Cabinet to reclaim 10 islands for tourism development in Male’ atoll

Cabinet has decided to reclaim and develop 10 islands in various lagoons in Male’ atoll, in an effort to cater to interest from investors and developers for tourist facilities near Male.

“Cabinet members also noted that the opportunities available to reclaim and develop islands using environmentally friendly technologies,” the President’s office observed in a statement.

The 10 islands consist of 5-10 hectares each in Male’ atoll, although the final size and shape of the islands will be left to investors.

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Fear and acclimatisation in Fares-Maathoda

In the first part of a special report from the island of Fares-Maathoda, Minivan News looks at the challenges for communities developing beyond Male’s glance as they attempt to switch to decentralised governance and overcome their natural vulnerabilities.

If the rate of development in the Maldives could be measured in the availability of Lavazza-branded espresso, then the conjoined islands of Fares-Maathoda in the Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll, while offering a very warm welcome, remain an instant coffee type-of-place.

With its sparsely populated community estimated at about 1000 people, the island is dense with jungle vegetation that rests alongside inhabited and incomplete homes, while crabs on the beach nestle between piles of coconut husk, used food wrapping and milk cartons amidst views of an apparently endless blue horizon.

The relatively unique geography of the islands could be said to reflect a wealth of challenges facing the wider country regarding waste management, coastal protection and economic development.

Since being formed back in the 1990’s via reclaimed land over a shallow passage of water linking the two islands in an attempt to create a small craft harbour for its residents, the UN has cited concerns from Fares-Maathoda’s residents that flooding has been made worse and far more frequent as a result.

While the islands may not specifically serve as a microcosm for the nation’s delicate beauty and democratic reform process, UN Resident Coordinator Andrew Cox said he believed that Fares-Maathoda was very typical in reflecting the Maldives’ vulnerability to natural elements as well as the development needs of its people.

“This counts as a vulnerable island; vulnerable economically and all the other issues that come along with that,” he said. “People make their money off fishing here and there are not a lot of other options or a strong tourism industry in the area. So you don’t get people earning money and bringing income in that way. One of the things that research shows is that islands or communities do very well if their livelihoods are good and if they are well organised.”

Since coming to power, President Mohamed Nasheed has garnered huge international coverage, as well as foreign accolades for his attempts in trying to champion the Maldives as a small nation working towards becoming a fully sustainable economy. Yet at island level, how are these commitments being seen?

Cox added that the time had perhaps come for government to be more inward looking by opening up national debate and understanding of what climate change could mean for the Maldives on an everyday basis.

“The president has been exceptional at selling climate change issues to the world. Yet I think the Maldives will benefit at every level through a basic of understanding what [climate change] is going to mean for the country and how it is that decisions are going to be made in the future about what are the best chances for economic growth. Where is it that people are going to be living? How are they going to be living?” he said. “All these things I think could be and must be fleshed out. I think it could be a very interesting national dialogue to have. There has been a certain amount already, but this about the future in the Maldives.”

Cox himself, along with representatives from the Ministry of Finance and Treasury, the Ministry of Housing and Environment, the National Office and the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) visited Fares-Maathoda on April 12 to meet with local councilors, and outline how Danish donor aid for funding climate change adaptation would be allocated on the island.

The allocated funding, which totals 5 million Danish Krone (Rf12 million) will be put into a scheme to support a wider number of future development projects targeted at offsetting the potential impacts on the country from climate change and rising sea levels. On Fares-Mathooda, some of the funds are being set aside for drainage and waste management projects.

Beyond president Nasheed’s international sustainability pledges, positioned on the other side of the country, and indeed the political spectrum, Fares-Mathooda, which elected five councillors into power from the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) in February’s local council elections, claims to have a great need for assistance in reducing its vulnerability to the sea and the elements.

Speaking to Minivan News, councillor Hussain Rasheed claimed that aside from the long-term threats of rising seas and freak natural disasters such as the 2004 Asian Tsunami, seasonal occurrences such as high tides were proving to be problematic for the island’s development.

The low-lying nature of the island had meant that storms and tidal swells were major problems for residents on the Fares side of the island, whom had in the past been forced to vacate to the Mathooda side for safety in certain circumstances.

“This is a very big problem, for instance, many people suffered psychologically when there was a tidal wave, and with many people affected, we needed a lot of assistance to relieve this suffering,” he said.

