MALE – Descending by plane into the Maldives offers a panoramic view of azure seas and coral-fringed islands, but as the runway nears, billowing smoke in the middle distance reveals an environmental calamity.
Thilafushi Island, a half-hour boat trip from the capital, Male, is surrounded by the same crystal-clear waters and white sand that have made the Indian Ocean archipelago a honeymoon destination for the rich and famous.
But no vacationer sets foot there and none could imagine from their plane seats that the rising smoke is the waste from residents and previous visitors being set alight by men such as 40-year-old Fusin.
A migrant from Bangladesh, he is one of several dozen employees on “Rubbish Island” — the biggest waste dump in the country, where he is paid $350 a month for 12-hour shifts, seven days a week.
With no safety equipment bar a pair of steel-toed boots, he clambered over a stinking mountain of garbage, eyes streaming and voice choked after four years of being exposed to thick, toxic fumes.
Beneath his feet were the discards of the cramped capital and the local tourism industry that has helped turn the collection of more than 1,000 islands into the wealthiest country in South Asia.
Bottles of beer — illegal for local Muslims but ubiquitous on tourist islands — sat scorched next to piles of half-burned hotel forms requesting speed-boat transfers.
A discarded plastic diving mask lay crumpled in a heap of juice packaging, plastic bags and rotting vegetables that awaited Fusin’s attention.
“Before we used to separate cardboard and glass, but now the company is not so strong,” said site manager Islam Uddin, a friendly man who has worked there for 16 years.
He complained of neglect from successive governments and lamented that a privatization deal signed in 2008 with a German-Indian waste management company has stalled as a result of local political upheaval.
Only plastic bottles, engine oil, metals and paper are collected, with the waste sent by boat to India, forming the biggest export from the Maldives to its giant neighbor to the northeast.
All of the rest, including electronics and batteries that escape the attention of hundreds of human scavengers, go up in flames — with no sign of the high-tech incinerators that were promised as part of the privatization deal.
“The batteries contain lead. There are products with mercury in them. All of these can easily get into the food chain,” said Ali Rilwan, an environmentalist with local organization Bluepeace Maldives. “Unlike a landfill, this is the ocean they are filling.”
As he spoke, waves lapped at the edge of the dump, which has been expanding steadily into the sea since 1993 — forming one of the highest points in the whole country, 80 percent of which is less than 1 meter above sea level.
He cited government figures showing visitors to the Maldives created on average 7.2 kg of waste per day, compared with 2.8 kg for residents of Male, who make up a third of the population of 350,000.
Tourists, at nearly 1 million last year, outnumber locals by a ratio of about 3-to-1.
Local authorities plan to stop the toxic open burning on the island and the private operator of the site — finally set to start work after a five-year delay — has promised to build an incinerator.
Better waste management in Male through door-to-door collection and recycling will also help to reduce environmental damage, said Ahmed Kareem, a city councilor from the capital.
“The project that is going ahead will monitor air pollution and also the sea pollution near Thilafushi Island and so no further expansion by waste will be done for Thilafushi,” Kareem said.
Islam, the manager of the site, where rows of broken diggers and bulldozers sat nearby in a vehicle graveyard, remains hopeful that he will get new machinery allowing workers to move and sort waste more easily.
Behind him as he spoke stood a row of palm trees discarded by a hotel resort that were planted in an attempt to beautify a place of toxic smoke clouds and buzzing swarms of flies. The trunks were blackened and the leaves missing. “They died,” Islam said with a smile.