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Land grabbing and enabling the extermination of ‘islandness’ and resilience of island communities

Updated: Dec 26, 2022

You that never done nothin’

But build to destroy

You play with my world

Like it’s your little toy

Master's of War, Bob Dylan


Ibrahim Mohamed


Introduction

Flying over the Velaanaa International Airport of Maldives will give you a glimpse of the turquoise blue lagoons and the lush green islands. From the bird’s eye view, it may look idyllic Robinson Crusoe islands. But the land making and reef burial which involved in making some of these luxury resorts are little known to most outsiders. From a sustainable development point of view, these undertakings may prove to be a no-win situation.


Working with “care” in greenwashing

A delegation from the Maldives has just arrived from Egypt after the 27th Conference of the Parties meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. There they have been able to work with other vulnerable nations to reach a consensus, to form a much-needed loss and damage funding mechanism for nations affected by climate change. Yet in the same month, one of the largest dredging companies of the world plans to dredge 5.63 million cubic meters (cbm) of sand from the intra-atoll basin of the southern-most atoll and the smallest complex atoll of the Maldives, called Addu. According to the initial Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of this project, 6.9 million cbm of sand would be dredged. Hence, about 1.2 million cbm of sand is now curtailed from the initial proposal, a reduction of 18.6 percent from the previous plan. However, an area of 11.7 hectares, previously included under this project, is now reclaimed using 252,701 cbm of sand dredged from the lagoon by a Maldivian company, and carried out without an EIA. Another 20.6 hectares of reclamation originally in this plan is now postponed, to be reclaimed under a different project. Consequently, 194.2 hectares of new land is to be made under this project, costing 85 million USD for dredging and reclamation.


Scrapping 42.3 hectares from the original plan is greenwashing, designed to make this dredging project look like it has been scaled down. In fact, only 10 hectares have been removed from the original project proposed to make 236.5 hectares of land. As a result, only 10 hectares of the coastal marine ecosystem will be spared permanent burial when all reclamations of Addu are completed. Hence, this greenwashed scaling down of the project only serves to reduce the permanent destruction of a mere seven percent of coral reefs and seagrass beds from the original plan. As a result, about 800 million USD worth of coral reefs and seagrass meadows capable of sequestering 600 tons of carbon annually will be irreversibly exterminated. Even if some corals are relocated as proposed in the EIA, the ecosystems that caused to thrive them will be gone forever, while the survival rate of corals relocated to another atoll or another region of Addu atoll is uncertain. The seagrass beds, worth about 4 million USD annually, can never be relocated and will be destroyed permanently. In addition, the dive tourism industry could face severe losses amounting to approximately 60 million USD annually. No amount of greenwashing will reverse the damage caused by this project.


Male'- reclaimed to the edge


The biopolitics of Land Making and Reef Burial

“Land making and reef burial” is a biopolitical scheme conspired as a part of “bigmanity” politics, to give land to capitalists at the cost of biological and ecological destruction. These environmental disruptions are deliberate in most cases and result in the destruction of the “islandness” or “jazeeraa vanthakan”, and the ways of life and valuable natural resources of islanders. The ecosystems that are irreversibly destroyed by such schemes are interconnected and intertwined in the biogeophysical evolution of the Maldivian coral reef system over millennia. The rhetoric and imagery of “Mini Dubai”-style development irreversibly destroying these ecosystems is in fact hysteria hyped by biopolitics to exterminate the essence of “Islandness” and the means of subsistence of islanders. Most of these reclamation projects have become white elephants, while a group of elitists becomes rich from surveys, designs and building components, all of which can enable corruption and mismanagement of public money in various levels of governance.


When the products and services provided by coastal marine ecosystems that provide abundance and economic freedom for people are destroyed, they are forced to become wage laborers. For instance, the loss of reef fishing grounds, bait fish grounds, and fish nurseries as well as beaches on the fringes of islands force people to abandon traditional livelihoods that sustained them for generations. This destruction is beneficial to the oligarchy and the elitists in two ways. One is the availability of labor and the other is the increased environmental value and hedonic price of their idyllic Robinson Crusoe Island “dollar traps”. Consequently, the rhetoric of “Mini Dubai” as the epitome of modern development concedes the role tourism tycoons play in changing the environment, enabling the extermination of “Islandness”. Resort islands, both artificial and natural are manicured and pedicured to look as natural as possible, while local islanders are hoodwinked into believing that their natural environment has to be destroyed and their coral reefs buried to create land for development. This rhetoric and imagery are the result of huge borrowings complimented with environmental indifference.


