Geography Overview of the Maldives
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Published: Mon, 04 Sep 2017
This paper reviews the Maldives and the political, economic, topographical, and historical geography of the nation and its people. After a brief overview of basic facts, the paper will shift focus to more specific areas. First, a look at the topographical geography of the nation, reviewing formation and size of atolls, as well as climate, flora, and fauna. Historical geography, political geography, and economic geography will be followed by a conclusion of the current state of the Maldives and possible future outcomes of the nation based on political and climate changes.
The Republic of Maldives is a South Asian country comprised of atolls located in the Indian Ocean. It is an isolated archipelago that is one of the smallest and poorest countries in the entire world. The United Nations estimated that the population of Maldives to be approximately 294,000 people (Metz, 1995). The Maldivian capital of Male’ holds about a quarter of the total population.
Officially, Divehi is the language of Maldives. Divehi is spoken similarly to the old Ceylon language. Arabic and Urdu have influenced the language, and Maldivians write in Thaana. Most government officials speak English, but only a small percentage of Maldivians speak anything other than Divehi. Ethnic groups consist of a combination of Sinhalese, Arabic, Dravidian, Australasian, and African assemblages (Metz, 1995).
The Republic of Maldives is the smallest country in Asia. An archipelago located in the Indian Ocean, Maldives consists of nearly 1,200 coral islands assembled in a dual chain of 27 atolls. These atolls sit upon a ridge jutting up from the Indian Ocean in a north-to-south expanse of 596.5 miles (Brown, Turner, Hameed, & Bateman, 1997). Many atolls are made of circular coral reefs which support small islands within. Each island spans about a mile, and are less than a mile above sea level. Maldives is the world’s lowest country, with an average ground-level elevation of only 4 feet 11 inches above sea level. The highest point in the Maldives is also the lowest in the world, coming in at 7 feet 10 inches (Metz, 1995). No single island is longer than 5 miles or wider than 18 miles. Each atoll has about five to ten islands that are populated, and twenty to sixty which are unpopulated. Many atolls consist of a main remote island enclosed by a steep coral beach (Metz, 1995).
The Maldives archipelago is situated upon the Chagos-Maldives-Laccadive Ridge, which is an immense underwater mountain range. This particular geographical set up forms a unique terrestrial ecoregion, but leaves the nation susceptible to natural disasters due to rising sea levels. For example, the tsunami of 2004 killed more than 100 Maldivians and displaced more than 12,000 (BBC News, 2014). Other environmental issues plague the Maldives, leading to a diminishing supply of freshwater and poor sewage treatment (Brown et al, 1997).
Approximately 200 of these atolls are inhabited by local Maldivians, and 87 of the islands have been converted into lavish resorts for travelers and tourists. The lush groves of breadfruit and coconut trees, the sandy beaches and beautiful corals visible through crystal clear waters combined to attract nearly a million and a half tourists to Maldives in 2015 (Naish, 2016).
Historical and Political Geography
Early Maldivian history is shrouded in mystery. No archeological remains have been found of early settlers. The earliest identified settlers were probably from southern India followed by migrants from Sri Lanka. Arab sailors came from east Africa and other countries, and today’s ethnicity reflects a blend of these cultures (Metz, 1995). Many researchers believe the earliest settlers to be of Aryan descent, coming from India and Sri Lanka in the 5th century BC. Maldivians are believed to have practiced Hinduism, then Buddhism until 1153 AD. The sitting king of Maldives was converted to Islam in the 12th century (Metz, 1995). Maldivian history reflects the Islamic concept that before Islam, ignorance reigned, although the Maldivian culture reflects much of the customs and mannerisms from when Buddhism was prominent in the area. Since that initial Islamic conversion, the recording of history in Maldives was much more consistent (MaldiveIsle, 2010). After Islamic conversion, the Maldivian government was considered a monarchy ruled by sovereign sultans, and intermittent Sultanas or queens (MaldiveIsle, 2010).
Trade wars with the Portuguese during the 16th century lead to Portuguese seizure of Male in 1558. In 1573, resistance leader Muhmmad Thakurufanu defeated the Portuguese invaders and ruled Maldives until 1752. At this time, Malabari pirates overthrew the Sultan, Ali 6th, and stationed army troops in the capitol. Maldivian leader Muleege Hassan Maniku regained control of the throne (MaldiveIsle, 2010). Political instability led Maldives to enter into a protectorate with the British in 1887, wherein Maldives gained protection from foreign antagonism, in exchange agreeing not to join forces with any other foreign authority (MaldiveIsle, 2010).
