Island Grabbing in the Maldives: "Development" in which Locals Have No Say

Inhabitants of the Maldives are called “dhivehin” in the local language Dhivehi. The local term for the country is “dhivehi raajje” which translates to “the country of dhivehin.” The country of dhivehin is about to become the country of corporates through policies aiding land grab. 

In the Maldives, every couple after marriage gets a plot of land from their registered island. The land belongs to the state. However, commercial use of land to grow crops, run guesthouses, or even for mortgage is not restricted. A decline in the cowrie shell market in the late 19 century coupled with World War II brought an end to the traditional economy based on fisheries and agriculture. However, a new era dawned in the early 1970s with the introduction of “residential” or “guesthouse” tourism. 
Island economies of Malé Atoll (where the international airport is situated) flourished and life changed for the better for local communities. About seven months after guesthouse tourism was successfully introduced, in October 1972, the Maldives also ventured into high-end tourism with the opening of the first resort Kurumba which had 30 beds. By 1983, islands in the Kaaf atoll were successfully running guesthouses adjacent to exclusive resort islands. However, investors in the resort industry saw guesthouse tourism in island communities as a threat to investments and the government banned guesthouse tourism in 1984 (Niyaz 2002). The ostensible reason given was “to protect investments in resorts.” However, this meant that the government’s income increased while economic opportunities and livelihood activities in island communities of the Maldives decreased. 

The Shift

The ban on tourism related activities in inhabited islands robbed the island communities of the opportunity to turn their economies around from the decline of late 19 century. Dhivehin in Maldivian atolls are now abandoning their beautiful islands at an alarming rate to migrate to the capital city Malé owing to a lack of resources. The situation in the Maldives presents a development paradox. One can see an island of a thousand or so people living without proper drinking water and sewage facilities right next to world-class luxury resorts offering every imaginable comfort that money can buy. What do these islanders do? They migrate to a place where the best jobs, services, and resources are available1– the capital city Malé.

The Maldivian population in 1921 was 70,413 of which only 6,127 (9%) lived in Malé. When we look at the numbers about 93 years later, in 2014, the number of registered inhabitants in Malé was 60,011 (National Bureau of Statistics 2016). However, the 2014 census shows the number of people living in Malé to be 129,381 which would mean almost 38% of the total enumerated population (344,023) of Maldives. How do they live? Crammed in tiny flats in slums and spending 85% of their income on rent (HRCM nd). This has resulted in Malé being listed as one of the world’s most congested cities with more than 65,201 persons per km2 as per the latest census conducted in 2014 (National Bureau of Statistics 2015). Of the 129,381 people living in the city, almost 53% are migrants from other islands and they live in temporary accommodation arrangements.

This has created a situation where many basic human rights of the migrants are violated. For example, houses on the sixth or seventh floors of apartment buildings are let out to them even without lifts and other safety features. There is no institution to regulate conditions of housing in Malé. Hence, one may have to pay an exorbitant amount for a 15 square feet-room without even basic ventilation. Many researches note that parents and families are forced to work round the clock to survive in Malé (UNDP 2014). When asked why people of other islands continue to migrate to such a chaotic environment; people listed education, followed by jobs, and living with family as reasons in the 2014 census.

Rich Country, Poor Island Communities

Th total revenue of the Maldives government increased from 8.79 billion rufiyaa in 2008 to 12.14 billion rufiyaa in 2013 (Ministry of Finance and Treasury 2011). As the Maldives made gains in GDP due to the introduction of tourism and growth in other industries, people in the atolls also aspired to get better education, health services, jobs, clean water, sewage systems, paved roads, and access to urban cities. Once such services became available in the capital Malé, many people expected that governments will start developing cities in other regions too. However, that did not happen. Instead, successive governments started building more housing units in Malé, followed by massive expenditure for reclamation of lagoons in Hulhumalé to make a satellite city adjacent to Malé.  The UN Special Rapporteur on Housing stated that the main problem in the Maldives was not lack of housing, but rather the absence of “urban” or city level facilities in regions except Malé (UN General Assembly 2010).

One might be forgiven for thinking that there could have been a problem in availability of land elsewhere in the country for urbanisation. The land reclaimed in Hulhumalé initially had only 200 hectares. However, there is naturally available area of more than 600 hectares in L Gan and Addu atoll. In addition, Hanimadhoo (from Thiladhunmathi atoll in Northern Maldives) has more than 300 hectares. By 2015, full reclamation produced 400 hectares of land in Hulhumalé even though Fuvahmulah atoll in the south had more than 490 hectares of naturally available land ready for development (National Bureau of Statistics 2011). Besides Malé, the most populous atoll in the Maldives is Addu with a registered population of 32,057. This is more than the enumerated population of reclaimed Hulhumalé which was about 14,843 as per the 2014 census.

In all fairness, the government of the former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom did declare that it would develop L Gan (the largest naturally occurring land area of more than 600 hectares) to the same level as Hulhumalé. However, while the implementation of the Hulhumalé development project went at full speed, the project for L Gan stalled (Muhamed 2014). The current government recently declared that the second phase of Hulhumalé will be able to resettle 200,000 people, taking the total population of the city to 400,000 on completion of the project (The President’s Office, 2015). The total enumerated population of the Maldives according to the 2014 census is 344,023 (National Bureau of Statistics 2015). This means that all Maldivians will be crammed into 400 hectares of land.