While traditional islandness and island life were less pervasive in terms of environmental destruction, modern development is having many undesirable impacts on the islands, especially owing to the disruption of the intricate natural dynamics of islands. Lessons learned from various coastal modifications demonstrate that such activities transform the resilience of islands, making them vulnerable. However, the extent of these impacts on the resilience and vulnerability of small islands from urbanization, land transformation, and construction is difficult to assess and measure due to the slow onset of impacts and uncertainties arising from global climate change. Currently, the decision tool commonly used in the Maldives for development proposals is the EIA. At present, EIAs are inadequate for many reasons. For instance, they are project specific and only focus on short-term impacts within the immediate boundaries of project activity. Meanwhile, the process itself is flawed due to malpractice and flawed review processes. For this reason, development related decisions are often politically influenced, undermining cost-benefit analyses of the long-term impacts of such projects. Consequently, unsustainable development projects often destroy the environmental value of the islands, and their economic potential as well as resilience. As a result, huge amounts of money have to be spent to remedy the maladaptation resulting from such development projects, especially when they are conducted in haste to win votes. A case in point is the airport at Hoarafushi, which required millions of Rufiyaa to make viable after commissioning.


A sun-kissed natural beach- lost when reclamation takes place


Manufacturing Land Scarcity and the enigma of “spatial” zoning

Land making by “reef burial” is one of the most lucrative businesses in the Maldives, where land scarcity is absolute owing to the country being only one percent land, consisting of about 300 square kilometers. The average cost of making a hectare of land by dredging sand from a reef and burying coastal marine habitats was 4.3 million MVR before COVID-19 and the Russia Ukraine-War (MNPHI, personal communication, February 28th, 2021). Indexation based on economic changes to world markets, oil prices and labor markets as well as major economies falling into financial hardship could mean inflation of this prices, to approximately 6 million MVR. To make this lucrative business feasible, land scarcity has to be manufactured, especially as an electoral incentive for politicians. For instance, the reclamation of Mathi Komandoo was initiated for the by-election of Komandoo constituency.


Scarcity is politically and socially generated and manufactured from various levels of the political pyramid. In this way, capitalists and elitists gain power and influence, via political maneuvering to justify the acquisition of resources and creating boundaries, while avoiding social justice, equity, and distribution of resources (Mehta et al., 2019). Mehta et al. (2019) also found that presumptions of scarcity are often advocated as a strategy to enable exclusionary schemes of resource control, appropriation, dispossession, segregation of local communities, and gaining exclusive control of the land. For instance, the proposed land use plans for the Addu mega reclamation only reserve a mere 13.3 percent of land for residential purposes and three percent for community-based farming, while more than 70 percent of land is to be given to investors to build hotels, guest houses and resorts. Additionally, when a huge debt is incurred to reclaim land, inevitably having to be repaid with high interest, the reclaimed land must be leased or sold to the highest bidders and for other taxable endeavors. Opportunities for such endeavors often involve corruption and political influence. For instance, the biggest corruption scandal in the history of the Maldives arose due to tourism tycoons illicitly gaining islands and lagoons. Additionally, a large percentage of reclaimed land is often acquired by elitists, rich and powerful politicians, and their collaborators and families. As these tycoons’ and oligarchs’ sole purpose is to maximize profits, they import cheap labor and products, leaving local communities to the dubious benefits of trickle-down economics.


