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Introduction

The main international image of the Maldives is that of a luxury tourism destination and a nation in grave danger from the effects of climate change. Successive Maldivian governments have been advocates for the dire need for mitigation and adaptation to combat climate change in the international arena. However, locally the policies they have pursued are having dire effects on the climate and environmental resilience of the country, especially ‘development’ projects, the most common of which are harbour development, land reclamation and airport construction projects in islands across the country. These development projects are also one of the main election pledges of Maldivian politicians and so are usually carried out without regard for environmental consequences. One example is the Airport construction project on the island of HDh.Kulhudhuffushi which was a campaign pledge of President Yaameen Abdhul Gayyoom of the Progrssive Party of the Maldives (PPM) in the 2013 Presidential elections. 

The project was fast tracked and approved within 2 days of the submission of the Environmental Impact Assessment despite the report finding the reclamation of the sensitive wetland area (mangrove) would cause lasting and irreversible damage and that the socio-economic benefits may not outweigh the negative impacts. Environmentalists and Civil Society Organisations held protests and released statements against the implementation of the project as it would destroy the mangrove wetlands of the island. 

They also highlighted a lack of due process as regulations require the provision of a 7 day duration for commenting on EIA reports by the public and relevant stakeholders. Civil society actors pointed out the lack of consultation with stakeholders which reflects the findings of a report on Climate Finance Governance Standards by Transparency Maldives that found that community participation in the climate adaptation processes is low. 

In December 2017 Ecocare filed a case against the Environment Ministry and the Environment Protection Agency to stop the project and asked for a stay order on the construction. According to the environmental NGO, the project violates Article 22 of the constitution

PPM and politicians aligned the with ruling party such as the MP for South Kulhudhuffushi constituency and the island council of Kulhudhuffushi claimed that the residents of the island were ‘for development’ and were unequivocally in support of the reclamation of the wetland area and construction of the airport. Those who opposed the implementation of the project were labelled as being against development and “people who do not mean well” for the island of Kulhudhuffushi.

Public opinion of residents of the island were said to be overwhelmingly in favour of implementation of the project. According to some, the support for the project despite the destruction of the unique and essential mangroves is the result of desperation due to lack of access to basic services due to neglect by consecutive governments experienced by the island’s population as well as a lack of awareness on climate and environmental issues.

Tweet by Ecocare: “Reclamation of the Mangrove in Kulhudhuffushi will be the most significant ecosystem loss in North #Maldives … #savekulhdhufushikuhli”

Tweet 01 by @HindhaIsmail: “When someone living in #kulhudhuffushi says the #kulhi has no benefits it shows what a failure the govt, civil society and UNDP has been.”

Tweet 02: “Shows how the people have been neglected and how little stakeholders are regarded with. Destruction cannot come before consultation!”

Actors

Primary actors are political actors and media while secondary actors include individuals.

Political actors

  • Political parties:
    • Ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM)
  • Politicians:
    • Uz. Mohamed Nasheed (Member of Parliament for South Kulhudhuffushi constituency)
    • Abdullah Latheef (President of the Kulhudhuffushi island council)
    • Thoriq (Minister of Environment)
    • President Yaameen Abdul Gayyoom

Media

Media platforms are not independent and reflect the stances of their owners of the particular media.

  • Public Service Media
    • PSM is the state media of Maldives and reflects the narrative of the ruling government of the time.
    • No reporting on the environmental consequences and concerns over the project during the Presidency of Yaameen Abdul Gayyoom.

Individual actors

  • Individual actors, although not primary actors, contributed to the spread of the misinformation that the entire population was in unanimous support of the project.

Behaviour

Transparency:

  • Political actors are transparent in their identity.

Intent:

  • Actions suggests aspersive intent:
    • People who opposed the airport construction project were labelled as anti-development and people who did not wish well upon the island.

Authenticity:

  • None of the actors identified were found to be using unlawful means of communication.

Dependency:

  • No evidence was found of ​​dependency.

Infrastructure:

  • No evidence was found of linkages or back-end communication.

Tweet by @ishahr: “Conversation on airport dominated by partisanship & intimidation. Ppl who oppose labelled anti-development. #kulhudhuffushikulhi #eia”

Content

Harm: 

  • The content does not contain threats and is not directly harmful. 
  • However it labels voices of dissent as people who do not wish well for Kulhuduffushi and/or are anti-development.
  • It also misrepresents the actual picture of public opinion on the issue as it silences and disregards the opinions of vulnerable stakeholders such as the (mainly women) coir rope makers of the island (404 families).

Language:

  • The main language used is Dhivehi (written in Thaana), sometimes with a mix of English words.

Expression:

  • The content is not based on self-expression and cannot be protected under fundamental freedoms.

Truthfulness:

  • The content shared is deceptive.

Synthetic:

  • The content is not synthetic.

