Saffah Faroog sips a mango juice and continues explaining the history of the Maldives oldest environmental group, Bluepeace, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. He is its communications director, a volunteer like the rest of its staff, and has a great story to share – the organization has a great web presence and a long history of doing the right thing in the Maldives by keeping environmental stories in the news. There’s no lack of subject matter with beach erosion, species loss, the impact of climate change and rising sea levels and the still lingering after effects of the 2004-tsunami still daily stories.
“Perhaps the most impressive thing for us here in the Maldives,” he says, “is that just two years ago I would never had a conversation in public with you like this, not about these subjects. We had to be very careful about everything we wrote, anything we said in public or private, because almost anything could be construed as a potential criticism of the government, thus possibly resulting in recrimination.
“You have to remember that our new president was a journalist turned civil rights activist who was jailed and tortured and once held in solitary confinement for 18 months for criticizing the government. And that wasn’t so long ago.”Faroog is from one of the southern atolls but has lived in Male most of his life. A writer and editor, he’s traveled outside of the Maldives a few times, has even seen snow, in Bhutan. He volunteered fulltime for six months last year to help get the new president elected. His take on the new administration is “so far, so good,” but he admits that as well as a handful of serious environmental issues – which President Mohammed Nasheed has already taken on directly, especially in the court of world opinion – there are other serious issues that need immediate attention.
“Here where we sit, the capital island of Male is one of the most crowded places on earth. One hundred thousand people live on an island just one square mile. In the last few years we have serious problems of drugs and gangs. One third of everyone under twenty-five uses heroin; we have stabbings and murders on the street every week. The drugs manage to sneak through the airport or the seaport. It’s becoming a dangerous place to live and the president has to do something about that.”
My experience in island nations is that it’s hard to talk with locals about long-term environmental issues like climate change and rising seas since their temperament is to look only as far as tomorrow or next week, not decades into the future, a kind of island version of manana. Faroog agrees that it can be tricky here too. “The impacts of climate change seem very far away to them, which I understand. But we have to keep having those conversations.
“In Male we are just one meter above the sea; they are already building a new island that is two meters above sea level, which should be sufficient. But when those on the outer islands hear the new president talk about creating a fund from tourist revenues to use to buy land to move us one day from the islands … they think that sounds crazy.
“Of course rising seas are our major concern. But so are warming seas, which impact our coral, lead to more erosion, harm the fish life and impact daily life. Everything here is simple … and everything is connected.”