An engineer present at the meeting, as one of the bidders hoping to work on the climate change adaption projects for Fares-Mathooda, claimed that the low-lying geography of the island meant that waves of even a metre in height posed a huge flooding risk. The engineer added that the problem was made worse by the reclaimed land between the two formerly separate islands that had since been combined physically and administratively, limiting natural drainage options for water building up on the land.

In trying to address these concerns, Andrew Cox said that it was vital to focus on the specific vulnerabilities facing a community, island or an entire atoll in the case of the Maldives, rather than solely looking at large scale energy investments in a bid to provide national solutions to environmental and coastal management.

“What is it that people need? That is the bottom line,” he said. “People have been talking about climate change for a long-time, but it has been mostly focused around international negotiations to try and reverse carbon into the atmosphere. But so far there has not been an international deal,” he said.

Cox added that this failure for international agreement still hadn’t dampened interest from politicians, donors and NGOs in being seen to be “doing something” about climate change around the world.

“The big question that I think the Maldives can answer about climate adaption is, how do you do that? In real life what do these changes mean?” he asked.

According to Cox, like almost every other nation in the world, the Maldives does not have any large-scale examples of climate change programmes, but rather a great deal of smaller pilot projects designed to try and limit potential vulnerability to environmental changes. This he said, was often seen in a variety of areas such as water or waste management.

The UN representative said these smaller projects might be present on a number of islands in the form of different waste management projects that resulted in various levels of success.

“The central concept that we need to talk about and agree, is what happens when you bring all these things related to climate change together in one place? How do you make a material change in the vulnerability of one atoll?” he asked. “Even an atoll is too small, because the Maldives doesn’t have that much time, but you have to start somewhere. You take an atoll and see what it needs as a whole to get from point X on the vulnerability scale to point Y, which is hopefully above the minimum level of security.”

Just as important though, according to the UN Representative, would be the country’s attempts to overcome poverty through economic development measures, reducing a country’s vulnerability beyond investing in infrastructure alone.

“This is a concept that makes a lot of sense, but it hasn’t been done. The exciting thing for the Maldives is if you can go down that path, you can show donors the way. This will hopefully benefit the Maldives as well as international projects as well,” he said.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean all the answers will be here, but a lot of them might be.”

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Average Maldivian citizen has 4.7 years of education, finds UN Human Development Report

Education in the Maldives is generally behind regional neighbours such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, despite an 18 percent increase in the average number of years spent at school between 1990 and 2010.

The average Maldivian citizen had 4.7 years of schooling in 2010, compared with 3.9 years in 2005, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP’s) 2010 Human Development Report. This was almost a third of the country’s ‘expected level of schooling’ of 12.4 years.

Despite the recent improvement, the Maldives remains behind Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in terms of average schooling, which were ranked at 4.8 and 8.2 years respectively. UK and US students spend on average 9.5 and 12.4 years of their lives in education by comparison, according to the report’s findings.

The overall findings compiled by UNDP painted a mixed picture for human development in the Maldives, with a comparatively high life expectancy of 72.3 contrasting with concerns over education and gender equality in the country.

For 2010, the Maldives was ranked 107 out of 160 nations under the UNDP’s Human Development Index (HDI), which is used to measure long-term national achievements in providing citizens with “a long and healthy life, access to knowledge and a decent standard of life.” The Maldives has climbed four places since 2005.

Speaking at the launch of the report, Vice President Dr Mohamed Waheed said that failure to the current failure obtain parliamentary approval for cabinet members would not be a long term setback to the country’s development aspirations though.

“Development and democracy goals are generally accepted by all parties, but clearly there are difficulties,” he said. “I don’t believe the [cabinet controversy] will seriously affect the long-term human development objectives of this or a future government.”

Despite praising an increase in average life expectancy of six years in the last decade, Dr Waheed raised concerns over inequality across the nation’s atolls, particularly among women in terms of both education and politics.

“Women are not contesting in elections as much as we had hoped,” he said. “We hope February’s council elections will see much higher numbers [of female candidates].”

Dr Waheed claimed that in areas such as poverty reduction, the Maldives was doing “quite well”, though he added that economic recession in the last few years had been a setback to these goals.

UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative Andrew Cox said he agreed with the Vice President’s view of the report. Cox added that the latest UNDP figures showed the Maldives’ HDI was generally above the regional average for South Asia.

Report Findings

Posting an average life expectancy rate of 72.3 years of age, the Maldives was found to be ahead of other nearby nations such as Bangladesh (66.9 years) and Thailand (69.3 years), though behind Sri Lanka (74.4 years). Western nations like the UK and the US recorded average life expectancy rates of 79.8 and 79.6 years of age respectively.

