The Maldives archipelago provides a unique example of an island nation that is trying to simultaneously balance developmental and environmental concerns. The creation of resorts on uninhabited islands, accounting for just 20 percent of the country's total land area, illustrates the government's attempt to move from commercial tourism on a large scale towards a more managed and environmentally sustainable form of ecotourism. Similarly, the people of the Maldivian atolls have traditionally demonstrated their concern for all life forms. While they have depended for their survival on their country's natural resources, particularly its marine assets, they have traditionally harvested and managed these resources using community-based practices which have their own integrated conservation mechanisms.
Challenges and trends at both the international and national levels have, however, increased the need to strengthen existing mechanisms aimed at the sustainable management and use of natural resources in the Maldives. Global threats related to increasing greenhouse gases and an associated rise in sea level are real issues of concern to an island nation like the Maldives where most of the population lives on land with a negligible height above mean sea level. On a national level, increased population pressures and growing demands for space in the form of reclaimed land threaten the lagoons and reefs on which so much of the country's economic survival depends. Increased pollution silting up lagoons and human activities like illicit coral quarrying, are further damaging the country's natural wealth. As well as strengthening existing mechanisms, these challenges demand new efforts and initiatives in order to ensure the sustainability of the country's terrestrial and marine-based resources, and to enhance resource management. Furthermore, in seeking to strengthen and expand these mechanisms, it will be crucial to consider, and to take into account, gender roles. The following paragraphs provide some recommendations in support of measures aimed at achieving enhanced biodiversity management in the Maldives.
The Maldives possesses almost 3 000 species of animal and plant life, both marine and terrestrial. Yet most of these life forms have never been surveyed or documented. For instance, a floral survey has never been carried out. Existing surveys of land-based fauna are based on occasional visits made by external experts and are, for the most part, far from adequate. Information currently available on the island's species diversity has generally been compiled during the last decade. Institutional experience related to marine and environmental research is therefore limited, and there are wide gaps in knowledge. Closing these gaps will be extremely important. Particularly, given the significant likelihood of identifying several endemic sub-species owing to the position of the Maldives as an island nation. A national campaign to inventory the floral and fauna wealth of the Maldive Islands is therefore essential. The atoll-based women's community organizations can make important contribution to this effort.
Development in the Maldives has been accompanied by an erosion of knowledge about, and the practice of, traditional forms of natural resource management. Steps should be taken to document this knowledge at the atoll level. Given the large numbers of young people forced out of schooling after the secondary level, one option could be to use these existing human resources to identify and record each island's natural wealth. People's Biodiversity Registers could be used to catalogue the biological diversity of the individual islands and to illustrate how resources are utilised and conserved by local people. They could also be used to identify and highlight gender roles in natural resource use and management. Such catalogues would be of enormous value to the future management of the country's biological diversity. Yet the inputs required to create the proposed registers are minimal. A few months of training on species identification, rural interviewing techniques, etc. would equip these young people with the necessary skills to prepare an inventory of their island's biodiversity and indigenous knowledge systems. A framework for the compilation of a People's Biodiversity Registers at the island level is included in Annex 1.
The NGO sector in the Maldives is its early phase of emergence and not activist in nature. Nevertheless, the strength and reach of existing NGOs should be harnessed. NGOs could be used to support the incorporation of biodiversity related topics in school curriculum, to lobby government and influence national policies in support of sustainable development, to highlight the contribution of women in the manufacturing sector, and to seek to increase women's roles in senior decision making positions in all sectors of employment. The government's distance education programme could also play an important role in disseminating knowledge about the national bio-resource heritage to people living in atolls.
Research indicates that women in the Maldives depend on environments which are rich in diversity in order to ensure household survival, especially in times of crisis. Biodiversity constitutes an important component of women's copying mechanisms to deal with environmental hazards. Recognising the importance of biodiversity, women have become ‘curators’ of diversity and strive endlessly to maintain it. Yet while women have historically played an important and central role in producing food and managing the environment, especially in the conservation and enhancement of genetic resources, this work often remains hidden and is not acknowledged. Similarly, women's contribution to household sustenance and livelihoods is not recognised in national statistics. Consequently women's problems remain unheard. For instance, all household activities are usually grouped under the heading “manufacturing” which also contains a number of male-dominated activities such as fish hook production, carpentry, electrical small industry, etc. Similarly, agriculture and fisheries statistics fail to highlight the contribution of men and women in different activities. Gender analysis of women's and men's participation in manufacturing and agricultural activities is, therefore, urgently required. A first step in this direction may be to incorporate and differentiate between women's and men's activities in national statistics produced for the manufacturing and agriculture sectors.
With the advent of mechanisation in fishing, women's roles in post-harvest activities have diminished and women now have more leisure time. The government is seeking to find ways to rehabilitate women in alternative occupations, such as tailoring, in which they could operate their own business. For instance, following training in sewing, sewing machines are distributed to women along with a certain amount of garments for stitching and it is intended that these trainees will develop their own businesses. As yet, women do not, however, receive training in accounting and book keeping which is essential to operate a viable business and to manage bank loans. Business management training for women should therefore also be part of any atoll based vocational training programme.
Women engaged in agriculture face a number of constraints including a shortage of good seeds and pest problems. Although the government has established nurseries and placed extension officers on many atolls, a shortage of trained staff hampers the efficiency of extension programmes. One option could be to train three women from each island in integrated pest management and give them responsibility for nursery management on a rotational basis. A programme of this nature could be implemented through the existing island-based women's committees.
