On the eve of his election, Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed made the mother of all campaign promises. Once in office, the 42-year-old pledged to set aside revenue from the country’s sizable tourism industry to buy land in India, Sri Lanka, and Australia. If the oceans around his low-lying island nation continued to rise as predicted—by two feet in the next 90 years—he would simply move the entire population. “It’s an insurance policy for the worst possible outcome,” he explained to the press. Soon after, Nasheed again made headlines, this time with his plan to make the Maldives the first carbon-neutral country in the world—in ten years. “I don’t think we have any choice but to make this our priority,” he told me in February. “The Maldives is the front line in the climate battle.”—Text by Jon Bowermaster; Photograph by Fiona Stewart
As the elected leader of a nation that’s roughly the same size as Pittsburgh (pop. 300,000), Nasheed makes an unlikely international figure. But that’s just what he has become: the spokesman for one of global warming’s great cautionary tales. And yet, not everyone agrees with the new president’s dire outlook. As I discovered on a tour of the nation’s vacation-ready coral atolls, some argue that Nasheed’s proclamations, while calculated to attract attention, may wind up doing more harm to his people than good.
THE LOCAL ANGLE
Saffah Faroog is communications director for the oldest environmental group in the country, Bluepeace. We met in Male, the crowded capital—an island with upwards of 70,000 people crammed together on a patch of land only three-quarters of a square mile in area. So densely populated is Male, and so close to the sea (its highest point is just three feet), that the previous administration dredged the ocean floor to build a new, taller island nearby. Even so, “[for most Maldivians] the effects of climate change seem very far away,” Faroog said. “Of course the rising seas are a major concern, but so are warming seas, which impact our coral and harm the fish. Everything here is connected.” Then he added, “You should hear the people on the outer islands talk. When they heard the president say he was creating a fund from tourist revenue to buy land to move us all, they thought he was dreaming.”
Following Faroog’s lead, I traveled by boat to South Malosmadulu Atoll, exploring its half-dozen islands, many of them home to high-end resorts. In Eydhafushi, a town of 2,409 people, I could stare down each street and see bright blue ocean. The most significant structures here were one red-and-white-striped telephone tower and the minarets of several mosques. Maldivians, most of whom are Muslim, have become even more devout since the 2004 tsunami, believing the event was caused by an angry God. As I walked the streets, everyone I met (mostly men) gave me a good, hard handshake. They were fishermen, and some lucky ones worked at the nearby resorts.
There was a feeling among the people of Eydhafushi, and others in the outer islands, that forces beyond their control were conspiring against them. (“Yes, the seas are climbing,” one woman said to me. “What can I do?”). But water levels aren’t the only problem they face. In a country where the economy is inexorably tied to tourism, it has been a very tough year.
The global economic downturn has been compounded by Nasheed’s gloomy forecast for his nation’s future, and tourism revenue is predicted to shrink by 10 percent in 2009. For an industry that accounts for 60 percent of the GDP and directly affects more than half of the population, this drop undoubtedly hurts as much as the rising seas.
From town I traveled by boat and visited fisherman and baked under an equatorial sun. I went for long swims and noticed how many of the reefs were flourishing, despite a battering by the tsunami and coral bleaching caused by El Niño in 1998. I went for a snorkel off a resort island called Soneva Fushi with marine biologist Anke Hofmeister. The reef there was vibrant, full of wrasses and parrot fish. A solitary hawksbill turtle flippered past. The shallow, sandy floor running to the beach was carpeted with coral, colorful clams, and even a few handsome sea cucumbers. There was little hint of the recent devastation. “It gives us hope on many fronts, to see a system like this rehabilitate so quickly,” Hofmeister said. Barring another massive coral die-off, many marine biologists believe the reefs may actually prevent the Maldives from being overtaken, forming a crucial buffer against the rising sea. The archipelago, they say, is more resilient than it appears. In 2004, for example, the tsunami shifted the very geography of many islands, even increasing the elevation of some. The Maldives’ ever changing landscape—both above and below the waterline—may wind up protecting the country far longer than Nasheed believes. As Faroog told me, everything here is connected.