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4. Gender Dimensions in Bio-resource Management

Moving from biodiversity conservation based on the designation of protected areas, towards a system of participatory biodiversity management necessitates consideration of factors related to the sustainable use, and equitable sharing, of the benefits of conservation. This paradigm shift is the goal of the Global Convention on Biodiversity. Adequate knowledge and understanding of community-based practices of natural resource utilisation and conservation are essential in this regard. An understanding of the indigenous technologies used by communities can be used not only to strengthen resource management, but also to enhance the equitable sharing of the benefits of natural resource conservation.

In an attempt to increase understanding about community-based natural resource use and management in the Maldives, the following sections explore community and family-based methods that exist in the use and management of natural resources. In particular, they seek to highlight gender roles and dimensions operating within these practices.

4.1 Land Ownership and Management

Land use patterns on the inhabited islands of the Maldives are mapped by the respective Island Committees. Some areas are designated for agricultural production, while others are demarcated for the production of timber or fuel wood (Figure 4 illustrates land use patterns on the Island of Kela). Land ownership in the Maldives can be dived into three categories: house plots owned by individuals; community land; and government land. With the exception of house plots and community land, all land in the Maldives is the property of the government. Land-based activities are shared equally among men and women as illustrated below in Table 4.1.

Figure 4. Land Use Patterns on Kela Island

Figure 4

A: Wilderness with coconut
B: Agricultural plots
C: Bush
D: Home plots

Table 12. Gender Roles in Land Management

Land category Men Women
Home plotsupkeep of the boundary wallplanting crops
maintenance of the house well and water-harvesting systemcare for home garden crops
   market produce
Community landthinning timber plotsclean wide streets of the village
maintenance of jetties and similar structuresresponsible for agricultural production
building schools, playgrounds, etc.collect sand for house maintenance
contribute to agricultural production collect dead corals and make limecollect fuel wood
timber collection  
Government landcollection of coconutsmaintenance of tree nursery
maintenance of tree nursery  

Despite the importance of waste disposal and management, a system aimed at waste collection and its proper disposal, is lacking in the Maldives. In general, household waste is discarded in the bush which is increasingly littered with both organic and inorganic matter, including plastic bags and tins. Solutions are required to establish a viable system for waste management. Given that poultry rearing practised by communities is based on an ‘open’ system, whereby hens and chickens forage in the bush, poultry are endangered by harmful waste. Furthermore, in the long-term, waste is likely to enter the lagoon where it is likely to result in silting and/or the death of corals.

4.2 Water Resource Management

Finite water resources require careful use and management. Not least in the Maldives where the availability of fresh water is limited, and increasing population pressures are causing lower quality ground water. Especially on heavily populated islands, the high population growth rate is taking its toll on water resources and quality with a concurrent increase in the cost of water supplied by desalinating plants.

Since there are no rivers in the Maldives, rain water is very important. Houses usually have both an individual rainwater harvesting tank and a well. Community buildings such as schools, mosques, island offices, etc. have their own rain water harvesting systems, where water is collected for the use of the community. Rain water is used for drinking and cooking, while well water is used for washing. Utensils and clothes are washed in the open, sometimes on the beach. Waste water is often directed to vegetable patches in home gardens. Small open wells are dug in agricultural plots so that plants can be easily watered in their early growing stages. Both men and women are involved in watering plants.

Men play an important role in the harvesting of water resources and in the maintenance of water collection systems, including digging and maintaining wells. Traditionally, rain water was collected by Maldivians in tall clay pots. Now, an open-ended pipe, forming a gutter along the boundary of the roof, is put in place at the end of each sloping roof to direct the flow of rain water into a ferro cement tank on the ground below. A pipe runs from this tank to the kitchen providing water for the household (see Figure 5). In the past, roofing was constructed of cadjan (woven coconut frond); however, this material did not contribute to efficient water-harvesting and today roofs are usually made of corrugated iron sheets, enabling water to be harvested in a clean and efficient manner. The entire system of rain water harvesting is established and maintained by men. For instance, collection tanks are thoroughly cleaned by men once a year.

