Tourism ministry seizes environment regulatory powers

The parliament has granted powers to the tourism ministry to authorise developments on resorts in a move critics say will weaken the environment protection regime, and pave the way for corruption.

Amendments to the tourism law passed today transfers to the tourism ministry the Environment Protection Agency’s (EPA) powers to evaluate environmental impact assessments (EIAs) and authorise projects such as land reclamation. The agency functions as an independent body under the environment ministry.

Voting on the bill submitted by government-aligned MP Mohamed Ismail took place amid continuing protests by opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MPs.

It was passed with 41 votes in favour after Speaker Abdulla Maseeh Mohamed asked for a show of hands.

If the amendments are ratified, resorts will have to seek authorisation from the tourism ministry for any development that could “permanently alter” the island, plot of land, or lagoon’s environment. The ministry must evaluate an EIA report before issuing permission.

EPA permanent secretary Ajwad Musthafa told the economic affairs committee during its review of the legislation last week that “the independent checks and balances system will be lost” if the regulatory powers are transferred to the tourism ministry.

The move amounts to allowing the tourism ministry to “self-regulate,” he contended.

The EIA process is the “main instrument” of the environment protection regime and adheres to international best practices, he said, noting that the reports are prepared by independent and qualified consultants.

Ajwad also objected to transferring technical experts to the tourism ministry as the agency’s “institutional capacity” was built up over a long period.

EPA director Miruza Mohamed meanwhile warned that the move could reduce funding from international donors.

However, the ruling party says “making the services available under one roof would ease the burden on investors, speed up services, and improve investor confidence.”

The involvement of other ministries and institutions in regulating resorts hinders the tourism ministry and “lowers investor confidence”.

The new provisions state that “only the tourism ministry will have the authority” to conduct assessments and authorise development projects.

The tourism ministry will also have the power to impose fines not exceeding US$5 million for violations.

Transparency and accountability

Environmental NGO Ecocare warned that the move conflicts with the environment protection law – which requires the EPA to evaluate assessments – and could “pave the way for corruption”.

“Under this particular scenario we also feel that when EPA assess and evaluates EIA reports, it is a more transparent practice than leaving this to the Tourism Ministry, who carry out the evaluation and awarding of bids for tourist resorts,” Ecocare said in a press release today.

The current system put in place by the Environment Protection and Preservation Act includes checks and balances and assures transparency and accountability, Maeed Mohamed Zahir from Ecocare told Minivan News today.

With the changes to the law, an unscrupulous official at the tourism ministry can grant approval “regardless of the effect on the environment,” he said.

Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP Fayyaz Ismail said at the committee last week that the tourism ministry presently “discriminates” in issuing and suspending operating licenses to resorts.

Fayyaz warned that officials could misuse the authority to approve development projects on resorts and selectively impose fines at whim.

MP Ali Fazad, a ruling Progressive Party of Maldives MP, also expressed concern with the amendments conflicting with the existing environment law as “two laws would have two [provisions] for the same thing”.

However, all ruling coalition MPs on the committee voted in favour of the bill and forwarded it to the parliament floor.

The law also introduces a new scheme to allow the extension of resort leases to 99 years for a lump sum payment of US$5 million.

The changes aim to incentivise investors, make it easier to obtain financing from international institutions, and increase revenue for the government.

To be eligible for a lease extension, a resort property must be operational with an existing lease period of 50 years and must not owe money to the government.

Under the current Tourism Act, the maximum lease period for resorts or hotels is 50 years. However, the constitution allows leases up to 99 years.

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Environmental NGOs call for action as images of turtle slaughter surface

Warning: This article contains graphic images.

Local environmental NGOs Ecocare and Bluepeace have condemned images circulating on social media showing a turtle being cut in half for its eggs and meat.

Both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and police are now investigating the pictures.

Ecocare has demanded “immediate action from relevant authorities to stop such atrocities against protected marine species in the country”, in a statement which also said the NGO was “outraged by the lack of adequate enforcement measures in place”.

The pictures which were shared on Facebook show a group of people cutting open an adult sea turtle and extracting its eggs and meat. Local media outlet Sun Online has reported that the pictures were taken on the island of Maalhos in Alif Alif Atoll.

Maalhos Island Council has expressed concern over the incident but has said it was not aware that the pictures originated from the island.

Sun reported council Vice President Ahmed Sameeh as saying that it was common for islanders to hunt turtles and that the council has repeatedly requested citizens to stop.

Bluepeace Executive Director Rilwan Ali told Minivan News that the main obstruction to preventing such instances was poor institutional coordination between the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture and the EPA.

“The biggest problem is that turtle conservation comes under the fisheries law which is implemented by the fisheries ministry. The ministry has to share its resources with the EPA so that these kinds of events can be prevented,” said Rilwan.

