The Wonder Women and their Wonder Palm

14 mins read
Images courtesy of Yujuan Jing - UNDP Maldives

All women-led initiative revives coconut plantations, preserves culture, and boosts community income – featuring GEF-SGP/UNDP supported Meedhoo Ekuveringe Cheynu – Addu Atoll. 

The tree of life

For many, the picture of a tropical island of the Maldives isn’t complete without the verdant presence of coconut palms. Its distinctive silhouette contours a prelude to sandy beaches and clear blue seas that glitter below.

For the Maldives, coconut trees are not just ornamental signs of an island paradise. It is of historical and cultural significance and is the country’s national tree as well as one of the symbols of the Maldivian emblem. For Maldivians, it is also the ‘tree of life’: from its woody trunk all the way up to the swaying fronds, the coconut palm has been providing a bounty of natural resources for the Maldivian people for generations. 

Fibers extracted from the husk of the coconut fruit makes coir rope. It’s cooling and energizing sweet nectar is a soothing balm for the equatorial heat, with the fruit grated out for culinary delights and the shells cleverly utilized to make utensils or used as charcoal to grill the fresh catch of the day from the seas. The solid palm wood used to be the foundation of boatbuilding in the Maldives, with traditional sailboats – the Maldivian ‘dhoani’ – carved out of its sturdy trunks, replaced over time by fiberglass, yet still in use to make furniture. Ekels or hard straws are extracted from the fallen palm leaves and bound together for use as a broom. Today, palm leaves are also used to make decorative thatching that is bought by resorts to reflect the Maldivian aesthetic in their villas. The roots are used in ‘Dhivehi beys’ to make traditional medicine.

It is under the shade of this wonder palm that Shaffaf Rizwan and her all-woman team of mighty crusaders gather to tell their story of the coconut tree. They are Meedhoo Ekuveringe Cheynu – an NGO from Hulhumeedhoo Island in Addu Atoll, in the Southernmost tip of the Maldivian archipelago. 

A sapling for a dream

“We’ve fought all sorts of spirits to get where we are,” Shaffaf, the Founder of the NGO tells us. “The patriarchy, the system, evil eye, the crows – you name it.” She is standing amidst the plot of land that hosts the NGO’s coconut plantation, located adjacent to the island’s waste disposal plant.

In defiance of the gloomy landscape, hundreds of budding coconut saplings grow, their fronds stretching out like vibrant green fans, adding a splash of color to the surrounding coarse earth.

Despite an unseemly setting, for the women of Meedhoo Ekuveringe Cheynu, it was a moment of triumph when the S. Meedhoo Island Council provided them the land intended to revive the island’s coconut plant population, which had degraded and seen a steady decline over the years. 

Shaffaf Rizwan

The dregs of development paints a murky picture everywhere. In most Maldivian islands, crater-like holes have begun to appear, some filled with dry leaves and others left as barren pits. These bald patches are the places where mature coconut trees used to stand tall. Trees uprooted to make way for concrete structures or sometimes sold to beautify resorts. 

Hulhumeedhoo has roughly the land area of New York’s Central Park, but unlike many other islands, it does not teem with sunbathing Europeans. Its broad dirt roads are often deserted, flanked by hibiscus, lemon-orange impatiens, and papaya, rose apple and banana plants. The islanders have long relied on cultivating coconut and other tropical produce that can be sold outside of their shores. 

One such produce that comes from Hulhumeedhoo island and predominantly Addu region (and famous the country over) is the ‘Addu Bondi’: a traditional Maldivian delicacy whose essence is a lush mixture of grated coconut, splashes of jasmine water and palm sugar syrup, carefully crafted into a sweet and crunchy snack, served during special occasions and festive events and best enjoyed with a cup of piping black tea. 

A culinary creation with its own historical, cultural and socio-economic relevance, Addu Bondi was a source of commerce for people from the Southern region who used the sweet treat to trade with other Maldivian Atolls and as far as neighboring Sri Lanka. 

This once staple of South Maldivian culture, authentic Bondi production is now at risk of disappearing. The younger generations lack the knowledge and skills required to create the delicacy, and most of the Bondi being made today is an imitation of the original, as refined sugar started being used as a substitute for locally produced palm sugar from Maldivian coconut trees – a key ingredient in the authentic recipe. The shortage of skilled toddy tappers and the scarcity of young, healthy coconut palms that can be tapped for its toddy have made palm sugar an expensive and hard-to-source ingredient.

