Safe haven in safe hands

How one project is rekindling interest in
mangroves in the Maldives

The common perception of the Maldives may be of expensive resorts on palm-fringed atolls, but the islands are also home to mangrove forests. Maldivians once enjoyed a healthy relationship with mangroves, which provide services intrinsic to life in the islands. The fruits of mangroves, for example, were popular foods and dietary staples in some areas, while the trees themselves provided firewood and timber.

Kids with a harvest of mangrove apple (Kulhavah). This fruit is still famously used for making beverages and pickles. Photo credit: Abdulla Adam 

"We not only used wood from the mangroves to build our boats, we also used to fish among them when the seas were rough during the rainy season and it was too dangerous
to take to the open water."

– Abdul Raheem Ibrahim, Director of the Huraa Island Council

Abdul Raheem remembers having a prosperous relationship with Huraa mangroves when he was young. Photo credit: UNDP Maldives

See change

However, with changing times – and lifestyles – communities came to rely less on mangroves. In the meantime, land scarcity took a toll on mangrove wetlands, large portions of which were filled in to build airports, houses and other sorts of infrastructure. And before long, the remaining forests became choked with trash.

"The amount of trash in the mangroves was disturbing. It is heartbreaking to see such an important ecosystem neglected."
– Fathimath Shadiya

Fathimath Shadiya is a lecturer at the Maldivian National University (MNU). After visiting Huraa Island in the Malé Atoll in 2014, she and her colleague, Aminath Shazly, were inspired to develop a project to shed light on the economic value of mangroves.

MNU student Mariyam (left) and lecturer Fathimath Shadiya (right) survey the mangroves. Photo credit: Munshid Mohamed - UNDP Maldives

Publish or perish

The team also published a booklet, to be used as a guidebook by locals and tourists, with information and illustrations about the different fauna and flora in the mangrove forests.

The goal of the mangrove valuation project was to address the crux of the problem: The lack of appreciation for and misinformation about the true value of mangroves. The project also gave Fathimath's students the chance to gain real-world experience and put into practice what they had studied in the classroom.

UNDP Resident Representative Shoko Noda (left) exploring the mangroves with MFF Maldives National Coordinator Abdulla Adam (right) Photo credit: UNDP Maldives
"We now have a lot of information and new knowledge on how to find alternative uses for the mangrove ecosystem. The mangroves' serene beauty is something which can be enjoyed by tourists who come to visit the island. These guidebooks could also come in handy in designing tours.”
– Ahmed Habeeb, local guesthouse operator

Local champions

In addition to producing the guidebook and the valuation study, the project has also been able to positively impact the thinking of people at many different levels and enhance their knowledge of the importance of preserving these ecosystems.

Launching the valuation study. Photo credit: Abdulla Adam

Members of local councils, for example, now take a proactive role in conserving the mangroves and promoting them as ecotourism sites.

Members of Huraa Council along with Ukulhas Council on a study tour. Photo credit: Abdulla Adam

Seeing the forest for the trees

One student member of Shadiya's team, Ahmed Fizal, is bringing what he learned about mangroves’ involvement in disaster risk reduction to his job at the National Disaster Management Center.

"While conducting the surveys, we realised the potential of mangroves for disaster risk management, as they are able to absorb floodwater from torrential rain and sea surges. I was convinced of the role of ecological systems in building resilience and mitigating disasters long before I joined the National Disaster Management Centre. After seeing the Huraa Island mangroves for myself, I am more certain than ever that protecting these ecosystems is crucial.”
– Ahmed Fizal
Photo credit: Afa Hussain

Story produced by MFF Maldives and UNDP Maldives in collaboration with IUCN Asia.

Cover photo by Hussain Nashid.