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Civil Society Organisations urge govt to investigate environmental crimes

Mariyam Malsa
25 January 2021, MVT 21:31
An aerial photograph depicting the sandbank which Gili Lankanfushi Resort attempted to dredge recently. A collective of civil society organisations condemned the action as well as several other environmental crimes and demanded stronger action by the government. PHOTO: GOOGLE EARTH
Mariyam Malsa
25 January 2021, MVT 21:31

A collective of local civil society organisations, on Sunday, issued a joint press statement calling the government to conduct full and transparent investigations regarding environmental crimed and hold all perpetrators accountable.

The organisations that participated in the call included Transparency Maldives, Nalafehi Meedhoo, BeLeaf, Zero Waste Maldives, Save Our Waves Maldives, Land Sea Maldives, Save Huvadhoo, Ecocare Maldives, The Maldives Resilient Reefs Project, Huvadhoo AID and Save Maldives.

Highlighting that natural resources were critical to Maldives, particularly to the tourism and fisheries industries, the collective expressed concern regarding the government's failure to adequately investigate, condemn and take steps to prevent environmental crimes.

It also noted that such inaction served to encourage the perpetrators of such actions.

Notably, the statement strongly condemned the recent attempts by employees of Gili Lankanfushi Resort to dredge a sandbank near Himmafushi island in Kaafu Atoll.

On January 21, Himmafushi residents, along with the support of Maldives Police Service, intercepted and shut down a group from Gili Lankanfushi Resort while they were digging a trench on the sandbank.

While authorities withheld the passport of Gili Lanakanfushi General Manager David Stepetic on Sunday, the civil society organisations urged the state to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation and hold the perpetrators accountable.

The statement also described the resort's action as uncivilised, an environmental crime and an effort to destroy a resource utilised by locals for social uses as a communal gathering place. The collective expressed the opinion that Maldivians had a fundamental right to convenient and open access to the few islands, reefs and lagoons available for the recreational use of locals.

Another recent issue flagged by the collective was the Maldives Association of Tourism Industries (MATI)'s assertion that tourist establishments are unable to abruptly halt the practice of discarding waste into the ocean. Speaking at a session at the Parliamentary Committee on Environment and Climate Change, MATI claimed that the disposal of food waste and other organic material was carried out in complete adherence to regulations formulated specifically for the tourism industry by the Ministry of Environment.

The civil society organisations rebutted these claims, noting that under 5.3.3 of the regulation to protect the environment in the tourism industry (2006), waste disposal is only permitted outside atolls and must be carried out with consideration to wind and wave patterns to prevent waste drifting to inhabited islands. Such disposal methods are only permitted if there is no designated land area or facility for waste management in the vicinity.

Additionally, even though MATI had stated that only organic waste was being discarded by tourist establishments, the collective revealed that analysis of the waste washing ashore on inhabited islands and reef areas indicate that resorts and liveaboards are also dumping non-organic materials inside atolls.

In reference to the aforementioned points, the statement expressed concern that several businesses were failing to adhere to regulations and that no measures were being taken against entities that commit the violations.

As per the collective, the rhetoric used by MATI as a representative of the businesses that profit in millions of dollars per year from Maldives' natural resources, should be viewed as unacceptable by the public as well as the government.

The statement also condemned an attempt to smuggle 429 kilograms of shark fins from Velana International Airport (VIA) earlier in January, in violation of the Fisheries Act of Maldives, 1987 (Act No. 5/87), which banned the fishing of all types of sharks throughout Maldives in 2010.

The collective also voiced concern over the lack of information updates from the state, even though the Maldivian government has assured international media that an investigation is currently underway.

In this regard, the civil society organisations called on all relevant authorities to conduct a fair trial following proper legal procedures in addition to ensuring transparent and timely updates to the public.

Overall, the collective highlighted Maldives' stance on environmental and climate related issues in the international arena, including an application at the International Criminal Court (ICC) on December 3, 2020 to add ecocide, or wide-scale, long-term environmental damage, to the court's jurisdiction.

In light of such advocacy efforts, the collective noted that enabling businesses to perpetrate environmental crimes under legal regulations could be considered a violation of several international conventions on the environment and human rights which have been signed by Maldives, as well as the country's commitments to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Additionally, the statement called on the parliament to strengthen legal frameworks and prioritise efforts on legislation such as the climate change bill.

Furthermore, the collective expressed the opinion that excluding tourism-related issues from the mandate of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over the past years have dealt a blow to the institution's power and contributed to the pervasiveness of environmental crimes.

Noting that granting independence to EPA was included in the administration's 100-day pledges, the statement called on the government to fulfill its promise.

Although the incumbent Solih administration has made many pledges to tackle imminent threats to the environment on multiple occasions, local NGOs, movements and advocates have repeatedly returned fire by accusing the government of failing to 'walk the talk' and live up to electoral pledges made with respect to sustainable development and halting environmental degradation.

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