Maldives in Peril: Exploring the island of Maalhos

Late on a Sunday afternoon, hardly a day of rest in this part of the world, the small island of Maalhos is quiet. The men, most of who go to sea each day to fish or work at one of six nearby tourist resorts, are absent. School is out for a week’s holiday so kids of various ages scamper up and down the short, dusty streets. The women of the island of 600 are mostly in doorways or small backyards or sitting in laid-back sling chairs made of strong twine strung from metal frames lining the streets.

On the beach, the late afternoon sun in the shade, a gaggle of boys swordfight with palm fronds. A woman in brown headscarf sits cross legged playing a sophisticated game of jacks with small round stones. Three women sit together knitting palm fronds into roofing material. A trio of girls in their early 20s follow us as we walk the streets, painfully shy, peeking out from beneath headscarves, smiling.

Like all Maldivian towns this is laid out in squares. From the start of any street you can stare down it and see blue ocean at the other end. As I walk the streets, obviously an outsider, accompanied by a translator — one of the many islanders who works at one of the six tourist resorts in the Baa Atoll — I stop to chat people up and the responses are friendly, smiling. Everyone I meet – man, woman, child – gives me a good, hard handshake as a hello. Though poor, this is not an impoverished place.

Despite the booming tourist business that exists on islands all around, most of these people have little contact with outsiders. Tourists in the Maldives are confined largely by geography to the resort islands. Water surrounds and there aren’t shuttles or ferries or water taxis to take people easily from island to island. During the recently ended thirty-year dictatorship, locals were strongly discouraged from mingling with visitors, concerned that negative influences from the west might rub off. Tourists drink alcohol, run around mostly naked and come to party, after all. By comparison, the local populace does not imbibe and is called to prayer several times a day (though there is reportedly a sizable heroin habit and growing drinking problem among many of the Maldive’s young people).

Concrete-block-and-cement walls lining the streets are painted in bright orange and purple and faded blue; older walls are made from pieces of coral, a construction now forbidden due to efforts to preserve the fragile reefs. Many of the walls bear stenciled black-and-red “Vote for Saleem” signs, which rather than feel defacing are actually a reminder of a positive thing that’s come to the Maldives in the last few years: Democracy.

I visit with a woman dressed in purple from head to toe; she is bundling reeds for roofs, explaining she is the breadwinner since her husband is sick. Fifty-two, she came here thirty years ago from a nearby, smaller island. In that time, she says, everything has gotten better. The economy. Politics. The way of life, including fifty channels of satellite television. And yes, she worries about rising sea levels, but primarily for her kids. “The seas are climbing … but what can I do?” is the plaint I hear from most here.

While the impacts of global warming are being hotly debated at the SLOWLIFE Symposium at the nearby Soneva Fushi resort, the reality of it and the inevitable impact on local life seems very far off. Talk to locals and they will admit they have to go further to sea to find the fish that used to swim just offshore. They will tell you that there seem to be more storms these days, more powerful storms. They admit that erosion is eating away at the beaches they have played on all their lives. But to ask them to connect those changes to carbon emissions and international laws of the sea is a stretch.

Yet they remain the best “reporters” of how a changing climate is — slowly — having a real impact on their daily lives.

On the far side of the island a Woman’s Collective has turned out for a late-afternoon communal sweeping of a corner of the island. Bent at the waist, wearing headscarves and long dresses, they whisk brooms over the sand/dirt ground along the edge of the sea. Paid a small salary by the local government, the clean up is a good thing. But a bad side of island life here is evident just behind where they sweep: Piles of plastic garbage bags, which apparently did not make the once-a-month barge that carries garbage away to a nationwide rubbish-island near Male.

“You ask where the tsunami hit,” responds a 70-year-old man in green polo shirt, faded madras skirt and red Nike flip-flops. “Everywhere. That wave came from every direction at once.” He lucked out when the wave hit, since he was twenty feet up a coconut tree knocking off cocos.

