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Locals claim GM caught in act of destroying sandbank, EPA and Police investigate

Rae Munavvar
23 January 2021, MVT 18:34
Maldives' environment watchdog and police authorities are probing into an issue of environmental degradation and possible cultural intolerance, involving a foreign-operated resort and a local island community. PHOTO: GOOGLE EARTH
Rae Munavvar
23 January 2021, MVT 18:34

Residents from Kaafu Atoll’s Himmafushi Island, on Thursday, intercepted and shut down a group from Gili Lankanfushi Resort, which included the property’s general manager and other staff members, allegedly in the process of digging up a trench to erode a neighbouring sandbank.

The Environment Protection Agency (EPA) and Maldives Police have since confirmed that relevant authorities are investigating the issue.

Parliamentary Representative for the Thulusdhoo Constituency (which consists of Thulusdhoo, Huraa, Dhiffushi and Himmafushi) Ibrahim Naseem has also spoken out the issue, calling on the EPA and Police to take action.

Onlookers present at the scene have said, at the time of the local boat’s arrival, the resort-led party had already dug trenches in three different locations.

The 40 islanders that disembarked to halt the unauthorised excavation also claimed that they were accompanied by local police during the confrontation. Police authorities have not made a comment on the matter.

The Edition reached out to the resort to confirm the details of the incident as per the company’s understanding, however, the resort’s Communications Manager stated, “as an official investigation is currently ongoing, we have no further comment at this time”.

According to Mohamed Imthiyaz, a local guesthouse owner, the resort’s efforts to destroy the sandbank was driven by General Manager of Gili Lankanfushi David Stepetic.

A video depicting the altercation was circulated across numerous social media platforms shortly after the event, inciting anger from the public at the presumed destruction of the country’s natural environment as well as the suggested intolerance towards local customs.

Stepetic is also seen in the video partaking in the sandbank trip. Nevertheless, when asked by the videographer to explain the group’s activities, he is not shown, nor can he be heard, issuing an answer.

Gili Lankanfushi Resort (Lankanfushi Island) is located in the same lagoon as Himmafushi.

The sandbank over which the dispute occurred, lies to the south-west of Himmafushi and is frequented by locals of Himmafushi for picnics and other recreational purposes. During low tide, the land area measures approximately 200 feet.

According to Imthiyaz, one possible motive driving the resort’s actions could be that the presence of locals and their festivities were seen as a disturbance to the resort’s more luxury-acclimated clientele.

“Guests residing in the water villas are in clear view of the sandbank. That is why we think [they] did this”, said Imthiyaz.

“Honestly, even when we asked the GM what their reasons were, he did not respond”.

Gili Lankanfushi, built as a ‘Robinson-Crusoe’ inspired concept, prides itself on an “eco-friendly” philosophy, interwoven throughout the brand from architecture to excursions. Additionally, akin to numerous other Maldives’ resorts, the property describes itself (on the official website) as offering “a moment of absolute privacy”.

There have been reports, in the past, of other resort managements butting heads with nearby island communities in a similar fashion, sometimes even attempting to quash local presence in order to position the resort as more desirable to tourists, instead of coexisting in harmony with Maldives' culture outside of public relations strategy.

It should also be noted that at this time, Maldivians from different atolls have raised concerns over lack of vacation spots for locals, being that nearly all 'available' uninhabited islands have been 'sold' to develop various tourism-inclined establishments.

Recently, on December 13, 2020, Baa Atoll's Council opposed the government's decision to lease their last remaining uninhabited island for agricultural purposes, citing its use by local residents for leisure and highlighting that most islands leased in this way do not run active operations and are instead used as 'holiday homes' by wealthy individuals. Citizens of capital city Male are also still anticipating the government's electoral pledge of receiving their own picnic island.

With regards to the recent sandbank issue, many Maldivian environmentalists have insinuated that, given the country’s heavy dependence on the revenue generated by tourism, local governments and authorities are likely to make an about-turn on the nation’s international stance with regards to environment issues and sweep matters under the rug despite Maldives’ fragile state of nature in a time of global climate crisis.

As per the regulation on the Protection and Conservation of Environment in the Tourism Industry (outlined under No. 2/99 Maldives Tourism Act), any activity such as dredging, changes to beach structure, and/or any activity which may adversely affect the natural environment of the country, for tourism purposes, cannot be carried out without express permission obtained from the Ministry of Tourism.

If the above is considered, then given that the resort operates wholly as a tourism enterprise, it may not conduct such activity, especially on land outside of the premises, without said permits.

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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