First they came for Faafu

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by Azra Naseem

1. Of Kings and Pawns

Just over a 100 kilometres south west of Male’, rising up  from the deep blue lagoon, are 26 islands forming the atoll formally known as Faafu. This beautiful reef structure, one of twenty such natural island chains in the Maldives archipelago, is roughly 30 kilometres long and 25 kilometres wide. Five of the atoll’s islands are inhabited. Of the rest, four are under the jurisdiction of the Tourism Ministry, five leased on varuvaa[1], and five under the Atoll Council.

A sum total of just over four thousand people live on the islands of Feeali, Bileiydhoo, Magoodhoo, Dharan’boodhoo, and Nilandhoo the capital. Nilandhoo is large by Maldivian standards, measuring 56 hectares or half a square kilometre.

Faafu is historically significant. On Nilandhoo is the Maldives’ second oldest mosque, Aasaari Miskiyy, built over 800 years ago. As Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl recounts in his book, The Maldive Mystery, he discovered the ruins of no less than seven Hindu temples and a Buddhist stupa on the island.

Life in Faafu goes a long way back; much further back than written Maldivian history is officially allowed to go.

Today Faafu is about to change beyond recognition.

Making Faafu Great

On 24 January President Yameen announced the atoll would soon see development ‘never before seen’ in the Maldives.

The president was speaking at a ceremony to inaugurate a ‘beautiful, modern’ mosque—gifted to the people of Magoodhoo by King Salman of Saudi Arabia. The new mosque, Masjid Al Taqwa, is not merely a place of worship, but a manifestation of the ‘special love and respect’ the desert monarch holds in his ‘noble heart’ for the islanders of Maldives. Maldivians would soon have the opportunity to welcome The King in person, said the President, God willing.

“Faafu Atoll is happy. And Faafu Atoll is lucky”, said the President. Because, Faafu is “an atoll that the Saudi government, or rather, leading figures in Saudi, have a special interest in”.

Fortunate Faafu, The Chosen Atoll.

Drawing out the suspense like the host of a cheap daytime TV gameshow, the President continued, “A huge massive project is planned for Faafu Atoll. All charts and drawings have been completed.”

In other words, the future of Faafu is a done deal. Drawn up and signed by the Saudi King and the Dhivehi President. Why should the people be consulted? Why should they have a say? They only live there.

The ‘Huge Massive Project’, Yameen said, could make Faafu the most prosperous atoll in the Maldives. “It will be open to the world, to people from all walks of life, travellers and such.”

It will be a township, he said. Presumably not Soweto in the Apartheid era.

“Only three or four such townships exist in the entire world”, he boasted. “It will set the standards for such projects”, and “will be copied” by future generations. The Faafu Township will be the giant on the shoulders of which future township visionaries will stand.

“That is what those elevated persons [the Royal Sauds] have in their noble hearts. We, too, have good hopes for this. We, too, are praying to Allah, that these things do happen to the Maldives, and that this will bring to Faafu Atoll the kind of development we have never seen before.”

That, and no more than that, is what the President cared to share. Pressed later by Mihaaru for details, his spokesperson said the government will “disclose information about its policies and initiatives as it sees fit”.

But, of course. The subjects must wait patiently for The King’s pleasure.

The questions people want answers to, meanwhile, frantically fly around public spaces on- and offline: How much of Faafu Atoll is the House of Saud taking for the so-called Huge Massive Township? Is it the entire atoll? If so, where are the people of Faafu to go? Will they be made to move en masse to Hulhumale’? If the Sauds are taking ‘only’ some islands, which ones would it be? What purpose the land? How much dredging and reclamation? With what consequences?

Land-grabs are, sadly, common across the poor world. Superrich global developers, with deep pockets and unlimited greed, criss-cross the earth with eyes keenly peeled for the perfect opportunity: natural beauty, corrupt leaders, and populations made weak by disasters both natural and man-made. Today’s Maldives combines those magic ingredients. It is breathtakingly beautiful, its people have been weakened by years of political unrest, societal strife, and continuous lack of prosperity. Most importantly, its leaders are immensely corrupt.

What more could the House of Saud—or the House of Trump, or whichever house sitting on whichever throne of dollars—ask for?

