept and have shared with the atoll council and the island council, and we are awaiting their comments,” said Ibrahim.

Ecocare stated that official enquiries into the specifics of the development had yet to yield any responses.

The group pointed out that – following the complete reclamation of the island’s southern mangrove for the construction of housing -the northern mangrove had been designated to be an environmentally protected zone.

Marine biologist with local environmental consultancy Seamarc, Sylvia Jagerroos, has explained the importance of such wetlands, describing them as “one of the most threatened ecosystems on earth”.

“Mangrove support the seabed meaning they prevent erosion on beachline and also enhance protection of the island in case of storm and higher sea levels,” she said.

“They support a nursery for fish and marine fauna and aid and the reef and seagrass in the food chain. The mangrove mud flats are also very important in the turnover of minerals and recycling.

Ecocare have also raised fears that the government plans to abrogate its constitutional responsibility to protect the environment as long as the proposed plans are termed ‘development’.

“Ecocare does not believe that this is a development proposal – this is just to honour a campaign pledge…it seems that he [President Abdulla Yameen] has asked authorities to get all of these promises done in 25 months,” said Ecocare’s Maeed M. Zahir.

State minister, Ibrahim, also referred to President Yameen’s August campaign pledge, in which he had suggested that the recently developed Hanimaadhoo airport – within the same area – was not enough for Kulhudhuffushi’s development.

At just just 16.6 km – or a thirty minute dhoni ride – from the new airport, Ecocare’s statement declared: “we cannot find reason whatsoever for the construction of an Airport in the Island of HDh. Kulhudhuffushi”.

Ibrahim declined to comment on the need for an additional regional airport.

Island divided

Ecocare’s Zahir suggested that most of Kulhudhuffushi’s residents were against the development, arguing that support for the proposal came largely from “party cadres” of President Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives.

“[Ecocare] has been made aware that there is a growing population of younger more environmentally sound locals who are opposing the idea of an airport,” Ecocare stated.

In contrast, however, Kulhudhuffushi North MP Abdul Ghafoor Moosa explained that a strong desire for economic development, alongside the government’s failure to promote the environmental case for preserving the wetlands, had resulted in strong local support for the plan.

“There are many many people who want the airport…My [parliamentary] election is a month ahead – my priority is to all people. Some of the people, they want to have the airport, so how can I comment against the airport,” said the opposition MP.

Asked about the potential for reclamation of the mangrove, Ghafoor suggested that economic imperatives would outweigh environmental.

“People are looking for the jobs and people are looking for better options,” he said. “Their concern is the airport so I am am also willing to have the airport.”

Ecocare’s Zahir suggested, however, aviation regulations make the development of a second airport in the region untenable, arguing that local development would be better served by improvements to the ferry network.

Ghafoor argued that, without significant government efforts to maintain the area, the mangroves were currently acting as breeding grounds for mosquitoes – furthering local indifference to the wetlands’ fate.

“So far, the government hasn’t brought [environmental importance] to public notice – through this muddy land, a lot of mosquitoes are coming. The government is not providing control and these things so people are suffering – when there is low tide, there is a lot of smell, due to the heat and all.”

The Maldivian Democratic Party MP suggested that a newly developed airport may only require the reclamation of 10-15 percent of the mangrove.

“Without my people surviving, how can my concern be on the environment?”

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Q&A: MP Abdul Ghafoor Moosa – Kulhuduffushi North constituency

In a series of interviews to lead into the the 2014 parliamentary elections – scheduled for March 22nd – Minivan News will be conducting interviews with incumbent MPs.

All 77 sitting members have been contacted, from across the political spectrum, to be asked a standardised set of questions with additional topicals. The interviews will be published as and when they are received.

As part of the series, Minivan News interviewed MP Abdul Ghafoor Moosa.

MP Moosa represents the Kulhuduffushi North constituency and is from the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), being originally elected as an independent candidate before signing for the MDP in 2010.

