Comment: Loss of biodiversity would be an existential threat to the Maldives

On World Environment Day, we remember the fundamental connection that all species on this planet have with each other.

At a time of rapid change in our climate, and as we think about how to address these changes, it is important to remember that all species of flora and fauna are connected with each other. 2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity, which gives us a chance to stress the importance of biodiversity for human well-being, reflect on our achievements to safeguard it and encourage a redoubling of our efforts to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss.

The theme for today, World Environment Day 2010, is “Many Species. One Planet. One Future.” It echoes the urgent call to conserve the diversity of life on our planet.

Reports indicate that up to 50 per cent of Asia’s total biodiversity is at risk due to climate change. Least Developed Countries are particularly vulnerable, as they are the least prepared or able to deal with the impact of climate change.

Moreover, because of our particular circumstances, there are perhaps few countries that are at greater peril from the adverse effects of climate change and loss of biodiversity than the Maldives – a nation of small islands dependent entirely on its coastal and marine resources.

Biodiversity constitutes the basis of most economic activity in the Maldives, and generates income directly or indirectly for most of the country’s citizens. A healthy and diverse marine ecosystem is vital for the functioning of the two largest industries, fisheries and tourism. Together, these provide three quarters of the country’s jobs, 90% of its GDP and two thirds of its foreign exchange earnings. Moreover, the islands, vulnerable to natural disasters, need healthy coral reefs to help protect and guard them against the adverse affects of climate change. A loss of biodiversity should therefore be seen as an existential threat to the Maldives.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) reiterates that all countries shall “protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.”

While every country has a right to development, there is a matching obligation that countries should aim for sustainable development, integrating environmental, social and economic growth as a whole. Adaptation to climate change and building the resilience of communities against the impact of climate change must be the pillars of sustainable human development in small island developing nations such as Maldives.

With President Mohamed Nasheed declaring the government’s intention to make the Maldives carbon neutral, and the government having prepared a Strategic Action Plan for the development of Maldives, the United Nations reaffirms its commitment to assist the people of the Maldives in the pursuit of sustainable development, and a low-emission pathway to growth.

At the policy level, it is clear what should be done. But more importantly, we should focus now on action at a community, island and atoll levels. Policies only help if they are implemented to benefit both people’s livelihoods, and the environment that provides for the people. It is imperative for everyone to play a role, including individuals and non-governmental organizations, in sharing experiences and knowledge on climate change adaptation and mitigation, and on the sustainable use of the natural resources that surround us.

Maldivians have been dealing with climate change for hundreds of years. They know the impact it can have on their islands and their lives. It may well be that climate change is faster than it has ever been before, but nobody knows better than the Maldivians how to respond and adapt. Let us now use that knowledge and understanding to effectively adapt to climate change, and to work together to sustainably develop the Maldives.

Andrew Cox is the new UN Resident Coordinator in the Maldives

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12 thoughts on “Comment: Loss of biodiversity would be an existential threat to the Maldives”

  1. Over the course of the previous administration's reign, Maldivians were taught to be apathetic, to never question authority and never take initiative. This is my entire generation!

    Apathy towards the environment is probably the one thing Maldivians are most apathetic about. Fifth grade field trips to Thilafushi can only go so far. We live our lives looking at what will affect us directly and in the near term. We have little consideration for our future even 10 and 20 years from now. And we do not really care about the legacy that we leave for our children.

    This apathy must stop. I applaud the UN Resident Coordinator for trying to change this social dynamic. I applaud him for actually reaching out to the Maldivian community publicly. But Mr. Cox, you need to go further.

    Implement programs to actually mobilize island communities. Get UN program officers teaching islanders what they can actually do. Not just boring workshops - but events! Things that will invigorate people and open their minds to new possibilities and new ways of thinking.

    While your appeal does go a long way towards making a logical argument about why we should care, most people won't. Not unless they can feel it in their hands and hearts. Not unless they can be a part of something with each volunteer having authority over something. Responsibility over something.

    This isn't something that you can suggest/introduce and then hope that the populous will run with. It needs to be an event, an goal, and a method that is hand fed and closely watched and nurtured.

    When it comes to initiative, and when it comes to giving a damn, we're toddlers. You're trying to change an entire social dynamic that is inherent to this populous. Recognize it for what it is.

  2. You are right Salim. UN agencies in Maldives (and I suspect elsewhere, too) spend more money on self-congratulating "meetings" and "workshops". These hours and time could be instead "diverted" to where it really belongs: implementing committed and real action on the ground. I hope the UN agencies in Maldives will "wake up" and come out of the rut they are in -- now that we have established democracy in this country.

  3. Current administration has done little to nothing to preserve the biodiversity and the pristine marine ecosystems. Economic development has been the main focus of every project that is initiated.

    Minister Aslam, who holds the environment portfolio has failed miserably to address this. EIAs are approved with no regard to the environment and biodiversity conservation.

    The Minister of Home Affairs seems to be toothless and he cannot even address simple things such as sand mining in the islands despite petitions, letters he receive from the island staff.

    Mr.Cox, I cannot agree with you more, loss of biodiversity would really be an existential threat for the Maldives. Reefs are our bread and butter and they are highly threatened now.

    On the other hand, people can care less about this. People will only change their behaviour if they have to pay out of their pockets to pay for the damage. I think there needs to be a conservation tax imposed on those who import plastic bags, vehicles...etc - those agreed that harm the natural environment.

    Environmental change and conservation of biodiversity has so much to do with paradigm shifts and I guess the common man will begin to understand this sooner or later.

