Presidential candidates’ policy pledges threaten the environment: Environment Ministry

The Environment Ministry has ‘called out’ presidential candidates for making election pledges that threaten the environment, amidst civil society calls for government authorities to support NGOs’ sustainable development initiatives.

Environment Minister Dr Mariyam Shakeela noted that no policy on environmental protection has been articulated by candidates despite their numerous election pledges during her speech at the “NGO Forum on Environment and Sustainable Development 2013” held by the Environment Ministry and NGO Federation yesterday (May 5).

“Although all political parties are currently talking about their plans to govern the country for the next five years, none of their manifestos include policies on protecting the environment,” local media reported Shakeela saying.

“When you deeply consider these policies, I certainly haven’t heard of any plans to protect the environment. But on the other hand, we keep hearing of plans that can seriously threaten the environment of the Maldives,” she added.

Shakeela stated that despite the economic benefits which could be gained from finding oil or establishing a mariculture industry, these policies could pose grave threats to the environment, according to local media.

“Sometimes, although these plans gain a short-term gain, or some amount of money, they may cause great damages in the long run. It is very important that we give this due consideration,” said Shakeela.

Shakeela emphasised that civil society must hold the Maldivian government and policy-makers accountable when they “veer off course” and endanger the environment.

“Regardless of who prepares it, if the plans are such that they may harm the environment, it is the role of the civil society organizations to be vigilant over such matters and try to stop them,” declared Shakeela.

She also stressed that civil society organisations must identify the environmental threats posed by such policies on the behalf of Maldivian people.

The opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has pledged to develop a mariculture industry in the country should former President Mohamed Nasheed be reelected in September 2013.

The potential for developing a domestic oil industry was launched as a campaign issue during a January 14 speech by Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) presidential prospect, MP Abdulla Yameen.

Leader of the government-aligned Jumhoree Party (JP), business tycoon MP Gasim Ibrahim, has also vowed to find oil in the Maldives should he be elected president.

NGOs issue government recommendations

The NGO forum was held to facilitate environmental protection discussions between civil society organisations, as well as implementation of sustainable development methodologies and policies.

“This is the only forum of this kind. Civil society did not previously get the opportunity to come together and discuss these issues,” NGO Federation President Ahmed Nizam told Minivan News yesterday (May 6).

Many NGOs work on environmental issues at the island and national level – particularly conducting advocacy and awareness programs – however they do not conduct adequate work on environment and sustainable development, according to forum participants.

Participants highlighted ongoing issues that narrow the opportunities available for Maldivian NGOs, which include legal challenges as well as government administrative procedures. NGOs also lack access to resources, such as well educated people and finance.

Given these limitations, the 15 participating civil society organisations presented a list of recommendations to the government, in line with the forum’s theme of enhancing NGO engagement in environmental governance and management.

The forum recommended the government provide NGOs with equal opportunities and “reveal their stand” to the organisations.

Participants also recommended the Environment Ministry establish a separate focal point to engage with NGOs and provide a common room for civil society organisations within the “green building” currently under construction for the ministry. Research grants for NGOs and environmental studies students should also be provided.

Organisations further recommended the government include NGO representatives in all delegations from the Maldives attending environmental and sustainable development meetings. These organisations also requested the government provide Maldivian NGOs opportunities to participate in environmental and sustainable development projects.

“Minister Shakeela’s response to the recommendations was very positive. She pledged to do everything possible to implement the recommendations,” said Nizam.

“However, she also said certain things might not be possible to implement immediately due to budget and planning constraints,” he added.

Nizam explained that the NGO Federation plans to take the discussion forum to a “different level” by ensuring dialogue and collaboration on environmental protection and sustainable protection continues.

He emphasised that the NGO Federation aims to hold conferences annually or biannually and will continuously seek improvement and additional NGO participation.

The Maldivian NGO Federation held a follow-up workshop today on NGO capacity building for advocating environmentally sustainable development, a project funded by UNDP’s Global Environment Facility, Small Grants Programme.


Rights awareness a leading concern for civil services

“Most people understand the rights themselves, but not what it means to have them. In a democracy, we hope that the people will all play a role.”

Commissioner Ahmed Tholal represented the Human Rights Commission Maldives (HRCM) at yesterday’s UNDP “Did You Know?” event at the Surf Point, the second in a campaign begun last year. The event targeted awareness building on human rights and the judicial system, particularly as provided in Chapter Two of the constitution. Over a dozen groups including Police Services, the Faculty of Shari’ah Law, Employment Tribunal, Courts, and the Elections Commission offered pamphlets and demonstrations of their social purpose.