Daniel Bosley: What made you enter the political arena and how?

Abdul Ghafoor Moosa: In my area, in the north, during President [Maumoon Abdul] Gayoom’s regime there was no development at all, so we are joining the politics because we wanted some development of the area.

DB: Based on your attendance and work in this ending term, how would you judge your performance as an MP?

AGM: I have been in attendance at all the sessions and also have performed very well in the parliament, so I am happy about that.

DB: What are the main committees you were acting on? What particular bills did you focus on?

AGM: I have been on the Public Accounts Committee, and also the the Members Privileges Committee.

Members Privileges Committee concerns privileges of the members, the Public Accounts Committee involves the whole finance of the country and also to see what are the problems [and] where the government’s funds will be realised.

DB: What would you say are the biggest achievements within your term; in terms of what you have accomplished for your constituency and the country as a whole?

AGM: During the MDP government, we have gotten the maximum number of projects for Kulhuduffushi – like road construction and sewerage. I have looked after my people very well.

DB: What would you say is the biggest mistake or worst step you have taken in your career? Why?

AGM: In politics? So far, nothing. I don’t have anything for which I feel regret – I never did.

DB: Are you taking the optional committee allowance of an additional MVR 20,000? Why or why not?

AGM: Yes. Because my people aren’t bothered about anything I’m doing regarding the financial status – what I get I will spend to them. So they have no complaints about the salary or allowance whatsoever. There’s no complaints from my people – they never asked me not to take it.

DB: And if they did?

AGM: Then I don’t take it. There never have been any complaints regarding that. What we believe is that we are getting what we deserve. You see like government ministers, they are getting paid MVR62,000 salary, their phone bill, their car, their allowance, driver, fuel, transport – all in all it comes to around MVR180-190,000 per month. Same as court judges.

You see, if you want to go to our area, the airfare plus the transport – everything will cost about MVR6000, plus accommodation and everything. A return trip to my area will cost MVR20,000 – because, a boat cost will be MVR2500 one way, so two-way will be about MVR5000. Plus airfare is about MVR2,500.

DB: What is your view about parliamentarians and other public servants declaring their financial assets publicly for the electorate to be able to refer to?

AGM: At the moment it is there, but there is no system in the country to evaluate it. Because they are asking us to declare our assets, but there is no law – they have no right to materialise any of this legally. So what is the use? There should be a law, because the reason to declare the wealth is so they can see if there is any corruption or anything but even other government authorities don’t have any authority to check my account.

It is good to have it, but the effect is not there – there’s no income tax law here, so how can they verify my income and everything? They cannot say anything I have is illegal unless the income tax and all these things are there. The way they are doing it now – we have to declare how much money is in the account, that is my personal money which was in the account, and how much personal expenses I have, and the amount of shares I have in the company. Nothing more than that – so that is not enough to work on an investigation even.

Very rich people are in the parliament – people that don’t want to declare everything.

DB: Are you contesting in the next elections? What do you hope to accomplish should you be elected for a new term?

AGM: Yes. I have a few things to be done. Still the public health sector is lacking. What we believe is that the north is very much different from the south, and also from Malé. So we need a lot of economic activity to be done there, most important is that Hanimaadhoo airport has to invested in – because we see even Haa Dhaalu has no resort, in Haa Alif we have a few but these resorts they have paid their management four times and they’re not paying to the government or even the staff. It is not actually economically viable for these things without the airport. Airport depends on the jobs – everything. You know, we should have more economic activities, because otherwise people are not surviving there – there’s no things happening there.

So that’s my next hope, to have Hanimaadhoo airport invested in and to had Kulhuduffushi hospital developed. You go anywhere – our hospital they only have oxygen and aspirin. How can they call it a hospital? It is like a medical centre – people have to know these things very well. IGMH and  Kulhuduffushi hospitals should be at the same level. We don’t have any facilities – for everything they have to come to Malé. It is worse that when MDP was in power – there’s no proper doctors, there’s no specialists.