Sweeteners and sovereignty

Maldives has been courting Saudi benevolence for most of this decade. Dr Waheed, the ‘Immediate Past President’, before he finally handed the reigns over to Yameen, visited Saudi Arabia in July 2013. He met the then Crown Prince Salman, and successfully begged for money and patronage.

In March 2015, shortly after the Prince was crowned King, Yameen was granted an audience. The President returned with the promise of more money and a joint communiqué to facilitate investment opportunities in both countries. A US$20 million grant ‘to manage cash flow’ and a US$80 million loan for development projects were announced. Much more—an embassy right next to the President’s Office, additional loans, scholarships, Saudi-cabinet approved sponsorship of Maldives Islamic University—were to follow.

In July 2015, three months after that first visit of Yameen’s to Saudi Arabia, Article 251 of the Constitution forbidding sale of Maldivian territory to foreigners was up for amendment in the Parliament. To pass, it required a three-quarters majority.

Flush with Saudi endowments, the government made sure money was readily available for greasing palms—all the way from the parliament to the regional councils and island leaders.

Unconfirmed reports say part of Saudi money earmarked as sweeteners later went missing. Missing money—whether cash from Saudi as widely alleged, or stolen from MMPRC in the biggest embezzlement in Maldives’ known history—is at the heart of the epic fall-out between Yameen and his Vice President Ahmed Adeeb. Whether the cash handouts came from Saudi ‘generosity’ or from robbery of state coffers, that many MPs gladly received shares of the bounty is a known fact.

The amendment passed with ease. Only 14 out of 85 Members of the People’s Majlis voted against. The Ruling party PPM and its allies cited ‘mega development’ [always good]; the opposition MDP cited ‘being a centre-right party’ [free market always supreme]. These, people were told, were the reasons for pushing the Constitutional amendment through without so much as the customary eyebrow lifted in askance: what do you think?

11 of the seventy MPs who voted for the amendment were from MDP. Without their votes the proposal would have failed. In the days that followed, the party came into criticism from many members who, although in the minority, were vocal in their dissatisfaction. MDP secretariat shrugged off the criticism, justifying it by referencing its ‘centre-right position’. It was as if being centre-right, and being staunchly for neoliberalism, is a law written in stone MDP could not deviate from, whatever the cost.

Dangled before MDP MPs was also the promise of Mohamed Nasheed’s release from wrongful imprisonment. This—not cash in hand or party ideology—some MPs later claimed, was really what drove the MDP vote in favour.

Challenged on Twitter on Wednesday, MP Fayyaz Ismail (who voted against the amendment), explained that discussions within the party ahead of the vote largely agreed ‘the political situation’ should be the chief consideration for MPs casting the vote.

The ‘political situation’ MP Fayyaz referred to is widely understood to mean party leader Nasheed’s continued captivity and the chance to secure his release by voting the way Yameen, his jailer, wanted.

The potentially destructive power Yameen was granted through the constitutional amendment was an issue that could be confronted later, once Nasheed was released.

That this was an important part of the thinking behind MDP’s rationalisation of the majority Yes vote at the time is borne out by the party’s announcement on Wednesday that, (with Nasheed no longer at Yameen’s mercy,) the party will now do everything possible to repeal the amendment that would have been impossible without it in the first place.

Whither the immovable centre-right neoliberal position?

Until the vote cast on 22 July 2015, the constitution safeguarded Maldivian land by prohibiting both government and individuals from selling any of its territory to any foreign party. It was bad enough that the laws as they stood allowed leasing of islands for up to 99 years, in itself a moneymaking racket that has, over the years, created a rich/poor divide so great that less than a minute fraction own well over 99% of the country’s tourism wealth.

Laying claim to the Maldives for a century was not sufficient for the likes of the House of Saud. They need ownership. The government, therefore, engineered the second constitutional amendment with the Saudi Royal family in mind; just as it engineered the first constitutional amendment with Adeeb in mind. Now, all that an interested buyer has to do is invest US$1 billion (pocket change for the superrich), get some territory preferably with an island, reclaim enough lagoon so that the artificial land becomes 70 percent of the entire territory they’ve invested in, and voila, a piece of ‘paradise’ is theirs.

