Just a few days ago, President Abdulla Yameen referred to the Equatorial Convention Centre in Addu City as an “economic crime” committed by former President Mohamed Nasheed. The very next day, local media was flooded with the news of the construction of an airport on Kulhudhufushi to fulfil one of Yameen’s long overdue pledges.
The irony is how the ECC becomes an economic misdemeanour and a toxic asset, while Kulhudhufushi airport becomes a material blessing of economic progress. What does environmental sustainability mean when it comes to how we define economic growth?
When I was in my year 12 at school, Mezzo’s debut album Guguri was released and the song “Miyoh Dhuniye” (This World) about searching for dolphins or terns and saving rhinos made me wonder whether the environment was about saving rhinos. However, after becoming an environmental social science academic, I realised that it is not about the rhinos anymore but humans and the place we live and want to raise our future generations. It is about sustainability and making our lives and that of our future generations better, by utilising our resources efficiently and by balancing the social and environmental benefits with economic growth.
When the ECC was about to be built by reclaiming the Maakilhi freshwater wetland in Hithadhoo, I was working in the environment ministry. During the construction of the ECC, I visited the site and saw more than a million cubic feet of swamp soil being excavated and the area filled with sand from the lagoon of Hithadhoo.
I also remember the public consultation for the project where some people were against the idea.
The ECC was built and the area was rehabilitated and replanted with vegetation. The construction also allowed better flow of water in Maakilhi and the site became an iconic structure. In fact, the country’s Fourth Tourism Master Plan states that the ECC can increase the potential to diversify the tourism-related products to include meetings, incentives and exhibitions.
Despite the vision of making the asset economically viable, the plan to lease the ECC to a private company was revoked soon after the fall of Nasheed’s government in 2012.
While the Kulhudhufffushi airport has undergone an almost similar process, making the airport economically viable is controversial.
As the island is only half an hour away from Hanimaadhoo international airport, the conventional economic wisdom of President Yameen – where economic growth is intensified by scaling up – has hit the wall.
At present, social media is flooded with various concerns on the issue.
The tale of the two presidents only tells us whether the people really get to decide on development in their islands or not.
Social media activists argue that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process is the only way to stop the reclamation of the mangrove in Kulhudhuffushi. But Environmental Impact Studies (EIS) have a weak legal basis when it comes to stopping any projects strategically decided by the central government.
Article 22 of the Maldivian constitution has more legal authority to stop any project which could shake the foundations of environmental sustainability, including intergenerational equity. It specifically emphasizes on balancing economic growth with social and environmental sustainability. The president, who is referred to by loyalists as the “economist,” has already borrowed huge sums of money, putting the piggy banks of our unborn children at risk.
The sale of several islands to investors without transparent and credible competitive bidding processes has been reported in the media. The economic policies of the government also encourage islanders to become “grasshoppers” gorging beyond their means through heavy dependency on the central government.
Irreversible damage to our natural assets in the name of economic growth has been well organised and planned. EISs are regulated poorly with minimal public participation, especially in projects where decisions can lead to elevated levels of ecological risks.
In the case of the EIA for Kulhudhuffushi, the public complained that the process of public consultation was poorly organised and not stringent enough. The public consultation only involved a public meeting of the EIA consultant with a group of people, where the developer or the government authority was absent.
For projects with irreversible damages and high uncertainty, the public must be informed of and involved in all the levels of decision making. The involvement of independent advisory committees and key stakeholders including national and local NGOs is crucial.
Any governments must adhere to the constitution of the Maldives in making decisions regarding development. To prevent the next economic crime by the incumbent president an environmental litigation process must be instigated against the present government.
Ibrahim Mohamed is a PhD candidate at the James Cook University, Australia. His research is on the adaptive capacity of islands of the Maldives to climate change. He previously worked as a deputy director general at the Environmental Protection Agency of the Maldives.