Maafaru Airport expansion project, Maldives

Government of Maldives perpetuating a culture of disregard to
sustainable development, national laws and international obligations
in a time of national and global climate crisis

27 February 2020, Male’

The Save Maldives campaign finds the continuing culture of total disregard to environmental sustainability by the administration of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih extremely disturbing, with infrastructure projects across the country causing catastrophic loss and damage to ecosystems.  The Maldives experienced its worst environmental loss and damage during the administration of President Yameen Abdul Gayyoom, which we observe is being continued unchanged, by the current administration.

The ministerial overreach approval of the Noonu Atoll Maafaru Airport expansion project in January 2020, by over-riding the EPA’s decision against the project, exemplifies how the Maldives government prioritises investor interests and unsustainable infrastructure developments at the detriment of communities, sustainable livelihoods and climate change resilience of islands. The Maafaru Airport project has been mired in controversy since inception. Corruption audits and lawsuits have been initiated amid allegations of bribery and delayed payments to subcontractors. However, the biggest casualties of this project are the community of Maafaru and its surrounding environment. The island was stripped of an estimated 20,000 trees (as per EIA, 2014) to build the runway in 2018. Maldives Customs seized uprooted palm trees from the island, packed and ready for shipment to Abu Dhabi illegally, according to media reports in November 2018. Endangered sea turtles have been returning to nest on Maafaru, where their nesting habitats have been turned to tarmac, resulting in their total disorientation, displacement and death. The marine, terrestrial, biodiversity and habitat loss and damage to the island due to the project is irreversible and yet to be studied and fully understood. In this context, the decision by the Minister of Environment Dr Hussain Rasheed Hassan to over-ride the EPA and approve the irreversible destruction of the remaining ecology of Maafaru is the height of irresponsibility and poor governance.

We note the deeply disturbing similarity of performance on environmental issues by President Solih’s administration and that of President Yameen’s autocratic regime. The ministerial overreach exercised to approve the Maafaru Airport expansion project is the same process used that caused irreversible destruction to the Kulhudhuffushi wetland and mangroves in 2017.  The airport project in Kulhudhuffushi has undermined the climate resilience of Kulhudhuffushi.  The ministerial overreach decision on Maafaru goes against Maldives land and environmental laws, with heavy negative impacts on marine and terrestrial biodiversity of the island and will irreversibly damage its environment.  The EPA decision statement rejecting the project highlights 11 points of concern to justify its position to stop the expansion phase of the airport in the already environmentally damaged island. Project continuation will be environmentally catastrophic.

On 11 February 2020, the Environment and Climate Change Committee of the People’s Majlis produced a report motivated by the current erosion crisis occurring across the Maldives, to call on the international community to expedite efforts to address global climate change.  On 12 February 2020, using the report, the Majlis voted on a motion for the Maldives to declare a “climate emergency”. Despite the adoption of this declaration, the Majlis continues to fail to hold the government accountable for engaging in ongoing business-as-usual environmental destruction, as demonstrated by the case of Maafaru airport expansion.  The continuation of irreversible destruction of ecosystems in Maldives while simultaneously declaring a national “climate emergency” makes a mockery of the State’s own obligations and commitment to climate action to address the climate crisis. Despite being among the first nations to become party to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in 1993 to conserve and sustain biodiversity, Maldives is failing in its commitments to protect nature, while also flouting its commitments to the UN sustainable development goals.

Article 22 of the Maldives constitution is very clear about the State’s obligation to environmental protection and conservation, which states that :

The State has a fundamental duty to protect and preserve the natural environment, biodiversity, resources and beauty of the country for the benefit of present and future generations. The State shall undertake and promote desirable economic and social goals through ecologically balanced sustainable development and shall take measures necessary to foster conservation, prevent pollution, the extinction of any species and ecological degradation from any such goals.

The Save Maldives Campaign finds serious governance malpractice, evidenced in the government of Maldives’ continued lack of regard towards its national laws and international obligations to protect and conserve the fragile ecosystems of Maldives, which are essential for the country’s climate resilience.  The continuation of the autocratic practices of President Yameen on environmental concerns by the current administration is deeply damaging to the Maldivian people, their communities and island homes.

In September 2018, the Save Maldives Campaign and Ecocare Maldives, in collaboration with environmental advocates submitted policy recommendations to the presidential candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih to address pressing environmental governance concerns.  One of these was the urgent need to establish an independent EPA, a recommendation to implement within the first 100 days of the administration.  The government’s Strategic Action Plan 2019-2023 produced in 2019, includes a goal stating “the independent functioning of the EPA is ensured” by 2020.  Nevertheless, the lack of implementation of our recommendation or the same goal in the SAP well into the second year of this administration, indicates the lack of urgency given by President Solih to improve environmental governance and due diligence in climate change vulnerable Maldives.

We call on President Solih and the People’s Majlis to uphold the EPAs decision and reverse the decision of the Minister for Environment to destroy the rest of Maafaru by continuing the airport expansion project.  We reiterate our calls for President Solih to take immediate action to make EPA independent, with the overall aim to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change in Maldives by strengthening environmental governance, upholding national laws, international obligations and preventing catastrophic environmental loss and damage. We also reiterate our demands to the government during the global climate strike in September 2019. We urge President Solih and the People’s Majlis to take immediate climate action and stop ongoing wilful environmental destruction in the Maldives, endorsed by the government.