'Toxic bomb' Ticks on Maldives Trash Island

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Descending by plane into the Maldives offers a panoramic view of azure seas and coral-fringed islands, but as the tarmac nears, billowing smoke in the middle distance reveals an environmental calamity.

A giant island appears suddenly, following a huge earthquake in Pakistan. Pretty wild, right? And now, the thing is emitting toxic, flammable gas.
National Institute of Oceanography

Thilafushi Island, a half-hour boat trip from the capital, 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.

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But no holidaymaker sets foot here 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 like 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's paid $350 a month for 12-hour shifts, seven days a week.

With no safety equipment bar a pair of steel-capped boots, he clambers over a stinking mountain of garbage, eyes streaming and voice choked after four years' exposure to thick, toxic fumes.

Beneath his feet lie the discards of the cramped capital Male 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 tourists' islands -- lie scorched next to piles of half-burnt hotel forms requesting speed boat transfers.

A discarded plastic diving mask lies in a heap of packets of juice, plastic bags and rotting vegetables that awaits Fusin's attention.

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"Before we used to separate cardboard and glass, but now the company is not so strong," says site manager Islam Uddin, a friendly man who has worked here for 16 years.

He complains of neglect from successive governments and laments that a privatisation 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 neighbour to the northeast.

All of the rest, including electronics that escape the attention of hundreds of human scavengers and batteries, go up in flames -- with no sign of the high-tech incinerators promised as part of the privatisation deal.

"The batteries contain lead. There are products with mercury in them. All of these can easily get into the food chain," says Ali Rilwan, an environmentalist with local organisation Bluepeace Maldives.

"Unlike landfill, this is the ocean they are filling."