Maldives ecosystems and communities threatened by aviation expansion drive

A proliferation of new airport projects in the Maldives is destroying unique coastal ecosystems and threatens devastating impacts on communities and livelihoods. As many as 20 new airports, several accompanied by hotel developments, are planned and under construction, and many projects are government funded.

In October 2017 a dredger, newly acquired by Maldives Transport and Contracting Company (MTCC) and at 92 metres in length the largest in its dredging fleet, began land reclamation for a new airport on Kulhudhuffushi, an island in the north of the Maldives. By early January 2018 land reclamation for the new airport was complete. Sediment dredged up from the ocean bed had been dumped on the largest white clay wetland and mangrove in the Maldives and destroyed a unique ecosystem. The Kulhudhuffushi mangrove system was the most biodiverse in the Maldives, hosting eight IUCN Red List species. Kulhudhuffushi mangroves had also provided a livelihood for over 400 people, predominantly women, and their families, who soaked coconut husks in the mangrove mud as part of a coir rope making industry sustained over many generations. Maldives report

The impacts of construction of Kulhudhufushi and two other new airports in the Maldives – on Funadhoo and Maafaru islands – are documented in an excellent booklet, Irreversible Damage, Destruction & Loss #SaveMaldives published by SaveMaldives a civic movement that has emerged in response to a government drive for new airports and tourism resorts. After destroying mangroves to make way for Kulhudhuffushi Airport MTCC was then awarded the contract to build facility’s  1.2 kilometre runway. Then MTCC’s new dredger moved southwards to Funadhoo island where it was deployed to reclaim land from the north west lagoon for another new airport. Upon completion of this operation MTCC was contracted to build Funadhoo Airport runway, apron and taxiway. Funadhoo is an environmentally sensitive area, sharing a reef with its twin island, Farukolhu, that includes extensive mangroves. Dredging and reclamation proceeded near to Farukolhu’s nesting grounds supporting several bird species and a bay that serves as a marine breeding site for sharks and rays.

Construction of Maafaru Airport is nearing completion and test flights are imminent. Lush vegetation has already been decimated. Ecosytems highlighted as at risk in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), and now irreversibly removed, include 20,000 trees, mangroves, marshland, coral colonies and seagrass beds. The EIA flagged up the necessity of relocating mangroves but there is no evidence that any such mitigative measure has been implemented. Maafaru Airport is larger than Kulhudhufushi and Funadhoo airports. Its  2.2 kilometre runway is long enough to accommodate Boeing 737 planes with a regular terminal along with facilities for parking private jets and a hotel. Maafaru Airport is part of a US$60 million agreement with the Abu Dhabi Fund to develop ultra-luxurious tourism in Noonu atoll.

The Irreversible Damage, Destruction & Loss #SaveMaldives report draws attention to various aspects of regulatory failure which have allaowed airport projects without the obligatory safeguards. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is supposed to act as an independent authority but has been stripped of its powers to regulate tourism-related projects, effectively becoming a ‘rubber stamp’ legitimizing destructive infrastructure projects. A key EPA task is to assess, approve and monitor compliance with EIAs, but new airports and tourism projects resulting in irreversible damage to fragile ecosystems have been approved. New airports already under construction in Kulhudhuffushi, Funadhoo, Maafuru are just the beginning of an ecocidal aviation expansion frenzy. The Maldives government is planning a total of 20 new airports across the archipelago. Land reclamation also looms for a proliferation of new tourism resorts. The aviation and tourism drive expansion drive is obliterating white sand beaches and pristine coastal ecosystems, the very assets that are key to the the popularity of the Maldives as a tourist destination.

New airport threatens to swallow up Fainu island

The concept drawing for a new airport on Fainu island shows the airport taking up about two-thirds of the island land area with the runway extending along the entire southern coastline. The Maldives Independent calculated that 31 hectares of vegetation would be lost, including a dense jungle area and agricultural land. The airport plan also includes about 4 hectares of land reclamation. Land earmarked for a gated hotel is shown on the map below as an area adjacent to the airport and shaded in purple.