Opposition to the sale is intense, but lacks unity. Adhaalath Party is against, and it voted No to amending the Constitution. But it has only one member in parliament. MDP is against, but only because the government is not being transparent enough in doing the deal. Independent member Mahloof Ahmed–an influential voice, voted No. But he is in jail. Voices of JP and MDP MPs who went against the party position and voted No are subsumed by their parties that have been respectively unwilling and unable to oppose the sale effectively. Civil society campaigns, people-led movements, and vocal individuals, are mostly restricted to social media.

Generally, all dissatisfaction and angst–of party, society and individual alike–is kept in check by Yameen’s repressive policies that have banned democratic protests in the name of social harmony. Democracy is bad for development, he maintains.

The Maldives is on sale to the highest bidder. Islands, lagoons and reefs are going fast. At a time when the world has woken up to the calamities of man-made climate change, when sustainable development has come to the fore of the thinking person’s agenda, this most fragile of countries on earth lacks a unifying leader, party or movement that stands both in principle and practice, for people before profit, for sustainable development over short-term gain, and for development with consciousness over supplication to the so-called invisible hand of the market.

The future is bleak.

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First they came for Faafu II: Of Myths and Monsters

First they came for Faafu III: Muizzing Maldives

[1] A system of patronage dating back to the monarchy when rulers ‘gifted’ islands to favoured subjects. With the start of the tourism industry, the system turned into one of privilege and corruption, as will be explored in more detail later in this series.

Image: NASA

    Maldives’ coral reefs: latest victims of political power play

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    by Ibrahim Mohamed

    The Maldives is a coral reef system, one-fifth the size of the Great Barrier Reef and is hailed as the 7th largest coral reef system on the Earth and is the largest atoll reef system. The reefs act as both the economical and structural backbone of the entire nation highly vulnerable to climate change impacts. The two major economic activities, fisheries and tourism are heavily dependent on the healthy reefs, while making the islands resilient against major natural disasters such as storm surges. Though climate change is a slow process, reefs are the most important resilient feature for the adaptive capacity of islands.

    However, warming episodes due to global climate change have been causing mass coral bleaching in the Maldives. Consequently, the Maldives advocates strongly on behalf of vulnerable small island nations and is currently the chair of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). In a recent Op-Ed in The Huffington Post, the Environment Minster of the Maldives, Mr. Thoriq Ibrahim, raises concerns of bleaching and mentions:

    “On a local level, we must continue to mitigate the effect of human activity of these delicate ecosystems. Our government is increasing protection of affected areas and the scope. Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) will be markedly expanded in light of this recent bleaching event. That means stringent EIAs on new hotel developments and limiting terrestrial runoff and agricultural pollutants – proven enemies of coral reefs”.

    However, news of blasting of a reef using dynamites, has loomed large in local media lately. Both former Environment Minsters Mohamed Aslam and Maryam Shakeela raised alarms about this destructive process. Aslam questioned the controversial decision of the Government:

    I was just told Env [Environment] min [Ministry] have given permit for blasting reefs after 10 yrs of not permitting this destructive practice. Where are we heading?

    Shakeela urges to appeal to concerned authorities to reverse this decision:

    Y [why] not 1st appeal 2 [to] authorities yet again 2 [to] explain the consequences nd [and] suggest alternatives. Development can occur without harming env [environment].

    History of reef blasting in the Maldives

    In 1986, cracks in the North East Reef of Male’ were observed by local environmentalists, Mohamed Zahir and Husain Manik, who believed they may have been caused by reef blasting. Later on the 14th of November 1990, the Southern Reef of Male’ was blasted using dynamite resulting in shockwaves and severe damages to several buildings. Local diver and environmentalist Husain Manik informed President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom of severe damages to the Reef with photographic evidence, which led to strict polices on blasting of reefs.

    According to The 2007 Audit Report of the Ministry of Construction and Public Infrastructure, the Ministry blasted a reef in the island of Vandhoo in Thaa Atoll without proper studies and the resulting damage caused a huge financial loss to the Government. To compensate for the damages, the Ministry paid MVR 1.7 million (about USD 100K) to islanders of Vandhoo and MVR 300K (about USD 20K) to neighboring island Hirilandhoo. Since then the Government has banned reef blasting. The Government has not conducted any assessments on the reef of Vandhoo Island and hence the damages to the reef has never been valued.