In the area of gender equality, the report used a new index system that looked at a number of specific factors such as reproductive health, the gender share of parliamentary seats and educational achievements and economic activity to identify the possible disadvantages to women in a nation.

Using this Gender Inequality Index (GII), the Maldives was ranked 58 out of 138 countries based on data supplied from 2008. By comparison, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh were ranked 72 and 116 respectively under the same conditions.

In terms of education, 31 per cent of Maldivian females had obtained a secondary or higher level of education as opposed to 37 percent of Maldivian men. In addition, female participation in the labour market was found to stand at 58 percent, compared to 77 percent among males. Unemployment was 14.4 percent.

The report found that 23.5 of every 100 citizens had access to the internet.

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Government ‘speeding up’ island development projects: President Nasheed

Island projects including provision of utilities services like water and electricity, establishing sewerage systems, and roads construction projects, are being hastened by public-private partnerships, said President Nasheed in his weekly radio address.

The President launched three major development projects in Kulhudhuffushi on Thursday including roads, housing and water supply projects.

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50 acre business development at Hulhule: GMR

A 50 acre business centre is proposed for Hulhule, north of the present Male International Airport, reports Haveeru.

“Our idea is to make that land a business centre of the Maldives. It was proposed based on our experience and the recommendations of US experts. If the government and the public want it, we are ready to do it,” said P Sripathy, CEO of GMR Hyderabad International Airport Limited.

There are many business opportunities in that area, he said. “For instance, people would be surprised if we say it is a mini transhipment hub. Many international flights, including large aircraft, land there. So cargo is being transited through Maldives from Colombo and other places. There are noticeable aspects there. The place holds value.”

The new terminal would be constructed north of the runway, according to Sripathy. “First phase of the new terminal will commence on a 45,000 square-metre area of land. The number of aircraft that can use the terminal per hour will increase once the runway is developed and the parking and taxi areas are expanded,” he added.

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Transparency Maldives granted Rf1m to assess financing of political parties

Local NGO Transparency Maldives has received a grant of almost one million rufiya (GBP£50,000) from the British High Commission in Colombo for a project investigating the financing of political parties in the Maldives.

The grant was given through the UK government’s Strategic Programme Fund (SPF) in a bid to promote “greater transparency and accountability in political processes and increased general understanding of democracy and democratic principles in the Maldives.”

Project Coordinator Thoriq Hamid told Minivan News that experts from Transparency International would be training the local NGO in the same tool and methodology that had been “very successful” in assessing the financing of political parties in Latin America and Pakistan.

TM would be cooperating with the Elections Commission (EC) during the one year project, Thoriq said, and reviewing the specific laws and regulations of political party financing relevant to the Maldives.

Thoriq said he believed political parties would willingly open their books to the NGO.

“We are counting on our reputation – we have a good relationship with most political parties in the country,” Thoriq said.

“The tool itself tracks accountability, so an obvious lack of cooperation would reflect a lack of transparency,” he explained.

Transparency International considers corruption to be a major obstacle to development in growing economies. The organisation’s Global Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), which ranks countries according to the degree to which corruption is perceived to exist among public officials and politicians, listed Maldives 130th in 2009, equal with Mozambique and Nigeria.

The country’s CPI declined to 2.5 from 2.8 in 2008 and 3.3 in 2007, indicating a worsening perception of corruption.

Transparency Maldives describes itself as a “non-political organisation that promotes collaboration, awareness, and other initiatives to improve governance and eliminate corruption from the daily lives of people.”

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Short tempers over long lining

One of the most influential and pioneering shark and marine conservation organisations, Bite Back, has said a UK boycott of long line tuna from the Maldives is a real possibility unless the Maldivian government disallows long line fishing in Maldivian waters.

Bite Back, which works to promote sustainable fishing and halt the trade and consumption of vulnerable fish species to protect ocean habitats, has expressed alarm at the proposed long line fishing in Maldives.

Graham Buckingham, campaign director of Bite Back, says that seafood is a hot ecological topic, with consumers demanding that fish are caught sustainably and with the minimum of by-catch.

“As such, a UK boycott on long line-caught tuna from the Maldives is a real possibility that, of course, could be avoided by the government outlawing longline fishing in Maldivian waters in the first place,” he said.

Marks & Spencer, a global retail giant, and one of the major buyers of Maldivian tuna, announced last year it would no longer buy tuna that is not caught by pole and line.