Amidst this chaos regarding atoll development, a new constitution was passed in 2008 to promote decentralised governance in the Maldives. For a brief period, many islanders believed that the new constitution followed by the Decentralisation Act would empower them to develop their islands and atolls on their own without relying heavily on the central government and on central decision-making.  Like the L Gan project, the government seems reluctant to fully implement the decentralisation law which would give powers to island councils formed as per the act. A UN report which declared that the Maldives is more centralised stated that:

“Island councils have no economic freedom and no incentives to support innovative economic activity. Many councils feel their hands are tied and all that decentralisation has brought about is additional costs (councilor salaries) and less revenue. Even though the act allows them to operate businesses, it appears that the central government is prevents them from doing so. Currently, the island councils are financially and fiscally disempowered…”

The report further recommends:

"In some areas of the Maldives if councils were given the space to pursue economic programs and make use [of] financial instruments within the confines of tight regulations, they would be able to stimulate local economic development and create jobs. This could result in a range of benefits and create an environment in which the quality of social services could improve." (UNICEF 2013)

However, none of these things have happened. By preventing the empowerment of island communities through local governance, encouraging the push towards relocation of islanders to Malé and Hulhumalé, and through the amendment paving for land grabs, the government has forced concerned Maldivians to realise that they will have to abandon their atolls and migrate only to pave way for commercial use of land. The amendment includes the following provisions: allowing lease of islands for 99 years to private investors for building resorts; introduction of Special Economic Zones (SEZ) that threaten local governance and allow corporate ownership and rule of Maldivian atolls; 8th amendment to Tourism Law removing the requirement for open bidding process in awarding islands, land or lagoons in Maldives; amendment to the constitutional clause 251 allowing foreign investors to own land in the Maldives. The results of these amendments show that developers and few oligarchs from the Maldives and some foreign countries such as China and Saudi Arabia are getting what they want– beautiful islands with pristine beaches free of locals (Kumar 2015).

Due to its deliberate nature (The President’s Office 2015), the drive to force locals to migrate to Hulhumalé by the state is a violation of the resolution against forced displacement of natives (United Nations 2004). Sometimes, governments term involuntary movements as migration to avoid the responsibilities to safeguard basic human rights that are sacrificed by displaced persons and hide the involuntary nature of their movement (Mooney 2005; Terminski 2012). International donor agencies are often involved in implementing such policies without giving due consideration to social costs associated with the destruction of indigenous communities and their identities.

If this island grabbing masked as development continues unabated, the Maldives could become a country where 100% of dhivehin will be forced to live on one tiny island city. The saddest part of this development is that the locals have no say in shaping their own future.



Colton, Elizabeth Overton (1995): The Elite of the Maldives: Sociopolitical Organisation and Change. PhD Thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.
Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (nd): Rapid Assessment of the Housing Situation in the Maldives,
Kumar Sanjay (2015): “This Will Make the Country a Chinese Colony,” The Diplomat, July 25,

Mooney, Erin (2005): “The Concept of Internal Displacement and The Case for Internally Displaced Persons as a Category of Concern,” Refugee Survey Quarterly, Vol 24, No 3, pp 9-26.

Ministry of Finance and Treasury (2011): Statistical Yearbook of Maldives 2011: Finance, Malé: National Bureau of Statistics,
Ministry of Planning and National Development (nd): 25 Years of Statistics, Maldives,
Muhamed, Muna (2014): “Tale of Two Cities: The Difference between Rhetoric and Commitment,” Voice of Maldives Islands, 28 March,
National Bureau of Statistics (2011): Statistical Yearbook of Maldives 2011: Geography, Malé: National Bureau of Statistics,
National Bureau of Statistics (2015): Maldives - Population and Housing Census 2014, Statistical Release I: Population and Households, Malé: National Bureau of Statistics,
National Bureau of Statistics (2015): Maldives - Population and Housing Census 2014, Statistical Release II: Migration, Malé: National Bureau of Statistics,
National Bureau of Statistics (2016): Statistical Yearbook of Maldives 2016: Population, Malé: National Bureau of Statistics,
Niyaz Ahmed (2002): Tourism in the Maldives: A Brief History of Development, Malé: Ministry of Tourism, Maldives.

Stanley, Jason (2004): Development-induced Displacement and Resettlement, Forced Migration Online,

Statistical Archive of Maldives (2017):

Terminski, Bogumil (2012): “Development-induced Displacement and Resettlement: Theoretical Frameworks and Current Challenges,” Research Paper: Centre d'Etude de l'Ethnicité et des Migrations, Université de Liège.

The President’s Office, Republic of Maldives (2015): “President Yameen Inaugurates Second Phase of the ‎HulhuMalé’ Land Reclamation Project,” 16 January 2015,

United Nations (2004): Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement,

United Nations (2010): Report of the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Mission to Maldives (18 to 26 February 2009), Human Rights Council, Thirteenth session, United Nations General Assembly,
United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) (2013): Study on the Decentralisation Process in the Maldives with reference to the impact on services to children, Maldives: UNICEF,
United Nations Development Programme (2014): Sustaining Human Progress: Reducing Vulnerabilities and Building Resilience, New York: UNDP,



[1] In Maldives there is a very high degree of service centralisation. Colton (1995) observed that it is one of the most highly centralised countries administratively. Hence health, education, transport, ports (both sea and air) are all centered in Male’ in spite of space constrains.

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Shahee Ilyas (Own work) GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0

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