Fainu airport + hotel

A woman speaking anonymously to the Maldives Independent said that rumours of an airport on Fainu island had circulated since she was a child, but all of a sudden the airport agreement was signed, funding allocated and work about to commence, yet even the island council did not have information. Another woman said “If they take our land for all of that, we will be boxed into the paopulated ares of the island like an open jail”. Residents also stand to lose access to 2.18 kilometers of beautiful beach to the airport security zone and hotel. Additional developments, namely a medical facility, hangar, lounges and restaurants have been mentioned. Islanders opposing the airport are concerned that even more land might be taken for a second hotel.
#SaveFainu
Residents acted quickly to form a campaign opposing the airport, SaveFainu and a petition submitted to the Tourism Ministry, Universal Enterprises and Island Aviation was signed by 140 people, about half of the population of Fainu island. Universal Enterprises, one of the largest hospitality companies in the Maldives, is financing Fainu Airport through bulk purchase of advance sales of air tickets. Island Aviation, owner and operator of Maldivian, the largest carrier in the Maldives, has been awarded the US$8 million contract to develop the airport. The SaveFainu petition called for more transparency from the Tourism Ministry, proper consultation with islanders and an independent EIA.

Mohamed Waheed, a leading activist in the SaveFainu campaign said some residents did not sign the petition for fear of losing their jobs, but are worried that such a large amount of the island would be lost to the airport and the secrecy and lack of transparency regarding the project. People are worried that loss of farmland to the airport would mean the loss of farming livelihoods. Waheed said job opportunities at the airport would not match the incomes made by people working on farms and pointed out that a comparable airport on Kudahuvadhoo island only employs 29 people.

More land reclamation, more new airports

Land reclamation has already created space for a new airport on Muli island. On 11th July 2018 President Yameen pledged to develop an airport on Muli island and attended a ceremony marking completion of the land reclamation project. MTCC has been paving the way for an airport on Muli island for some time. A land reclamation agreement was signed in 2014 and reclamation of 40 hectares of land was reported as completed in May 2017. An aerial photo shows an ideal site for an airport runway already in place, a strip of reclaimed land running along almost the entire eastern shoreline of Muli island, encompassing the southern tip and extending along about a third of the western coast.

MTCC has also been contracted to reclaim land for a new airport in Hoarafushi in Haa Alif Atoll, the northernmost atoll in the Maldives. The project, anticipated to cost over US$4 million, will be funded by the state budget. MTCC has already started development of an airport on Maavarulu island, a project costing US$ 3.7 million funded by the state budget, with tarring of the 1,200 metre runway scheduled to commence by the end of July. Maarvarulu is an island on Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll, where a second new airport is to be built, on Faresmaathoda, an uninhabited island situated on the south of the atoll. Tourism developer ‘Champa’ Mohamed Moosa, gave a US$4 million loan to the government to develop the airport and a press conference at the beginning of June marked the signing of a US$2.5 million contract with Gulf Cobla, a UAE based dredging company, to begin land reclamation for the project.

Mohamed Moosa is chair of Kuredu Holdings, a major resort operator which has been awarded a contract to develop another new airport, on Madivaru island, in the tourism hotspot of Lhaviyani atoll, which will entail reclaiming three hectares of land from Madivaru lagoon. Kuredu Holdings is expected to develop a hotel to support Madivaru airport operations. More land reclamation, and yet another new airport, looms in Bileyfahi, where President Abdulla Yameen pledged to reclaim land and build a domestic airport, explaining that this additional facility, together with the new Funadhoo Airport, which is located just 40 kilometres away, will make Shaviyani atoll a tourism hub.

The necessity of the new airports, many of which are generously funded by the government, is highly questionable. The Maldives already has 12 airports and all three new airports in the #SaveMaldives report are being constructed even though an existing airport is easily accessible by speedboat, a journey of 45 minutes in the case of Funadhoo Airport, 40 minutes on the case of Maafuru and just 25 minutes away from Kulhudhuffushi Airport. In a similar vein, SaveFainu campaigners regard an airport on Fainu island to be unnecessary as an existing airport in Raa atoll, 26 kilometers away on Ifuru island, can be reached by speedboat in just 25 minutes.

Climate impacts from aviation expansion, land reclamation and loss of mangroves

The Maldives government continues its drive to build new airport projects even though the country is on the front line of the battle against climate change. Rising seas are lapping at the shores of many low-lying islands. The Irreversible Damage, Destruction & Loss #SaveMaldives report points out the inconsistency of the Maldives government on the international stage when in November 2017, Environment Minister, Thoriq Ibrahim, traveled to advocate for Small Island Developing States (SIDS) at the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). A key issue for small islands is their vulnerability to rising seas caused by climate change. Yet the government driven and funded aviation expansion drive is a climate double whammy; with aviation expansion increasing greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft and land reclamation increasing vulnerability to climate change induced flooding from rising sea levels, severe storm surges and more intense rainfall due to removal of vegetation which serve as a buffer absorbing excess water.

