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Can we, women of this country, have some space to grow food and offer food security to our family?

Updated: Apr 4, 2020

Muna Mohamed

This article is part of Covid 19: Stimuli and Beyond edition of the Journal of the Maldives Economic Review, Volume 1, Issue 3, March 2020

Translation: “When the Last Tree Is Cut Down, the Last Fish Eaten, and the Last Stream Poisoned, You Will Realize That You Cannot Eat Money” 2014: Think about it? In 2014, I started writing a book using census and all available economic data on every atoll including data on how many uninhabited islands each atoll has. I thought that showing demographic, geographic and economic data will make people realize we need to do something about abandoning such rich resources for a congested living in Male’…. I shared the first draft with friends and mother thinking everyone will be very pleased. They weren’t happy. Major problem seemed to be - “just throwing data on people is not enough… we need to talk about some solutions. Take food security for one…..” 2016: Write about it? The book (Falhu Aliran Muy) - now twice bulky, with economic history (on the suggestion of Late Ali Hussain of Novelty Printers) and 11 interventions on future of atoll development got published with one chapter especially for food security. Below excerpts (translation) from the book - It is quite obvious to say that had a global war broke out this very instant, Maldives would be facing severe food shortages because we import literally everything from abroad. Former President Mohamed Amin Didi in his book “Dhivehi Raajje Hanguraamaige Villa Gandehge Dhashuga” (Maldives Under a Cloud of War), stated that during the Second World War, the Government of Maldives sent delegations to every island to caution them about the war, and shortage of food... President Amin also said in his book, that these delegations conducted training programs to educate the people about planting crops and trees that bore food. But what the Maldivian people realized during the war was that, it had been too late. Food shortages were so severe that famine broke out in many islands of the nation, and the people started eating leaves of Magoo (beach cabbage) plants in the island resulting in riots and political turmoil! Food security is not an issue that has been taken seriously in recent history by any government, the People’s Majlis (parliament), or the people living in the atolls…” 2017-2020: Talk about it? Early in the year 2020, I was invited by Transparency Maldives to speak to aspiring women politicians from various atolls, who wish to compete in upcoming council election. I talked to fellow women on how number of economically active women fell with increasing tourism! Stated that even as late as 1970s, number of economically active women was over 60% but today it is less than half with dismal 42%. Interesting stat is agriculture may be less than 1% of GDP but 52% of farmers in Maldives are women! We discussed this in the little time we had, sharing real life stories and talking about what could we, as people do.... what councils could do…. 2020: Early March News of Tourism Ministry awarding an island to businessmen for 50 years broke! Apparently locals of the atoll have made numerous requests over the past 3 decades to the government to give the island for the community. I called a lady in the atoll and asked how she felt about this development! Her reply- “We collect coconut and other crop items from the island. More importantly palm leaves for thatch weaving. From where do we get those now?” I don’t have answers Maybe State would have some answers. I thought. Need to check how they acted in a similar situation around mid-2018. I called another girl in an island which faced a similar situation where traditional industries involving high participation of women were halted by a sudden development project, that took the land they were working. Asked what the state did to help the women and families hit by the ‘development project’! The answer is- nothing! Most are still struggling to continue to work. They used to earn good money through livelihood activities in the land taken, but no more…. Some are single mothers struggling to survive. She said with worry! Apart from these, there are numerous atoll communities requesting state to give priority in allocating uninhabited island to meet basic needs of citizens, be it housing, agriculture, education, leisure... there are material worth couple of books on such incidents and requests, for people interested to explore the area. To be fair, in 2019, 3 women ministers of current government granted me appointments to listen to the issue and they seem to be sympathetic to the cause. 2020: Late March An endemic virus (COVID-19) is forcing the world to slow down! People are advised to stay indoors! Countries are closing borders. Tourism all over the world is hit! Travel is at its minimum. Maldivian resorts are also shutting down - temporarily! With no vaccine and experts predicting that it will be a struggle for at least 18 months, what should we do? Government is doing as much as it can to keep economy afloat. The question is, for how long the government can pump paper money to the economy without any ways to noticeable productive activity?! Tourism industry also is helpful in its effort to give closed resorts to use as a quarantine facility to combat the disease. On 22nd March the Ministry of Tourism announced that they have secured 2288 rooms for the purposes. However why keep other resorts empty and closed for economic activity?

