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