Small, Dispersed, Sustainable, and Prosperous: An Alternative Paradigm to Population Consolidation in the Maldives

Ahmed Shuau
An aerial view of the Maldives.

By nature, economic growth is a continual exercise of ‘scaling up.’ It is a premise that drives the pursuit of greater material output at lower costs—a pursuit that leads to the prioritization of economies of scale at all levels of society. At the national level, it often manifests as a mass policy exercise of population consolidation—the voluntary, and sometimes involuntary, movement of people from dispersed rural communities towards concentrated urban centers. From the conventional perspective of economies of scale, such policy makes sense. It accelerates economic activity and makes the provision of goods and services less costly and more efficient. However, such policies take place at the expense of ecological limits and societal well-being. It fails to recognize the constraints it poses on the ecosystem, its associated ecosystem services, and its consequent effects on society.

The case of the Maldives, an island nation composed of over 1,190 islands dispersed across the Indian Ocean, exhibits one such example. The country is currently in the process of moving the majority of its population to the capital region of Male’, an area of approximately 1.93 square kilometers. While to many outsiders the Maldives conjures images of serenity and bliss, where locals live a slow paced ‘island life-style,’ the reality is that close to half of the country’s population of 340,000 live in chaos, uncertainty, and a myriad of socio-economic problems in the capital city of Male’.1 The story of contemporary Male’ is one of exponential growth in population density, the exhaustion of spatial and natural limits, and consequent socio-economic decline—an archetype on the effects of applying conventional economic thought to policy.

For an island nation such as the Maldives, a vision of an economy composed of small, dispersed, yet connected communities living on their own respective islands makes more sense. Moving away from the materialistic paradigm of scale and consolidation, the Maldives needs a paradigm shift towards a vision that allows communities the means to sustain and thrive within their ecological boundaries. One way to achieve this vision is through exploring the concept of rural-based ecotourism. Such initiatives can create a win–win situation where communities can prosper within their ecological limits while earning a sustainable income.

Population Consolidation and the Myth of Scale and Efficiency

Ibrahim Asad
Male’, the capital of the Maldives.


Just half a century ago, Male’ was an idyllic green island, with a population of only 50,000 as recently as the early 1990s.2 During the 20th century, the Maldivian government based in Male’ increased its role in the economic lives of people throughout the islands. A self-reliant lifestyle, in harmony with nature given a limited economic base,3 was quickly eroded by the promise of development, including schools, hospitals, and harbors that would be fully funded by the government. With the increasing role of the government in the provision of public goods and services on the islands, communities lost the incentive to maintain their own communal schools and other community services.

For the government, fulfilling promises of development over dispersed and small populations brought concerns about diseconomies of scale and the inefficiency of distribution across a geographically dispersed archipelago. The result was a nationwide policy of population consolidation and centralization as one of the main development priorities.4 The growth of tourism, the country’s main industry, imbued the same tones of centralization and consolidation. For the first three decades from its inception, tourism development was mainly restricted to the central atolls near the capital.5

The consequence was an increase in migration to Male’, where the growing population stretched the spatial limits of the island by reclaiming land, destroying the underlying reef, and exhausting the fresh water lens.6 There is an implicit assumption in these government policies that ecosystems are just another input towards the production of the ‘fabric’ of our lives and that ecosystem services can easily be substituted for by built capital.7–9 In this line of thought, concrete seawalls can substitute for coral reefs, freshwater lenses can be replaced with reverse-osmosis plants, and natural beaches with artificial ones.10 The fallacy of this rationale is seen in the pressures being exerted on the substituted infrastructure from an ever-increasing population.11

Dhaalu Hulhudheli, an elderly woman in the Maldives.

Population consolidation has also failed to spur real economic activity. Male’ has the highest unemployment rate in the country at 6.31 percent.1,12 It has relatively few industries, apart from public services and a wholesale retail sector that caters to the domestic market. Living in Male’ can be deemed one of the biggest impediments for Maldivians to engage in the tourism sector; only 14 percent of all employed Maldivians are working in tourism, the largest sector of the economy. Working in the tourism industry means residing for 11 months of the year away from family.13 Until 2011, under the policy restricting resorts to uninhabited islands, tourism was not a prospect for local islands.14

However, an amendment of the Maldives Tourism Act (Law 2/99) in 2011 that allowed for guesthouse tourism in local inhabited islands has still not slowed migration to Male’.4,5 Government policies still prioritize the provision of public services and development in the capital over the rest of the country. This often means that even the successful local guesthouse entrepreneur is still forced to relocate his or her family to the capital while remaining alone on a local island to run the business. For most, the choice to move is a matter of sacrificing their current standard of living by becoming tenants in Male’ in the hope of better education prospects for their children.

A Paradigm Shift: From Consolidation towards Dispersal

From both ecological and long-term economic perspectives, it makes more sense for a nation of geographically dispersed islands to have a dispersed population. Having fewer people on an island puts less strain on the local ecosystem services and ensures that they are maintained within ecological limits.15 The economic rationale easily follows this with the reduction of the need for built capital to substitute natural capital. However, such a reversal in policy requires moving beyond general statements. Encouraging people to revert from an urban lifestyle to life on a small rural island requires an attractive and viable incentive.