    Sad reality is that our tourism industry under the sustainble and green tourism banner has also done much damage. Reef fish stocks have been overfished since the tourism industry began to flourish. Many resorts from the early days had mined the reefs to build the resorts, many resorts althought illegal dump waste into the ocean. Many resorts dump concrete and construction material away from the house reef to a nearby dump site in the middle of the ocean...Many resorts heavily depend on plastic bottles..etc. The list may go on.

    What politicians, parliamentarians and local fishermen need to really see is that the economic value of the ecosystems we have.

    Destroying the few and limited wetlands, giving precious sandbanks where endangered sea birds breed for resort owners as picnic islands, building yacht marinas, using high value biodiversity areas for mariculture development ...We will soon begin to see the disastrous impacts of bad decisions such as these.

  4. Well said, and Salim has brought the problem in Maldives to the point. But I am wondering... how many people do actually take this as a serious issue?

    Let's be honest - Maldives is FAR away from having a "green, sustainable tourism" and from becoming carbon-neutral.

    The government doesn't fine environmental bastards, there are no "marine park" taxes, not even REAL protected areas (the 29 MPAs on paper don't mean anything).

    It's a long way... and a difficult one, because people's attitudes, habits have to change. Reading the above comments I can see a light at the end of the tunnel...

  5. The 30 years of the previous regime has put as behind 30 years. Sometime i wonder in the previous years what work did the ministry of fisheries and agriculture, and the environment ministry has done. they do not even have accurate number of the islands and sand bars in the Maldives let alone the number plant species in the Maldives. in those times the workshops the programes and the institutes are only to funnel funds to the maldives which are basically used for some other purposes. there isn't actually an awareness among maldivias about the environmental impact we would be facing after 20 to 30 years.
    I agree to salim waheed in one point. we have seen lot of workshops lot of seminars held in the maldives in the previous years. but it has done a little or no good most of the time. when the workshop is over the activities are over too and forgotten until next such workshop or seminar.
    the thing we should do is to launch programes where individuals can take part and execute and given some sort of responsibilities. thats how these things will work

  6. Salim and others are correct. The size of the problem is huge, and it requires a significant change of attitude to get anywhere.

    I took part in the Environment Day march yesterday, at a time when people were encouraged to leave their vehicles at home. I have to say, the streets didn't look very empty to me! I asked friends and colleagues about it, and they told me that environmental concerns don't rank as highly as they should do in the Maldives. I wonder why? I say this partly tongue in cheek, but perhaps there are not enough children coming home fresh from environmental debates at school, which was certainly how many Europeans changed their attitudes (try justifying your carbon usage to a six year old!)

    I and the UN as a whole can and will 'go further'. I care about these issues, and it is my job to ensure the UN system gets behind the forces for change. Don't forget that we have been with the Maldives through thick and thin, and this is not going to change. But frankly, you don't need more people like me telling Maldivians what to do. The UN can provoke and encourage, but the question is how to change the social dynamic, as Salim puts it.

    On the surface, it seems like a big question, perhaps too big to solve in one go. I think it's important to break things down - look for areas where environmental change will make an immediate, positive change in people's lives. It is also important to find and develop civil society organisations that can mobilise Maldivians, and 'own' the problem. Start combining that with government tools such as taxation on activities 'bad' for the environment and the right kind of regulation, and you can start getting somewhere.

    From the UN side? I've sat through my fair share of ghastly workshops in my career, and some good ones as well. But this is not how our success and failure will be measured in the Maldives. We will be judged on how we can be a positive force for change, how we get behind civil society and the government as they attempt to deal with these problems. We've already got good tools in place, including a small grants programme aimed at civil society organisations working on the environment, the "Mangroves for the Future" programme that is aimed at one of the Maldives' frailest assets, and our technical support for the government. We want to do more to help, and I hope we'll have the opportunity to do this.

    Andrew Cox
    UN Resident Coordinator

  7. As for me, I will do whatever I can to contribute to this change of lifestyle, but I need a back-up from the government!

    Just conducted a - small but hopefully not insignificant for the kids! - workshop on garbage/coral reefs in Thaajuddeen school and can say that these kids, from Grade 3 to 7, understand the issue very well (and reduced the use of plastic bags by using their own cotton bags, by the way).

    The problem is that neither teachers, nor parents are "living" what the children should learn. A child who's parents throw their Supari packet or tissue or plastic wrapping/bottle (list continues) out of the ferry window is likely to do the same.

    Now that many of us have participated in the beach/reef cleaning events yesterday I want to know: can I seriously ask people not to leave their garbage on the beach behind if I cannot offer them a garbage bin?

    Has anyone noticed that there are (almost) no public garbage bins in the inhabited islands? The previous government has taken them and I urge the present one to restore them. I do not believe that it doesn't work in the Maldives if it works in other countries as well. After the gvt supplies us with garbage bins, we can seriously start working on people's bad attitudes.

    However, garbage is just one of the many topics that we have to seriously face. Degrading reefs due to various natural and anthropogenic stressors have lead to reduced defense for our low-lying islands, and the rate of recovering isn't really stunning!
    Penalties for environmental criminals? - Somewhere between non-existent and ridiculously low.

    Hoping for an environmental movement in the Maldives (just as enthusiastic as the political and religious one!) -

    Verena W.A.
    Marine Biologist

  8. take a bunch of journalists diving or snorkelling. let them see the underwater treasures of this country. then they'll want to protect them - it worked for me.

    while you are at it - can you pay the fisheries ministry to go back to denistry. his genius plan is to allow long-lining, which will wipe out every shark, turtle and bird in the maldives, devastating dive tourism and wrecking the reef ecosystem on which we all depend.

    and this, just after he announces a shark ban! what a joke.

  9. the fisheries minister has to face the implications of his decision to allow long-line fishing in this fragile ecosystem - given that he went against the wishes of many fishermen in the country too. what was his decision based on? the UN should have a good talk with him.

    go back to picking out cavities!


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