    The Meedhoo Ismehela Hera Channel in Addu City

    In 2011, to obtain sand for Herethere Resort, a proposal to dredge a channel between Meedhoo and Ismalehera Islands, was developed. A 2011 Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) justifies the need for this channel, which was followed by the Addendum of 2016. The 2011 EIA envisages two main benefits as below:

    (1)  To provide easy access between Addu and Fuvahmulah Cities via ferries

    However, the Fuvahmulah Airport was constructed and began operation in 2012, which along with Gan International Airport based in Addu City became the major popular transportation mode for locals. The EIA hence underestimated the implications of air transportation’s dominance over ferries, and therefore need for the channel was not justified. There was no mention of development plans for the Addu City Seaport and International Airport and how this project may become obsolete in future with these major developments.

    (2)  To decrease the cost of fuel for fishermen of Meedhoo Island

    Although EIA 2011 and 2016 Addendum emphasizes fuel saving, no cost benefit analysis was provided. Also, the benefits including employment for small-scale fishers in Meedhoo, was mentioned but the impact of irreversible damage to the Reef and its marine life was not considered. Additionally, for tuna fisheries, baitfish is required and has to be obtained from the intra-atoll basin rather than by going out to open sea through this channel. Hence the benefits mentioned for fishermen in the EIA are not justifiable for this project.

    2016 EIA Addendum

    In 2012 the project was initiated and after using a one-ton air gun for almost two and half years of dredging the Channel, the project contractor realized it is impossible to break the beach rock formation underneath the Reef. One major reason was the Reef has become hard and stable over thousands of years. Hence, in 2016 an Addendum was submitted to determine the impacts of blasting the Reef using dynamite or any other suitable explosives. Given the complexity and uncertainty of impacts from such an explosion, the EIA review has shown that the blasting of reef does not comply with (a) The 1992 Rio Declaration signed by the Maldives, and (b) The Article 22 of the Constitution of the Maldives. Hence the initial EIA review has determined blasting the reef using dynamite should not be allowed and the project should seek other alternatives. However, the Housing Ministry appealed to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the Maldives regarding the decision. After deliberation the EPA has permitted the project despite the irreversible damage that could be caused, and against the EIA reviewers initial recommendations. The EPA has issued a statement saying that the Ministry of Housing should be responsible for any damages from the blasting and acknowledged the inevitable irreversible damages of using explosives.

    The project as a key vote swinger

    The Government candidate for local council election from the Island of Meedhoo has been a strong supporter of this project. This project also has been used as an electoral incentive in the past. The local business elites, who control a large number of votes, are the main beneficiaries of this project. For instance, in 2013 election the incumbent President Mohamed Waheed was able to gain majority vote from Meedhoo by expediting this project through his Government. The project was then stopped due to a lack of finance. Later, during the parliamentary election, Qasim Ibrahim promised to finance it. The project contractor left in 2016 due to financial losses incurred and the project was stopped – until now. The upcoming local council elections has now become a major reason to continue the project as a means to gain vote for the Government candidate.

    The questionable way this project has been prompted at a time of an election is highly controversial. In addition, the way the project was given a green light, shows the hypocrisy of the current Government in dealing with environment and climate change at the heart of the Maldives. The Environment Minister of Maldives, Thoriq Ibrahim, currently attending Conference of the Parties of UNFCCC (COP) 22 in Morocco, is asking for finance for adaptation. Back at home, he has allowed the destruction of a reef, the most important adaptive feature of an island. As opposed to his pledge to international community in June this year on strengthening EIA process in the country to reduce damage to coral reefs due to human activity he has allowed to blast an important reef of an island already faced with severe erosion.

    Just a few kilometers north of this destruction there is a European Union (EU) and Australian Government jointly funded Climate Change Adaptation project. This project, located in the Hithadhoo Koattey and Edhigali Kilhi Protected Area, is funding various activities worth millions of dollars aimed at protection and sustainable use of the coastal marine environemnt. In the meantime, the Hithadhoo Koattey Area Reef, which was resistant to 1998 bleaching, has been reported to have recently shown traces of bleaching.

