The call to Friday prayers on Eydhafushi are spread island-wide by plastic loudspeakers affixed to poles and buildings scattered around the Maldivian sand-spit, home to three thousand. When it comes I’m floating a quarter mile offshore and it wakes me from a heat (90 degrees F) and calm-sea reverie; a reminder that here, near where the Arabian Sea melds into the Indian Ocean, we are in an all-Muslim nation. (I was reminded last night too, with a chuckle, when the man in matching linen who brought me a bottle of chilled rose and bragged about it’s ‘fruity’ taste admitted his lips had never touched alcohol.)
Earlier in the morning, before the day’s heat arrived, I’d walked a nearby jungled island, crows and rails darting among the pandanas and palms, camouflaged lizards and introduced rabbits scooting across the sandy paths. The foliage was dense and green, the island far more substantial than most in the Maldives, which are typically little more than sand and sea rubble piled up on coral. Given that even a substantial island here rises just six feet above sea level, as much as anywhere in the world the Maldives are threatened by rising sea levels.
A fisherman I met early this morning shared what I expect will be a drumbeat of anecdotal reports I hear during the next couple weeks of small islands that used to be habitable at least for day fishermen have already disappeared under rising seas.
It’s been a big past few months politically and environmentally in the Maldives, thanks largely to last November’s election of Mohammed Nasheed as president. A human rights activist who had been imprisoned and tortured by the man he ousted, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Nasheed – the first democratically elected president in the nation’s history – has quickly turned into a vocal leader, especially among island nations, on the environmental issues facing his 1,200 island country.
One of his first pronouncements upon election was that he was going to start setting aside money for and start looking at land to buy to move his people, to get them out of harm’s way if sea levels in fact rise as expected. He began diverting a portion of the country’s billion-dollar annual tourist revenue into a new homeland account, an insurance policy against climate change. “It’s an insurance policy for the worst possible outcome,” said Nasheed, also known as Anni.
Yesterday Nasheed was on an atoll near to where I float, assuring its five hundred people that he would at least help them find an island nearby where they could start growing crops. He also assured them he would grow its school to extend to 11th and 12th grades. Just three weeks ago, in an op-ed piece written for The Observer, he announced that by 2020 the Maldives would be carbon neutral.
At 41, Nasheed is a rising star in Asia, where he has been compared to Nelson Mandela. Before taking office the new president asked Maldivians to move forward without rancor or retribution – an astonishing call, given that Nasheed had gone to jail 23 times, been tortured and spent 18 months in solitary confinement. The Gayoom “sultanate” was an iron-fisted regime that ran the police, army and courts, and which banned rival parties. Public flogging, banishment to island gulags and torture were routinely used to suppress dissent and the fledging pro-democracy movement. Gayoom was “elected” president six times in 30 years – but never faced an opponent. However, public pressure grew and last year he conceded that democracy was inevitable.
One good thing Gayoom helped implement was a booming, high-end resort economy; as a result the Maldives are the richest country in South Asia, with average incomes reaching $4,600 a year. Corrupt officials, unfortunately, skimmed much of that wealth, off; official figures show almost half of Maldivians earn less than $1 a day.
To make his environmental pledges come to reality, there will have to be sacrifices. To raise cash, his government will sell off state assets, reduce the cabinet and turn the presidential palace into the country’s first university.
“It’s desperate,” the president says. “We are a 100% Islamic country and democracy came from within. Do you want to lose that because we were denied the money to deal with the poverty created by the dictatorship?” Like so many young, out-of-the-good-old-boy leaders taking reins around the world, the Maldives has quickly and forcefully jumped on the bandwagon. It should be fun to watch.