Figure 5. Household Water Harvesting System

Figure 5

4.3 Gender Roles in Agricultural Production, Seed Management and Harvesting

Maldivian law does not permit ownership of agriculture land. As a result, land designated by the Island Committee for agricultural purposes can be used by all the residents of the island. Households are required to inform the Island Committee about the size and location of their plots. Since agriculture is practised for subsistence, plots are small in size, ranging from 100–500 sq. m. Land is in sufficient supply on the atolls to enable inhabitants to abandon plots after 2 to 4 years and select new plots. Given that agricultural land is not individually owned, communities are not normally interested in enhancing and/or conserving land productivity.

As illustrated in Table 13, women are heavily involved in all aspects of agricultural production, from the selection of land, to decisions regarding which crops to grow, to harvesting. Traditionally, chillies were planted for commercial sale and other crops were grown for home consumption. Nowadays, women also cultivate horticulture crops for commercial purposes in their agricultural plots (see Figure 6).

Table 13. Gender Roles in Agriculture

• plot selection + 
• clearance+++
• burning of the dried waste + 
• fencing against salt laden winds + 
• digging well+  
• land preparation + 
• crop decision + 
• nursery preparation + 
• watering the plants ++
• mulching with leaves++ 
• weed removal and pest control + 
• harvesting+++
Post harvest
• transport of harvest++ 
• sorting for seed + 
• sale within island + 
• sale to Male'+  
• seed storage + 

Seed selection is performed by women. Table 14 illustrates seed selection and storage techniques used by women on Kela Island. The Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture distributes imported seeds from neighbouring countries from its outlets on the atolls. On the islands, families exchange seeds among themselves, usually at the time of fruit selection. Pests, low productivity and poor fertility of seeds are common problems expressed by farmers. Manure is not applied to crops; farmers believe that the remaining ash is sufficient for the growth of new crops. Mulching is carried out by women and men, using coconut fronds, banana and papaya leaves. Men are responsible for the construction of small covered enclosures to protect chilli plants. Women have responsibility for the maintenance of the chilli crop within these enclosures. For instance, women apply a paste of soap and garlic to plants infected by pests.

Figure 6. Mixed Farming in a Typical Family Plot

Figure 6

Women have responsibility for pest control. The MoFA is promoting the use of local techniques in pest control. In this context, several workshops have been organised to educate women about the identification and control of specific pests. Most of the harvesting is carried out by women. Tubers, vegetables and spices are harvested as needed. Fruits are picked according to the schedule of market days. Both women and men are involved in transporting harvested crops. Cane baskets are used to transport crops to the house or jetty when the quantity is small, and wheelbarrows when the harvest is large.

Table 14. Seed Selection and Storage Techniques for Selected Crops on Kela Island

Crop Seed Selection Seed Storage
Pumpkinselect a good size fruithang fruit under high ceiling in shade
Eggplantchoose a healthy plant and  good coloured fruitallow fruit to ripen, remove and dry seeds, store seeds in glass bottle for few months
Papayaselect a large size fruitextract seeds and plant immediately since seeds loose fertility rapidly
Watermelonkeep aside best fruitextract and dry seeds, store in glass jar after mixing with house ash
Milletschoose cobs with good grainsdry cobs between coconut mat layers, collect grains when dry, store in tin boxes or cloth bag and hang under a high ceiling

Source: Women Farmers of Kela

4.4 Home Gardens, Biodiversity and Household Food Security

Home gardening is important in the Maldives, not least for its contribution to enhanced household nutrition. In general, family plots are divided into two evenly sized areas; one is used for housing and the other is converted into a garden. Home gardens typically vary in size from 100–500 sq. m. Crops cultivated include chillies, eggplants, tapioca, Different varieties of the same crop are grown in home gardens in an attempt to control pests. This also contributes to the maintenance of biodiversity. beans, spices and a few fruit trees. Figure 7 depicts two sample home gardens on the Island of Kela, illustrating the distribution of plants, water sources, etc.19

Indeed, most home gardens can be regarded as mini plant genetic resource centres. A home garden may contain up to ten different crops types, and a total of 25 to 30 plant varieties. For instance, three to four varieties of banana, coconut, eggplant and chillies may be planted in the same garden. Given that new plants varieties have been introduced to the Maldives ever since trade links were first initiated with Sri Lanka and India, original and foreign varieties have merged, and locals are no longer able to distinguish original plant stock.