    The Government of the Maldives has an obligation both under local environmental laws and international commitments to stop this destruction. The moratorium on prohibiting blasting of reefs should be enforced in the country already with weakened environmental monitoring and enforcement. Instead of pleading to international community and condemning their inaction on global climate change the country should ensure they do not destroy their critical natural resilience against climate change.

    The blasting of this Reef will be an intergenerational theft that can never be repaid.


    About the author:

    Ibrahim Mohamed is a Ph.D. candidate at James Cook University, Australia. His research is on the adaptive capacity of islands of the Maldives to climate change. Prior to his Ph.D. scholarship from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australia under Australia Awards, he was working in the Maldives Environmental Protection Agency as the Deputy Director General. He has also worked for the Maldives Climate Change Trust Fund managed projects related to adaptation and mitigation.

    Photo: New Scientist

     

      Party like it’s real

      by Azra Naseem

      If you want an example of how people in power try to create your reality, Yameen’s bash tonight to launch The Real PPM is a classic

      Fact is, The Real PPM is a thing that does not exist. At least not as a political party.

      PPM is a registered party of some thirty thousand members, the elected leader of which is Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. After all the laundry has been done and all shades of family dignity have been hung out to dry on public lampposts, PPM remains the party of its members, led by the man they picked as their leader. These are material facts. That’s PPM for real.

      A court saying the party is Yameen’s doesn’t make it so. The ‘courts’ have no business meddling, uninvited, in party affairs. Maumoon’s leadership of PPM is not limited to hosting great office parties. Preventing him from ‘even cutting the cake!’ does not stop him from leading the party. As for locking Maumoon out of his own office, putting a padlock somewhere and shouting “It’s mine!’ is as legally binding an ownership claim as pissing around a disputed area to mark territory.

      Drawing on walls to insult others, perhaps popular entertainment in the caveman era, isn’t all that clever anymore. For one thing, it can backfire, as when Maumoon ended up owning Goruhan’daa and looking Gatu. “Grandpa totally killed it,” said the millennials.

      And that business of deleting the name from the wall. Is a party ever only its office?

      Just as clear is what  a political party is not. A group of men and women who, having claimed ownership of eight truckloads of party paraphernalia, take over the physical office of an established political party and declare themselves leaders of close to 40,000 people without so much as a by your leave, is not a political party.

      The Real PPM is a gang of men and women, led by Abdulla Yameen, the President, who have staged a hostile takeover of the Maldives and a majority of its people, and are exploiting their leadership of the country to make as much money as quickly as possible from the people, the islands and their unique natural beauty.

      That is what is being packaged as a new political party, ‘The Real PPM’, and being presented to anyone who will look and listen.

      Yameen has a story to promote his product.

      The West wants to colonise ‘us Muslims’. We must fight against Them. More, there are enemies within, eating us up from the inside like an autoimmune disease. These enemies were born to Maldivian mothers, the traitors. In these dangerous times, we must be afraid. We are all victims in need of protection. We need a strong leader, like Yameen.

      Maumoon, the lazy, meddlesome, old brother, must bow out, his time is past. He should make way for young blood. Young Yameen has balls, he gets things done. He brought back the death penalty, no sissy him. He is tough on the criminals he is not on a first name basis with. He is ‘brave enough’ to change the Constitution whenever he wants, for whomever he chooses.

      He will do whatever it takes to ‘develop the Maldives’.

      What Maldives needs to grow as a nation is money. Money will end social inequality, money will guarantee a happier life, world class infrastructure will end poverty, dredging will solve the housing crisis.

      Trust me, I am an economist.

      Selling everything will get us money, it will cost us nothing.

      Progress is skyscrapers, artificial trees, man-made beaches, imported marble.

      Development is never again having to be on a boat to cross even a kilometre of the ocean. Chee, lonu.

      Sustainable living? Takes too long. We can get fifteen million dollars for that island over there, and twenty for the other one in the distance, now. People are unhappy? Let’s cut down those trees, build an ice-rink and host a party.

      You can’t beat us. Join us, let us buy you.

      Yameen has great plans, and great plans need time to execute. We must reelect him. For ‘God and country’.

      Are you watching Yameen’s product launch? Are you buying it?