Narratives: 

  • Those who opposed the construction of the airport project were labelled as being anti-development.
  • All the residents of HDh.Kulhuduffushi want the project. Eg:
    • Uz. Mohamed Nasheed (Member of Parliament for South Kulhudhuffushi constituency) speaking at the shore protection project completion ceremony in August 2018 stated that there was no one amongst the population of Kulhudhufushi who is against the development projects being implemented on the island and that the people of Kulhudhuffushi were ‘for development’.
    • In November 2017 Abdullah Latheef (President of the Kulhudhuffushi island council) stated that ‘98%’ of the residents of Kulhudhuffushi wanted to reclaim the mangrove area for the construction of the airport.
    •  Abdullah Latheef also stated that whatever the findings of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) the residents of Kulhudhuffushi wanted the project to proceed.
  • Women who use the mangrove area for economic activities such as for the coir rope making process also wanted the reclamation of the mangrove.
    • Eg: Individual actor (businessman) claimed that he had gotten calls from many women who made coir rope saying its best to reclaim the mangrove area for the airport or even for the allocation of land plots for housing.
  • President Yaameen Abdul Gayyoom stated that 
  • The airport project was promoted by the government as providing economic benefits including job opportunities and further development opportunities.
    • Eg: Minister of Tourism (who was also responsible for the aviation sector) Moosa Zameer stated that as soon as the airport was completed the government would facilitate the best ways to reap the economic benefits from the airport including developing tourism in the region.
  • Abdullah Latheef (President of the Kulhudhuffushi island council) questioned why civil society organisations were not concerned about the environmental impact till the beginning of the project and why no one was concerned with protecting the mangrove area before.
  • Minister of Environment Thoriq claimed that the opposition parties were “keeping some people in front of them” to prevent the implementation of the airport project.

Degree

Audience:

  • The voting population of Maldives.
  • Particularly the residents of Kulhudhuffushi.

Targeting:

  • The main target audience are the residents of Kulhudhuffushi and especially supporters of PPM.

Platform:

  • Speeches at political/state events
  • Television programs (Eg: Habarufeethaa program on RaajjeTV)
  • Social media platforms: Facebook (including pages, groups and communities), Twitter and Instagram.
  • News websites.

Virility:

  • Evidence of inauthentic boost to engagement was not found.

Scale:

  • The case is part of the larger narrative used for winning votes by politicians in Maldives – that development comes through building of harbours, airports, reclamation of land and other such projects.

Effect

  • The project went ahead despite the irreversible damage to the sensitive mangrove area and negative impact on the climate resilience of the island. According to the Environmental Impact Assessment report:
    • “A total of over 1,200 trees (including bushes) may have to be removed for this project. This loss will be irreversible as the area has to be left cleared for the rest of the airport’s operational period.”
    • The island would be exposed to severe erosion, periodic flooding and that damage from a tsunami would increase five-fold due to the removal of vegetation from coastal areas.
    • The loss of habitat and vegetation would severely affect Birds, fishes and other wildlife.
    • “Furthermore, elevated level of greenhouse gas emissions will take place, since trees are a known carbon sink. In addition, changes to the vegetation within the island [are] imminent,”
  • The voices of the most vulnerable stakeholders, especially the coir rope makers (404 families) who are mainly women were not heard.
    • “I have to stop this now, no? Is there any other way?”, Fathmath Ibrahim (a coir rope maker)
  • Loss of livelihood for the island’s 404 families and loss of a critical industry that was worth MVR9.3 million according to the island youth association.
  • 18 plots of land (9 of which had people living on them) were taken by the state for the construction of the airport with the process of being marred by lack of transparency and other issues. Such as:
    • varying compensation offered to different people, some being offered land and financial compensation while others were only offered financial compensation, 
    • vast differences between the amount of money offered, 
    • not being informed about the relocation process properly
  • Lack of information on the relocation process.
    • “We saw the list of the houses being passed around on Facebook or Viber. Then we heard about it on the news. But no one in a position of authority from the government or the council contacted us to date,” 51-year old Ali Ismail from Daisy Villa, the most densely populated property on the list with nine family members.”
  • Families affected by the relocation were not consulted on decisions regarding the compensation.
    • “Our concern is the first thing they should do when building an airport is to decide on compensation and where they’re going to give land from. They haven’t asked for our opinion at all. They can’t just decide without asking,”
  • Even before the airport was completed, in May 2017 storms damaged the stone sea wall around the shore of the area reclaimed to build the airport.

Diagnosis 

This case has been identified as disinformation. 

  • Actors: political actors
  • Behaviour: is deliberately deceptive.
  • Content: includes verifiably deceptive and untrue elements.
  • Degree: is part of the larger narrative by politicians using ‘development projects’ to garner political support and implementing projects that are detrimental to the environment and climate resilience.
  • Effect: Irreversible damage to the environmental and climate resilience of the island.

Conclusion

Maldives’ vulnerability to climate change is used in the international arena by Maldivian politicians while within the country successive governments pursue policies and projects that are detrimental to the environment and climate resilience of the country. 

There is a lack of awareness amongst the Maldivian population on the importance of preserving the environment including Mangroves and wetlands. Decades of ‘development’ being framed as the building of harbours, land reclamation, airports and other projects which are implemented in ways that result in lasting environmental, sustainability and climate resilience consequences has led to Maldivians supporting such projects despite the negative consequences to the environment.

In this case state and political actors claimed near complete support for the project and labelled those who dissented as being against development and people who did not wish well on the island. The voices of the most vulnerable stakeholders such as the hundreds of families (mainly women) who used the mangrove area for their livelihood were not heard. There is also withholding of information regarding the project and a lack of transparency which contributed to the propagation of the misinformation.