Destruction of mangroves for new airports compounds the climate impacts, because these unique ecosystems play a unique role in carbon sequestration, absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing in their biomass for long periods and laying down soil that acts as a carbon sink. The Maldives government pursues environmentally devastating airport projects in the face of widespread opposition from civil society, even though it is a recipient of large amounts of donor funds for climate change mitigation and resilience. International organizations and development partners such as UNDP Maldives have remained silent.

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Report – Kulon Progo farmers against airport and aerotropolis

A new report ‘Solidarity Calls for Kulon Progo Farmers against Airport and Airport City‘ about farmers’ resistance against eviction for New Yogyakarta International Airport (NYIA) gives many insights into one of Indonesia’s key land rights struggles. Opposition to the airport dates back to 2011. The site, on the south coast of Java, comprises six villages which, before eviction commenced, hosted 11,501 residents. Farmers worked for many generations to increase the fertility of the land, establishing successful farms and thriving communities. Eviction from farmland means many thousands of agricultural labourers also lose their livelihoods and excavation of coastal areas has destroyed fishing farmers’ ponds.

The megaproject was approved without the requisite Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) even though there are serious ecological concerns, including the destruction of sand dunes which act as a bulwark protecting from coastal erosion and tsunamis and prevention salinization of groundwater. The report includes a map of the tsunami hazard area. Cultural heritage, such as the Glagah Stupa historical Buddhist site and Mount Lanang prayer monument, is also being obliterated.

The report is filled with striking photographs showing the progress of the airport and the resistance: bulldozers at work clearing land for the airport and the devastation that is left behind, evictions and protest actions including roadside banners, marches, blocking bulldozers, a road block and a hunger strike. Infographics show the projected development of NYIA not just as airport infrastructure but as an airport city, the affected areas of construction and inhabitants, and the food crops (approximately 450 tonnes annually per hectare including melons, eggplant and chilies) and livelihoods being displaced by the airport.

The airport project has divided the community. Many citizens have refused to sell their land for the airport, whilst some are willing to sell their land for compensation. Supporters of the airport worked to widen the social, economic and political rifts, facilitating the project. Resistance to land acquisition has met with state intimidation, repression and criminalization. Four farmers were imprisoned for four months. The report contains a chronology of violence against local residents resisting eviction and their supporters. Most recently, beginning on 28th November 2017, as another phase of eviction took place, police blocked road access to a group of residents’ homes, cut off their electricity supply, destroyed plants in their gardens and intimidated them. Police attacked a woman causing bruising on her neck and a number of citizens supporting the residents experienced violence at the hands of police, one person suffered a head injury and another suffered injuries from being dragged along the road.

An ‘airport city’ or aerotropolis – comprising shopping malls, offices, hotels, golf resort, tourism village, leisure town, industrial park and residential areas – is planned around the new airport, increasing the land area to 2,000 hectares and potentially leading to eviction of even more citizens. A new solidarity organization Paguyuban Warga Penolak Penggusuran Kulon Progo (PWPP-KP), has been formed to oppose the airport and airport city, allied with an organization of neighbouring farmers resisting sand mining, and supported by many citizens and environmental groups, including Jogja Darurat Agraria.

Land grab looms in hurricane-wrecked Barbuda, and what is taking shape is not just an airport

Construction of an airport on the island of Barbuda began without residents’ approval. A larger land grab looms; moves are afoot to revoke residents’ collective tenure and allocate land to private investors.

On the night of 6th September Hurricane Irma, the most powerful hurricane ever recorded over the Atlantic Ocean, an unprecedented Category 5, made landfall on the small Caribbean island of Barbuda. 185 miles-per-hour winds wreaked havoc. A two-year old child was killed, land was flooded and shorn of trees, homes were left without roofs and walls or completely flattened and the island’s road, energy and communications infrastructure were destroyed. An estimated 90 per cent of buildings were damaged. Two days later all of Barbuda’s 1,800 residents were forcibly evacuated, ferried to Antigua which only suffered minor damage.

Two and a half months after the catastrophic storm most Barbudan residents remained with relatives and friends or in impromptu shelters such as a cricket stadium in Antigua, or abroad. Only a small number of islanders were allowed to return, for a few hours at a time. Efforts to rebuild houses were piecemeal. People were patching up roofs using plywood and corrugated iron salvaged from the wreckage. Hardly anything had been done to re-establish essential services. Water and electricity supplies had not yet been restored; returned residents relied on generators and desalinated water provided by humanitarian aid organizations. Schools and the hospital remained closed. But bulldozers had been working day and night for weeks, flattening land in preparation for construction of an international airport.