The concept of applying manure to agricultural land is non-existent in the Maldives. Ashing does not, however, provide enough nutrients for crops since all the nutrients in the ash percolate to the ground water during the first rains. It is believed that manuring would delay the release of nutrients and decrease the alkalinity of the soil. A trial should be carried out on the application of manure on agricultural crops and home gardens. Women's committees should propose women to receive training on composting methods used in producing manure and briquettes. FAO could facilitate the provision of training in integrated pest management and integrated soil health care for women and men in the Maldives. The farm school approach and/or agriculture and allied production education through radio could also be promoted.
Commercialisation of agriculture has brought to the fore many of the problems that previously received no hearing. For instance, the poor quality of seeds in local markets and the dependency of farmers on the market in Male' or MoFA extension services for seeds; or the prevalence of pests and their resilience against traditional forms of pest management. Increasing moves replace traditional crops with commercially viable crops has compounded these problems related to seeds. In this context, it is essential to promote and strengthen the cultivation of traditional crops. For instance, rewarding farmers who have maintained traditional crops and their seeds may provide an incentive to cultivate traditional crops, and help to inculcate a sense of pride about farming as an occupation among farmers. A programme aimed at the revitalisation of earlier traditions related to the conservation and use of a wide range of ‘minor’ crops should be initiated.
Most of the government's programmes are focused on the promotion of new planting materials. The Maldives has been flooded with seeds from India, Sri Lanka and other Southeast Asian countries. As a result, seeds of traditional crops can currently only be found on very remote islands. The government should promote the establishment of seed gardens or seed farms within home plots in order to increase farmer's self-sufficiency in seeds.
On the atolls, heavy workloads normally leaves women with very little time to participate in remunerated employment outside the home. Women have expressed needs for small devices and technologies capable of reducing the time they spend on domestic and farm chores, thereby enabling them to take up other forms of employment. The introduction of technology to reduce the number of hours Maldivian women spend working on burdensome domestic tasks and add to the economic value of each hour of their work is urgently required in order to improve productivity, both in economic and social values.
Commercialisation of traditional agriculture has not benefited women. Commercial farms often use expatriate male labour to carry out activities about which Maldivian women have sound knowledge. These farms do not encourage families to settle in the commercial farm area, acting as a non-incentive for women to leave their home island and family responsibilities to seek external employment. The owners of commercial enterprises tend to be men. The harvested crop is sent to the Male' market where it competes with the produce of small farmers, often women.
Local knowledge systems are geared to deal with the diversity of both the natural and social environment. Knowledge is developed and managed by the local community, and is freely accessible to members of the community. Since spheres of work are gender specific, knowledge and skills related to particular activities can also be defined along gender lines. That is, women's knowledge and skills differ from those of men. In the Maldives, both men and women are knowledgeable about the land-based natural resources, though their ability or skill to extract these resources varies (men for example harvest coconuts). Women have developed capacities to use in a balanced manner the interwoven ecosystems of forests, farms, home gardens and livestock production. Women's collection of fuel and other forest materials, coupled with their farm and home production activities, play an essential part in helping to balance resource flows and maintain local economic systems in a sustainable fashion. On the other hand, knowledge related to marine resources and fishing has traditionally been the domain of men. Given the value of these local knowledge systems, it will be important to recognise the intellectual property rights of islanders responsible for the conservation and enhancement of biological diversity over time.
As the Maldives becomes more and more dependent on imported food stuffs, demand for traditional crops and foods is declining in favour of foods such as rice which cannot be produced economically locally. At the same time, employment opportunities for women to produce these traditional foods are decreasing. Increased dependence on imported foods is likely to reduce local agro-biodiversity in the long-term. At the same time, certain processing skills are also likely to disappear with the older generation of women. Renewed attempts are, therefore, required to educate people about the nutritional value of traditional crops which can be produced locally.
Given the unique ecosystem of the Maldives, international efforts should be extended to support the government's focus on biodiversity management and environmental conservation. For instance, selected islands of the Maldivian archipelago could be designated as “Global Reserves of Diversity” to ensure their sustainable management and protection from tourism, industrialisation, pollution, etc. At the same time, the whole reef system should receive high-level protection in order to safeguard the livelihoods of its people and protect its natural resources and biodiversity.
The Maldivian economy is expanding rapidly. This expansion is accompanied by increased construction, urbanisation and tourism and rising pressures on the country's precious coral reefs and the great diversity of species they harbour. Despite these trends, an educated and informed populace coupled with the existence of strong environmental laws and good implementation, have so far prevented over-exploitation of these valuable reef resources. Nevertheless, continued and increased efforts will be required to ensure that the richness of the biodiversity of the Maldives can be sustainably used and managed well into the next millennium. Traditional natural resource management practices can and should play a crucial role in this regard. Valuing and incorporating these tried and tested practices into the legal framework for natural resource use and management is likely to provide a strong foundation on which to protect the country's natural wealth and biodiversity.
The Maldives is entering an exciting phase, in which development is seen not merely as a tool for economic growth but also for the conservation of natural resources. In this context, opportunities exist for the Maldives to demonstrate to the world exactly what is meant by environmentally, socially and economically sustainable development.