The People’s Atoll - Story of the First Biosphere Reserve of the Maldives

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Swimming in Hanifaru Bay - a protect area of the Baa Atoll Biosphere Reserve. Photo: Shaf for AEC Project 2010.

As he gazes out over the crystal blue water these days, Ahmed Fareesh reflects back to times long ago. A time of young dreams that yearned to journey across the expanse of the sea that stretched infinitely before him.  A time of fantasies that reached beyond the waves to the waters where the dolphins played.

He doggedly pursued that passion. It led him to study fisheries science at school, and that in turn would lead him to become the Maldives’ first sea ranger.

Like some coveted jobs, this one too involved good timing and a dash of luck. In 2004, the Atoll Ecosystem Conservation (AEC) project was initiated  to try to conserve the environment in and around the Baa Atoll, supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and financed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF). The ultimate aim was that the project would become a model of conservation for all atolls in the Maldives. 

For Fareesh it was a case of being in the right place at the right time. The project hired him to patrol and monitor the waters all around the Baa Atoll -- declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in June 2011, the first in the Maldives.  While Fareesh now lives his dream, the job isn’t easy.

Highlights

  • AEC project was initiated to try to conserve the environment in and around the Baa Atoll.
  • The aim is for the project to become a model of conservation for all atolls in the Maldives.
  • Human influence over the land and surrounding seas had started to affect people’s wellbeing, environmental health, and biodiversity of the area, threatening island life and the atoll’s ecosystem.
  • Thanks to projects such as AEC, efforts are being made to manage the environment and conserve the atoll’s exceptional marine and coastal biodiversity.

Ranger Fareesh on patrol in the bay. The job can seem idyllic but it is laden with challenges. Photo: MOOINC/UNDP Maldives 2013.

“The biggest challenge is dealing with people who travel and use the area against regulations,” he says. “I try to explain that this is a protected area and that there are procedures for undertaking any activity.”

He must navigate and negotiate skillfully with tourists who often pay a premium to scuba dive and snorkel. He must also contend with local fishermen, many from his own community, who hunt for bait in these waters.

The rise of tourism in the Maldives coupled with restrictions on fishing has led to rising tensions between the two sides. Fishermen feel the AEC's regulations favour tourism and unfairly target fishing. As tourism grows, and boaters and scuba divers invade this patch of the ocean, fishermen feel they’re being squeezed out by swank resorts that pander to rich tourists.

It is fairly routine for Fareesh to encounter a tourist vessel anchored in a prohibited zone. He must explain to tour guides and resort personnel that the bay is a restricted area. Guides require   proper certification, and a license from the Environmental Protection Agency to operate in the area.

It is an exacting process, to try to get tourists and fisherman to follow the rules.  But it is beginning to make a difference.

Baa Atoll was singled out, because of its abundant biodiversity, and because of island communities and businesses committed to lasting growth. With about 5% of global reef area, and 250 species of coral that teem with over 1000 species of fish, the Maldives is rich in biodiversity. That biodiversity forms the bedrock of the economy. The atoll ecosystems sustain livelihoods especially in the fishing and tourism industry.

Social and economic change had begun altering the way people lived on this atoll. Human influence over the land and surrounding seas had started to affect people’s wellbeing, environmental health, and biodiversity of the area, threatening island life and the atoll’s ecosystem.

These days, thanks to projects such as AEC, efforts are being made to manage the environment and conserve the atoll’s exceptional marine and coastal biodiversity. The AEC model has also contributed to shape nationwide policies that will secure and sustain rich biodiversity and ecological processes for the benefit of future generations.

The project’s impact extends beyond the waters of Baa Atoll, onto its islands.


Amira Sulaiman never thought she could become an entrepreneur. Photo: MOOINC/UNDP Maldives 2013.

Not too long ago, Amira Sulaiman’s days were consumed by housework. These days she can be found deep in concentration as she works on making traditional medicines.

In the small hut where she works, subtle aromas of coconut, Indian-mallow and clove waft through the air.  She adjusts her burqa as she reaches out to scoop a spoonful of hilibeys – a pungent concoction of rice, coconut, and exotic spices dried and ground into a fine, dark paste.

“This will make the backache more bearable,” she tells the middle-aged woman lying on a wooden divan inside the hut. The woman recently gave birth to a baby boy.

Amira is a practitioner of traditional medicine, an indigenous skill passed down through generations. She grinds together special ointments for massages that help ease pains. Recently, she banded with a group of women on her island Kendhoo, part of the Baa Atoll in the Maldives, to produce a range of herbal remedies. The herbal medicines – that are said to provide relief from a host of ailments including gastric problems, high blood pressure and after birth complications – are sold to nearby islands and atolls.

A dedicated homemaker, Amira never imagined being an entrepreneur.  But her life changed after she was awarded a grant to start up a small business by the AEC project. 

For people like Amira jobs that involved thatch roofs from dried palms were no longer a viable way of making money. But AEC grants are changing work that was long seen as unprofitable. Traditional jobs, such as brewing herbal medicines and tapping toddy from palm trees, now provide stable income to the community. “It has shown us new perspectives, and the training they (AEC personnel) conducted has given us unique business ideas,” she says.
The AEC project has led numerous small businesses that are active on the Baa Atoll and are responsible for spinning of other businesses.

UNDP was a key partner in the project, playing the role of facilitator, supervising progress; managing funds and ensuring political and other forms of risks were handled. UNDP also supported to finance alternative sustainable livelihoods strategies, to provide relief of livelihood-related pressure on biodiversity in the atoll and islands.
The success of the AEC model, biodiversity conservation is also being considered in national planning processes. Following the success of the reserve formed in Baa Atoll, the president of the Maldives has pledged that the entire country will be made a sustainable biosphere reserve, and declared plans to implement the reserve plan on more than half of the islands by 2017.


fascinating underwater sights of Baa Atoll. Photo: Azim Mustaq/ Baa Atoll Biosphere Reserve Maldives 2010.

“Baa Atoll was a simple and poor atoll,” says Abdul Razzaq Mohamed, the retired Chief of Baa Atoll. “It is the people who made the atoll what it is today.” Eydhafushi Island is famous for textile making and weaving. Thulhaadhoo Island is noted for fishing, and organic lacquer work souvenirs. The women of Kiyaadhoo Island are renowned for their rope making skills, which they spin from dried coconut husk. The rope is still used in constructing traditional homes. 

These artisans of Baa Atoll used to rely on local raw materials, says the Chief. The AEC project helped revive these Maldivian traditions that had fallen by the wayside. Maldivians have been coexisting with the environment for centuries, and we are once again beginning to take heed of it, he says, and realizing the importance of conserving nature. “If we don’t protect the environment that surrounds us, what is left to save us?”