Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The main traditional economic activities are trading and fishing. Bonitos and larger tuna are a mainstay of the economy, caught by pole-and-line or trolling-line from sailboats or motorized wooden boats. The famous Maldives fish is prepared by boiling, drying, and smoking. A man maximizes wealth by acquiring fishing boats because the owner gets a larger share of fish than the fishing crew. A boat owner might also obtain the right from the state to lease uninhabited islands, mainly for collecting coconuts. There are three kinds of millets grown and taro in the south. Some homes have breadfruit, mango, papaya, and banana trees, but few vegetables are eaten. Sea trade has always been a vital source of income, and now there is a modern shipping industry; profits from it and tourism accrue mostly to a few prominent families in Male. Income per capita from foreign aid is relatively high.
Industrial Arts. The most striking traditional craft is building wooden boats, both small and large ones with lateen sails, which can fish in the deep sea and carry goods to the continents. Sailing long distances without benefit of maps and charts is a remarkable traditional skill. Maldives rope twisted from coconut coir was always in demand by foreign navies. The islanders also make fine products such as mats woven from local reeds and lacquer work on turned wood. Cotton weaving, silver work, stonecutting, and brass work have mostly died out.
Trade. For many centuries the Maldives were famous as the main source of cowrie shells, used as money in Bengal and Africa. Divehis are skilled in rapid counting, necessary for handling cowries, coconuts, or fish. The traditional method was to count by twos to 96 and mark each unit of 192 by laying 2 coconuts on the side; they thereby could count rapidly to many thousands. The base number was 12, which Clarence Maloney finds significant in Maldives history. What is more peculiar is that Indo-Aryan words for 25, 50, 75, 100, and 1,000 are applied respectively to 24, 48, 72, 96, and 960, as the decimal system has been replacing the duodecimal. Weights and measures are based on multiples of 4 and 12. The main imports have been rice, wheat flour, cotton textiles, kerosene, metal products, tobacco, salt, and condiments. Now the whole country is a duty-free entrepôt, contrasting with the controlled economies of other South Asian Countries, and there is modern banking.
Division of Labor. Men fish, while women prepare and dry the fish. Men grow millets, while women cultivate root crops. Men conduct interisland and overseas trade, climb coconut trees, and are the artisans in cotton, silver, lacquer, and stonework, while women weave mats and do embroidery. Women do the tedious job of twisting coir into small ropes, which men then twist into thick ropes for their boats. However, these sex roles are not absolutely fixed; there are cases of these activities being done by the other sex. Women do most of the housework and child care, but men may also do it. Boat crews and leaders of Islamic ritual and law, however, are all males.
Land Tenure. All land belongs to the state, which leases uninhabited islands or parts of islands to prominent people for collection of produce, as part of its system of control. All households in the Maldives, except on Male, can claim the right to a plot of land for a house and garden in their island of registration. In Fue Mulaku in the south, residents have the right to cultivate as much taro land as they wish.