“These kinds of things people will forget unless you keep on promoting it,” said UNDP National Project Manager Naaz Aminath. “It’s not something you can just accomplish by handing out pamphlets.”

Many groups interviewed said raising awareness of civil rights and how to exercise them was their biggest challenge.

Representatives from the Supreme Court defined the court as “part of a larger enforcement of human rights in the Maldives,” which she said “are there in the constitution but people don’t know how they can exercise them, or how they can defend them.”

She noted that though many citizens are unfamiliar with case filing procedures, the court had seen a “dramatic increase” in the number of cases filed and expected the trend to continue.

Speaking of the court as a robust institution, representatives concurred that there was room for improvement. “It’s only three years old, right, and it’s still growing. You can never reach maturity, right? There’s still room for improvement in anything, anywhere.”

Across the square, Police Integrity Commission (PIC) member Dr. Hala Hameed also reported a rising case rate.

“We are getting more reports of police misconduct than previously,” she said. “People are more aware of the commission and so they are using its services more.”

Hameed stressed that the PIC supports the police as well as the community. “We are here to empower the police and ensure that they have the appropriate resources to do their work, as well as oversee their operations.”

Saying that awareness was a concern, she said the PIC’s independent status validated its operations. “People know that if there is an independent commission to oversee the police activities then it will be effective.”

While many booths provided hard information about social services, several catered to the younger generations. Kids were invited to decorate cakes and paint pictures for various causes. At Care Society, children learned sign language from a hearing impaired instructor and familiarized themselves with disability icons over a board game.

One Care Society representative said community awareness had improved in recent years, “especially since the passing of the Disability Law last year.” But community tolerance “is an issue we are working to address. “

“There is still a fair amount of people who don’t understand the nature of various disabilities and how to interact with those individuals. It’s something that needs to be corrected,” she said.

HRCM Commissioner Tholal said social reform goes deeper than a pamphlet.

Attributing misconceptions of human rights to social instability, Tholal observed that “There’s this idea that if a prisoner has rights, it’s at someone else’s expense. But human rights are not about protecting one person’s rights and not another’s.

“The idea of self-expression and human rights is still fairly new to the Maldives under the new government, so as things stabilise I think the view of human rights could improve as well.”

According to Tholal, the HRCM has been targeted by proponents of Islamic fundamentalists, but the larger Islamic community has supported the commission’s work.

“The key thing for the public to understand is that the Maldives is a 100 percent Muslim country,” he said. “The rules and regulations that this status calls for can exist within the framework of human rights. They’re not incompatible. If anyone says otherwise, they negate the mission of the HRC. The idea that human rights are compatible with Islam, and the constitution, needs to be accepted by the people.”

Tholal did not wish to comment on the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s recent critique of the constitution’s provisions for flogging and mono-religious practice.

Calling for a more concerted media effort, Tholal said media is one of the most important factors for establishing a stable human rights framework. He criticised local media outlets for endorsing only a fraction of the rights issue.

“A lot more focus is placed on civil and political rights in the media, as opposed to social, economic and basic human rights,” he said, emphasizing that women and children are significantly under-represented. “Some media outlets, whether deliberately or inadvertently, have programs which impinge on the rights of women and rights, such as the right to work. In this environment, we need to focus on what is really crucial to people–like social rights.”

Earlier this year, a UNDP study found that gender equality is an area of development in which the country is lagging behind most.

HRCM will hold a media training program later this year.

Keeping the beat

After last year’s launch, the “Did You Know?” campaign aimed to tour Male’, Vilingili, Hulhumale, and the capital islands. “We exceeded expectations and reached 80 islands in 20 atolls,” said Aminath. “But we realized that it was just not possible to reach all the islands with the small number of volunteers we had.”

Aminath said the next phase of the campaign training approximately 10 NGOs across the country to providing information on the judicial system to islanders year-round.

“There are two main obstacles: geography, and capacity,” Aminath said. “The island geography makes it difficult for people to learn of and access all parts of the judicial system. And the Maldives has many many civil society groups, but not enough people to do the work.”

A UNDP report earlier this year found that although the civil society sector is impressive in size, it lacks efficiency and organisation. Aminath said collaborating with NGOs would support both the campaign’s purpose and the NGOs’ interest in capacity building.

