Save The Waves Coalition

Controversy in the Maldives

Commoditizing natural resources has always been a controversial issue throughout history, and the Maldives has just become the newest addition to the debate. A group of surfers are attempting to sway the Maldivian government to halt the procession of a transaction that will purportedly allow for the privatization of two of the most legendary and consistent surf breaks in North Malé atoll. Depending who you ask, there are between seven and eleven surf breaks in North Malé atoll, three of which are so fickle and undesirable that some people don't even count them, one of below-average quality on the capital city island of Malé, and two that have been private for years -- Pasta Point and Lohifushi. In the end, that leaves five breaks -- Sultans, Honkies, Jailbreaks, Coke's and Chickens -- that all surfers, locals and tourists alike, currently have access to.

The undeveloped military island of Thanburudhoo is home to both Sultans and Honkies, and of those five unrestricted breaks these are by far the most consistent, wave-rich spots in the entire atoll.

Submitted by Dr. Gunnar Lee-Miller, President of Telos Investment, the proposal for development of Thanburudhoo, was approved by the Maldivian government in July of 2011. The proposal states that Dr. Lee-Miller intends to construct a high-end, boutique surf resort that would result in the privatization of Sultans and Honkies.

He emphasizes that there will be significant changes to the original proposal which designated two days per month for local surfers to access Sultans and Honkies. "Locals will have a weekly access program which will ensure their use of Thanburudhoo," says Dr. Lee-Miller, calling attention to the fact that currently privatized surf breaks only allow access to their guests. "Through discussions with the surfing association we need to create a better access program which can then be modeled by other resorts."

Getting the local surfing association to listen to this modified access proposal may prove difficult. Freelance surf guide and Maldivian Surfing Association (MSA) committee member, Mohamed "Bongo" Hazma, says MSA is not currently having any discussion with Telos Investment, as the group opposes the project. "We met with Dr. Gunnar Lee-Miller once to find out information about the project but we believe building this resort hinders the development of surfing in this atoll amongst many other factors," says Hazma. "Also, the ownership of waves is against the ethics and spirit of surfing."

Longtime surf guide Chris Prewitt isn't confident that Dr. Lee-Miller's surf access program will be sufficient either. "Sultans and Honkies are the go-to spots for all surfers that come here," says Prewitt. "The local surfers from Malé visit these breaks on a weekly basis as they're the two best, closest waves for them. The local surfing population here is livid over these plans. Imagine someone coming to your local break and denying you unlimited access."

The Maldivian-run campaign, S.O.S. (Save Our Surfing), is aiming to obtain 10,000 signatures on their online petition that aims to influence the Maldivian government to stop the privatization of surf breaks as well as the sale of Thanburudhoo.

Opponents of Thanburudhoo's development claim that the surf tourism industry here would be harmed by the loss of Sultans and Honkies. "In a busy day at work, we see up to 100 people at Sultans since it is the most consistent wave in the whole country," says Hamza. "If they block Sultans and Honkies, where will all this traffic end up? As a result, we'll find a lot of angry tourists and lose a lot of repeaters who come to the Maldives. Moreover, the charter boats that do North Malé atoll trips will have to find another option which will create job loss to locals who work on the boats."

Alternatively, without sufficient space in the lineups to accommodate charter boat guests, guides will have to begin taking the much longer, more expensive journey to other atolls. While there are plenty of uncrowded waves in atolls outside of North Malé, the cost and commitment to get to them may have serious implications for the surf charter boat industry.

Many Maldivians who work in the surf tourism industry are concerned about the loss of employment that could occur if access to Sultans and Honkies is lost. Dr. Lee-Miller asserts that his plan to allow access to these breaks to Maldivian surfers (and if adopted by other surf resorts), would create sufficient employment opportunities for Maldivians in the form of lifeguards, coaches and surf guide positions to offset potential job losses.

Dr. Lee-Miller hopes to convince opponents of the project that the economic benefits combined with his surf-access plan will be a positive development for Maldivians. Despite Dr. Lee-Miller's enthusiasm for the plan, and how he believes it will create improved access to already privatized breaks, surfers who share his view are hard to come by.

The recent ousting of President Nasheed, which prompted tremendous political skepticism amongst the country's citizens, may be adding fuel to this debate. There is now a sea of rumors regarding the legitimacy of the government's role in leasing Thanburudhoo for development and some surfers are taking action. "We have managed to get the attention of the local news media," says Chris Decker, an American expat who has become close with many local Maldivians. "Also, the ACC (Anti-Corruption Commission of the Maldives) has started an in-depth investigation on the case."

To date, the ACC has not reported any wrongdoings on the part of the Maldivian government or Telos Investment. Dr. Lee-Miller asserts that every step of the approval and leasing process has been wholly legitimate. He points out that the lease of Thanburudhoo has undergone a journey that spanned well over a year, including two governments, two cabinets, two defense ministers, two approval protocols and two attorney generals.

The process, according to Dr. Lee-Miller, began with the government desiring to develop the island and ended with the government leasing it at a record price. "The Center for Surf Research, [based at San Diego State University], will assist in creating a sustainable surf management program which works closely with local surfers to create a healthy partnership between wave access and commercial viability," says Dr. Lee-Miller. "Just like with the local surf association, discussions with safari boat operators must occur. I believe we should keep the current [Sultans and Honkies] access situation as is for the remainder of 2012 and 2013 to allow everyone enough time for discussions and planning."