The notion of land making is also hyped up as a means to provide air transport to island communities. As a majority of islands have limited space to build an airstrip, the land is reclaimed, often as DBO (design, build, operate) contracts, while also giving those investors additional incentives such as an island for resort development. Take for example the case of Alifushi in Raa Atoll. The 29.2 million USD project includes the reclamation of 50.5 hectares of land, of which 38 will be used for making an airstrip and the remaining 12.5 hectares for residential use. As the uninhabited island sharing the same lagoon of Alifushi is open for resort development, the islanders will no longer have any prospect of getting more land in future. Consequently, the islanders will have to depend on wage labor as they will face an absolute scarcity of land. While the lucrative seaplane operation is profitable, local islanders are excluded from this service, which mainly caters for tourists. Hence, the only option for local islanders is to substitute their coastal marine resources with an airstrip, built by burying their natural resources.


“Spatial” exclusivity for elitists and tycoons

According to the land use plan for reclaimed areas under the Addu project, 13.3 percent of reclaimed land is for residential use and three percent for community-based farming. For instance, on Hithadhoo island, an exclusive tourism zone amounting to 40 hectares is proposed from the land reclaimed under this project. Except for 5.8 hectares reserved for the expansion of Addu Port, the rest will become tourism zones. Even on the island of Maradhoo Feydhoo, which has absolute land scarcity, 16 percent of the prime beach front land is to be exclusively zoned for tourism development, while the request of the island community to reclaim without destroying their existing beach was rejected. Additionally, tourism tycoons will grab three reclaimed islands. In comparison, on Noonu Atoll, which consists of 54 uninhabited islands, 32 are leased. Currently, 19 of these are for tourism development, and the remaining for agriculture and other industrial activities. As about 50 percent of land in the atoll is for residential purposes, and 40 percent of the land is leased for investors for tourism and agriculture, the percentage of natural land available for the public is only 10 percent.


The World Bank’s Systematic Country Diagnostic Report (2015), states that the benefits of tourism do not trickle down to the neediest segments of the island communities, owing to a predatory model that favors rich elitists and foreign investors. Hence, relying entirely on tourism is a dilemma for the Maldives, as in many other SIDS. As there are few or no incentives to develop community-based tourism ventures, the lucrative business always favors the established elitists who can raise enough finance. Hence, most of the land and islands leased for tourism are taken by rich and powerful elitists or people with political influence. This further widens the gap between the poor and rich, causing poorer households to slump into poverty.


The lingering Curse of World War II British Base of Addu

The lives and livelihoods of Addu people have always been prosperous as their ancestors were great navigators who travelled to neighboring countries for trade. Historically Addu was also a meeting place for Middle Eastern trade merchants who were scouring the Indian Ocean for spices, ambergris, and other valuable goods. But the extent and speed of transformation of their lives and livelihoods reached a pinnacle with the establishment of a British Royal Airforce Base in Gan of Addu atoll during the Second World War. This rewrote the story of the atoll’s demography and prosperity, allowing its inhabitants to shift to modernity they had never previously experienced. Many became wage laborers and their trade system with neighboring countries was abandoned. They lost the rich culture of their maritime expertise and navigation, along with their traditional boat building craft. Even though not paid a British minimum wage, they were able to obtain essential goods and services at subsidized rates. This allowed them to buy construction materials and luxury goods. After almost 35 years, the British officially closed the RAF base of Gan in 1976. As the British left and people could not continue to earn any wages, many were forced to migrate to the capital, as they had abandoned their traditional livelihoods, replacing them with wage labor. Those who had enough savings started retail businesses on Male’ by importing goods from Singapore and other countries. And as tourism had started by then, many also were employed in resorts around Male’ as most had the advantage of being able to speak English and had learned about work culture and ethics.


The real curse left by the British in Addu was the concrete runway. The rest of what they left was transported to Male’, including the corrugated iron sheets on the roofing of buildings as well as push carts made using discarded jumbo jet wheels, and even cutlery. For nearly 46 years since this runway was left behind under five different governments, the development of Addu has always centered around it as the epitome of modern development. Politicians from every government hype it up and give Addu people hope of transformative development based on this airport. It was named an international airport in 2012. In every five-year term of every government, this airport has become a focus of vote-gathering, with incumbent governments pledging to create 8,000 tourist beds in Addu to make the airport viable. The irony is the existing two resorts in the atoll have been closed since COVID- 19 began, while tourist beds have yet to be built. The mega reclamation with an Indian EXIM bank loan of about 75 million USD is now underway to pave the way for 8,000 tourist beds. The lingering curse of the runway is yet to be lifted as the tourism product marketed for 50 years in the Maldives is sandy beaches, which are absent in this atoll. The prospect of molding nature and making beaches has become futile due to the enclosed nature of the atoll and natural dynamics favoring beaches armored with coral rubble, instead of powdery white sands. The consequences of substituting land and islands for natural coral reefs and vast coastal marine habitats in the smallest complex atoll of the Maldives may not be evident immediately.