In terms of practical policy, the shift away from population consolidation can be two-fold. The first is a policy of creating self-reliant and sustainable rural islands in order to reduce the need to migrate to Male’. The second is creating a new macroeconomic agenda based on an interconnected nation of dispersed communities, each living within its own ecological boundaries.

Self-reliant Islands through Community-based Ecotourism

A Raaveriyaa person attending to his Toddy (coconut sap) on the palm trees.

The Maldives currently depends upon nature tourism, or travel to a particular natural site largely for recreational purposes.16 It is a model reliant on scale and a quest for greater numbers of tourists, and thus puts resorts at an advantage over smaller island guesthouses. In this kind of market, guesthouse businesses can only thrive by pursuing larger scales at the expense of the environment and often by forming partnerships with bigger players. Further, the model is individualistic. There is no notion of communal development. Simply put, an individual tourist business has little incentive to invest in the island school or hospital. In the long run, this model serves as an impediment to rural islands on the path towards greater self-reliance and sustainability. The guesthouse industry is currently on the verge of following the course of resorts that have developed beyond their carrying capacity, undermining local ecosystems.17,18

Community-based Ecotourism (CBET) stands as an alternative model that could provide an incentive for people to return to and develop rural islands. CBET involves small-scale, responsible activities in natural and relatively undisturbed environments carried out by individuals or small groups.19,20 In other words, it is tourism within ecological limits.

Applying CBET will limit local and visitor populations to fit within an island’s carrying capacity. All activities on an island must factor in regeneration rates and waste must be within natural assimilation rates. The main income generating activity would be ecotourism. There needs to be a long-term financial plan such that a part of profits are distributed among all individuals residing on the island, with the remainder invested in the development of communal infrastructure, renewable energy, and the development of human capital. The focus is on efficiency-increasing, rather than throughput-increasing, development.7-9

The pristine nature of the islands coupled with a strong ecoculture means that there is potential for CBET to be developed in the Maldives as a premium brand of tourism. An ecofriendly, traditional island lifestyle could be promoted to tourists as a unique experience and to Maldivians as the alternative to urbanization. However, successful CBET requires preserving the small-scale nature of the sector. Thus, the absence of powerful domestic and transnational corporations is crucial. Around the world, it is often the case that ecotourism is a mere marketing ploy used by large-scale corporations.21

A local artisanal fisherman brings in his catch.

For this reason, first and foremost, the government will need to enforce restrictions on the entrance of large multinational actors into the CBET sector. More importantly, it needs to encourage a culture of collective action within communities. Such can be established through a cooperative societal structure, whereby each individual of a respective CBET island is a member and reaps the benefits of the venture. The rationale behind this is that if the benefits are equally shared among all members, it would create resistance to any possibility of an external entity seeking a stake in the CBET venture.

Can This Vision Become Reality? Practical Steps towards the Paradigm Shift

The shift from an urban lifestyle to a sustainable rural one requires significant sacrifice and commitment both at the individual and national levels. In a sense, it is an exercise in weaning off of an addiction. For the tenant in the urban sprawl of Male’ barely surviving after paying rent each month, the addiction is to a stable—albeit dismal—status quo. It is a preference over the alternative of the unknown. For urban landowners, the addiction is material wealth at the expense of their tenants.9

Similar to any type of addiction, treatment requires demonstrating preferable alternatives.22 At the national level, this will require an assessment of the effects of population consolidation via the use of alternative indicators of welfare,23 such as the Genuine Progress Indicator.24 Such measures can be used to raise awareness among both policy makers and the general public of the negative effects of population consolidation. In addition, Maldivians must be empowered to envision an alternative future. At both the individual and societal level, scenario planning can be used as a tool to show the alternative possibilities of population dispersal and CBET.8,25

Given the current political atmosphere in the Maldives, these ideas will face significant challenges. For the government, population consolidation means consolidation of power, and the alternative paradigm stands against a decades-old policy. Hence, it could even be viewed as a direct refutation of the government’s agenda. Further, those who economically benefit from ever-increasing rental prices in Male’ also stand to lose from this policy, at least in the short-term. Thus, such a paradigm shift will require robust grassroots desire for change. This can be mobilized with the help of nongovernmental technical expertise and financial aid to develop a CBET concept for Maldives and by modeling success through pilot islands.

Afsheen Mohamed
Local boys from the island Alif Alif Mathiveri.

In the long term, a return to greater population dispersion would benefit the entire country. Self-sustaining CBET islands that operate within ecological limits is a win for the environment. It is a win for over two-thirds of the country’s population that hail from islands other than Male’—a transformation of their lives from tenants who live to pay their rent, to self-reliant, communal entrepreneurs. It is also a win for the residents of Male’, as a smaller population is more suitable to balancing the city with its natural environment. A population that knows how to utilize their respective island ecosystems and their local communities in a sustainable manner would be less dependent on the government for the provision of public goods and services.

Most importantly, population dispersion would increase equal access to the country’s natural resources, and more self-reliant islands would spread political power more evenly throughout the country. As such, this is not a vision that can be achieved by individuals working on their own. It is a communal vision and will require collective action that must start with a change in the national conscience.


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