The Soneva Jani Resort has denied trying to use a misleading survey to seek a permit for removing more than 500 coconut palms from a neighbouring island.
According to an environment impact assessment (EIA) report commissioned by the resort, the nearby island of Magoodhoo in the northern Noonu atoll “needed to clear vegetation to make way for roads and houses,” a claim disputed by the island council.
The report contained false information to make it appear there was a road project sanctioned by the council, a Magoodhoo councillor told the Maldives Independent.
“We alerted the Environment Protection Agency because the EIA had incorrect information. It said the council wanted to take the palm trees, that is false. The truth is Soneva Jani wanted to buy the trees. We did not have an urgent need to clear the trees,” he said Sunday.
But the resort insists it “operated transparently, ethically and in line with all government regulations and requirements from the first day.”
“At no point was it made clear to us that there were any moral objections from the council, as we were told that the trees were going to be removed anyway,” Carissa Nimah from Soneva told the Maldives Independent via email.
“We are fully committed to reducing our environmental footprint by embracing responsible business practices and investing in sustainable solutions. We are proud of our work with local communities.”
The resort “spent many months liaising with the Magoodhoo Council (who initially provided their consent for the project) and working on obtaining all necessary permits from the Environmental Protection Agency.”
Both the EIA and an environment management plan were approved by the EPA, she added.
“It is important to clarify that to-date, not a single coconut palm has been moved from Magoodhoo Island to Medhufaru island.”
According to the EIA, the “primary objective of the project is to improve the overall landscape” of the luxury resort, which lacked coconut palms and other mature trees.
The councillor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said even though Magoodhoo’s long-term land use plan envisioned roads and buildings, there was no immediate need to clear the vegetation.
“If the EPA had checked with the council before approving the EIA, all of this could have been avoided. But we had to alert them after the resort sent us the permit. I believe the EPA is at fault here, too.”
The EPA has been under fire over what environmental activists are calling #MvTreeGrab, the transfer of trees from local islands for the landscaping of new resorts, many of which are being built on reclaimed land.
According to the councillor, the council was approached by the resort to relocate 180 trees in February. But the EIA report proposed uprooting and transporting “about 500 but not exceeding 700 palm trees” from four different areas of Magoodhoo. The local owners of the palm trees were to be compensated.
“We said this is too much, and the part in EIA that we had the need to clear the vegetation is incorrect. We asked them to get permits after changing that part,” the council member said.
A permit must be obtained from the EPA before removing more than 10 trees and an assessment is required for more than 200 trees.
Ibrahim Mohamed, an official from the agency, told the Maldives Independent the EIA was approved “conditionally.” It has since been cancelled for failure to “consult with the council.”
Action will be taken against the independent consultant if negligence or breach of standard operating procedures was found, he added.
The report was prepared by a consultant firm called Sandcays. It was signed by Ibrahim Asif from Hillside Villa Pvt Ltd and Hussain Fizah from Sandcays.
Hillside Villa is the leaseholder and operator of the Soneva Jani Resort, the newest property of the Soneva team, whose “award-winning, luxury resorts are defined by barefoot philosophy and sustainable living.”