Islanders lobbied the government and powerful tourism firms Tuesday over an airport project that would see them lose access to most of their land.
Almost half of Fainu’s resident population signed a petition, which was delivered to the Tourism Ministry, Universal Enterprises and Island Aviation.
Last month the Maldives Independent revealed how Fainu residents would lose access to two-thirds of the island, and that 57 football fields worth of vegetation would be destroyed to make way for an airport and hotel project.
Activists raised concerns about the need for an airport as Raa atoll already has a domestic one. The airport at Ifuru island, 26 kilometres away from Fainu, can be reached in 25 minutes by speedboat.
The petition asked the ministry to be more transparent, to properly consult islanders and to conduct an independent environmental impact assessment.
It also asked for there to be no contract with developers without fully guaranteeing the right of Fainu people to live on the island.
Mohamed Waheed, a leading activist in the #SaveFainu campaign, said the livelihood of islanders was at stake since the project would swallow up farmland that people depended on.
“140 people have signed this petition,” he told reporters in Malé. “And there are others who couldn’t sign it for fear of losing their jobs. But they are worried too because a huge part of the island will be lost and even more than that because it is done in secret with no transparency.”
He said the potential job opportunities touted by the government would not match the income of people working in the farms of Fainu.
“The airport in Kudahuvadhoo has 29 jobs. The sum of their salaries is less than what people in Fainu already make from agriculture. Some people made MVR30,000 (US$1,948) from farming during this Ramadan alone.
“We will do whatever we can to stop it. They will have to arrest me to stop me.”
People who signed the petition believe the lack of consultation is aimed at “stifling the voice of Fainu people and deceiving them.”
– ‘Enjoy your cocktail’ –
“I want tourists visiting Universal resorts to know that the owner of this resort is funding the destruction of livelihoods of people in the nearby island,” said Waheed.
“The livelihoods, the future of the island’s children. They are taking our land, practically our backyard. So know that while you are happily sipping your cocktails and enjoying.”
Islanders have previously said their concerns were being silenced with threats of dismissal from government jobs and through the influence of Defence Minister Adam Shareef, who is from Fainu.
Last month a picture of people opposing the project was met with another of those backing it. Leaked chat logs later alleged that the defence minister had asked people to pose for the picture as a show of support.
“It’s true. Some people support the idea of an airport, believing an airport is a sign of development,” said Waheed.
“Some people don’t want to offend their parents because of the link to the defence minister. But after the leaked drawing showed how much land would be lost, most people are against it.”
Moosa Ahmed*, a former councillor, said the people of Fainu were becoming more fearless in voicing their objections.
“I was the only one to share concerns when the government first said they wanted to build an airport. I was a councillor then. “Later, 12 people joined me. When we asked people to pose for a photo, 60 people showed up. And now 140 people have signed this petition.”
Ahmed, who travelled from Fainu to the capital to deliver the petition, said people were prepared to protest if necessary.
“This is our plan A. When almost half the population submit a petition, I believe the government should respond to it. But if they try to go ahead anyway, we will go to plan B.
“If we have to protest to stop this, I am sure people will come out.”
* Names have been changed.