Women play a dominant role in all activities related to nurturing and maintaining home gardens. Men play an important role in harvesting fruits, especially papaya, banana, coconut, areca nut and bread fruit. While child care was traditionally, and continues to be, the responsibility of women, both men and women understand the value of balanced diet. With this in mind, families tend to grow a variety of crops in their home gardens. Women and men have knowledge about plant varieties and their nutritional content. For instance, drumstick leaves are eaten for their high iron content and form an important part of the diet of pregnant women; bilimbi is eaten to protect against the common cold given its high vitamin C content. Banana varieties containing most nutrients are given to children.

4.5 Commercial Crop Production and Gender Differences

A few uninhabited islands have been leased by the government for large-scale commercial agriculture. While demand exists for women to work on these farms as paid labour, for instance in harvesting, seed selection, fish processing, etc. women do not normally leave their homes to seek longer-term work on other islands. In general, women have mainly travel to commercial agriculture islands to clear wilderness and collect fuel wood.

Coconut is an important commercial crop in the Maldives. Coconuts and coconut products form an integral part of the Maldivian diet and coconut timber is widely used for boat-building and construction purposes. Coconut palms are grown in home gardens, on community and government land, and on uninhabited islands. Some of these islands are leased from the government for commercial coconut production. Revenues are based on the number of coconut palms and bread fruit trees on the island. Coconut harvesting is a complex business. A dhoni is hired, including a crew which contains some men specialised in coconut harvesting, the coconut are harvested from morning until evening, the harvest is collected and loaded into the dhoni, and the harvest is taken to market. Women play no role in any part of coconut harvesting, mainly because of the need to climb palms and undertake long journeys in dhonis. Women are, however, involved in coconut processing activities, including dehusking, grating, drying, milling for oil20, etc. Manufacturing coir rope is undertaken jointly by women and men. Women also make brooms from the fibrous husk of coconuts.

19 These diagrams were drawn by farming women visited on Kela Island during research visits for this study.
20 Demand for coconut oil is decreasing. Substitutes such as groundnut oil and sunflower oil are now imported and more readily available.

Figure 7. Illustrations of Home Gardens on Kela Island

Figure 7

4.6 Medicinal Plants and Traditional Practitioners

Traditional medicine is important in the Maldives and some islands are famous for treating certain ailments such as setting broken bones or curing skin diseases. Medicinal practitioners collect medicinal plants and herbs from the wilderness. These plants are not cultivated and plants do not exist to domesticate them. For instance, practitioners in Male' travel to other islands in the North Male' Atoll to gather medicinal plants as they are no longer found on the island of Male'.

Both women and men practice traditional medicine. The practice is family-based and passed on from one generation to the next. Charmers, usually men, also exist in villages. Charmers offer their blessing before they depart on fishing trips, normally at the beginning of a season. The ‘Fanditha’ (holy man or women) places a ‘taweez’ (sacred locket) containing a prayer on the recipient. A greater number of Fanditha are men rather than women.

4.7 Wildlife Management

Although wild birds are rarely eaten, they are caught alive and sold as pets in Male' as Eco Care's survey has demonstrated (see Box 5). Men are responsible for trapping wild birds. Similarly, trade in wild birds is the domain of men. Despite the damage caused by bats to crops, they are not normally killed.

4.8 Gender Roles in Harvesting Marine Resources and Post-harvest Activities

The people of the Maldives have historically had open access to the country's oceanic resources. Yet given that Maldivians have traditionally harvested limited fish resources for sustenance or trade, the islands' marine resources have not been placed under serious pressure. For instance, today's tuna catch is lower than the sustainable level of extraction of the Indian Ocean's stocks. Similarly, restrictions on the time spent at sea, or on the harvesting of different fishing areas have never existed.

Prior to the introduction of mechanised dhonis in the mid 1970s, sailing boats were used for fishing. This seriously restricted the distance fishermen could travel for tuna fishing and the time they could stay at sea since fishermen sought to remain within sight of land and fished only during good weather. These limitations on movement served as conservation measures which helped to protect fisheries resources from overexploitation. Today, however, larger and mechanised fishing vessels are used. Travelling between atolls, these boats can cover great distances, and fishing is possible all year round (see Box 6). Yet, while mechanisation has opened up large new areas for fishing, contributing to an increased tuna catch, traditional means of conserving tuna and other marine resources have been lost.