In a Channel 4 report Leslie Thomas QC said development of the airport is unlawful as it had not been approved by the Barbuda Council and consultation with the Barbudan people had not taken place. Work on the airport, which will have serious negative ecological impacts on the coral fringed island renowned for its seabird colonies, had commenced without the requisite Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). Already, forest, wildlife habitats and land used for livestock grazing had been destroyed for the runway.

Bulldozing land in preparation for construction of the new airport is evidently so highly prioritized by the government that it began even before Barbuda’s existing small airport had been re-fenced and resumed operations. Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda Gaston Browne dismissed residents’ legitimate concerns that the new airport is evidence of a land grab. His text message to Channel 4 in response to coverage of the issue directed a string of insults at citizens: “The deracinated Imbeciles, Ignorant elements, say that by building Barbudans an airport, we are stealing their land. 😂😂😂 These are what we call dunce elements.”

A land grab paving the way for privately-owned resorts

Prime Minister Gaston Browne is exploiting the chaotic after-effects of Hurricane Irma to attempt to erode Barbudans’ land rights. Within days of the disaster he proposed that Barbudans returning to their homes buy freehold title deeds to their land for $1, which could be used as collateral for bank loans to get mortgages to rebuild their homes, claiming that creating an “ownership class” would be “empowering”. Barbudans objected that this would force them to buy land they have owned collectively for nearly two centuries, since 1834, when Britain abolished slavery in its colonies.

Post-Irma disarray is being used to launch the latest in a series of attempts to undermine the 2007 Barbuda Land Act, which confirms that Barbudans share common title to the land and requires their consent for commercial development. The entire island is owned collectively and managed by an elected council. As co-owners citizens have rights to utilize the island’s resources, including for grazing animals, hunting and fishing. Individual citizens, whether resident on the island or not, have the right to a plot of land for a house, to farm and for commercial enterprise. Browne refuses to recognize Barbudan’s communal land rights. He refers to islanders as “squatters” in a New York Times mini-documentary showing how people’s difficulties in retaining shared land rights are compounded by relentless struggles to retain community cohesion and rebuild their own lives.

Barbuda resident and marine biologist John Mussington maintains that the line being put out, that Barbudans do not have the means to rebuild their homes, is a myth that is being perpetuated to justify a land grab. People managed to rebuild after a hurricane in 1995. Under the current land tenure system residents are not burdened with mortgages and high land prices, so they are able to channel their resources directly into rebuilding their homes. Furthermore, there have been generous donations from international aid agencies and there will be a substantial payout from an OECD insurance scheme that Barbuda is a member of.

Collective tenure is not a barrier to recovery

Liz Alden Wily, an independent land tenure specialist, maintains that if the government succeeds in forcing Barbudans to buy title deeds to their land this will result in many citizens losing their property. Without a sufficient and steady income – difficult for people to secure when their lives have been severely disrupted by the hurricane – people may not be able to secure loans or will not be able to afford the repayments, a plight that would force them into distress sale of their plots. She refutes Browne’s insistence that individual, private land ownership is a precondition of post-Irma recovery and the only way for Barbudans to secure bank loans for reconstructing their houses. Collective title is not a barrier to securing a mortgage. Another option would be for the government to follow successful examples of establishing forms of credit, such as a credit union, which would not place people’s homes, often their main or only asset, at risk.

The privatization agenda being pushed by Browne’s government will enable developers to acquire land, in particular lucrative beach-front parcels, at low prices. In marked contrast with many Caribbean islands, including Antigua, where tourism revolves around all-inclusive beach resorts and cruise ship ports, tourism on Barbuda is small-scale. The vast majority of the coastline remains undeveloped, the beaches remain unspoiled. Residents have approved some tourism projects, maintaining a high degree of community ownership and control. Weakening the Barbuda Land Act would enable land purchase by Antiguan and foreign interests, to establish privately owned resorts. Browne admits that the airport will open up Barbuda for investors and is pushing for a cruise ship port on the island as well as an airport, to support tourism growth.

Dispossession and disaster capitalism

A land grab is looming in Barbuda, and it is bigger than the new airport and citizens’ plots of land. Imposition of individual freehold title would result in Barbudans losing their rights to most of the island. Only a minority of the land is designated as housing, farming and commercial plots; the majority of the land is long established as a communal resource which is of particular importance to poorer islanders’ livelihoods. Removal of Barbudans’ rights to this land would convert it to easy pickings for investors. Furthermore, Barbudans without land would no longer have rights to acquire plots, and nor will islanders’ descendants. Alden Wily said “The government is asking Barbudans to surrender collective ownership of the whole island for just a few parcels of land in (the capital) Codrington”. Back in October she had warned that:

“Repeal of the Barbuda Land Act would free up most of the island for allocation to investors. Overall, it is difficult to see this move as other than a classical land grab by the stronger elite, and the end result of which could well turn the island principally into foreign-owned resorts.”