As a result, Bondi makers have been forced to explore cheaper alternatives, which have ultimately threatened the culinary art of making Addu Bondi. This shift away from tradition is jilting an important facet of South Maldivian culture, leaving many to wonder whether the art of making authentic Bondi will survive for future generations to enjoy.

Meedhoo Ekuveringe Cheynu stepped in and are in the works to create ‘Meedhoo Bendi’ – their name for the Addu Bondi being produced using their coconut trees. They are kick-starting their project assisted by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Small Grants Programme (SGP), implemented by the United Nations Development Programme in the Maldives. 

The NGO’s project is expected to generate multiple benefits from its multifaceted focus on the process of making Addu Bondi:- including preserving the island’s culture, providing a boost in income for community members, particularly women, opening diverse livelihood opportunities such as making palm sugar – a coveted product in the local market. 

In doing so, the project will introduce the younger generation to professions not only limited to just cultivating coconut palms and crafting Bondi in its most authentic form but introduce a métier that was once on par with fishing in the Maldives, toddy tapping. Collecting toddy from coconut palms required a high skill set with the practitioners scaling palm trees as tall as two storey buildings – it wasn’t a job for just anyone but the spoils was the highly valuable sap of the coconut palm – toddy. 

Toddy, used in many cultural food and medicine; is in fact what palm sugar – one of the main ingredients of Addu Bondi, is made from. However, the profession became scarce over time with only a few known practitioners scattered around the country. This is one facet, amongst many, of Maldivian culture that Meedhoo Ekuveringe Cheynu hopes to remedy with their project, Revival of Coconut Palms and Culture.

In addition to producing and marketing Meedhoo Bendi, the project will also open easy access to coconut palm products such as coconut frond for thatch weaving – another high value product in the tourism industry. By rehabilitating the coconut palm groves, the project will rejuvenate the declining coconut palm population of the island and secure biodiversity and the integrity of the island’s ecosystem.

It’s a scary world, but it isn’t hopeless

Several lanes down the women’s coconut plantation, Mariyam Suha Waseem is assisting her grandmother Naseema Ali in a small and compact kitchen hut, where a fire blazes fueled by coconut shells and husks underneath a sturdy wok, as Naseema vigorously stirs its contents – the sticky coconut mixture which would after hours of labour turn into the delightfully thick concoction used to make the Meedhoo Bendi. Once cooled, Naseema delicately rolls the mixture into kebab-shapes, wrapping them in dried banana leaves and tying them with string on both ends much like a sweet. 

Suha and Naseema

For Suha, a member of the NGO, it is a precious experience to learn the art from her grandmother. “I have a young child to take care of. But this is not only about earning an income. I am so glad to share this special bond with my maama, and so grateful for the opportunity to carry on the tradition.”

Naseema herself is matter of fact. “This dish is more than just a recipe, it’s a part of our island’s heritage and I’m happy to see it continue,” she relays to UNDP’s Enrico Gaveglia. 

“Women leaders and entrepreneurs are rising, leading cultural revival, income generation and environmental regeneration – bringing into profitability a business against all odds,” Enrico acknowledged, eagerly accepting the Meedhoo Bendi Naseema hands him. 

The women of NGO Meedhoo Ekuveringe Cheynu faced numerous obstacles in trying to make their project a reality. “Being an all-women team trying actually grow and produce something sustainably, and market that product and make a profit has been a major challenge, but we will not give up,” Shaffaf says.

The revival of the coconut palms and Addu Bondi is more than just a business venture for the women of Meedhoo Ekuveringe Cheynu. It is a symbol of their love for their island and their determination to preserve its heritage, and ecosystem for future generations. The story of these wonder women is a testament to the power of community, hard work, and passion in making a difference.

“It’s a scary world out there when you are a woman on a mission, but it isn’t hopeless,” Shaffaf smiles through a firm nod. 

* The Small Grants Programme (SGP) is a corporate programme of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) since 1992. SGP grant making in over 125 countries promotes community-based innovation, capacity development, and empowerment through sustainable development projects of local civil society organizations with special consideration for indigenous peoples, women, and youth. SGP has supported over 20,000 community-based projects in biodiversity conservation, climate change mitigation and adaptation, prevention of land degradation, protection of international waters, and reduction of the impact of chemicals, while generating sustainable livelihoods.