Beating off the waves – How the Maldives extends beyond the land

We said our farewells and sat back in our cruiser.  It headed back out and we watched the procession of resort, uninhabited, settled and functional islands.  Of the last two I noticed there was an island that was used as the fuel storage depot – nice idea keeping it separate from the  heaving metropolis of Male.  We passed by one of the resorts you see in all the brochures.  A long line of chalets on a pier, everything on stilts so you can sleep above the ocean.  Two things would concern me staying there – I’ve never found ocean noises that soothing.  I can put up with lap lap lap of gentle waves; it is quite sleep inducing, but everything else, the bird flapping on their roosts, the fish gurgling at the surface and the hiss and froth noises with anything beyond the gentlest of swells have never been calming.  I was OK in Tortola where my apartment was 900 ft above the waves, but to be sleeping right on top of it?  And second, if you dropped anything down the cracks or over the side of the chalet it would be so much more of a fag going hunting for it amongst the coral than just rootling in the undergrowth.  I wondered if they had chalet maids with snorkels for just that possibility.

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Typical resort

The boat traffic increased again as we drew closer to Male and we could see the urban skyline grow in front of us.  We were earlier than expected as we drew in between the small beacons marking the entrance and once Mohammed had said farewell and headed back to his office, we decided we needed a drink.  On the top floor of a nearby building was a large cafe and we headed up there; the air being cooler up there than in the packed streets.  Once the menu was put in front of us we realised we were also very hungry, not having eaten at all on Thulusdhoo so we ordered some sandwiches and looked around.  I found it bizarre to stare across the channel to the next island and see the huge tailfin of an Emirates Airbus poking up from behind the palm trees as it sat waiting at the airport.

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The Airport from the mainland

The more I saw, the more I worked out how you could live on a bunch of tiny islands in the middle of the ocean.  Each island seemed to have a function, whether it be nature reserve or fuel depot or airport.  The people did not see each coastline as a limit, the shallow seas in between were as much their gardens, their recreation areas, their farmers fields, even their living space, as any piece of dirt.

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Living in the Community – Claydiggers

The clay here in Fintonia was bright golden and great stacks of bricks had been extracted.  In another location under some trees we found more excavation going on.  A whole family were eagerly digging away in a pit over 10m square and already several metres deep.  They seemed pleased to see us and willing to show what they were up to, pose for photos which we then showed them through the viewfinder to hoots of laughter.  The base of the pit was completely churned up and they were putting the clay into buckets of plastic bags and hauling it up to a dry area in the sun to form the bricks.  They had several ways of forming the bricks with different results.  Some of the bricks looked misshapen and were hand crafted, others they put weights on or formed them from a simple wooden or metal mould.  The clay in the bags appeared to be being taken off to be used to make pottery.  It was all surprisingly industrial for this small rural village.  But here and elsewhere the clay was transforming the landscape.  The traditional “mud huts” or rondavels that were so typical  in Zimbabwe in the 1990s were being replaced by square, quite substantial buildings with galvanised roofing and proper doors and window frames.

This family were interested in what we were doing so we laid out the satellite image on the ground on a dry spot up the slope from their pit.  Covered in a grey slime, they heaved themselves up out of the clay, wiped their wellington boots on the ground and stood around us as we explained the project.  I’m not sure they got the whole story of the property rights issues, but they were fascinated by the satellite imagery.  I know from past experience that people often can interpret satellite imagery easily; once you have orientated them a little they are away.  We showed them the village centre and the roads heading out in  different areas and soon they were pointing out where we were currently standing and where they lived, as well as the school and the community forest.  It was all very encouraging.

Into the Jungle – Kansema

We had one more stop that morning in the small village of Kansema to the east of Madina Oula.  The sun had come out again and the village looked very pleasant, mostly thatched rectangular houses in the centre shaded by mango trees.  We were greeted by a couple of men and we waited as the chief came out of his house and his secretary started to direct the locals to obtain some seating.  As was now a routine, various chairs and benches, even a bucket or two, were dragged out of all the nearby houses and we had our meeting right there in the centre of the village.

As in all the other places we visited we attracted a lot of attention.  At one point I looked across the road to a shady open wooden shed and was greeted by about twenty pairs of eyes of children staring back; new ones would arrive every minute and shuffle inside to keep cool, as well as for them to feel safe from their shyness.  We could not get away without inspecting the community forest so we trooped up a gentle hill to the north.  As we headed up the view to the south revealed itself.  So far in Guinea, the land had been gently undulating and, without the forest of Sierra Leone, you could see for miles across the plain.  Here we were close to the border and the northern edge of the Kuru Hills abruptly rose up and imposed itself on Kansema.  Deep in the hills were chimpanzees and elephants, so close to a manicured human landscape on the Guinea side.  Here was the physical evidence of the fine balance needed for thriving environments but sustainable livelihoods.

Into the Jungle – Conservation against Livelihoods

We were ready for our first appointment and since it was with the national park staff we didn’t have far to go.  As some people were still cleaning their teeth and abluting, the rest of us gathered in a big square.  This made it quite a tricky meeting as you never knew which way to face.  As well as the park staff, our big partners working in the region; Bioclimate and CARE international staff were also present so it was quite a crowd.  But formalities through, plans made, and outcomes highlighted, we piled into our vehicles and drove to the nearby village we passed through the night before – Kortor.

While the national park is on the far side of the Little Scarcies River, the camp we were staying in is on the Kortor side, indeed the land has been granted as a gift from Kortor’s chief.  There have been problems raised with this, as it means the park wardens do not have a proper presence in the park.  Their role is to try and conserve a large area of land and there are examples of incidences of occasional cultivation, firewood collection and even logging going on.  Perhaps bizarrely, there are several small villages in the park.  When the park was declared, some people did not agree to the compensation and relocation package, a rather nice way of saying they were being evicted.  Even thirty years later these villages still stubbornly live on.  Fortunately it looks like their footprint is fairly small; what is more damaging is the pressure at the borders from villagers heading in to raid resources, including bushmeat and trophy animals.  The problem is worse on the Kilimi side where there is no permanent park warden presence – at least in Outamba there are some people trying to moderate the impact and publicise the usefulness of the park.

It is a tough job and it contains the usual variance between conservation against livelihood that tasks communities, governments and international organisations worldwide.  We all agree in principle that the conservation of our biodiversity is essential, but when the poorest people live nearby, who are we in the west to limit their opportunities when we have heavily transformed our own environments for our own economic gain.

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The Centre of Kortor

To arbitrate in this debate, STEWARD tries to have an impact.  By showing the value of keeping forests and harvesting their fruits, medicines and game sustainably, it can maintain a balance of biodiversity and resource for the communities.  STEWARD has high respect in Tambakka Chiefdom and also in the other places it works.  Few development projects have made it to these remote parts, and STEWARD has been careful to build up the trust of the chiefs, elders and communities close to the park before suggesting changes in the way they operate.  Two key people in this were Momoh from Bioclimate and Martin from CARE.  With very different styles, they had become highly respected and liked members of the communities across the region; and if you were introduced by them to anyone, you were already given a lot of consideration.  They were invaluable to outsiders like me who were only on the ground for short times.