For a nation, the value of its natural and cultural heritage goes beyond just the geography or physical spaces but is a representation of the stories that have travelled through generations. It is closely knitted with the nation’s history, tradition and identity thereby making efforts to preserve the natural and cultural heritage necessary and significant.  

A great asset to these efforts is the youth. Young people have a significant role to play in the preservation of natural and cultural heritage as the leaders and decision-makers of tomorrow. The future of these places will depend largely on the decisions and actions of the present generation of young people. For this reason, it is important that young people are equipped with leadership skills, critical thinking, civic responsibility along with cultural awareness and knowledge. Youth Leadership Programme (YLP), a 5-day training programme aims to do just this. This programme which targets promising Maldivian youth between the ages of 18 to 25, aims to build capacities through awareness, education and empowerment. It seeks to inspire participants to become agents of change thereby creating a strong base of future leaders in the community.

During the first week of September 2019, UNDP Maldives in partnership with Ministry of Youth, Sports and Community Empowerment conducted this year’s Youth Leadership Programme in Addu City known for its long history and culture. The participants engaged in a diverse selection of informative sessions facilitated by related organizations and advocates.  Some of the key areas covered in these sessions include human rights, politic and governance, culture and heritage, climate change and conservation, gender, first-aid and self-awareness, and health. The sessions also covered personal development skills with specific sessions on leadership, communication, decision making and respecting diversity.  

A key focus of the camp was to instill civic responsibility in young people and increase their participation in the community. Accordingly, each day of the camp began with a meaningful community service such as planting trees or cleaning the beach. The ultimate goal was sustained youth participation in the community that would go beyond the camp. Building strong links between the young and the old of the society was identified as important to reach this goal. Accordingly, the young participants and the elderly “Community Champions” got to exchange inspirational stories and valuable lessons during one of the sessions in the camp.  

Another important aspect to community service was the conservation and preservation of both natural and cultural heritage which is particularly significant to islands such as Addu city which is on the path of development.  The diverse mixture of ancient cultural heritage and natural beauty the island offers is a valuable resource that should be preserved. During the course of the camp, the participants got the opportunity to experience this through visits to Mathikilhi Eco Garden and Addu Meedhoo Koagannu Cemetery where they learned about the history and story of these places.  

Years into the past, Mathikilhi area once was a collection of freshwater lakes which have turned into wetlands over the years except for one. Two young men from Meedhoo with the help of others who later joined the cause took it upon them to save the last remaining. Thanks to the effort and hard work of these champions; Mathikilhi area now known as Mathikilhi Eco Garden is conserved along with the last lake and is one of the first wetland gardens in Maldives. The picturesque scenery and the breathtaking natural beauty that the place offers is a testimony to the inspirational story of how individual initiatives can go a long way.  

As for the KoagannuCemetery, it is the most ancient cemetery in the Maldives, built 900 years ago to bury the first Muslims of Addu. It also is said to have the largest tombstones in the country. The story goes that the cemetery is the resting place of several historical figures.  

Whether they inspire you or leave you astounded, such natural and cultural heritage and its stories are a valuable part of our history and identity. For this reason it needs to be preserved and conserved. Encouraging involvement of youth in these efforts will be an effective way of achieving this. As it holds, the best way to appreciate one’s heritage is to share it with others. So let us share these stories with not just the young generation of today but the entire world and let the cycle continue.