Climate Emergency: An unheard appeal to the President

Climate Emergency: An unheard appeal to the President

A member of the public wrote a letter addressed to President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, on January 2020, urging the leader to take heed of the environmental crisis being faced by the people of Maldives and follow through on the ruling party's pledges to take immediate, meaningful action.

To this day, over six months have passed since the island nation's parliament proclaimed it to be undergoing a state of climate emergency on February 13, prompting an individual to publicize the direct appeal written to President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, along with the listed concerns.

Even to the casual onlooker, this first-of-its-kind declaration by the island nation seems 'all bark and no bite' as Maldives' continues to invest in environmentally destructive megaprojects, often involving mass land reclamation and coast modification.

Speaking to The Edition, author of the aforementioned letter and long-time environment advocate Humaida Abdula Ghafoor offered the following explanation for the citizen's appeal.

"It is not everyday one has to write to the President"

The English translation of the letter reads as follows:

'President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih,

It has been about 30 years since the Maldivian State began to recognise that the Maldives is a low lying State with a fragile natural environment that must be protected. The beginning of this conversation was the “Male’ Declaration on Global Warming and Sea-level Rise” of 18 November which was the outcome of the meeting of small island states held in the Maldives from 14-18 November 1989. About 19 years after that when the 2008 Constitution of the Maldives came into force, the inclusion of Article 22 on the importance of environmental protection in the country’s development is linked to the above mentioned history. However, despite knowing the importance of the issue, the absence of implementation of Article 22 in State governance is a serious concern to me as a citizen.

The tourism industry and the fishing industry are the Maldives’ lifeline. Both these industries would not exist without environmentally protected and conserved lagoons, reefs and oceans, protection of their biodiversity and life, and enabling these ecosystems in their entirety to thrive.

Today, the world’s scientists working in this area have reached consensus that global climate change is causing significant negative environmental changes across parts of the world. As a result of these changes, parts of the world are experiencing major environmental crises, leading to both developed and developing nations to face significant economic challenges and hardships. Relevant global institutions monitoring the world’s climate are making public announcements that the world is heating unusually every year. Scientists are informing that global heating is melting the world’s glaciers at unusual speed, and the heat and meltwater will lead to rising sea-levels. The Maldives’ coral reef ecosystems are the foundations of the country, and these natural systems and their biodiversity are extremely sensitive to these changes and susceptible to grave losses. We know that the Maldives’ coral reefs and marine biodiversity have sustained significant damage already, are continuing to be damaged, and will be increasingly threatened in the future due to climate change. Scientists have informed about these dangers through scientific research conducted over the years on previous climate related crises affecting the fragile reef ecosystems of Maldives and elsewhere in the world.

Although the situation remains thus, the people of Maldives are witnessing on a daily basis the reality that the government of Maldives is giving its full support, permission and participation to irreversibly destroy these fragile reef ecosystems. The importance and dangerousness of this is not something I, as a citizen, have to bring to the attention of the President. This is because civil servants with the requisite professional knowledge working in the government, various reports produced by institutions and the work of external professional stakeholders provide clear evidence on this issue. Nevertheless, I as a citizen have to write a letter to you to bring this to your attention because those entrusted with the management of the Maldives Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of National Planning and Infrastructure are gravely negligent and engaging in significant destruction of our fragile environment. It is the duty of the President responsible for the execution of affairs of government not to allow this to happen in this way. Considering the political and economic changes happening in the world, especially considering the significant changes happening to various climate systems of the earth, it is unfeasible not to optimally conserve the Maldives’ fragile environment which is a national asset of the Maldivian people.

Article 22 of the Constitution of the Maldives guides public officials entrusted with governing the country that : “The State shall undertake and promote desirable economic and social goals through ecologically balanced sustainable development and shall take measures necessary to foster conservation, prevent pollution, the extinction of any species and ecological degradation from any such goals.” However, it is eminently evident today that the government has not formulated policies and practices consistent with this. Due to this negligence, along with the negative impacts of global climate change, the resilience of the Maldives’ environment is being completely lost and there is no doubt today that this exposes the Maldives and its people to grave environmental crises.