DB: What improvements do you feel the 18th parliament will need to make to improve as an institution?

AGM: We are in a changing process. Still things are not in a proper way. This is the first Majlis, we are sitting in the first Majlis, that has been democratically elected. So, even the government is not fully mature to have a fully democratic system. You see, whenever an authority criticises the government, even whether the the government are MDP or PPM [Progressive Party of Maldives] or whatever, the government takes it personally in the sense like they are not acting on a fact basis – and this is the problem.

They are not happy with the auditor general, they are not happy with the Anti-Corruption Commission, they are not happy with the Civil Service Commission, even the Human Rights Commission. Because the government cannot cope with these things. They always think these people are criticising they are supporting some other party – there’s no issue base. Then they don’t want to give budget to them, they are financially tightening, so many things are happening. So this is the problem we are facing today.

Even the present government is not happy with the auditor general. If there’s something wrong he has to write in the audit report. It’s nothing personal, but the government can’t cope with these things. It was happening in the MDP government also – even now we see the same things repeat.

DB: What are your thoughts on party switching – do you think it undermines the party system?

AGM: Party switching – you see we have 35 or 34 members in MDP – there are few people who was always floor-crossing. Those people are doing it, other than these we don’t have these issues with other members.

It is a problem everywhere in the world, not just in the Maldives. That same problem is continuing here and even you are likely to see in India and Pakistan this is happening.

The problem is here, the system is not working – the people they are changing the party due to some issues like the government is influencing the judiciary to attack the actions against all these and all these and these. Those things are there very much.

DB: What do you feel the major issues of concern will be for your constituents over the next five years?

AGM: As I mentioned, the health sector is very poor and there is no economic activity. Over fifty percent in the north are below the poverty level. Most of the families – maybe five or six members – only one or two persons will be earning the income – which is not more than eight or nine thousand. Still they need economic activity. If they don’t get it, it’s very difficult to survive. We have to cross the poverty level – the only option is that we have more economic activity.

The only option we are left with is the guest house policy. In the north we have very big, very beautiful islands where the locals are living, and in those islands we have ample space. A few islands we have about 5-6km beach. You know, guest house policy can work out there very nicely. But even this government is not preparing for that. That is the only option where they can get a job and be on their own island. When they can’t find a job from their island, there are a lot of other social problems – family will be living there and they will be working here [Malé] for one or two year, they went back home, there are a lot of problems.

People want to get jobs in their own place which we can do easily if the government would just support that. But those things are not happening – you know Hanimaadhoo airport? – this airport has been operating for 25 years, but still to develop it into an international airport the government doesn’t need to spend any money on this. Only thing is they have to give it to a party to do it – they can give one or two islands for that, they can give a 50 year contract for that. Last time when they called for tender, 29 parties submitted their plans but when the government changes they have all been thrown to the dustbin now. We want this airport to be a big-time airport. Tourism is the only option for the time being.

We have huge islands where agriculture can be done, plus aquaculture can also be done, but for the time being even Hanimaadhoo could be developed within one year’s time and we could have a good income there.

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Government’s Rf 300million BML loan to be investigated in Majlis

Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP Ahmed Sameer has proposed that the Parliament take action against the government after it allegedly obtained a Rf 300 million (US$20 million) loan from the Bank of Maldives (BML) without consulting the legislature, local media has reported.

Sameer claims that the government had misled people by claiming it had sought parliamentary approval prior to obtaining the loan.

The issue of the loan was first discussed in the Majlis’ Finance Committee on June 25. After deliberating on the necessity for parliamentary approval for the loan, the committee opted to send the issue to the Counsellor General for clarification.

Kulhudufushi MP and Finance Committee member Abdul Ghafoor Moosa told Minivan News at the time that the loan could not be granted as it was not part of the state budget.

Moosa today said that the Counsellor General agreed with this opinion.

“The Counsellor General has said it should be approved by the full house. The government giving irresponsible reasons for its actions,” said Moosa.