Speaking on behalf the EPA, Director General Ibrahim Naeem said that these kinds of events could have a negative impact on the tourism of the country as well as long term effects on the economy, while highlighting the need for stricter punishments for such environmental crimes.

According to the fisheries regulations, the “catching, fishing, collecting or killing” of sea turtles is illegal throughout the country. The collection of sea turtles and eggs is also illegal, but only in 14 of the country’s 1,192 islands.

The current moratorium is set to last until 2016 thoug reports of turtle slaughter persist. Earlier this year, one source estimated that up to 180 turtles were killed from a single island in Shaviyani Atoll in 2013.

“There is a well-known nesting island and every night a group is going and hunting the turtles. It is so obvious, every day since January one or two are killed,” said the informed source. “They wait for them to nest on the island, or go snorkeling to hunt them.”

While speaking to Minivan News in April this year, Sam Hope – Marine Discovery Centre Manager at Four Seasons Kuda Huraa – said that the biggest threat to turtles is egg collection and trade.

Meanwhile, turtle conservation expert Dr Agnese Mancini has reported a decline in the population of  the majority of turtle species found in the Maldives.



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President Yameen announces development of five resorts in Haa Dhaalu Atoll

President Abdulla Yameen has announced plans to develop five resorts in the northern Haa Dhaalu Atoll next year.

Yameen said that the first islands to be developed as resorts by the current government will be located in Dhipparufushi, Vaikarumuraadhoo, Kanamana, Kudafaru, and Keylakunu islands in the country’s second-northernmost atoll.

During his visit to the northen atolls, President Yameen also talked about the government’s plans to develop an airport on Kulhudhuhfushi to further encourage the arrival of tourists.

Officials from the government promised the even distribution of resorts earlier this year following an online petition calling for the area to participate in the benefits of the country’s billion dollar tourism industry. Haa Dhaalu is currently the only atoll in the country without any operating resorts.

President’s Office Spokesperson Ibrahim Muaz told Minivan News of the strategic importance of Kulhudhuhfushi Island, which has a population of around ten thousand people.

“Projects like the proposed airport, resort development, and the I-Havan mega project will bring with it prosperous employment opportunities for the people residing the northern atolls, eliminating need of migrating to the capital Malé for employment,” said Muaz.

Muaz also noted that such projects, while providing numerous employment opportunities, would also develop the infrastructure in the region and improve the general living conditions in the North.

The UNDP’s most recent Human Development Report noted that disparities between the central and outer atolls were causing losses to human development, with the northern atolls reporting to suffer the most from limited job opportunities and social services.

Regional development

This year’s Avaaz petition – signed by just over 500 people – noted that the economic and societal problems of the 20,000 inhabitants of the atoll could be alleviated by the development of resorts.

The petition argued that the development of the region’s “pristine uninhabited islands” would halt the “mass migration” to Malé which was “tearing up the social fabric of our society”.

President Yameen’s election campaign pledged to develop 50 operational resorts during the five year presidential term. Yesterday’s proposed 2015 budget also planned for tourism growth, with 10 new resorts proposed in a MVR24.3 billion budget plan.

Despite the total number of resorts in the country exceeding one hundred, the majority are clustered around Malé and the country’s main international airport.

After initial plans for the 40-year-old industry’s development envisioned regional hubs, the introduction of sea planes has encouraged the concentration of resorts in the now-crowded central atolls.

The government’s plans for regional development have centered around the controversial SEZ bill, which it argues will decentralise development in order to promote regional growth – though the bill’s detractors fear that the policy will come at the expense of political decentralisation.

Relaxed regulations in the SEZs are intended to attract investors for a number of ‘mega projects’, including the iHavan – or ‘Ihavandhippolhu Integrated Development Project’ – in Haa Alif Atoll.

The project aims to take advantage of the strategic location of the Maldives’ northernmost atoll on a major shipping route – through which more than 700,000 ships carry goods worth US$18 trillion a year – and develop 5,700 hectares of land along with deep natural harbours.

Meanwhile, environmental NGO Ecocare has protested against the proposed Kulhudhuhfushi airport, pointing out that the airport’s development would destroy a mangrove area which would be reclaimed in order to build the airport.

Ecocare suggested a speedy ferry transportation system to Hanimaadhoo Airport which is just 16.6 km away after labelling the Kulhudhuhfushi airport as “economically less viable”.

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Kulhudhuffushi airport may displace 130 households

An estimated 130 households may have to relocate for the construction of an airport on northern Kulhudhuffushi Island.