Talking to the press last year, an M&S spokeswoman said: “As all of our food is own-brand, it means there will be absolutely no products in our stores that use tuna which isn’t pole or line caught.”

Minivan News has learnt that M&S buyers visited the Maldives recently and held talks with local environmentalists to ensure that all tuna in the Maldives were caught using pole and line.

The dilemma

The steady decline in fish catch has lead the Maldivian government in proposing long line as an alternative method of fishing alongside the more traditional and environmentally friendly pole and line.

President Mohamed Nasheed in his opening address to the Majlis appealed to fishermen to find new methods of fishing saying “Those massive fishing vessels that we built yesterday, that are now anchored in the lagoons as they are not suitable for pole and line fishing, are causing us immense loss.”

Nasheed went on to say that it’s not feasible to burn fuel and engage in pole and line fishing in big vessels, and experts had advised him it would be more profitable to use those vessels for group long-line fishing.

The Ministry of Fisheries is now poised to provide financial and technical support to fishermen to adopt this new method. The president urged the fishermen “to take to the seas again.”

The president also announced that licenses for foreign boats that had been catching fish using long line and net in the Maldives would be cancelled in April and Maldivian boats would take their place.

Ibrahim Manik, chairman of the fishermen’s union says “around 80 per cent of fishermen are against this new method, but the dire situation means there will be those who will adopt this.”

He says at least Maldivian fishermen will be more careful about the ecological impact.

“Even now our fishermen will release any sharks they catch by mistake, so if our people do long lining they will be more careful.”

Interestingly enough in 2008 the same union sent a letter urging the then fisheries minister to stop boats using long line methods in Maldives waters on ecological grounds.

“Even now we are saying don’t give permission for long lining, but on the other hand the fact that fishermen can’t make ends meet anymore means that there will be those who will do this for the money.

He admits that longline has negative effects on dolphin and sharks and says readily that ‘the reputation we had built over the years will be destroyed.”

Organisations like Green Peace which had urged last year for people to buy Maldivian fish would no longer be doing that, says Ibrahim.

“Money is the big factor here. A fishing boat used to earn around 10,000 Rf to 20,000 Rf per trip before, and now we have exporters also who are encouraging this.”

But even private exporters like Big Fish are worried. The company’s director Ali Riza says “long line is completely contradictory to how we fish now; Maldives Seafood Processor and Exporters Association (MSPEA) are even now debating the pros and cons of it.”

According to Ali, UK supermarkets are supposed to have certified sustainable products on their shelf in the year 2010, and this complicates everything.

“Europe is our biggest market right now and we are even now planning to participate and promote our product as one caught by sustainable fisheries in the biggest fish export fair in Belgium this year.

However he says the fact that ‘a lot of companies are now on the verge of bankruptcy’, which is also cause for concern.

No concessions

Ali says right now one can only hypothize about how European consumers will react but says he finds all the talk a bit hypocritical also.

“it’s not us that overfished the waters, but now that it’s done, we are being told not to do what western countries had been doing.”

And like Ibrahim who evoked the idea of foreign boats doing long lining, Ali says “we obviously can’t seal off our waters – fish are migratory. If we don’t do it others will overfish around us, so we might as well be the ones doing it.”

He expresses hope that there will be minimal negative impact, as they are not targeting sharks and other species, and says there will not be a “significant amount” of by-catch.

Activists like Graham say long lining causes the unintentional death of 80,000 turtles a year along with countless sharks, dolphins, sailfish and seabirds worldwide, calling it one of the most indiscriminate methods of fishing.

Major exporters like MIFCO who last year exported 115,580 cases of canned tuna, 21,008 tons of frozen tuna and 312 tons of fresh yellow fin seem to think that the shift in fishing methods would not cause a major problem.

“We will also apply for long line license when they start giving it,” says Ali Faiz, Managing director of MIFCO. He says as the customers are different for long line and canned tuna, it would not have much of an impact.

“With long lining we mostly export raw fish.”

He also scoffs at the environmental concerns, saying a lot of the time environmentalists are controlled by big businesses. “All these days’ foreign boats were doing it, and having an advantage over us. Now it will be more difficult for boats to come here and steal from us.”

He is confident that there will always be buyers for Maldivian fish.

Ali says those who support the environment friendly method of fishing in Maldives, do not give any incentive for it to be continued. “We have an entire country that is fishing with pole and line, but do we get any special concessions, any benefits because we do it?”