Shedding crocodile tears in international forums

Loss and damage refer to permanent financial and other losses incurred, due to extreme events as well as slow onset impacts resulting from climate change. As the SIDS have been lamenting it for the past 30 years in all major climate conferences including the COP of the UNFCCC, the promised finance may soon be realized. The Maldives along with G77 nations always advocate that richer countries who were mostly responsible for emissions should pay for loss and damage. While the Maldives strongly lobbies for adaptation money, instead of transformative adaptation the country focuses on short term fixes and reactive adaptation, which are politically attractive and prone to maladaptation. In the meantime, SIDS are also now pleading with donor countries to re-structure existing debts to alleviate the adaptation finance gaps. The sovereign debt vulnerability of the Maldives has heightened owing to COVID 19 and the consequential printing of billions of Maldivian Rufiyaa. While the Maldives is among the top debtors of China, borrowing from India has risen staggeringly and various financial institutions such as the IMF fear it is now reaching unsustainable levels. Sri Lanka defaulted when the country had to pay 71% of its revenue for debts. While debt is not inherently bad, especially for crucial government investments, problems arise when the majority of debt money is spent on infrastructure projects with little benefit. For instance, tar roads on small islands or harbors that are proportionally too large for a small population, or an airport that cannot be run and maintained sustainably, must be properly assessed via cost-benefit analysis. Currently, the only decision tool for most infrastructure projects is based on political incentives. Long term strategic planning, cost-benefit analysis, Strategic Environmental Assessments, Environmental and Social Safeguards Assessments, Sustainability Assessments, Health Impact Assessments and various other decision tools are lacking except for projects funded by multilateral banks. Even then, Indian EXIM bank’s assessments are lacking for projects they have funded.




A natural beach


The dark side of development and maladaptation is a topic that is never exposed on international platforms. The politicians who travel first class to these conferences, spending millions in public money, often shed crocodile tears and come home to continue their rent-seeking predatory policies, enabling the continued destruction of the environment.


Conclusions

Modern development hyped by “biopolitics”, “bigmanity” and extermination of islandness is increasing the vulnerability and lowering the resilience of the small island communities in the Maldives. Unsustainable development, lacking transformative adaptation for future global impacts such as climate change, pandemics and wars, undermines the relationships humans have with the natural environment, reducing the significance of natural and social capital, while financial capital is hyped. Financial gains based on predatory capitalism benefits only the elitists, while leaving the poor and disadvantaged to the mercy of trickle-down economics. For development to be beneficial to the wider society, integrating development with nature and for nature by preventing human actions that forcefully oppose the natural dynamics of islands and islandness is critical.






Refrences:

EIA reports for Addu reclamation and Alifushi airport construction [available on www.epa.gov.mv].

Mehta, L., Huff, A., & Allouche, J. (2019). The new politics and geographies of scarcity. Geoforum, 101, 222-230.

World Bank Group. (2015). Maldives: Identifying Opportunities and Constraints to Ending Poverty and Promoting Shared Prosperity. Systematic Country Diagnostic;. World Bank, Washington, DC. © World Bank. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/23118 License: CC BY 3.0 IGO.

Acknowledgements:

I would like to thank my friend David and Ms. Elizabeth Tynan for editorial support.



Ibrahim Mohamed is an environmental and social science expert specialized in climate change adaptation, with a PhD, in environmental science, from the James Cook University of Australia. He researches on critical issues related to climate change including governance and policy, bio-geophysical aspects, food security, biodiversity and pollution. After resigning from his post as Deputy Director general of EPA, he currently works as an environment and social safeguard specialist for the donor funded Greater Male’ Environmental Improvement and Waste Management Project executed by the Ministry of Environment.

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