Blueprints shared with the Kulhudhffushi Island Council show 80 plots of land will be seized for construction. But Council President Ali Mohamed said they expect to relocate an additional 50 households, as buildings cannot be constructed to heights desired by homeowners in plots adjacent to the airport.

Establishing an airport on the most populous island in the north was a key campaign pledge of President Abdulla Yameen, although with a regional airport on Hanimadhoo Island – just 16.5 km or a 30 minute dhoni ride from Kulhudhuffushi, critics have questioned the feasibility and economic viability of the venture.

Environmental groups have also called the project unconstitutional, as it requires the dredging of the island’s only remaining mangrove.

The site was declared protected after the island’s second mangrove was dredged in a reclamation project in 2010. The government in February amended environmental regulations to allow dredging in protected areas.

Mohamed said islanders remains divided over the project, with supporters believing it would usher in socioeconomic development while opponents have called for affordable and reliable transport links between Kulhuduffushi and Hanimadhoo.

“Regardless, the Kulhudhuffushi Council will not obstruct the government’s plans. We have cooperated with the Housing Ministry. We will pressure the government to fulfill its pledges, and we will criticize them if they don’t build it,” he said.

However, relocating 130 households would be difficult, with families already stating they would only move with comparable compensation, he said.

According to Mohamed, people have been living on these plots for 30 years, and have invested in their homes and have started businesses including shops and carpentries on their land.

“Also, these households are on plots of land that are approximately 3,000 square feet. But new plots are only 1,400 square feet,” he said.

A possible solution would be to relocate households to the 28-hectare land that was reclaimed in 2010, but such a move would disrupt existing plans for the area, he said.

The reclaimed “New Kulhudhuffushi” is to be developed into a commercial zone with an international ferry terminal, business hubs, city hotels, a mosque and a football field, Mohamed said.

The only remaining option would be to dredge the entire mangrove to make space for the displaced households, but such a move raises further environmental implications, he said.

Approximately 10,000 people are living in 1600 households in Kulhudhuffushi, Mohamed said.

The government has said four parties have expressed interest in building the Kulhudhuffushi airport. Developers will be given a contract of 25 years and will be awarded an island for resort development for 50 years in order to subsidise the airport.

Mohamed said he expects the venture to cost at least US$25 million.

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Kulhudhuffushi airport unconstitutional and unfeasible, says Ecocare

Environmental NGO Ecocare Maldives has called on the government to honor and uphold the constitution with regards to the sate’s mandate to protect and preserve natural environments and to ensure development activities are ecologically balanced sustainable.

In a statement issued yesterday, the organisation said the government’s decision to reclaim a mangrove area for the development of an “economically less viable” airport on Kulhudhuffushi Island – approximately 16.6km from the Hanimaadhoo International Airport – is “dishonoring” the constitution and that it is “neither environment friendly nor economically sound”.

Article 22 of the constitution – on protection of the environment – states that the government should take necessary measures to prevent pollution, the extinction of any species, and ecological degradation when pursuing economic and social goals.

Asking the authorities to reconsider the decision, Ecocare proposed a focus on the development of a speedy sea transportation or ferry network between the two islands instead.

Minister of Transport Ameen Ibrahim has earlier confirmed that the mangrove will fall into the dredging area for building the airport, though he was unsure whether it would be the whole mangrove or just part of it.

Government accountability

Speaking to Haveeru, Minister of State for Environment Hassan Shah has said that the ministry’s policy is to refrain from obstructing the government’s development projects.

He said that environmental regulations have been amended in a way that ensures the “environment will not become challenge for development” and that the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) will have the full authority to protect the environment.

Responding to the minister’s statement, Ecocare’s Maeed M. Zahir said that the gist of the regulation was to protect such areas and the new amendment is a way of lifting what the government sees as a barrier to development.

“As for EPA, it is a government institution, it is very unlikely for EPA to stop a project that is important for the government. There should be an independent institution, such as the HRCM or CSC, mandated with the protection of environment,” he said.

Noting that previous administrations had similarly failed to protect the environment in various development projects, Maeed said that through the current system the government cannot be held properly accountable for such activity.

Environmentally sensitive areas

Established in 2009, the EPA functions under the supervision of a governing board within the Ministry of Environment and Energy. The agency has published a list of protected areas and a separate list of ‘environmentally sensitive areas’. According to the EPA, the areas listed as sensitive are not yet protected, but the agency is working towards that end.

Kulhudhuffushi has been included in the sensitive areas list – especially the mangrove area. An uninhabited island included in the list, Shaviyani atoll Farukolhu, has also been chosen for the development of a domestic airport.

According to the EPA, Farukolhu also has a number of mangroves and is a breeding island for a number of birds. The island’s bay is also frequented by sharks and rays – particularly sting rays – who come to breed in the area.

