Bluepeace cautious over government’s Baa Atoll preservation plans

Local environmental NGO Bluepeace has said government action to establish and extend several protected ecological preserves in Baa Atoll is an “encouraging development”, despite its concerns about the efficiency of collaboration between different ministerial branches over eco-protection.

Ali Rilwan from Bluepeace said that he supported the government’s action in regard to environmental protection across the southerly atoll, yet insisted the measures were more of a “first step” towards a comprehensive national preservation system rather than a finalised commitment to conservation.

The comments were made as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced yesterday that it had signed a declaration with the Ministry of Housing and Environment to protect several different habitats within Baa Atoll in honour of World Environment Day.

Protected areas in the atoll, which has been described by Environment Minister Mohamed Aslam as having one of the country’s most diverse eco-systems, will now include Maahuruvalhi Faru and the islands of Bathalaahura and Gaaganduhura along with their house reefs, as well as the island of Goidhoo and its swamp land.

Previously protected areas in the atoll, including Dhigalihaa and the island of Hanifaru along with its adjoining bay – already popular spots for divers trying to see whale sharks – were also extended to become larger preserves.

The Environment Ministry also yesterday expressed interest in working with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to additionally register the atoll as a biosphere reserve to further protect indigenous wildlife and plant life.

Taking the example of previous declarations of protected eco-systems back in 2009, Rilwan said he remained concerned about the wider effectiveness of implementing and maintaining preserves in the Maldives.

He alleged that government bodies such as the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture had previously allowed timber permits for logging in certain protected areas, even after protected zones had been established.

Rilwan claimed that in order for the government to provide an efficient national strategy for environmental protection, various ministerial bodies dealing with the environment, agriculture and trade all needed stronger methods for collaboration.

“We’re not seeing the agriculture ministry work directly with the country’s trade ministry.  Each one seems to exist like they are their own government,” he claimed.  “We don’t see any national collaboration between [the different ministries].

Rilwan said that he believed this lack of collaboration had led to confusion and occasional contradiction in policies between individual ministries in regards to protecting a specific area or species.

“For instance, you have species such as turtles and whale sharks being the responsibility of the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture, while the places they inhabit are being dealt with by the Environment Ministry,” he said.

Rilwan claimed that this confusion had been seen to cause problems in the past such as imposing a ban on shark hunting last year.

While some ministries had at the time been working on schemes to offer compensation to fishermen affected by the ban, Rilwan alleged other agencies such the country’s customs authorities were not always doing enough to ensure products derived from shark were not finding their way out of the country.

Spokesperson for the President’s Office, Mohamed Zuhair, was not responding to calls at time of press.

In terms of possible future work with groups like UNESCO in outlining protected zones in Baa Atoll, Rilwan said he believed that the environmentally protected designations imposed on the area would also allow for a increased research into the region’s habitats.

“We do not have a lot of research on these areas commonly available for local people.  Hopefully this protection will hope create awareness about the areas and their inhabitants such as plant life and fungus,” he said.