Island Grabbing in the Maldives: 'Development' in which Locals Have No Say

Inhabitants of the Maldives are called “dhivehin” in the local language Dhivehi. The local term for the country is “dhivehi raajje” which translates to “the country of dhivehin.” The country of dhivehin is about to become the country of corporates through policies aiding land grab. 

In the Maldives, every couple after marriage gets a plot of land from their registered island. The land belongs to the state. However, commercial use of land to grow crops, run guesthouses, or even for mortgage is not restricted. A decline in the cowrie shell market in the late 19 century coupled with World War II brought an end to the traditional economy based on fisheries and agriculture. However, a new era dawned in the early 1970s with the introduction of “residential” or “guesthouse” tourism. 
Island economies of Malé Atoll (where the international airport is situated) flourished and life changed for the better for local communities. About seven months after guesthouse tourism was successfully introduced, in October 1972, the Maldives also ventured into high-end tourism with the opening of the first resort Kurumba which had 30 beds. By 1983, islands in the Kaaf atoll were successfully running guesthouses adjacent to exclusive resort islands. However, investors in the resort industry saw guesthouse tourism in island communities as a threat to investments and the government banned guesthouse tourism in 1984 (Niyaz 2002). The ostensible reason given was “to protect investments in resorts.” However, this meant that the government’s income increased while economic opportunities and livelihood activities in island communities of the Maldives decreased. 

The Shift

The ban on tourism related activities in inhabited islands robbed the island communities of the opportunity to turn their economies around from the decline of late 19 century. Dhivehin in Maldivian atolls are now abandoning their beautiful islands at an alarming rate to migrate to the capital city Malé owing to a lack of resources. The situation in the Maldives presents a development paradox. One can see an island of a thousand or so people living without proper drinking water and sewage facilities right next to world-class luxury resorts offering every imaginable comfort that money can buy. What do these islanders do? They migrate to a place where the best jobs, services, and resources are available1– the capital city Malé.

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