Although researchers disagree whether or not Maldives was definitely independent of British power, for the most part Maldivians enjoyed independence from foreign rulers. The Maldivian constitution was formed in 1932, with overtones of Islamic Sharia law, and the sultanate becoming an elected position (MaldiveIsle, 2010). However, the public disagreed, physically tearing the Constitution to pieces and dethroning the Sultan in 1934 for overstepping his bounds. A new Constitution was written in 1937. Nine years later, the British agreement was renewed. The Maldives changed from a monarchy to a Republic within the British Commonwealth in 1953, and the position of sultanate was eliminated. Mohammed Amin Didi was the first elected President of Maldives, but his victory was cut short after being overthrown due to food scarcities and his tobacco ban. The Sultanate once again ruled Maldives until 1968, with famine caused by World War Two lingering into the 1950’s. Mohammed Fareedh was the last Sultan of the Maldives, having been ousted after the Republic was reinstated and Ibrahim Nasir became President in 1968 (BBC News, 2016).
Nasir retired in 1978, and was succeeded by Abd al-Gayoom. Maldives rejoined the Commonwealth in 1982, after the tourist industry led to expanded economic growth (BBC News, 2016). Gayoom was reelected repeatedly until 2008, when opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed became President. Nasheed resigned in 2012 after demonstrations and mutiny by the police force, and Vice-President Mohamed Waheed rose to the Presidency. Political unrest in Maldives continued after the 2013 election of Gayoom’s half-brother, Abdulla Yameen. However, opposition leader and former President Nasheed was arrested on terrorism charges in 2015, prompting speculation from international governments about political unrest in Maldives (BBC News, 2016). Nasheed was sentenced to 13 years for his terrorism case, but was granted leave in January 2016 to travel to Britain for back surgery. In April, the Maldivian government ordered Nasheed to return; however, Nasheed was granted refugee status in Britain, where he remains to this day (BBC News, 2016). Abdulla Yameen remains the Maldivian President, and in October 2016 the Maldives announced its departure from the Commonwealth (BBC News, 2016).
Current political atmospheres in Maldives appear to be relatively stable. The political structure remains a Republic with an executive President and a Legislature known as People’s Majlis. Both positions are selected during elections that take place every five years. Like the United States, Presidents are limited to two terms in office (BBC News, 2016).
Once known as “The Money Isles”, Maldives was the main producer of cowry shells. These Maldivian cowries were used in monetary transactions over most of Asia and much of East Africa, and the cowry is used as the symbol of the Maldives Monetary Authority. Historically, shipping and fishing have been the fixed industries of the nation, not surprising since the Maldives territory is comprised of islands (MaldiveIsle, 2010).
Poor soil quality and scarce cultivatable land limit the practice of agriculture. Native fruits and vegetables are used mainly to feed natives, and most other living essentials are imported. Crafting and boatbuilding fuel business workings, and more modern manufacturing and assembly is limited to a fish cannery, a few garment factories, and assorted consumer products. Many Maldivians work in the fishing industry, which employs almost half of the labor force (Brown et al, 1997).
With fishing being the main source of employment for Maldivians, a variety of fish is caught and exported for profit. The main types of fish caught and sold are skipjack tuna, yellowfin tuna, little tuna, and frigate mackerel. Once done by hand with a line and pole, modern fishing vessels have enabled Maldivian fishermen to nearly triple their catch, while refrigeration has allowed for longer storage times which enable fishermen to travel farther out to sea for their catch (MaldiveIsle, 2010).
Although there appears to be a shortfall of resources in the Maldives, tourism has grown impressively over the last twenty years. The beauty and tranquility of the water, as well as the native flora and fauna attracts nearly 1.2 million tourists per year. Because of this uptick in tourism, skilled laborers such as construction workers, tile workers, and other craftsmen are experiencing an increase in work (Naish, 2016).
Overall, Maldives is a beautiful, lively nation with a vibrant history and interesting culture. From early Dravinian culture to modern-day Islam, Maldives has remained steadfast in its resolve to preserve the atolls that nearly a quarter million people call home. However, despite local government efforts, the increasing damaging effects of climate change and global warming threaten to eliminate this isolated gem from the world map entirely. Only time will tell if efforts to reduce climate change impact can save this wonderful nation.
Brown, K., Turner, R., Hameed, H., & Bateman, I. (1997). Environmental carrying capacity and tourism development in the Maldives and Nepal. Environmental Conservation, 24(4), 316-325. Retrieved from https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/environmental-conservation/article/div-classtitleenvironmental-carrying-capacity-and-tourism-development-in-the-maldives-and-nepaldiv/DC50C550C6E6403C034B77F3292FAB9F
History of Maldives. (2010). In Maldive Isle. Retrieved from http://www.maldiveisle.com/history.htm
Maldives Profile- Timeline. (2016). In BBC News. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-12653969
Metz, H. C. & Library Of Congress. Federal Research Division. (1995) Indian Ocean: five island countries. [Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress: For sale by the Supt. of Docs., U.S. G.P.O] [Online Text] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/95016570/.
Naish, A. (2016). Tourist arrivals reach 1.2m in 2015. In Maldives Independent. Retrieved from http://maldivesindependent.com/business/tourist-arrivals-reach-1-2m-in-2015-121424
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