Ahmed Nazim, head of the committee, was reported in Sun Online on June 25 as having told his committee that President Mohamed Waheed Hassan had sent the Majlis a letter on June 13 seeking permission to obtain the loan.

Two days after, however, Minister of Finance and Treasury Abdullah Jihad told the same news source that the loan had been issued in May at a time when parliament had been in recess.

“The loan had to be obtained urgently. The Parliament was in recess at the time, so we took the loan and sent the issue to the Parliament,” Jihad told Sun.

Moosa informed Minivan News that the Financial Committee did not go into recess, having business to deal with all year round.

Jihad told Sun that this type of budget support loan was accepted in the original budget and so he anticipated no legal issues with the move.

Jihad was not responding to phone calls at the time of press.

The Rf300 million budget support loan was intended to replace a $65million foreign loan that had been approved in the original 2012 budget.

Moosa claimed in June that the Rf300 million loan would be taken on a commercial basis, with high interest rates that would require the government to pay back Rf384million.

He said that the $65million loan, delayed due to incorrect paperwork, would have only been taxed at rates of around 2 percent.

Using these figures, the interest paid on the original loan would be Rf20million (US$1.3 million), whilst the interest on the new loan would be Rf84million (US$5.4million).

This year’s budget deficit is estimated to surpass Rf9 billion (US$584million) , around 27 percent of GDP

President’s Office Spokesperson Abbas Adil Riza said that the figure given by Moosa was incorrect, adding that the government was “not going to lose money on the deal”.

Abbas explained that Abdullah Jihad and other members of the current Finance Ministry had advised the government to take out the new loan as part of a “mop up” operation.

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Government asks Majlis to approve Rf300 million budget support loan

The government has asked the People’s Majlis to approve a budget support loan of Rf300million in place of an existing $65million (Rf1billion) loan which had been approved for the 2012 budget.

The Parliamentary Finance Committee today discussed whether the loan proposal needed to be approved by the full floor of the Majlis. The committee agreed that the matter ought to be passed on to the Counsel General.

“We cannot grant it as it was not in the state budget,” said Finance Committee member Abdul Ghafoor Moosa, who argued that the new loan would cost the government more money.

He explained that the new rufiyaa denominated loan would be obtained from the Bank of Maldives (BML), whereas the US dollar loan would have come from foreign banks.

Moosa claimed that the Rf300 million loan would be taken on a commercial basis, with high interest rates that would require the government to pay back Rf384million.

He said that the $65million loan, delayed due to incorrect paperwork, would have only been taxed at rates of around 2 percent.

Using these figures, the interest paid on the original loan would be Rf20million (US$1.3 million), whilst the interest on the new loan would be Rf84million (US$5.4million).

“Mop up” operation

President’s Office Spokesperson Abbas Adil Riza said that the figure given by Moosa was incorrect, adding that the government was “not going to lose money on the deal”.

Abbas explained that Abdullah Jihad and other members of the current Finance Ministry had advised the government to take out the new loan as part of a “mop up” operation.

“This will reduce the circular flow of rufiyaa in the economy,”  said Abbas.

He explained that new Rufiyaa denominated loan would help to ease inflation, which government figures show had risen to an annual rate of 16.53 percent in April.

Jihad was not responding to calls at the time of press.

Former Finance Minister Ahmed Inaz said that it was the central bank’s job to conduct open market operations – the buying and selling of government debt – as part of its monetary policy.  He contended that it made little sense for the government to become involved with this kind of policy.

Inaz argued that this operation would not help in mopping up liquidity – unless the government intended to do nothing with the borrowed money.

He argued that the money would be better used in the private sector, stating that the job of the government was to facilitate the running of the economy.

“If you take the fuel out of the engine, the engine will stop running,” said Inaz.

Earlier in the year, the Finance Committee estimated that the current budget deficit would reach 27 percent of GDP, or  Rf9.1 billion (US$590 million).

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