Aminath said islanders are often aware of their rights, but that Maldivian culture is not traditionally litigal.

“People are used to talking and solving the problems that way. Going to court is a process, and if you appeal you have to go Male’ which takes time and money. There needs to be someone in the islands telling people how they can proceed with a complaint,” she said.

Plans to develop a mobile high court are indefinite.

This year’s event was widely attended by families and youth who enjoyed the activities, free candy, and social milling. Most booths were hosted either fully or in part by young people eagerly offering pamphlets.

Aminath said the UN strives to involve youth in most activities, and that they are the backbone to the “Did You Know?” campaign.

“Most of my volunteers are ages 19 to 30, and they’re an excellent group. They came on all 80 island trips this year. They also represent a real cross section of civil service, coming from the courts, the prosecutor general’s office, the police and other parts of society,” she said. “I couldn’t do these kinds of events without their support.”

At UNDP’s Democracy Day ceremony earlier this year, a study observed that youth in civil society were widely recognised as a key factor for democratic growth in the Maldives. Currently, youth ages 18 to 25 comprise nearly half of the country’s population.


Special Sports Festival to improve opportunities for disabled students

The first Maldives’ Special Sports Festival was held today at the Henveiru Football Ground, sponsored by Care Society and telecommunications company Dhiraagu.

The event is part of Dhiraagu Anniversary Celebrations.

Students from Care Development Center (CDC), Jamaluddheen School (JS), Imaadhudheen School (IS), and Maldives Deaf Association (MDA) are expected to participate in group relays and races. Officials anticipate welcoming 700 spectators to the event, scheduled for 4 to 6 pm today.

CDC was implemented by Care Society in 2001, and presently supports 51 disabled students directly to develop skills in communication, living, academics, crafts and behavioral issues.

CDC and Dhiraagu have designed the Special Sports Festival as an annual event to support the disabled community by fostering community awareness and integration.


Young people set new tone for Male’ party scene

Hundreds turned out yesterday for the Maldives Surfing Entertainment Surf Show near the tsunami memorial, perusing merchandise by day and dancing to music by local and guest DJs late into the night.

The event, which runs September 16 and 17, was organised by Maldives Surfing Entertainment. Sport clothing companies Sea Sports, Sony Sports, and Round-Up displayed their wares in tents evoking the minimalist surf shack atmosphere.

The surf show sign posted on the outside wall of the event site

Maldives Surfing Association Event Organiser Mohamed Shabeen was optimistic about the event, which is the first in an annual series of surf shows.

“The goal was to raise awareness of surfing culture. Surfing has been picking up lately, more young people are coming out and we have had good feedback on the show so far,” said Shabeen.

Shabeen said that local groups were supportive of the initiative. “This wall you see here is not normally allowed, but we were allowed to build it for the event,” he said, pointing at the wooden barrier that demarcates the area as a festival space.

Set-up for the event was done by approximately 40 local surfers over three days, said Shabeen. The set-up includes surf board displays, plant decorations, and a light and sound system for the evening concerts.

While the surf show attracted families and children during the day, youth turned out in swarms for the concert at night. The show featured trance and techno music in sync with light displays and fog machines. DJs regularly called out to the crowd below, “Are we having a good time? This is a new era, we are here to celebrate!”

The crowd cheers as DJs shout out from the sound booth

DJs and staff noted that this is the first time an outdoor rave has been held on Male in some time, and said most parties take place on a smaller, more subdued scale.

“What do you say when you just want to go ‘AHHHH!!’?” said one concert-goer. “That is how we feel right now, this is our outlet, we are finally able to express ourselves out here and have a good time.”

Others suggested that religious conservatism on Male’ has kept the youth from celebrating in public, and said they hoped that events such as the surf show would be held more often.

The event was organised by Maldives Surf Entertainment Director and Surf Guide Ahmed Azniel. Shabeen said he hopes this weekend’s surf will garner attention for a surfing contest to be held in November at South Foahmulaku, in honor of the 17th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit.

Correction: The article previously stated that the 2011 Surf Show was a cooperative event between Maldives Surf Entertainment and Maldives Surfing Association. It should have read, “The event, which runs September 16 and 17, was organised by Maldives Surfing Entertainment.”

Correction: The article previously stated “The event was organised by Maldives Surf Entertainment Director and Surf Guide Mohamed Azniel. It should have read, “The event was organised by Maldives Surf Entertainment Director and Surf Guide Ahmed Azniel.”