Let me first of all express my heartfelt thanks to Honorable Minister of Planning, Human Resources and Environment, Mr. Ismail Shafeeu, for inaugurating this important workshop; and to all those who have accepted our invitation, while fulfilling a very busy schedule.
My intervention here is not to bore you with the technical details of the workshop. However, before I outline briefly the statement of objectives of this workshop on Integrated Reef Resources Management, as befits my present state of life and career, I will use this opportunity to take you with me in tracing some of the main events in utilizing the reef resources in the Maldives, and express some views on the present challenges with these perspectives in mind; in order to place the workshop in the present context of development. My hope would be that this exercise will contribute to the background and to the important discussions of current problems in managing and developing the reef resources.
Physically the country owes its existence to the coral reefs which provide the living base on which these fragile islands are established. In an Atoll environment, the Ocean and Reef Resources underpin the traditional lifestyle and the development of a cash economy. The modern economy of these island communities has to depend on a narrow resource base, dependent on the direct exploitation of its marine resources, both the extractive and non-extractive, for its livelihood.
Maldives have been lucky to be situated in a unique ocean space in the Indian Ocean, which has provided cultural contacts with the Indian Ocean rim islands dating back many thousands of years. These contacts influenced greatly those communities that began to emerge with collective ideas as well as arts and craft transforming them to be adaptive to the local environment. The famous cowrie trade which presumably was initiated during the 9th century flourished until the British victory in Bengal in 1757. This could be considered the most radical change in the Indian Ocean trade history. For the Maldives this led to the end of a long period of affluence and it became one of the lost islands of the Indian Ocean, its existence almost forgotten, mainly because of the fact that the reefs have lost its significance, not due to depletion of stock, but a change in the trading system that emerged after the collapse of the Dutch.
With the introduction of Tourism in the 1970s, the Maldives have become one of the most demanding destinations for the international traveller offering again the reef environment but in a totally different context.
Maldives have never utilized the reef resources to any major degree of sophistication until the beginning of the '70s. However, over the past 20 years, rapid progress through increased earnings have focused people's attention to the only resource base available, the reef resources.
The rapid development that took place over this period has placed the reef resources under heavy stress. The recent developments in the Fisheries and the Tourism sector, coupled with the high growth rate, have placed a higher demand for coral mining as well as deepening the harbors and extra demand for space.
Thus a management strategy had to evolve, that would not jeopardize any of these activities which have become the most important economic activities throughout the nation. The use of the marine environment and its resources have taken an intersectoral perspective. There can never be one single national authority dealing with the marine affairs, in the present context.
The concept of an Integrated Reef Resources Management evolved during an Extension program carried out during the period 1989 -1993. National Workshops conducted on the sustainable use of marine resources during the National Year of Productivity, as well as the recent Atoll Chiefs' Conferences, have continued to highlight the issue of managing the reef resources.
Five issue areas for developing an Integrated Reef Resources Management were thus identified. These five key issue areas are:
1. Reef Fish Fishery; Main concern being the export oriented Grouper and Marine Aquarium Fish Trade.
2. Bait Fishery for Tuna Pole and Line: reef related component of the tuna fishery
3. Coral Mining: areas including coral and sand mining, dredging and reclamation.
4. Tourism/Fishery interactions: Interactions within the sectors as well.
5. Comprehensive Management of Resources: mainly concerned with the legal and institutional aspects of IRRMP.
While the Maldives is trying to establish an Agenda within its own waters, the international community is trying to find solutions to the problems of the high sea fisheries, which has a direct bearing on the most important resource the country has traditionally being involved in - the Tuna resources.
An important advance of the Law of the Sea Convention was also that it set out generally accepted standards for the exploitation of fishery resources, but still left the coastal states a fair degree of freedom to pursue national objectives in their fisheries policies.
However, according to the Framework laid in Agenda 21 Chapter 17 for the oceans and island states in implementing the Bio-diversity Convention, nations have been entrusted with a critical role to play in the development of scientific knowledge concerning the coastal zone and its resources, in order to maintain the diversity of its living resources.
The national workshop that we are initiating today needs to take into account all these aspects. Thus the main objective of the workshop is to develop a research agenda for the scientists, the economists, the politicians, the NGOs as well as the business sector in developing an IRRM strategy for the country at large.
The outcome of this workshop would assist the IRRMP which is being developed for Vaavu, Meemu, Faafu and Dhaalu atoll to test the hypotheses, in order to achieve the goal of developing an IRRM Policy Guideline for all the Administrative Atolls by the year 2000.
The workshop will run for 3 consecutive working days, with the papers presented at the plenary, which would also be open to interested parties, on a first come first served basis. While the afternoon sessions will be mainly for the delegates and observers divided into smaller working groups which would take place concurrently. Before the days session ends, the final hour will be spent in consolidating the working group deliberations at the plenary.
The final session will be on the 5th day of the workshop, when the group findings will be discussed in the plenary, followed by the closing ceremony just before mid-day.
A concurrent working session for school children participating in the workshop has also been organized, to identify issues among themselves, coordinated by resource persons from the Ministry of Planning Human Resources and Environment, Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture.
Lastly, I would like to mention that we have been very lucky to have some of the internationally recognized reef scientists among us here today to assist us in developing a more focused agenda for developing the IRRMP. I would like to thank them on behalf of all those who are here today. My only hope is that the delegates and observers will take four days off their busy schedule to assist us as well as you all in consolidating a research agenda which we all can use to maximize the benefits, from our reef systems.