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President Nasheed speaks of development and politics in Noonu Atoll

President Mohamed Nasheed has said political rivalry in the islands should not impede their development.

Speaking at Noonu Manadhoo, in the final leg of his visit of the northern atolls, President Nasheed urged all parties to communicate in situations of disputes and disagreements.

He said the government would consider public opinion before implementing all its policies.

He spoke on the measures to be taken in improving the education system. He said school boards were formed in most of the schools and they were given considerable authority in the management of the schools.

The president noted the connection between educating the youth and the future development of the country.

President Nasheed also mentioned the transportation and housing projects being set up for Noonu Atoll.

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Lease to conserve?

Blessed with an abundance of natural beauty, Gnaviyani atoll Fuvamulah is also geographically unique; an atoll and an island at the same time.

One of the major attractions of the island are the two kulhi (freshwater lakes). The smaller Dhandigamu Kulhi is often used by the locals to go swimming, but Bandara Kulhi has fared worse, degrading to such an extent that few now venture near it.

“It’s almost a garbage site now, a dump site. There’s is no one to look after the place,” says Hassan Saeed, the atoll councillor.

Nevertheless Bandara Kulhi remains one of the most serene and beautiful locations on the island. Stretching across 274 meters, access to it is via marshlands and narrow paths near taro fields.

Islanders used a built a jetty off the main road seven years ago to gain access to it, however neglect has caused it to crumble to the point of being unsafe.

A novel idea

Locals enjoying
Locals enjoying

In order to reverse the damage and reopen the kulhi, a novel but controversial idea has been floated.

“We recently had [a visit from] a survey team from the ministry of fisheries and agriculture, and the report they submitted advised us that a way to generate the budget to take care of the kulhi could be to commercially commodify it,” Saeed says.

Details are sketchy: “We are just sending out feelers right now, we will consult with the agricultural ministry as well as the environmental ministry, find out which criteria we have to set, and then invite proposals,” he says.

Leasing out the land for farming or a restaurant are some of the ideas. The party who winning the lease would be entrusted the task of making sure no waste is dumped in the wetland in the area, while the money would be used to protect and maintain the kulhi.

Some are apprehensive about the idea.

“We heard about this but I’m not sure how far they have gone with the idea,” says Abdul Azeez Ismail, chairman of NGO Fuvamulah Association of Developing Infrastructure (FADI) and a member of the society for environmental awareness.

Ismail is of the opinion that leasing the land to just anybody will lead to further destruction of the place. He has reservations about opening the area to just local tourism and believes a resort should be involved

“South province state minister Mohamed Naseer once mentioned it. There are resorts in Addu and Huvadhoo Atoll, so opening it to international tourists shouldn’t be a problem,” he says, adding that mostly it is only resorts that have the capacity to care and protect the environment.

“Fuvamulah is different to other islands. So much can be done here, and the kulhi is a gift to us from nature so we have to conserve it,” he says.

Bandara Kulhi (freshwater lake): a rare sight in the tiny islands of the Maldives
Bandara Kulhi (freshwater lake): a rare sight in the tiny islands of the Maldives

Beneficial or destructive?

Islander Hassan Mohamed, 68, says “better to lease out if it could be beneficial to the islanders.”

He recalls that in the past during the governments of Mohamed Amin and Ibrahim Nasir, the kulhi was leased out: “It was well maintained at that time. There were banana plantations nearby, weeds were cut, and surroundings were kept clean.”

During Amin Didi’s time coconut husks were lowered into the kulhi, after which it was used to make choir ropes that were sold. In Nasir’s time the leasee cultivated milkfish and whenever fish was scarce they sold it to the general populace.

“In recent years nothing has been done and the place is being destroyed,” Hassan says.

Most islanders seem to agree with him.

“If done properly leasing out the kulhi area would be good,” says 32 year-old Masitha Ahmed.

Executive director of NGO Blue Peace, Ali Rilwan, says everything depends on how much the place will be altered if it were leased.

“How much mangrove will be cut? Will it be only the bank of the kulhi that is going to be leased?” he asks.

Internationally Rilwan claims it is the norm to conserve some areas as strict nature reserves, while others are regulated to ensure nature and human activities can co-exist.

“There are nature parks that are leased to private parties to protect,” he explains. However he reserves his final judgment for “when we see an environmental assessment report. Then we can talk about the merits or demerits.”

Saeed sums the argument for leasing the area. “Is it better to let the area get destroyed? Or commodify the place in order to look after it responsibly?”

Photos by Ahmed Thaumeen.

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