When Ibrahim Naeem returned to the Maldives having completed his studies under an Australia Awards Scholarship, one of earth’s last safe havens for manta rays was under threat. Find out how this situation was turned around.
In 2007, when Australia Awards Alumnus, Ibrahim Naeem, returned to the Maldives having completed his Masters in Environmental Management at the University of Queensland, one of earth’s last safe havens for manta rays was under threat. Plans to build a yacht marina on a tiny, uninhabited island called Hanifaru, at the centre of a globally significant manta ray breeding ground in the Maldives’ Baa Atoll had been tabled. Naeem joined the environmentalists, civil society, local people and high-end resort operators who were rallying to stop the development.
“For many years we had been concerned that overfishing and too many tourists were driving down the abundant marine life for which Baa Atoll is famous,” says Naeem, who now Heads the Maldives Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Already a popular site where divers could see a ‘shark nursery’ had disappeared and the famous manta rays and whale sharks that defined the area were becoming less and less visible. Tour operators and local people were worried that the marina would make them disappear completely along with their livelihoods; and the world would lose a critical manta ray sanctuary.
“The Maldives is a country with a very beautiful environment and it’s really a very fragile environment that needs to be protected as our economic pillars, like tourism and fisheries, both depend on the quality of the environment,” Naeem explains.
These concerns were heard, and in 2011, the Maldives Government and the United Nations declared the entire Baa Atoll – home to 11,000 people and eight resorts scattered across 75 islands – as the Maldives’ first Biosphere Reserve. This means that different areas of the Atoll are designated for different activities, allowing people and the environment to co-exist sustainably. The “honey pot”, as Naeem calls Hanifaru Island, was designated as the Maldives’ first protected marine park and visitor numbers are now limited and those who enter pay a fee.
Naeem says his studies in Australia positioned him to lead the EPA as it faces the challenges of helping to make the Maldives’ first Biosphere Reserve and marine park work. Chief among these challenges is ensuring that local people reap much-needed benefits and continue to support the idea. The income generated by the park entrance fees, alongside contributions from nearby resorts, is being channelled to the newly established Baa Atoll Conservation Fund. The Fund recently called for proposals from groups, organisations and the private sector to support conservation, livelihoods or awareness raising activities.
“I feel it [the Biosphere Reserve and marine park] is a very good idea,” says single mother of two Saamath Yoosuf who lives on the island of Dharavandoo, within sight of Hanifaru. “Because it is protected there will be more species in that area and more tourists will come,” she said. An accident left Saamath disabled, but this fails to stop her fishing from 5am each morning at the wharf, where she catches mackerel for sale. Right now this is her main source of income, but she is hopeful that the new Fund will spark other livelihood opportunities for people on the island. “I think a group of us women could start a business preparing short eats [snacks] for visitors,” she suggests with a smile.
“Before the island [Hanifaru] would have gone to a private party,” says community elder and former fisherman Mohamed Jameel, who lives on another nearby island called Donfanu. “But now we will also get a share.”
Donfanu is home to 500 people who were once totally dependent on fishing. Back then fishermen like Jameel were famous for catching whale sharks and he still keeps the old tackle, hoping to open a small museum one day. Holding up a huge rusty clasp he says: “We used to hook this onto the whale shark and hold on until he was tired.”
Now hunting whale sharks is illegal in the Maldives and many of Donfanu’s fishermen hire their boats to nearby resorts, where most of the island’s women also work as cleaners.
“We can’t welcome anything that damages the tourism industry,” Jameel says. “Protecting Hanifaru is not a problem, but fishermen are finding it difficult to get bait fish because they are not allowed access to the area anymore,” he said.
Back at his office in the Maldives capital, Male, Naeem says: “We have many challenges. The reserve and biosphere are new concepts and people are still not very aware of what they are and how they work. We are now training local staff in the Baa Atoll, which is an important new development.”
Among those being trained are three young rangers, including Ahmed Fareesh, who grew up on Dharavandoo Island. With national unemployment hovering around 28%, Fareesh is pleased to have landed a good local job so that he does not have to leave his home, like so many others his age, to seek steady work in already crowded Male.
“My dream is to see the system work as a fully functional biosphere reserve and the local people who are living there start getting direct benefits,” Naeem says. “I am hoping that many other biosphere reserves and marine parks will be established in the Maldives wherein the benefits of those reserves or parks will also be given to the locals.”
Many Australia Awards Alumni like Naeem are using the knowledge and connections they gained in Australia to make a difference back home. With rangers and other trained staff now on the ground in Baa Atoll, the Conservation Fund up and running and everyone rallying behind the effort, Naeem’s dream is well on the way to becoming a reality.