Tourism boost from Baa Atoll’s UNESCO status a management challenge

The designation of Baa Atoll as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve is a significant achievement for the Maldives but makes proper management all the more imperative, government organisations and environmental NGOs have said.

Baa Atoll was last month added to the UN body’s global list of biosphere reserves, placing it in the company of world famous sites such as the Komodo in Indonesia, Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) in Australia and the Galapagos Islands.

The listing recognises “where local communities are actively involved in governance and management, research, education, training and monitoring at the service of both socio-economic development and biodiversity conservation,” UNESCO said in a statement.

It has also prompted a surge of tourism interest in Baa Atoll, requiring local bodies to balance the impact and sustainability objectives of the biosphere with the new income.

Director of the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) Ibrahim Naeem said it took five years of lobbying for Baa Atoll to become the first globally recognised biosphere in the Maldives.

“The whole atoll has been zoned into three categories, limiting activities conducted there,” he explained.

‘Core areas’ account for 10 percent of the atoll with no extraction activities permitted – “look and see only”, Naeem explained. Buffer areas limit some activities while transitional areas allow most activities if conducted in a sustainable fashion.

Exceptionally unique areas, such as Hanifaru Bay, have a management plan to limit access, Naeem explained: “We allow resorts and safari boats to visit Hanifaru Bay on alternate days to avoid conflicts,” he said, adding that the EPA had appointed a ranger to monitor vessels in the area and was training several more to cover the rest of the atoll.

At the beginning of the process many locals expressed reluctance about the atoll being designated a biosphere, fearing that their traditional fishing areas would be restricted, he acknowledged.

That concern still exists, says Ahmed Ikram, Director of Environmental NGO Bluepeace.

“Local divers and other groups are concerned that these places will become so protected and so exclusive that locals will be unable to access them,” he said. “We have started to hear concerns that these sites will be cordoned off to the public, with access controlled by resorts and limited access for independent dive companies and safaris.”

Local people needed to be trained as rangers, guides and attendants, and NGOs, island womens’ committees and fishermen needed to be involved in decision-making, Ikram said.

“The EPA has handed the management to the Baa Atoll council, but without any capacity building,” he claimed, while resorts sponsored “greenwashing” campaigns to fulfill their corporate social responsibility objectives, protecting their house reefs and excluding local communities.

“The reefs around resorts are some of the most protected in the Maldives. Why are the house reefs of local islands not being protected too?” Ikram asked.

In some cases tourism authorities had failed to take into account traditional bait fishing grounds when leasing islands for resort development.

“If they fall in the vicinity [of the resort] the fishermen will still go there to fish, as they have done so for thousands of years – it would quickly become a national issue if they were stopped,” he said, adding that climate change had also affected many of these areas forcing fishermen to harvest bait elsewhere.

“Already in some areas climate change has meant that fishermen are having to dive 40 metres to get bait,” Ikram said. “We need to remember than man is part of the ecosystem.”

Deputy Environment Minister Mohamed Shareef told Minivan News that the Baa Atoll management scheme would include the creation of revenue mechanism for the community whereby, for example, “one dollar from each dive goes to fund the needs of the local community.”

The management process, he said, was participatory, and for the locals, “absolutely nothing has changed. Local fishing practices and the manner of living is very sustainable, from knowledge generated over many years.”

Baa Atoll is home to 12,000 people distributed across 13 populated islands and six resorts. The atoll is one of the most biodiverse in the Maldives with high concentrations of manta rays, whale sharks and turtles, and a number of species of coral and sea slugs unique to the area.