Feature Story

Tides of change: Building resilience through atoll-based conservation in the Maldives

June 4, 2017

The aim of the Atoll Ecosystem Conservation project was to strengthen atoll-based conservation by mainstreaming biodiversity priorities into the policies and practices of production sectors, with emphasis on supporting sustainable alternative livelihoods.

All ecosystems can absorb a certain amount of change, yet still remain functional. However, beyond a certain threshold, loss of biodiversity and disruption of ecosystem functioning has negative impacts on biodiversity and the flow of ecosystem services, with serious consequences for human well-being and livelihoods. Disrupted ecosystems, and the people who depend on them, are more vulnerable to shocks and disturbances, such as those caused by climate change.

Despite significant efforts led by the Government of Maldives to alleviate the worst effects of climate change and ecosystem degradation, conventional approaches were not being effective – apex predators such as sharks were disappearing, fisheries were in decline and the land and seas were becoming increasingly polluted. This situation was worsened by the ever-increasing threats posed by coastal erosion, storms and sea-level rise.

In response, the Government of Maldives sought new ways to manage natural resources in a more integrated and conservation-oriented manner that is appropriate to the country’s unique geography and ecology, socioeconomic development and patterns of resource use – and its extreme vulnerability to climate change. Their first response was to launch the UNDP supported, GEF-financed ‘Atoll Ecosystem Conservation Project,’ (sometimes called the ‘Baa Atoll Project’), with the purpose of designing and demonstrating an effective management system for atoll ecosystems and sustainable use of the resources they provide. These new approaches were piloted on Baa Atoll, with a view to replication throughout the Maldives

The aim of the Atoll Ecosystem Conservation project was to strengthen atoll-based conservation by mainstreaming biodiversity priorities into the policies and practices of production sectors, with emphasis on supporting sustainable alternative livelihoods. Baa Atoll (also called South Maalhosmadulu Atoll), which is located within a marine protected area, was selected as the pilot site for this work.

The integrated approach to development planning, resource-use management and biodiversity conservation introduced through the project, represented an important change from earlier practices in which important policy decisions affecting the management and use of biodiversity were taken at the level of individual sectors, without much coordination and integration.

As a result of the project’s work, eight new protected areas were declared in Baa Atoll and the boundaries of the two existing ones were extended. Built on baseline ecological assessments, economic valuation of natural resources, and effective public-private partnerships, Baa Atoll was declared as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2011. This provided the impetus for placing well-managed, protected atoll ecosystems at the heart of efforts to build a resilient Blue Economy, both in the Maldives and the south-east Asian region.

Through the facilitation of the project, national and local authorities partnered with the tourism sector, which is the economic driving force in Baa Atoll (employing 61 percent of the working population), to pilot environmental conservation at atoll and island level. Environmentally sustainable practices were adopted throughout the tourism industry, fuelled by healthy competition – good practices in one dive centre or resort were quickly followed by others! The designation of Baa Atoll as a biosphere reserve ensured that the tourism industry continues to grow with biodiversity and sustainable use objectives at the forefront of the development agenda.

To meet future challenges, improved understanding of the possible impacts of climate variability is critical, for the country as a whole and for target industries. Towards these ends, the Maldives is now using drones to map areas threatened by immersion or degradation. With the use of these new technologies, the Maldives can improve coastal zone management and build resilience, ensuring that oceans continue to deliver immediate benefits to their communities and provide for the well-being of future generations.