In the years leading up to the 1990s residents of the islands of Vaavu Atoll were benefitting enormously from the trade of black coral. Eight years ago when the collection of black coral was banned, the people knew that they would be losing precious income from the lucrative but endangered marine animal.

But today, thanks to a unique undertaking supported by UNDP and the Government of Japan, Vaavu atoll residents have seen increased employment and earning possibilities instead. Dubbed the “pearl culture project,” the programme has introduced techniques of oyster culture and pearl culture on demonstration farms, along with pearl jewelry manufacturing and marketing. None of these had been tried in Maldives before.

The venture, funded by the Japan Human Resource Development Fund and executed by the Marine Research Centre of Maldives, has today grown into a small-scale domestic industry, with the project’s two pearl culture rafts in commercial operation. Truly Maldivian souvenirs are not found in plenty in the souvenir shops. Although a lucrative industry once, environmental consciousness and the introduction of other cheaper alternatives such as importing has meant that people who are engaging in this industry has become fewer and fewer.

Targeting traditional craftspeople and jewelers, outer atoll inhabitants and businesspeople who sell souvenirs, the project aimed to increase the availability of these raw materials so that the 460,000 odd tourists who visit the Maldives’ every year can find more Maldivian-made souvenirs.

“If the people can sell these to craftsmen in the islands, then they can make a handsome profit” says Project Officer Hussain Mohamed. “And then the souvenir shops can sell truly Maldivian handicrafts that tourists really want.”

Agrees field worker Hussein Manik: “We rely on marine resources for most of our everyday lives. This is a good way of making sustainable use of them.”

In particular, the project has reached out to women like Faheema Abdul Latheef, who says, “Women do not always want to stay at home and work. I want to get involved in other activities and earn some money. This is the best work I have ever done.”

The results of the first project have inspired even bigger thinking. Building on the solid relationships built between the community and MRC, the project is to expand, with support from the Government of Japan and UNDP.

“We are very pleased to have the Japanese Government as a partner, both in providing funding for the project and also as a country where a tradition of pearl culture is renowned in the market for its high value,” says the UNDP Resident Representative, Minh H. Pham. He said the new phase of the project is likely to help create jobs for Maldives’ atoll youth, many of whom face serious employment challenges. Maldives also has a small economic base.

Depending mainly on tourism for a major part of its GDP, there is increasing pressure on the government to expand the narrow economic base given the volatility of the tourism industry. The second phase will concentrate on creating stronger market links to the private sector with a view to opening up marketing opportunities both in the domestic and international markets.

“For the people of Maldives, who have depended on the sea for ages for a living,” Minh Pham notes, “pearl culture should be a welcome addition to the sea-based income-generating activities available to them.”

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