I was recently invited by the Maldivian Environmental Protection Agency (MEPA) to join them on a site visit to Rasdhoo Atoll. The Maldives are well known for their natural beauty, coral reefs, and pristine beaches. Ensuring the country preserves this unique habitat is a priority for the dynamic staff of the MEPA.
The Maldives is a long, narrow country in the Indian Ocean formed by 26 natural atolls covering 90,000 square kilometers over a submarine ridge. Atolls are ring like coral reefs that surround lagoons. They are formed as coral builds up around eroding volcanic islands. The Maldives is also the lowest country on earth, measuring only 2.4 meters above sea level at its highest point, making it particularly vulnerable to climate change and rising sea levels. Protecting the country's reefs from pollution, poaching, rapid development, and other hazards is vital to guarding against natural disasters like tsunamis, health of food supplies from fisheries, and revenue from the thousands of tourists who visit every year. The U.S. Department of State and U.S. Department of Interior are supporting the Maldivian Ministry of Environment and Energy and the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture to share lessons learned from the U.S. experience in managing coral reefs and marine protected areas in Hawaii.
Preserving the country's unique habitat is a priority for all Maldivians, from President Waheed, who announced at the UN Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development that the Maldives will be the first country to become a marine reserve, to the community on Rasdhoo who requested the assistance of the MEPA to establish a new marine managed area within their local atoll.
In collaboration with the Rasdhoo Atoll Council (an elected body of representatives), the MEPA organized a series of stakeholder meetings to determine which areas are most important to the community, and to gauge their commitment to ongoing management and protection. We met with local fishermen, resort managers, NGOs, and religious groups who all use the area in distinct ways. One of the liveliest exercises was when the MEPA gave each group a map and stickers to mark areas that are most important to them. From fishermen who catch bait fish within the reefs, to resorts wanting to preserve areas for divers, each group was very opinionated. The MEPA is now compiling and comparing this information for review in development of an individual site, as part of a country-wide marine managed area system.
Through this bottom-up approach of establishing conservation priorities it became clear to me just how interconnected all these actors were with each other and their environment. The fishermen sell their catch to the resorts, the resorts work with the atoll councils on managing their waste, the local shop owners benefit from the cruise boats who visit the area for scuba diving, and on and on.
When we returned to the capital Male, the U.S. Department of Interior picked up the discussion at a macro level. With the Maldivian Ministry of Environment and Energy and the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture, they hosted a two-day workshop which brought together multiple government agencies, local and international NGOs, law enforcement, and the private sector to discuss how the country as a whole can go about protecting its natural resources in a systematic way. The open and frank discussion included case studies from Hawaii, and ranged from the types of laws required, to training of rangers, education of tourists and increased collaboration between government agencies. The mapping exercise was also conducted covering the entire country. All participants agreed on the need to expand the number of marine managed and protected areas and their shared responsibility for their unique and beautiful habitat.