What should we do now? I thought back to discussions with women and young people and the suggestions below are amalgamation of those exchanges. Helping women in this juncture (and beyond) is helping all resort workers whose way of earning an income is now under threat, due to halting of tourism. There are some direct requests from women folks as well, which actually fall under advice on basic manners when one takes what belongs to someone else! Immediately 1. Using closed resort islands or part of it to grow food, process food, (fishing, and agriculture). Join hands with staff and community for a win-win solution! 2. Introduce community food gardens in inhabited and uninhabited islands 3. Restore access to forest of nearest uninhabited islands immediately to ensure protection of livelihood (of women) and food security of island communities. 4. Resorts in every atoll initiating a dialog with women (Women’s Development Committee) of the atoll immediately to discuss ways to collaborate. Medium term 5. Linking morning breakfast at school with local community farmers (primary procurement) and women’s development committees (secondary -preparation arrangements) or agriculture cooperatives in islands. 6. Establish 4 or 5 regional centers to grow crops that are easily cultivated in Maldives and limit import of those. 7. Stop giving whole islands to a single party for tourism targeted to mid and lower market; A. To halt having to give up homes for dwelling, to earn an income from guesthouse tourism. This increases migration to Male’ for a congested living making cash to settle in one geographic area- Male’ as exorbitant rent, limiting other industry growth with income generated from guesthouse economy! Instead B. Restructure land allocation in uninhabited islands targeted to mid-to lower market tourism by allocating plots to people in communities and even multiple companies for a more inclusive economy to give the opportunity to enjoy well-being friendly living in atolls away from congested Male’. Long term 8. Allocating islands from every atoll for community needs (agriculture, education, leisure and well-being, conservation) 9. Diversifying use of uninhabited islands between industries in every atoll. 10. Come up with natural resource plan linking tourism, agriculture fishing and conservation to avoid one industry policy restricting growth of other industries and sections of society be it women, or youth! 11. Formulating Food Security Master Plan at atoll and national level. For Parliament 12. Passing a Food Security Act linking local agriculture and community livelihood. 13. Natural Resource Management Act to manage and protect ecosystems with community participation and involvement that links economic benefits with conservation. 14. Amend Tourism Act or abolish current one for a consolidated law that addresses following concerns A. Parliament urgently needs to review economic rents it has granted, in particular locking future innovation by locking land in a single industry (tourism) and few companies for generations to come. This hinders intergenerational equity and is alien to sustainable development which entails; meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Such rents are also against the spirit of free market competition! B. Restructure land allocation in uninhabited islands targeted to mid-to lower market tourism by allocating plots to people in communities and even multiple companies for a more inclusive economy. 15. Community Land rights Act to safeguard ability of communities to ensure basic needs can be fulfilled for a life of well-being. Some direct requests from women I met (basic manners of transaction initiation) 1. Before giving land plots (for commercial) and uninhabited islands, ask Women’s Development Committee if they want it and if yes give priority to them or go for joint ventures with community! 2. We, the women and communities must have a say in allocation, utilisation of land and uninhabited islands within the atoll! I hope tourism industry, government and parliament rise up to the occasion and turn use of land and uninhabited islands (natural resources) to a more collaborative effort with community, to ensure equitable long term sustainable development that helps to meet SDG targets on food security and women empowerment as well. About the author Muna Mohamed is a Maldivian author and a blogger on forced migration, and management of natural resources for sustainable development to safeguard rights of communities. Educated in Australia she undertook a Bachelor of Commerce from Murdoch University and an MBA from University of Adelaide. She has over 20 years experience in Public Service

Disclaimer: The list is not exhaustive. We need nationwide bipartisan dialog on food security and economic empowerment of women and youth urgently! Highly recommended reading Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future

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