All development projects have to be approved by the Ministry of Environment through an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) which is reviewed by the EPA. While the Farukolhu project has already begun the EIA clearance process, Kuludhuffushi airport has not.

Director of EPA’s environment protection section Mohamed Mustafa said that the agency was very concerned about such issues: “Development projects should be shaped in an environment friendly way, selection of islands with such features should be avoided.”

Importance of wetlands

Environmental NGO Bluepeace said the organisation was closely monitoring the issue and will comment on it through the EPA’s assessment process.

“Wetlands are ecologically important, and they play an important role in climate change adaptation. And they protect the Islands against tidal surges just like the reefs. Here we are talking about the safety of the people living there, not protecting the island itself. This was observed during the 2004 tsunami,” said Bluepeace Executive Director Ali Rilwan.

Noting their economic benefits, Rilwan said that even today the mangrove in Kulhudhufushi was being used by locals to soak coconut husks in order to extract coir and for Kan’doo (bruguiera cylindrica).

He said that Bluepeace was currently in the process of studying wetlands, starting with four northern islands, as more information is needed for their protection.

“We still don’t know much about species that inhabit these places. They are all very different and have a rich biodiversity, there is still a lot to learn about them,” said Rilwan.

Kulhudhuffushi North constituency MP Abdul Ghafoor Moosa has previously cited a failure to promote the environmental case for preserving the wetlands, and a strong desire for economic development which has resulted in popular support for the new airport among locals.

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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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Government rejects NGO’s ecocriticism amidst Banyan tree protest

The government has rejected criticisms by local NGO Ecocare Maldives that it may be failing to meet its well publicised carbon neutral commitments by not maintaining and replanting trees and plant life across Male’ that is removed or cut back to make way for building developments.

Maldives Environment Minister Mohamed Aslam told Minivan News that criticisms claiming the government was removing entire trees from the capital without replacing them were completely “baseless” and that any significant plant life making way for construction would be “replanted” elsewhere in Male’.

The claims were made as a small protest was held today outside of Aminiya school on Chandhanee Magu regarding the removal of entire trees and plans to remove some branches from a prominent Banyan tree situated on a new construction site opposite the building.

Ahmed Shiham, a volunteer staff member for Ecocare representing the NGO at the protest, said the group had only been made aware in the morning by the President’s Office that a number of branches from the Banyan tree were set to be removed along with other plant life at the site.

According to Shiham, although the construction will mean that Banyan tree would remain in place after the removal of two or three of its branches, Ecocare was concerned that another green patch in the densely populated urban environs of Male’ was being removed.

Officials from the NGO claim that the removal and cutting of the trees through the construction, which was being undertaken by subcontractors said to be working for the country’s Ministry of Education, was a contradiction to the commitments of President Mohamed Nasheed in promoting carbon neutral development.

With the Banyan Tree in question under 50 years of age, it does not come under the protection of environmental development regulations – although the government has stressed that it is committed to keeping the tree where it stands.

However, Shiham claimed that Ecocare was concerned that the country’s Environment Ministry has cancelled planting programmes that would bring in additional plant life from other countries in the region to be housed in Male’.

“What we want is for these trees to be replaced; green for green as we would call it. This would be good for the president’s carbon neutral commitments after all,” he said. “But we believe the government is not giving a budget for this.”

Ecocare officials said that in other nations, carbon certification schemes such as offsetting were being used whereby trees were replanted in other locations to reduce the impact on the atmosphere that their removal would have on the environment and the air we breathe.

Along with environmental concerns, Shiham also raised questioned the impact that the removal of some of the Banyan tree’s branches may have on balancing and supporting the plant itself – leading to possible safety hazards for people and buildings in the vicinity.

“Tomorrow building work is expected to begin on the site and the tree could be imbalanced,” he added.

Ecocare’s claims were nonetheless derided by Environment Minister Aslam, who questioned the criticisms that he believed showed a “lack of knowledge” or understanding about maintaining trees and ensuring they remain stable.

“If we have to cut off branches, I’m sure that [cutting] will happen” the minister said. “But we will treat the tree and clean it. We will protect it. This is living in harmony with nature without forgetting human factors.”

Aslam claimed that the government would also be meeting its commitments to replant any trees moved to make way for the development, though he said this would not apply in the case of the Banyan tree, which was just going to have some branches removed to accommodate construction.

Although Ecocare and the ministry were unsure of just how old the Banyan tree outside of the school was, both believed it was under fifty years of age, an age that would require it to be protected under the country’s environmental laws.

“I know it was definitely not fifty years old as I remember the tree being 30 centimetres or so high when I was in kindergarten [in the area],” he said. “I am now 40, so it is of similar age.”

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