Maldivian Gender Roles in Fisheries Harvest and Post-Harvest

Oceanside Fish Catch and Cleaning

Sun Drying Tuna Fillets Preparing for Market
Marketing Fish in City

Box 6: Mechanisation of Traditional Fishing Boats and Family Food Security

Since 1974, a major mechanisation program of the country's pole and line fishing vessels was started by the Government. Engines were installed in dhonis under a Government-sponsored credit scheme. By October 1992, there were 1,663 mechanised fishing vessels. The mechanised vessels have proved much more versatile and productive. They are capable of travelling further and catching at least 30 tons of fish per year compared to the average 10 ton yield of the non-mechanised dhonis (Official Government Website). Mechanised vessels are also better suited to supply fresh fish to the mobile collector vessels. Thus, mechanisation has proved to be an important factor in facilitating the export of fresh frozen fish. It also allowed for fishermen to travel beyond the pre-existent fishing boundaries.
Yet, some have argued that mechanisation has not necessarily brought equal prosperity to all those involved in fishing. Since most of the catch is sold to collector vessels rather than being transported back to the islands for processing and marketing, in practice there are usually fewer fish to take home. The share of the catch allocated to the crew has decreased as a result of mechanisation. In this context, some women believe that less fish is available to them to make dried fish, fish soup and fish paste (a concentrated form of fish soup), the staples of the Maldivian diet, and concerns exist about the nutritional well-being of children.

Gender roles exist in the harvesting and processing of marine resources in the Maldives as illustrated in Table 15.

Table 15. Gender Roles in Fisheries Harvesting and Post-harvesting Activities

Shark fin
• Landing+  
• Removal of fins+  
• Drying in sun ++
Salted products (tuna, sharks, reef fish)
• Cleaning and washing++ 
• Applying salt and storing in brine tank + 
• Washing + 
• Sun drying ++
Sea cucumber
• Collection+  
• Sorting++ 
• Pre-boiling, burying in sand++ 
• Cleaning++ 
• Boiling + 
• Smoking + 
• Sun drying ++
Walhoa mas (soft-dried products) and Hikimas (hard-dried products)
• Filleting++ 
• Boiling + 
• Smoking + 
• Drying ++
• Storing ++
• in the local area++ 
• in Male'+  

Fishing activities and the harvesting of marine life in the oceans, lagoons or reef flats are performed exclusively by men. Though Maldivian fishermen have developed many fishing techniques to catch different species as illustrated in Table 16, fishing using a pole and line remains most common. Some pre-harvesting activities including mending hooks and nets, cleaning and oiling boats, etc. are also dominated by men. Post-harvesting activities aimed at adding value, such as salting and drying fish, are the domain of women. Unlike India or Sri Lanka, where women are actively involved in collecting seaweed, molluscs, small fish, bivalves, oysters, etc. women in the Maldives are not involved in harvesting such resources from the lagoons. Post-harvesting activities are time consuming and usually take women from 4 to 7 hours. For instance, women frequently work from seven in the evening to past midnight, smoking the fish caught that day. Though men do not generally participate at the post-harvest stage, on occasions when the catch is so large that the women are unable to clean all the fish on their own, male family members help with filleting.

Table 16. Fish Harvesting Techniques in the Maldives

Hook and line
• pole and linetuna, big eye scads, goat fish
• hand linereef fish, flying fish, little tuna, mullets, etc.
• long lineoceanic shark
• trollingtuna, wahoo, barracuda, marlin
• set linetiger shark, six gilled shark
• gill netshark species
• lift netsbait fish
• cast netuniya, ori, kalhgu oh, landa
• surrounding netuniya, ori, kalhgu oh, landa, mekunu, kiruihiya mas
• seiningall reef fish
• hand gatheringsea cucumbers, giant clams, lobsters
• turtle Jigglingturtles
• woundingwahoo, sailfish
• trapreef fish
• fishing for whale sharkwhale shark

Source: Catalogue of Fishing Gear of the Maldives. Marine Research Section, MoFA.

