The fisheries ministry has cancelled auctions of four protected islands in the Baa Atoll UNESCO biosphere reserve following a social media outcry.
The government last week opened up bidding for the lease of some 20 islands in the north-central atoll. It later emerged that four of the islands lie in areas listed as protected areas.
The islands are to be leased for Varuvaa, a stewardship program that prohibits major economic activities such as tourism, fishing or agriculture, but allows stewards to make money from activities such as coconut harvesting.
The islands up for rent include Vandhoomaafaru finolhu in the Hanifaru Bay renowned for manta ray sightings, and Dhorukandu Uthuruhuraa, Dhorukandu Dhekunuhuraa and Bathalahuraa frequented by marine turtles and black-naped terns.
Baa Atoll, declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 2011, holds ten of the 43 protected areas in the Maldives.
A Baa Atoll official familiar with the matter said some of the sandbanks up for rent form seasonally, including Vandhumaafaru finolhu in the Hanifaru bay, while others lie just above sea-level without vegetation.
The official, who wished to remain anonymous, raised fears that the winning bidders may modify environmentally sensitive sandbanks.
The auction caused a stir especially as it comes in the wake of an audit report that revealed corruption in the lease of at least 49 islands and 19 lagoons. Some US$80million was embezzled from tourism leases, the audit report said.
The Baa Atoll council also issued a statement Thursday: “We are deeply saddened by the fisheries ministry’s actions, which contravene environmental protection laws. Neither the atoll council nor Baa Atoll residents were consulted ahead of this abrupt and poorly-researched move.”
Former President Mohamed Nasheed condemned the auction in a Twitter post, saying that “critical ecosystems must be protected.”
Very concerned about decision to develop 3 islands in the @UNESCO Baa Atoll Biosphere Reserve. Critical ecosystems must be protected.
— Mohamed Nasheed (@MohamedNasheed) March 17, 2016
In response, Shazail Shiyam, a fisheries ministry spokesman, said the auction was a mistake.
“The government will not lease sand banks or islands included in the protected areas. All sandbanks and islands are under the remit of the fisheries ministry. We wanted to set up a system where they would be looked after, especially because of reports of sand-mining.”
Winning bidders would not be allowed to undertake major infrastructure work, except for temporary structures such as huts, he said. Stewards can seek payment from tourists or Maldivians for day trips, he said.
The fisheries ministry will conduct surprise monitoring visits once or twice a year to ensure the terms of the lease are respected, he added.
Environment Minister Thoriq Ibrahim said the atoll will be accorded protection.
— Thoriq Ibrahim (@Thoriqibrahim) March 17, 2016
Thursday roundup: U-turn on impeachment of chief prosecutor
News in brief: mosquito traps and internet prices
Wednesday roundup: Chief justice challenges watchdog inquiry
News in brief: Single-parent allowance and tenants rights
Tuesday roundup: anti-corruption watchdog probes compensation payouts
Warehouse fire in Maldives capital claims one life
Maldives coral reefs show signs of resilience and recovery
Minivan Brief: Weaponised Islam and #MvTreeGrab
Audit exposes corruption at National Center for Information Technology
More than 400 people displaced in Malé warehouse fire
Crime1 month ago
Immigration stopped 11 ‘imposters’ with fake passports
Crime3 months ago
Charges raised over street harassment for first time in Maldives
Crime3 months ago
Ex-vice president detained in India after fleeing Maldives
Politics2 months ago
‘Terrorist group’ behind Rilwan’s abduction
Society & Culture2 months ago
Five dead in tragic accident at sea
Politics2 months ago
Maldives backs India’s ‘right to amend laws as required’
Business & Tourism3 months ago
India becomes second largest market for Maldives tourism
Crime2 months ago
Rilwan killed by Maldives group linked to al-Qaeda, presidential commission reveals