Residents of Fainu are concerned that a new airport and hotel project, suddenly announced at the end of May 2018, will swallow up most of their island. The concept drawing shows the development taking up about two-thirds of the island land area with the airport runway extending along the entire southern coastline. The Maldives Independent calculated that 31 hectares of vegetation would be lost, an area equivalent to 57 football fields and encompassing a dense jungle area and agricultural land. Land earmarked for a gated hotel is shown on the concept layout as an area adjacent to the airport.
A female resident of Fainu speaking anonymously to the Maldives Independent said that rumours of an airport on the 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 populated areas 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. Islanders opposing the airport are concerned that even more land might be taken for a second hotel .
The Maldives government gave the lease of Fainu island to Island Aviation Services to construct and operate the airport . Residents only realised exactly what was planned when a drawing of the plans was leaked . Additional airport-related developments, namely a medical facility, hangar, lounges and restaurants have been mentioned .
Residents acted quickly to form a campaign opposing the airport: SaveFainu. On 3rd July 2018 a petition was submitted to the Tourism Ministry, Universal Enterprises and Island Aviation, signed by 140 people and calling for more transparency from the Tourism Ministry, proper consultation with islanders and an independent EIA. Some of the islanders travelled to the capital, Malé, to submit the petition. Mohamed Waheed, a leading activist in the SaveFainu campaign said that some residents did not sign the petition for fear of losing their jobs, but were worried that such a large amount of the island would be lost to the airport and concerned about the secrecy and lack of transparency regarding the project. People who signed the petition believed the lack of consultation is aimed at “stifling the voice of Fainu people and deceiving them.”
Before the petition was submitted a number of islanders said their concerns were being silenced with threats of dismissal from government jobs. Islanders 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. Opponents of the airport consider it unnecessary. Raa atoll already has a domestic airport just 26 kilometres away from Fainu at Ifuru island, which can be reached in 25 minutes by speedboat .
Fainu Airport is one of 17 planned new airports in the Maldives and three new airports - on the islands of Kulhudhuffushi, Funadhoo and Maafaru - are already under construction. Environmental and socio-economic damage of the type that appears to be imminent on Fainu island, including deforestation, loss of rural livelihoods destruction of coastal ecosystems due to land reclamation, are already evident, as documented in the Irreversible Damage, Destruction and Loss in the Maldives report by Save#Maldives . ECOCARE Maldives raised concerns that the Fainu Airport project might repeat the problems with construction of other airports, with failures to minimise damage, Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) recommendations not being followed and mitigation measures not being implemented .
On 7th November 2018 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published the EIA forFainu Airport, prepared by Water Solutions consultants. Mohamed Waheed criticised the rushed consultation period; the deadline for submitting comments was just six days later on 13th November. He also said that the consultants who prepared the EIA only met with people who approved the airport plans and that islanders wanted an unbiased report prepared by independent consultants. The EIA noted that the airport plans no longer included two ‘city hotels’ which would have taken up a large area of vegetation including farmland.
According to the report 5,792 trees would be uprooted for the airport project, with loss of banyan trees which live for hundreds of years, including the largest on the island standing at 29 meters. ECOCARE Maldives and several activists and conservation advocates submitted comments on the EIA including questions about unspecified plans to compensate for loss of natural resources.
On 14th November the EPA rejected the EIA. On the day of this announcement members of SaveFainu protested outside the environment ministry and the statement by the EPA echoed their concerns, describing the EIA as “poor quality”, incomplete and failing to meet requirements. Stakeholders whose livelihoods would be affected were not consulted and the chapter on impacts and mitigations wasinadequate. Required information on several aspects was missing, including impacts on beaches, coastal erosion patterns, future climate risks and the number and types of trees that would be removed.