Kendra Beazer, featured in the New York Times film and a member of Barbuda Council and the Barbudan People’s Movement, slammed the government’s opportunistic moves to change land tenure laws, while its people are traumatized, scattered and scrambling to rebuild their lives, as an example of ‘disaster capitalism‘: the exploitation of citizens’ vulnerability in the wake of crises – including extreme weather, war and terrorist attacks – to consolidate state and corporate power in order to drive through neoliberal policies of privatization, austerity and deregulation. Naomi Klein explores the imposition of these so-called ‘free market’ policies over the course of four decades, in the aftermath of catastrophic events including Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, in her book The Shock Doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism, published in 2007. She commented on the post-Irma construction of Barbuda airport on Twitter:

On 12th December, in a brazen attempt to subvert democracy, the first reading of the Barbuda Land (Amendment) Act took place in parliament. The Bill, seeking to repeal and replace the Barbuda Land Act and dismantle the communal tenure system, did not appear on parliament’s agenda until moments before its introduction under an accelerated review process. Leslie Thomas said the act was tabled with no consultation whatsoever. Many Barbudans – returners to the island, the disapora, and their supporters – moved to resist the land grab enabling legislation. A petition against the Act has already garnered over 2,500 signatures and dozens of people joined a picket outside parliament.

An injunction seeking permission for a judicial review of the government’s attempt to expedite amendments to the Barbuda Land Act has been heard by the Antigua and Barbuda High Court of Justice, presented by Leslie Thomas. Broader resistance is gathering momentum with formation of the Barbuda Silent No More movement, working to strengthening Barbudans’ voices as they work to protect communal land rights, determine their own future and conserve Barbuda’s heritage, culture and environment.

But the airport land grab is progressing. John Mussington, who refused to leave the  island after Hurricane Irma struck because he suspected underhand motives for the evacuation, and filmed bulldozing of land for the new airport that was used in the Channel 4 report, now reports that a huge area of land is being cleared and parceled up. The government claims that the land clearance is for an airport, but it is clear that what is taking shape is not just an airport. Water and electricity services have still not been restored, schools and the hospital remain closed. He says the “attack on our land tenure system is unconscionable” and it is clear that “powers that be” want Barbudans out of the way with the intention of a creating a “private island” for the enrichment of real estate speculators.

Regulation to pave the way for a mega-resort

Erosion of Barbudan’s land rights, and imposition of major tourism developments, already looms with government support for a mega-resort called ‘Paradise Found‘. On the site of an abandoned hotel project, islanders had cautiously welcomed proposals for redevelopment, but became concerned when the government approved extension of the 251 acre footprint of the resort by granting a lease for an additional 140 acres. Funded by famous film actor Robert de Niro and Australian billionaire businessman and investor James Packer, the plan for the $250 million luxury beachfront resort features upmarket cottages each with a private pool and a yacht marina, along with an airport.

A referendum approved the Paradise Found project, but only by a narrow majority, and the Barbuda People’s Movement challenged the result as unlawful on the basis that non-Barbudans were permitted to vote. The government pushed through laws to facilitate the resort project. In 2015 the Antigua and Barbuda parliament passed the Paradise Found (Project) Act, the provisions of which specifically support development of the resort, exempting the De Niro-Packer project from time limits on development and granting a 198 year lease along with the right to freehold tenure should this become instantiated in law. The debate on the bill attracted 400 protesters; critics warned that it stripped away the rights of the elected Barbuda Council to consider and approve large-scale property deals on the island. The Paradise Found Act also doled out a cluster of tax breaks for the two business partners; on corporate income, dividends, stamp duty and property.

The future of the Paradise Found project is uncertain, protest and litigation have bogged it down. Barbudans may well succeed in fending off the Barbuda Land (Amendment) Act which threatens to open the gate to a multitude of privately-owned resorts. The drive to revoke collective tenure goes against the grain of a positive global trend. Around the world thousands of communities have secured legal rights to shared land tenure, controlling, regulating and leasing commonly held property as they see fit. In 2018 a global declaration on the rights of the world’s rural communities, making collective ownership and governance a founding right, will be presented to the United Nations Assembly.