The Maldives environment agency said Monday it was investigating the removal of trees and coconut palms from inhabited islands to be used for landscaping multi-million dollar tourism developments.
It said complaints were being received about vegetation being cleared illegally for replanting on reclaimed land earmarked for resorts.
The Environmental Protection Agency said trees could only be cut down or removed for replanting with explicit agency permission, and even then only to “fulfill an essential need.”
On Sunday local media reported that more than 500 palm trees on Lhaimagu island, Shaviyani Atoll, had been removed against EPA permission.
The island council had cleared 20,000 square feet of vegetation against regulations, according to the EPA. The agency had given permission to remove trees only to build a waste management facility and a road.
The palm trees were uprooted then transported to barren land reclaimed for tourism developments, a council official told the Maldives Independent.
Islanders are selling the palm trees – which are their property – at rates between MVR100 (US$7) to MVR500 (US$33).
More trees were being removed from the island, according to the official.
However island council president Abdul Ghanee Ibrahim denied knowing about any wrongdoing.
“There is an ongoing government project on the island to build a waste management facility. This is being done after an EIA (environmental impact assessment) was made,” he told the Maldives Independent.
He had not been informed authorities were looking into the case.
Activists have reported an increase in trees being uprooted in at least a dozen islands, as resort developers look for mature vegetation to landscape high-end getaways.
Environment NGO EcoCare Maldives said the illegal uprooting of trees needed to be stopped “at any cost” and called on the EPA to hold the tourism industry and island councils accountable.
“Tourism investors are being highly irresponsible in doing their landscaping as it’s cheap for them to buy off palms straight from islands, rather than investing in a more sustainable landscaping option,” EcoCare’s Maeed Mohamed Zahir said.
“Island councils should become more vigilant and more environmentally conscious when dealing with these investors and not give in to these demands. We need to create sustainable palm nurseries that can be used for such commercial endeavours.”
The EPA said it would take action against the illegal removal of trees.
Image of felled trees on Lhaimagu island from Mihaaru