The Minister of Environment Dr Hussain Rasheed Hassan and a team from the Ministry, on Wednesday, arrived at Maafaru, Noonu Atoll.
Reportedly, Minister Hussain is investigating the dispute over expanding the island's airport, after the Ministry of Planning and Infrastructure pushed to override the decision made by the Environment Protection Agency (EPA).
After the EPA conducted its mandatory Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), the eco-watchdog listed nine reasons, expressly denying permission to reclaim further land in Maafaru.
During Wednesday's visit, the delegation spoke with residents of the island as well as the island council. According to sources, in the course of the meet-and-greet, Minister Hussain confirmed that the purpose of the visit was to investigate the dispute.
Furthermore, a circular released by the Ministry confirmed that, after compiling a technical report, the Minister's decision on the matter would be sent to the EPA for implementation.
Per the regulations set for EIA reports, the ministry is mandated to make a decision on the matter within 15 days of an appeal. At present, that leaves a total of five days for the Environment Ministry to publicize their decision.
The EPA states that land reclamation will take up a large portion of the island's lagoon and will have adverse effects on the surrounding reef.
The conservation experts also stated that if the land is reclaimed for the airport development today, then should a need arise in the future, less area will be reclaimable.
In addition to reaffirming Maafaru as a popular nesting site for various species of sea turtles, EPA also stated that the damages to the environment due to reclamation, scheduled for a long period of time, is expected to be catastrophic.
"A large part of Maafaru's lagoon will be permanently lost if the land is reclaimed. Due to this, the ecosystem of the surrounding reef will be severely affected", reads EPA's EIA report.
EPA said that the reasons presented for land reclamation in Maafaru are insufficient, compared to the damage certain to be inflicted if the project is expanded.
The reason given to justify further land reclamation was expanding the airport's runway to be able to accommodate Boeing 777 aeroplanes. However, EPA stated that the projected frequency of these flights was not mentioned.
In April 2019, following a now-viral photograph of a turtle that crawled onto Maafaru looking for a nesting spot and laid eggs on the airport runway, many spoke out against the effects of major development projects on the ecosystem.
Although EPA is affiliated to the Ministry of Environment, it is solely responsible for regulatory activities for protection, conservation and management of environment and biodiversity, as well as waste management and pollution prevention under the Environment Protection and Preservation Act (4/93).
As such, public concern has been raised on EPA's ability to perform the aforementioned function, given the Ministry's ability to overrule the watchdog's judgement on matters of environmental protection. Environment advocates are calling out both EPA and ministry with increasing frequency for failing to act in the best interests of the environment, even post change of administration.
Further, when EPA's incumbent Director-General Ibrahim Naeem was summoned in June 2019 by the parliamentary Committee on Environment and Climate Change, he declared that the dredging and reclamation of reefs and lagoons cause irreversible damage to the environment.