Most post-harvesting activities take place in the courtyard or a separate hut in the courtyard known as the ‘fish kitchen’. Construction and maintenance of this hut is the responsibility of men. The stove is made of clay or tin. Women boil fish on a stove, constructed of clay or tin, a process which takes 2 to 3 hours depending on the size of catch. Wooden racks, normally above the stove, are used by women to smoke the fish. Following the smoking process which takes 5 to 6 hours, women, sometimes helped by children, place the fish outside to dry in the sun. These activities require large quantities of fuel wood. As a result, women engaged in post-harvesting activities have to gather fuel wood and bring it home in a wheelbarrow three times a week, compared to once a week for normal household needs.

Marketing the catch is the responsibility of both women and men. In general, however, men play a larger role in marketing given their greater ability to leave their home on the atolls to travel to Male', a boat journey which can take 5 to 12 hours. Women's involvement in marketing is restricted to selling fish locally. As a result of the division of labour, women have extensive knowledge about post-harvesting and particular processing techniques, such as smoking and drying. Men have superior knowledge of fishing techniques and equipment. In addition to being a male dominated occupation, an increasing number of fishermen are older men. One study estimates that between 23–32 percent of all fishermen are above 50 years, and predicts a significant fall in the total number of fishermen over the next 20–25 years (Ramsay, 1987).

Women and men are both involved in lime making using dead corals that washed ashore. Men dig a pit on the beach, and corals and wood (breadfruit tree and Scaevola) are placed inside in layers. The pit is set alight and left to burn out, a process which transforms the coral into soft lime which is subsequently removed. Women assist in the lime making process by delivering wood and, when male help is not available, removing and transporting the lime. Women also collect beach sand for use in the home. Although house reef corals are protected by law, some illicit quarrying also takes place for building. In the past, whole houses were constructed of coral stones and cement of coral origin. Now, coral is only legally allowed to be used for construction of the boundary walls. Other threats to the lagoon's corals come from significant organic pollution that causes silting, and land reclamation in response to growing demands for space. For instance, parts of the island of Male' which have been reclaimed from its reef flat have suffered severe flooding during storms.

4.9 Emerging Gender Concerns in Bio-resource Management

Changes are underway in traditional gender roles in the Maldives. For instance, one survey of 16 islands carried out in 1987 found that two-thirds of households spent less time processing fish at home as a direct result of more of the catch being sold to collector vessels (Ramsay 1987). According to this survey, fishermen prefer a more relaxed home atmosphere, made possible when most of the catch is sold to collector vessels. This survey also reported that there is periodic storage of rihakaru (fish paste). Despite increased ‘free’ time for women accompanying the reduction in home processing, possible changes in women's status in the household which have resulted from the loss of an income generating activity have not been studied. In addition, while this survey has existed for more than a decade, it has not been widely recognised in official circles.

Women are responsible for on-farm conservation of agricultural resources. In the Maldives, women's activities are limited by the presence of the lagoon. While women are completely independent on the island on which they live, they are restricted in their ability to access to other islands. This form of isolation has been increased by the government's policy not to permit families to move to resort islands in cases where men take up employment.21

21 During research for this study, the author met some qualified teachers and nurses who had been forced to give up employment on resort islands, in order to move to their home island to adequately care for their family and land.

Maldivian Gender Roles in Bio-resource Management

Multiple Roles of Maldivian Women

Courtyard Domestic Tasks

Committee Participation

Inter-atoll and inter-island trade is virtually absent among women, and ocean and sea-based activities tend to be dominated by men. On the other hand, land-based activities are the domain of women with minimal inputs from men. For instance, intra-island trade is primarily the responsibility of women. Women also play a major role in agriculture, child care and housekeeping. These roles have encouraged women to work in activities near their home and on their own island. Women play no role in shipping and fishing; however, with the advent of innovations in ship building (such as fibreglass boats which are easier to handle) some people believe women will play a role in the water-based transport sector in the future. Thus, over time, men and women have developed distinct roles in biodiversity management. In the future, however, it will be important to seek to integrate their separate efforts and roles in order to enhance the conservation of terrestrial and marine biodiversity.

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