What a Maldivian environmental conflict tells us about the role of donors

Women making coir rope on Kulhudhuffushi island in Maldives. Photo by: Inasa Umar‏

CANBERRA — In the Maldives, a government plan to build a new airport is causing local uproar over a development that threatens to destroy a sensitive mangrove ecosystem. And with millions of dollars invested in environmental and climate adaptation projects in the region, local campaigners are asking donors to make their voices are heard and ensure funding is being spent on sustainable outcomes.

A report from the nation’s Environmental Protection Agency on the proposed airport notes that the project poses a “significant environmental impact” to a mangrove depression the airport would be required to reclaim.

“Kulhi area is a designated ‘environmentally sensitive area’ due to the environmental features of the area,” the report reads, referring to the local term for the islet depressions where mangroves grow. “Due to the project activities, Kulhi water will be reduced to half and surrounding vegetation will be lost permanently. This is an irreversible environmental damage.”

The second most significant impact associated with the project, according to the report, is reclamation of the sea area for constructing runway of the airport, which could cause permanent loss of marine environment around the proposed location. And the location of the project itself is opposed by some of the Kulhudhuffushi island community.

Although the report concludes that “the positive impacts might not outweigh the negative impacts associated with the project,” the airport is expected to support the government’s policy for improved transport connectivity and tourism expansion for the Maldives — this, despite the fact that tourism visitor surveys already give transportation high marks while environmental importance is ranked even higher.

Local groups protesting the move are urging action not just from the government, but from NGOs and donors operating environmental and climate mitigation programs in the country.  The Maldives receives funding from a number of foreign governments and international organizations. Among those they are urging to action are the Australian government, European Union, and other donors providing grant funding to the Climate Change Trust Fund by which the World Bank and government of Maldives is accessing funds to support the implementation of a climate change adaptation project.

Calls from local activists

Afa Hussain, the founder of youth organization Beleaf, which supports environmental issues in Kulhudhuffushi, explained to Devex that volunteers have been foremost in the campaign to convince the government to reverse its decision to reclaim mangroves to build the airport.

“We as a youth organization from Kulhudhuffushi have been very steadfast in our approach in calling to reconsider the project and to save the mangroves,” she said. “They are so important for our islands — for reasons which cannot be emphasized enough, such as its huge climate adaptation potential as well the protection it offers to our island and its continued service in reducing the impact from disasters from flooding from heavy rain as well as tidal surges.”

Hussain and other volunteers have been coordinating with a range of organizations in the Maldives to attract attention to the cause and hold the government accountable to its environmental responsibilities through press releases, panels, and legal action. They are working to convince the government in a number of ways by focusing on the economic importance of the mangrove for rope-making — a prominent livelihood activity — as well as the biodiversity and national significance of the mangroves, on top of their importance in climate adaptation.

But they are also urging more action from donors operating in the region, including seeking assurance that environmental and special safeguards associated with millions of dollars in funding can be delivered.

“Our volunteers have been very active on social media and tweeting to donor’s organizations as well as countries,” Hussain said. “Targeted tweets are being sent to members of the recent mission from EU, who also inspected EU-funded wetland conservation efforts in Southern Maldives. Our volunteers have written to Australian government as they co-fund mangrove conservation projects in the South. And we are considering an open letter to Green Climate Fund, which recently awarded $23.6 million for a water security project.”

What do donors need to be aware of?

Simply being aware of the importance of the environment and the risks of climate change is not all that needs to be considered when donor funding is made, the campaigners argue. Ongoing government action needs to be considered for the sustainability of investment.

“Protection of environment is largely on paper in the Maldives,” Hussain said. “We have a Climate Change Policy Framework as well as Biodiversity Conservation Strategy. These are not being honored.”

There are social and community factors also being ignored. “There is a lack of consultation with traditional owners of ecosystems when conducting projects,” Hussain said. “This is due to the process and governance in these projects. For example, the decision statement for EIA was issued five days ahead of public commenting deadline.”

Hussain questioned the history of the government to take environmental safeguards in their projects and environmental impact assessments seriously. “While we receive millions in donor funds for climate mitigation and adaptation, we are destroying mangroves and reefs … which are our best available resources against climate change.”

Sana Ibrahim is another youth campaigner working to protect the mangroves with a larger group of campaigners composed of NGOs and activists — including Greenpeace International and Avaaz

Ibrahim was blunt on her assessment of the government’s environmental record. “Donors need to know that the Maldivian government is not serious about action against climate change or working toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals,” she said.

What is the UNDP doing?

For the UNDP in Maldives, environmental projects are an important focus of their funding. “We have a strong focus on climate mitigation and adaptation in all the ongoing projects, including our community led projects,” Shoko Noda, U.N. resident coordinator and representative for the Maldives, explained to Devex. “For example, our Low Climate Resilience Development program focuses on enhancing national and local capacity on climate change adaptation, disaster risk reduction, and low carbon lifestyles in Laamu Atoll.”

Despite this, Noda said there were no current discussion of the UNDP and other donor organizations reducing funding or stopping funding activities in response to the government decision. Nor has it impacted activities in the region.

“UNDP Maldives continues its engagement with national partners to support climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts,” she said.

But this is not stopping them from supporting political pressure on the government.

“UNDP continues to work with our national partners towards an inclusive and sustainable development for Maldives and advocating for key principles of U.N. SDGs,” Noda said. “The government of Maldives, along with U.N. member states, signed onto the SDGs in 2015. We hope the government of Maldives will frame their national policies in line with the goals, targets, and indicators outlined in the 2030 agenda. Additionally, as the chair of the Alliance of Small Island States, we hope the government of Maldives will continue to advocate on climate change issues and be an exemplary role model for other member countries.”

What risk is there from continued environmental investment?

While campaigners support a strong political voice, they are concerned that a continuation of funding for environment and climate mitigation projects risks donors validating government action.

“If donors continue to provide funding without holding the government accountable for its conflicting actions, the funding will be at serious risk, and it’s likely that the benefits of the project will not be impactful for the community,” Ibrahim warned. “It gives a green light to the government to continue unsustainable projects like this when donor agencies are silent over such project.”

Beyond diplomacy, donors were urged to become a noisy and vocal opposition.

“The Maldives government depends highly on external donors and development partners for development projects and climate change mitigation and adaptation projects as well,” she said. “Donor agencies can hold the government accountable and take action such as withholding funds when government action is in conflict with project rationales and end goals. Donors can also use soft-power and diplomacy with the government to negotiate compliance with the state’s obligations under international conventions and standards.”

And they can ensure their investment is financially, economically, and socially viable for the future of the Maldives.

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.