The Maldives environmental watchdog has condemned the dredging and reclamation of reefs and lagoons to build luxury resorts and airports.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was summoned to testify before parliament’s standing committee on environment and climate change on Monday.
The hearing was about the continued removal of trees for the landscaping of newly reclaimed resorts – an increasingly common practice that environmental activists have dubbed #MvTreeGrab. Thousands of mature coconut palms and other trees have been removed from natural islands all over the country to landscape reclaimed islands being developed as luxury tourist resorts.
Speaking at the committee, the director general of the EPA, Ibrahim Naeem, told lawmakers that dredging and reclamation of reefs and lagoons caused irreversible damage to the environment.
“The EPA’s opinion is that reclamation is not something we should ever do. [We should not] reclaim the reefs within the Maldivian territory for different purposes. Having said that, I am not talking about inhabited islands where land is scarce.
“However, reclaiming land to build airports or tourist resorts, it [reclamation] causes severe environmental damage. Because of the irreversible damage caused by dredging and reclamation, we especially don’t support reclaiming reefs and lagoons to build resorts,” Naeem said.
Naeem also talked extensively about political influence over the watchdog, which is overseen by the environment ministry. He said the EPA’s decisions were regularly reviewed and overridden by the ministry.
“We were working under very difficult conditions due to political influence, but the EPA’s decisions were not influenced or biased over the last five years. If we did not want to give permission, we have said it, even in writing. Today, we are in this situation because there are others who can override any EPA decision. They changed regulations to do it,” he said.
The EPA, which functions as a quasi-independent body under the environment ministry, has increasingly come under fire for authorising the mass removal of trees or reclamation of sensitive island ecosystems like the Kulhudhuffushi mangrove system, part of which was destroyed and reclaimed to build an airport.
However, Naeem insisted the EPA was irreproachable and put the blame squarely on politicians overseeing the environment ministry and former lawmakers for chipping away at environmental protection laws.
“The regulation [on uprooting and removing trees] was changed drastically and the previous legal good practices were abolished. That made it very easy to remove trees.”
The regulation in question initially required an environmental impact assessment to be made if a project intended to remove or uproot more than 10 palm trees. However, a 2017 amendment declared that environmental assessments were not required to remove under 200 palm trees or to clear palm groves under 8,250 square metres.
The EPA’s powers to oversee environmental impact and authorise development projects in the tourism industry was also transferred to the tourism ministry in 2015.
“Over the last five years there was more than enough [political] influence over the EPA. Sometimes when the EPA refused to bend to the pressure, the issue is lifted to the [environment] ministry and decisions are made there,” Naeem said.
Naeem pointed out the recent EPA decision to reject a proposal for the development of Odegalla island in Gaafu Alifu atoll. The island, a renowned bird nesting and roosting site and seasonal nesting site for turtles, is on the environmentally sensitive islands list maintained by the EPA. However, the EPA did not know about the lease of the island to be developed as a tourist resort until the environmental impact assessment was submitted, Naeem said.