On 26 December 2019, the primary duty bearer on technical matters relating to the protection of the environment in Maldives, the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) rejected the plans to further expand the airport at Noonu Atoll Maafaru. However, on 12 January 2020, overriding and usurping the technical advice of the EPA, the Minister for Environment nullified the EPAs decision and approved the continuation of the project, knowing that it would cause irreversible destruction to Noonu Maafaru. In October 2017, the then Minister for Environment acted in this way to approve the project to build an airport on the wetland and mangroves of Haa Dhaal Kulhudhuffushi. As you know, Kulhudhuffushi Kulhi is a rich natural ecosystem full of life, which is also among the largest such natural heritage sites in the country. Despite the fact that civil society organisations and citizens raised their voices in protest about this, Kulhudhuffushi’s natural defence system which is the wetland and mangroves have been irreversibly destroyed. Noonu Maafaru is also an environment of pristine nature and biodiversity richness, and it is an island that has sustained significant damage due to the airport development. The environmental destruction of Maafaru to build an airport, and permission given by the Ministry of Environment to destroy its remaining environment and biodiversity are clear examples of grave environmental negligence in the Maldives by the past and present governments.

The above noted are just a very few recent examples of significant environmental damage done by governments of the Maldives. Today’s governments are repeatedly continuing to reclaim the reef ecosystems that constitute the natural defences and resilience of our islands in the name of development, destroying them irreversibly with absolute disregard to the dangers posed by global climate change to the Maldives. The practice of uprooting and removing palms and other trees from island communities and uninhabited agricultural islands to green these reclaimed lands and build resorts by prominent business people, undermines the resilience of islands and cause great damage to their environment. These practices are also being facilitated by the Ministry of Environment which is legally mandated to protect the environment. The practice of the mass removal of vegetation from islands in this way is a major barrier to the economic security of women in the atolls especially, who depend on the palm tree for their livelihoods. Considering that the hardships of these losses are endured by those making a living from the natural resources available on the island, it is deeply concerning that they are the least able to get their voices heard by those in government. I believe that they are exposed to that vulnerability because the organs of the government that must defend their basic rights are incapable of doing so. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary for the President to be aware that the environmental damage experienced by communities, in addition to the loss of the natural environment and island resilience, is also depriving the most vulnerable citizens from their nature based livelihood resources.

According to Article 22 of the Maldives Constitution, “The State has a fundamental duty to protect and preserve the natural environment, biodiversity, resources and beauty of the country for the benefit of present and future generations.” I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that today’s government is wilfully negligent of this fundamental duty. I also believe that regardless of which perspective one looks at it, this negligence has absolutely no benefit to the people of Maldives. This is because the ability of the Maldivian people to live and survive in this country depends on an immediate halt to environmental destruction, and the adoption of all possible measures towards environmental protection. Environmental protection in the Maldives can be achieved by stopping the destruction of reefs and lagoons and stopping the uprooting of palms and trees. This must also be done to defend the tourism, fisheries and agriculture industries in the Maldives. Given that the foundations of our islands are the fragile reef ecosystems and their biodiversity, the destruction of these fundamentally interconnected ecosystems in the name of “development” is a level of negligence involving a depth of gravity that is difficult to put down in words. For a government to perpetrate such negligence against its own people in today’s world, in my view, is a grave offence.

My conscience compels me to write this letter in this way due to the deep concerns I have about this issue. I ask your government to uphold the fundamental duty entrusted by Article 22 of the Maldives Constitution. In order to ensure that present and future generations of Maldivians can safely remain in this country for as long as possible, as a citizen, I appeal to President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih to undertake your duty of governance in its most constructive way' concluded Humaida's letter.

As key pieces of protective legislation, including laws banning the procurement of coconut palms from local islands or the government's pledge to establish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as an independent authority are yet to be passed, public ire continues to soar over the less than adequate response to an ever looming threat.

Researchers form the Yale and Columbia universities identified Maldives' most immediate issue needed to address as ‘Biodiversity and Habitat’ preservation - in which the island nation is ranked last, at 180, by the global Environmental Performance Index (EPI),

Environmental shortcomings continue to exist in contrast to Maldives' stance in the international arena, including advocacy at the COP summits and the country's call to criminalise ecocide at the International Criminal Court (ICC).