As the Maldives moves ahead with plans to transform itself into the world’s largest marine reserve by 2017, the country’s first Marine National Park (MNP) in Noonu Atoll has yet to receive land the government agreed would be set aside for the project back in 2011.
The Edu Faru MNP was established during the previous government through a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Environment Ministry back in 2011 in order to protect nine islets in Noonu Atoll that would be kept in a “pristine” state and undeveloped for future research.
However, almost two years since the Maldives agreed to establish the MNP and a non-profit foundation to run the site, a private partner on the project has raised concerns that both the present and former administrations were yet to move ahead on the MNP.
Mohamed Hameed, Promoter of the non-profit Edu Faru MNP project, has said that despite receiving vocal support of both President Dr Mohamed Waheed and former President Mohamed Nasheed, both their administrations has so far failed to approve vital paperwork on the project.
Hameed, who conceived the MNP based around international models of marine reserves such as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef or the Kosterhavet National Park in Sweden, said he had continued to struggle to obtain approval for the foundation charged with running the park.
“[The] government is a major stakeholder in the foundation that will run the Marine National Park (MNP) as a non-profit organisation… but it is yet to approve the Memorandum and Articles of Association of the foundation. The foundation has not been registered,” he explained.
“Following the registration of the foundation, government is to hand over the entire site of the MNP, including its surrounding waters, to the foundation under an agreement.”
Hameed said that although the present and former governments had received all the required paperwork and files, he did not believe that any decision or progress would be made on approving the foundation to run the MNP before the presidential election scheduled for September this year.
By the end of the current year, the management of the MNP, which presently works on a voluntary basis, has targeted reaching an agreement with the state on the park’s boundaries. Under guidelines set by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the park requires an area of land of at least 1,000 hectares.
With these boundaries in place, the MNP’s management has said it will then aim to secure grants from groups like the world bank as well as international donors, NGOs and the country’s tourism ministry to try and establish research centres and an underwater observatory for both the public and scientists to study at.
Aside from the opportunities for research, Hameed said that strictly regulated fishing and tourism expeditions would also be allowed in the area, although travel in the park would have to be conducted on non-motorised, traditional dhoni vessels.
Money raised through these ventures would be used to help run the park and provide research and training programmes.
Despite the restrictions on the use of the proposed MNP site, Hameed said both the public and Noonu Atoll Council had lent support to the project.
He added that while there was a local understanding of the need for national conservation through projects like the MNP, it remained important to educate and create awareness among the public, as well as the international community about the sensitive nature of the Maldives environment.
Hameed therefore said he welcomed the government’s wider commitments in trying to transform the Maldives into a national biosphere reserve.
Despite welcoming the idea of the project, Hameed has expressed some reservations about the state’s ability to plan and execute such an ambitious conservation strategy. He raised particular concerns about what he claims was the lack of a holistic legal framework outlining environmental protection in the nation.
A number of stakeholders working in the environmental sector last month expressed concern about a perceived lack of enforcement and legislative framework to protect biodiversity and conservation areas nationally.
Ali Rilwan, Executive Director for local NGO BluePeace, claimed at the time that a lack of national enforcement mechanisms continued to setback and limit the effectiveness of national parks and biosphere projects in the country.
He claimed that without such regulation, marine reserves and other conservation zones currently established in the country were operating more as “paper parks” than designated protected areas.
State conservation commitments
The Environment Ministry earlier in June announced the formation of an Environmental Police Unit that would see 22 trained officers with the aim of investigating and punish violations of laws relating to biodiversity and littering.
As well as establishing the Environmental Police Unit, the ministry has continued to call for expressions of interest from atolls wishing to be part of its national marine reserve transformation plan set for 2017.
Muhusina Abdul Rahman, an analyst for the Ministry of Environment and Energy, told Minivan News that authorities were seeking 10 atolls to be unveiled in 2017 as being part of its national marine reserve.
Within each of these ten atolls, the government has pledged to designate three different types of zones that would be exclusively separated into conservation, buffers areas and “transition” land free to be developed for industrial and other commercial purposes.
Rahman said that the ministry was now moving ahead with feasibility studies in the nominated atolls to see conduct a detailed assessment of communities best suited to being included in the reserve.
She claimed that the ministry hoped to identify the first two atolls that will make up the national biosphere reserve by year end, but said these areas would not be unveiled until all ten were officially announced in 2017.
Rahman mantained that the Edu Faru MNP would compliment the state’s biosphere reserve scheme along aside other high-profile conservation areas such as Baa Atoll, which was designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve in 2011.
One resort general manager based in Baa Atoll said earlier this year that the despite the area being classified as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, there had been no changes on its operations, despite claims from authorities about the significant marketing potential.
“There are a lot of conservation organisations here with opinions on how to manage the site, but it’s taking a long time to reach agreements. I have myself expressed concerns that it is taking too long to devise how the areas should be used,” the resort head said back in January.