PIJ #58, Mar – May 1996
By Dr Danny Hunter
Editor’s Note: This decade-old article spotlights local indigenous knowledge found in the Maldives – a land today threatened by rising seas. The Maldive Islands have the unfortunate title of having the lowest highest point in the world – only 2.3 metres.
The atolls of the Maldives represent a delicate and unique ecosystem that is highly sensitive to changes resulting from human, climatic and environmental activity. Within this fragile ecosystem a number of indigenous farming systems have evolved that are ecologically and culturally sustainable. Of these, the homegarden has been the most enduring and diverse.
The Maldives is an archipelago made up of about 1200 islands that are scattered in a line running for 800km southwest of the tip of India. Although the total area of the country occupies 90,000km2 of Indian Ocean, its land area is a tiny 300km2.
The islands, of which only 200 are inhabited, are grouped into 19 atolls and are extremely small, averaging 0.5km2, and no more than 2 metres above sea level. Most islands are dominated by large stands of coconut and salt-tolerant coastal fringe forest. Inland, the low lying and relatively fertile soils are able to support numerous tree species and shrubs.
Agriculture under atoll conditions is notoriously difficult due to poor soils, limited water availability, harsh environmental conditions and the scattered and isolated nature of the islands. Despite these constraints, a number of indigenous farming systems have evolved that are highly sustainable in this unique and delicately balanced ecosystem. These systems are characterised by low levels of external inputs and the intensive use of local knowledge and materials.
Spirits, Magic and Astrology
On some islands a type of bush fallow or shifting agriculture is practised. Land clearing and planting is dictated by the local astrological calendar, known as the Nakaiy. This ensures that the season coincides with the rains and is relatively short, minimising the build up of major pest and disease problems. The methods used in this form of agriculture are rich in local knowledge but also rely on a number of magico-religious rituals. Belief in the spiritual world and a local form of magic, fanditha, is very strong in the Maldives and pervades all aspects of life. It is a belief system that has managed to co-exist with Islam for hundreds of years. Certain people are held in high esteem because of their extensive knowledge of fanditha and are very much in demand during periods of cultivation. These people, known as Ihuraveera, make decisions regarding where and when to plant and harvest.
Where the Taro Never Ends
Taro, an extremely important staple food, is maintained in large pits at the edge of swamp areas. These pits are regularly replenished by old leaves from previously harvested taro plants and other dried leaves and are actively trampled into the pit during harvest. These methods, in conjunction with well adapted local taro varieties, have ensured that taro pits have been continuously harvested for decades without any serious fertility or pest and disease problems.
Homegardens – A Source of Riches
However, the most enduring of the indigenous farming systems in the Maldives is the polycultural homegarden. It represents a highly stable system of permanent landuse that is attended to year around.
Like homegardens in other parts of Asia, those in the Maldives do not supply the main source of food or income for the household yet they continuously provide many of the varied household subsistence needs. Most of the species grown in the homegarden, especially fruit and timber trees, are multipurpose in nature providing food, fuelwood, stimulants, dyes, medicines, wrapping, cordage, timber and so on.
Homegardens vary greatly in size and are usually enclosed by coral brick walls, live fences or woven palm leaves. Gardens consist of an upper canopy dominated by coconut, arecanut, breadfruit, mango and other fruit trees, a middle canopy comprising banana, papaya, pandanus and small fruit trees and a lower canopy devoted to a wide range of vegetables, spices, ornamentals and medicinal plants.
Maldivian homegardens represent an enormous range of plant species equalling that found anywhere else in Asia. At least 35 fruit crops, 40 vegetable, 4 cereal, 8 spice, 20 timber and 62 ornamental/flower species are known to be cultivated in Maldivian homegardens. This does not include the vast numbers of medicinal and other utility plants that are grown.
Species such as mango, lime, pomegranate and custard apple have many uses, including medicinal, as do a large number of timber trees such as sea hibiscus and the tulip tree. Banana in addition to supplying food from the fruit and flower also provides leaves for wrapping, plates, mulching, decoration, cooking, cordage and polishing. Pandanus provides food from the fruit and nut but also perfume from the flower, timber, leaves for composting, pest control, wrapping, flowers for insect repellent, wood for handicrafts, fuelwood, timber and gum for caulking fishing boats. Coconut certainly lives up to its name, the tree of life, and has been estimated to have over 170 individual uses on the islands.
The major soil preparation methods used in homegardens are the preparation of beds and digging of planting holes. Planting holes are usually filled with old plant material, coconut husks, rusty cans and kitchen wastes. Most of the crops in the homegarden rely on rain for water although certain high value vegetable crops will receive watering during dry periods. Other practices such as mulching, pruning and grafting are carried out intermittently.
Inventive Natural Pest Control
In homegardens a large number of traditional pest control methods have been devised to minimise damage by fruit bats, rats and certain insects. Bats are notorious for feeding on fruits and homegardens protect ripening fruit by enclosing them in coconut shells, covering trees with fishing nets, snaring bats with hooks and fishing lines, placing human effigies and oil lamps in trees and pulling tin can scaring devices. Rats which can cause enormous damage to coconuts are prevented from gaining access to nuts by banding the trunk with pandanus and palm leaves or more commonly with tin sheeting. Rats are also caught by locally made traps using sticks and large coral stones. Hand-picking of certain insect pests, such as the coconut rhinoceros beetle, is common. Other homegardeners drive off insect pests by smoking them out with fires under fruit trees.
The Ghosts of the Garden
Homegardens are an important site for farmer innovation and experimentation and therefore represent a highly dynamic system. It is here that farmers are most likely to try out new varieties and species before planting in the field. Homegardeners have also been observed to experiment with different methods of mulching, grafting and composting.
Given the belief in the supernatural, it is hardly surprising that a number of ghosts or dhevi are associated with certain trees such as the coconut, pandanus, or country almond while others resemble parts of plants such as Eshibedi fereytha, which is seen as a collection of coconut midribs or Hanukissaara, which resembles a human being but with the head of a banana flower.
People build their homes in such ways that these dhevi cannot enter. Certain dhevi are believed to be only capable of walking in straight lines and unable to bend. Consequently, islanders have built their homes with crooked paths and low roofs so that anyone entering must bend down in order to avoid banging their head!
Clearly, homegardens represent a highly diverse and productive system that has helped to sustain life on these islands for hundreds of years. It remains to be seen for how much longer they can continue to do so as they face mounting challenges from the growing trend towards a more input intensive agriculture. A closer examination of homegarden systems is long overdue and could provide a wealth of information and strategies for future sustainable agriculture in the Maldives.