Under President Yameen, ministers are quashing environmental concerns to strike opaque resort deals with foreign investors, warn divers, scientists and two EPA insiders

The tourism industry of the Maldives relies on coral reefs like this one near Baulhagallaa Island, Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll (Photo: Stuart Westmorland/Corbis)

The Maldives government is endangering coral reefs in pursuit of urbanisation and opaque mega-deals with foreign investors.

This is the picture painted by divers, marine scientists and campaigners – and endorsed by two whistleblowers from the country’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). After a 2016 ocean heatwave that killed 70-80% of the country’s surface corals, widespread dredging and land reclamation threatens their recovery.

Under president Abdulla Yameen’s “transformative economic agenda,” investors are being courted for massive resort and infrastructure projects. To facilitate this, the tourism ministry has taken over environmental impact assessments for resort developments from the EPA.

Ibrahim Mohamed, an EPA deputy director on secondment to James Cook University in Australia, said ministers now routinely overruled experts.

“If [a project] gets rejected [on environmental grounds] and the minister thinks it might be politically advantageous, they will go ahead with the project,” he told Climate Home by Skype. “People have a fear of rejecting the government’s decisions… The [environmental assessment] process is quite stringent, but in the end, it is prone to quite a lot of intimidation.”

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One of the most dramatic interventions was on his home atoll of Addu, in the southern Maldives. Last November the ruling party celebrated as a reef was blasted with explosives – a practice not seen in ten years – to create a shipping channel. The EPA initially withheld approval but caved under pressure.

The haste to green-light investment threatens the vibrant ecosystems that draw tourists and sustain tuna fishing – the Maldives’ two main earners.

“If we neglect the environment… we will lose resilience,” added Mohamed, who is writing a doctorate on climate adaptation in the Maldives. “Most of these coastal modifications aren’t well planned.”

A senior source still working at the EPA, who did not wish to be named, backed up Mohamed’s assessment and did not comment further.

Fishermen use small fish from the reefs as bait for tuna (Pic: Greenpeace/Paul Hilton)

The need for development outweighs the risks, said Ibrahim Shihab, a spokesperson for the president’s office. Asked about the tourism ministry taking control of EIAs, he said: “It made sense to move the process to the ministry due to the fact that they deal day-to-day with the resorts.” Government projects remain within the EPA’s remit. In the Addu case, he said other options to open the channel had been exhausted and the amount of blasting was “minimal”.

Coral reefs are increasingly threatened by climate change. Last year, a turbo-charged El Niño event warmed the oceans, causing the third global bleaching event on record. The Maldives, home to some of the most spectacular marine life in the world, was not spared.

Dredging puts the reefs under further pressure, stirring up sand that blocks out light. Observers warn it is going ahead with little regard for the consequences.

Environmental impact assessments are “cut and paste,” said Shahina Ali, a recreational diver and advocate for biodiversity education. “In a time where we have had coral bleaching, the reefs are a bit fragile and when the reclamation is not done properly, it has a further effect.”

Hussain Rasheed Sendi, director of five dive centres, used to swim in Embudu lagoon, near Malé, as a boy. A nursery for marine life, much of it has been buried to create luxury beach getaways within easy reach of the international airport.

“This amount of land reclamation has never been done before,” said Sendi. “That is the scary part, you don’t know what will happen… Coral bleaching we can’t stop, but dredging we could at least give a break.”

Shiham Adam, director of the government-funded Marine Research Centre (MRC), acknowledged the ecological impacts of land reclamation.

“It would definitely not help to recover corals, there is no doubt about it,” he said. “When sand particles land on the coral polyps, it would cause stress.”

While he claimed the MRC had sometimes given “very strong views” on potentially damaging projects, overall he defended the practice: “We are reclaiming massive swathes of coral reefs, but once it is reclaimed, it can be a very nice stable area.”

Officials are optimistic the reefs will bounce back from last year’s bleaching, as they did within about a decade of 1998, the last event on that scale. Shihab added: “We cannot be expected to suspend all development initiatives in the meanwhile due to worldwide environmental factors that are sadly outside of our control. To do so would be a betrayal to the needs of the Maldivian people.”

“To suspend all development initiatives… would be a betrayal to the needs of the Maldivian people”

The stakes are high. Resort leases are worth millions of dollars. Government officials say the influx of cash will raise living standards. But large sums of money from such developments have previously gone astray.

The Maldives scores just 36 out of 100 on Transparency International’s corruption perception index, below the global average. National campaigners say the situation has deteriorated under Yameen, who took power in 2013 under contentious circumstances.

An explosive Al Jazeera documentary in September linked president Yameen to the disappearance of US$80 million from state coffers – the biggest corruption scandal in the country’s history. He denies…