Monday, October 17, 2016


Raakhee Suryaprakash

Climate Change is all pervasive. You’d think it would only affect livelihoods directly involved with the seas. But it also affects traditional Maldivian mat-making. Through its impact on this social enterprise climate change influences job security and cultural practices and traditions.

MACCS (c) Aisha Niyaz
One of trainers at the South Asian Climate Tracker Conference and Workshop was the wonderful Aisha Niyaz from Maldives. She is an environmental practitioner, passionate about addressing climate change with a background in Environmental Management and Sustainable Development. And she works pro bono with not-for-profit, community based organisations such as the Maldives Authentic Crafts Cooperative Society (MACCS). MACCS founded by 10 women in 2011, strives to revive the traditional arts and crafts of Maldives. One of their key projects since 2012 has been the revival of the authentic Maldivian mat named “Thundukunaa.”

Through successfully receiving the small grant scheme from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the Mangroves for the Future (MFF) facilitated through UNDP, MACCS has not only been able to revive traditional livelihoods (reed cultivation and mat weaving) but also has empowered a number of women and enhanced their general well-being. Fiyoaree is the only island out of the 1190 islands across the Maldives, where premium quality reeds preferred by the mat weaving community are found.

In addition to reminding me that Maldives is a collection of atolls – coral islands whose survival is intrinsically linked with the life of the magnificent reefs surrounding the islands – Aisha also showed us how climate change is affecting this attempt at reviving a traditional handicraft.

Marshland with Reed Plantation
(c) Aisha Niyaz
Educating Local School Children
(c) Aisha Niyaz
These traditional mats once found in great numbers in every Maldivian home especially in the southern atolls with more than 70 uses was replaced by multiple alternatives. With competition from import of cheap mats and plastic mats these long-lasting reed mats needed a shot in the arm.  But by being creative in producing value added products  (coasters, table mats, bags, instead of just mats as souvenirs for tourists and prayer mats,  MACCS has successfully revived this traditional industry since 2012 .

First Cheap/Plastic Mats, Then Threatened by Climate Change

Engaging local school children
(c) Aisha Niyaz
Now where does the climate change angle creep into this success story of reviving traditions? Well the raw material for these mats which can last for hundreds of years are a specific kind of reed. The best reeds only grow in one marshland. The marshland of Gaafu Dhaalu, Fiyoaree. This marshland is also a stopover for a phenomenal number of migratory birds. This site is both important environmentally and through its contribution to a major Maldivian heritage. A site of national significance in both ecological and cultural aspects. But like any other land on a small atoll at sea level its very existence is at threat with rising sea levels. It is now a challenge for the reed farmers to continue their farming due to the continuous flooding of the marshland over the past year due to unusual rain. The unpredictable sun and rains affects the correct sun drying of the reed and gathering of other natural materials like barks for natural dyeing.

Water and food security in Maldives depends on import. Cost of living is high. Extreme weather and blockages in the supply chain can further increase prices. Now if the source of income is imperilled by climate change as well as its affecting access we have a Gordian knot of problems. Just 20 minutes of rain causes some islands to flood. Sea level rise, erosion of beaches, bleached corals in a warming and acidified sea, etc. are all problems with origin in carbon emissions.

Reed Plantation
(c) Aisha Niyaz
The atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) crossed 400 ppm permanently this past year. This increases CO2 dissolving in the sea which makes acidic carbonic acid which adds to ocean acidification. Of course CO2 is a major green house gas (GHG) which affects global temperatures.

Now these dry facts translate into a threat to the Maldivian life and livelihood. It’s even affecting a nascent social enterprise that seeks to empower and employ women. It is a threat to a traditional handicraft. Nations and peoples at the forefront of climate change threats thus face multi-layered threats.