Maldives: Preserving biodiversity while starting businesses

woman in the Maldives
Amira Sulaiman, an entrepreneur helped through a program to preserve the Maldives' biodiversity while promoting traditional ways of life. (Photo: MOOINC/UNDP Maldives)

Not long ago, Amira Sulaiman’s days were consumed by housework. These days she can be found deep in concentration making traditional medicines, grinding together special ointments for massages and pain relief.


  • The Atoll Ecosystem Conservation project is distributing grants that help traditional jobs, dependent on the environment, to be both profitable and sustainable.
  • Following the success of UNESCO Biosphere Reserve formed in Baa Atoll in 2011, the president of the Maldives declared plans to implement the reserve plan on more than half of the islands by 2017.
  • The project was financed with a US$ 2.73 million grant from the Global Environment Facility, and with US$1.31 million in co-finance from the Government and other partners.

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 a middle-aged woman who recently gave birth to a baby boy.

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

The AEC project, supported by UNDP and financed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), was initiated to conserve the environment in and around the Baa Atoll, a group of islands in the Maldives with rich biodeversity. The ultimate aim was that the project would become a model of conservation for all atolls in the Maldives.

Projects such as the AEC 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.

Recently, Amira joined a group of women on her island of Kendhoo, part of the Baa Atoll, to produce a range of herbal remedies sold to nearby islands and atolls.

AEC grants are changing work that has long been 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 helped develop numerous small businesses active on the Baa Atoll, some of which have led to spin-off businesses.

Thanks to the success of the AEC model, biodiversity conservation is also being considered in national planning processes. Following an extensive consultation with stakeholders and communities by the project team, the entirety of Baa Atoll was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in June 2011. In the wake of this international designation, the President of the Maldives pledged to extend the concept of the Biosphere Reserve to the entire country, which would make the Maldives the first country in the world to be fully included under a Biosphere Reserve.

“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, while Thulhaadhoo Island is noted for fishing and organic lacquer souvenirs. The women of Kiyaadhoo Island are renowned for their skills in making rope, 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, and the AEC project revived these Maldivian traditions that had fallen by the wayside.

Maldivians have been coexisting with the environment for centuries, he says, and are once again beginning to take heed of it and realize the importance of conserving nature.

“If we don’t protect the environment that surrounds us, what is left to save us?”