The Edition brings readers a dose of positive news over a cup of tea shared with inspirational folk doing all sorts of positive work in the Maldives.
The origin of ‘Save the Beach’ (STB) is a rather dramatic story. What would become one of the most prominent Environment NGOs in the Maldives began as a movement in the island of Villimale, Kaafu Atoll, circa 2007 when a group of young surfers finally decided to do something about the island’s littering problem.
One of those surfers was Hassan Ahmed, who is mostly known by the fond nickname of ‘Beybe’ (brother), the current president of STB. Reminiscing the old days, he recalled how the surfers had collected over three tonnes of garbage from Villimale’s beach and lagoon when they started out. It was a practice they kept up “because that was our home; the beach, the ocean”.
Things took a drastic turn when news broke that the east side of Villimale - their beloved wave break - was to be reclaimed. As Beybe recalled, the surfers had, with the support of the entire island community, struck out on their surfboards to protest, going so far as to tie themselves to the barge of sand that was brought to the lagoon. When the police, unsurprisingly, turned up to control the situation, the residents of Villimale turned up to back the surfers.
“We explained [to the police] that we weren’t doing anything wrong. We just wanted to save the beach."
And in that vein, Save the Beach was born.
Although STB was officially registered as an NGO only later in 2012, the group became established early on, bringing together like-minded people to “save the beaches” of Maldives. The passionate volunteers are led by Beybe and his wife Fathimath Thanzeela Naeem (Thanzy), two of the co-founders who have been described as the "heart and soul" of STB respectively.
"It's quite a difficult thing to base your work on volunteers," said Thanzy, musing on the challenge of balancing volunteer work with everyday lives and careers. "Initially it was hard to find people who could be dedicated to the cause and be consistently involved. Volunteers are always changing, but we do have people now who are always there for all the activities."
"I think by us being there all the time, we’ve proven to people that we’re not willing to give up, and maybe that drives and motivates others to join forces with us to fight for this cause and create awareness."
Starting out with regular cleanups and placing dustbins around Villimale, STB began to branch out in more ways than one. Spreading their work to other islands, the organisation took on the challenge of not simply cleaning up beaches, but raising awareness and encouraging the residents of islands to do it themselves.
“We share our knowledge and experience with those trying to do cleanups,” explained Beybe. “For example, we have to conduct a Waste Audit to identify the types of litter in that area, and the amount and type of dustbins needed. STB teaches people how to do it all."
Teaching and leading by example, STB has set this ball rolling in several islands since Villimale and the community reach out has steadily improved. While STB itself has organised cleanups in islands its members got to visit, several islands also take the initiative to reach out to the organisation first, be it the island council, school or the community - and many of those islands, Beybe noted with pride, not only continue the movement to keep the environment clean, but they have formed groups and NGOs of their own as well. Some of the islands steadfastly carrying forward STB’s work include Ukulhas in Alif Alif Atoll, Huraa and Himmafushi in Kaafu Atoll, and Fuvahmulah and Addu City.
“They take the initiative themselves now,” said Beybe, the gratification evident in his voice. “They usually inform us of events they organise, and we often offer to help and collaborate."
Over the years, STB has expanded its repertoire from beach cleanups to a great deal of conservation work, reef research, coral planting, turtle research, waste audits, and workshops to raise awareness among schools and communities.
In fact, one of the most prominent forays of STB was the ‘One Nation Coral Revival’ event hosted in Villimale in April 2015. STB had rescued coral colonies from a reclamation site of Hulhumale Phase II, and some of the corals were planted in the Villimale reef during the One Nation festival. The event greatly engaged the community within the Greater Male region, and it helped to establish STB’s name in the public sphere.
One Nation was also a lesson learnt for STB, whose members lacked professional training in certain areas at the time. Some 85 percent of the replanted corals died and STB realised the disadvantages of inter-lagoon coral relocation. Following One Nation, the organisation upped efforts to provide proper reef training and diving for its executive members, which number around 10. Now, they are all certified divers and qualified to carry out reef surveys, coral relocation, waste audits, and familiar with turtle protocols.
With the proper education, training and experience, STB’s future work yielded more results. For instance, STB successfully relocated coral colonies from a reclamation site in Himmafushi to another location within the same lagoon in 2016. Coral gardens planted at Meeru Island Resort in 2017 and at Palm Beach Resort earlier this year, are also thriving.
"We tried different methods to let the corals grow healthily," said Thanzy. "These were first grown in the nursery, and we replanted them [in the lagoons]."
The group has also taken on more research and survey projects, compiling an impressive database of information that STB happily shares with relevant authorities including the environment ministry and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“Our data is for everyone, not just us,” remarked Beybe, emphasising that what truly mattered is what is done for the environment, regardless of who does it.
With its growing number of volunteers, STB has continued to work extensively with the government. The organisation is a key partner of ‘Farukoe’, the initiative spearheaded by the education ministry’s Ufaa program to ensure every child of Maldives experiences the reef at least once, to nurture their love for the marine environment. Other collaborations include workshops with Waste Management Corporation (WAMCO)’s employees on waste management, and an awareness campaign with the environment ministry.
Moreover, STB has been collaborating for three years with the University of Genova, which has been carrying out various research projects in the Maldives over the past two decades.
STB celebrated its tenth anniversary in style on November 18, 2017, hosting the event 'Moodhu Majaa' at Villimale, with a grand beach and reef cleanup, waste audit, and fun training programmes on snorkelling and diving for visitors.
Looking back on STB’s endeavours over the past decade, the difference and impact this passionate group has made amongst local communities are evident. Volunteers that started out with STB has ventured forward and formed their own NGOs, while a glance at Villimale alone shows that litter on the beach has gone down by 40 percent. Discourse on climate change and environment protection - crucial topics for a low-lying archipelago with magnificent but sensitive ecosystems - has been made forefront, with more and more of the younger generations actively advocating for the protection and preservation of their home country’s natural habitats.
The volunteer basis of STB itself, which currently numbers around 80 people, is also growing stronger by the day.
"For a volunteer group, it’s more like a family," remarked Aminath Nazra, who was appointed as STB's project manager in 2017. "We all have the same goal, the same passion. It’s a pool of different people, but we can work together because we respect each other and we all know that our goal is the same: conservation. And I think that’s our main strength."
Now STB is looking forward to what it hopes is a brighter future, where instead of just cleanups, “we can actually manage the waste here in the Maldives”.
Beybe pointed out that individual efforts go a long way in building a good foundation, such as refraining from littering and segregating household waste prior to collection. “It’s one’s own responsibility."
As an organisation, STB plans to begin waste segregation on beaches, even as it eyes its ultimate goal - the ‘Turquoise Project’. Under this ambitious endeavour, STB intends to conduct special workshops on waste management, turtle research, and reef surveys and research in every atoll of Maldives and provide toolkits, enabling locals to carry on the work by themselves and form their own NGOs. Hence, through the Turquoise Project, STB not only hopes to spread environmental and conservation efforts to all the islands of Maldives, but compile a database from data collected simultaneously from every corner of the archipelago, which would form a sound baseline for future studies and research.
In the meantime, the organisation is moving forward with its current work, emphasising the importance of individual- and community-level efforts to make a change on the national scale.
“Our reefs are being damaged as they have never been in these past two years," said Beybe.
"We can’t take our oceans for granted today. We’ve been abusing our seas for a long time. Small things leave big impacts … Today there are reefs which are completely dead and they take a long, long time to recover. So we can’t take our oceans and our reefs for granted, they need to be protected."