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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