Deeply tanned, his shaved head boasting a thin veneer of graying stubble, he tells me he still fishes when there’s a bit of wind, necessary because his boat has only a sail, no motor. A jack of all island trades, he’s fished, collected coconuts, worked construction and, not so long ago, was paralyzed over half his body due to some unexplained (to him) malady. Today he shows off his good health with the strongest handshake yet.

Maldives in Peril: An interview with Daryl Hannah

Given her decades of success in the movie business, environmental activist and actress Daryl Hannahcould be lounging on any beach in the world today, drinking rum punches, working on her tan or perfecting her mermaid’s kick.

That she recently spent a week in the Maldives, much of it indoors participating in a pair of eco-symposiums focused on climate change and the future of island nations — just days after being arrested in Washington D.C. as part of the protest against the planned $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline — says a lot about her priorities.

It’s easy to cast a dubious eye at celebrities who align themselves with environmental causes since often it’s clear managers or agents have encouraged them hoping to better a client’s position based on image rather than sincerity. With every actor under 40 (and many older) attempting to gain environmental cred these days it doesn’t take too much effort to scratch the surface and find out who of them really bleeds green.

Having participated with Hannah in a bunch of roundtable talks and spoken on a panel together with her on ocean biodiversity during the recent, third annual SLOWLIFE Symposium,I can vouch for her dedication, commitment and truly green blood. On a quiet beach we talked about how she came to this level of commitment and how, having grown up in America’s heartland, she became so impassioned about the ocean.

“I grew up not only in the heart of the city of Chicago but on the 42ndstory of an apartment building, so I was really disassociated with the natural world in a strange way. There was a park nearby which I thrived off of, but I felt kind of strange and alien as a kid. It wasn’t until my dad sent me off to a camp in the wilderness that I formed a bond with the natural world and understood that’s where things made sense for me.

“It was also around that time that I started diving, at 13, with pony bottles, and it was just magic. It was like being a bird in the ocean, giving you a feeling like flying. Whenever I’m in the water my heart rate slows, I get really calm … it is a constant sense of wonder every time.”

I’m specifically curious how she came to a life committed to environmentalism, whether it was imbued in her Illinois youth or dawned later on a sunny California day.

“I used to think that the most important thing I could do was to live as ethically as possible, which I still think is a really important step for people to take. But once I began to really understand the crises that we are in the midst of — extinctions, over population, ocean acidification, and more — I started to realize that it was absolutely imperative that we all do everything in our power to change.

“It wasn’t really a decision. I just feel compelled. I’m like one of those mamas trying to lift a car off her baby, I have no choice, I just have to (be involved).

Have her acting jobs, like “Splash,” informed her sufficiently? “I don’t have to be a scientist or an oceanographer to see that the coral reefs are bleached and that there are no fish left, I can see those things with my own eyes. I’ve seen things change in such a short amount of time

“And not just in the oceans. We are in real trouble if we don’t start living more ethically and mindfully and employing all of the solutions we have available to us.

I remind her of a common theme among committed preservationists, which is that people generally protect best what they love most. If we expect people to truly take better care of their little patch of land or sea or sky, they must have great affection for it first.

“That’s absolutely it, we protect what we love. But I think the ocean has a particular challenge. Less than one percent of people have spent any time under it, so they look at it from the beach, from the shore, and it looks just fine. But it’s not fine. Once people understand the interdependence of all life on this earth, that we are all interconnected — that when we fix the problem with our energy consumption and dependence on fossil fuels — we would also fix some of the serious issues facing the oceans.”

Back home in the U.S., one of Hannah’s major disappointments is recent change in laws allowing corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections and lobbyists.

“I never put my faith in government or politicians,” she says. “It’s people who are going to change things. If we each took responsibility for our own lives we wouldn’t be in the mess we are. But there’s no way we have a voice unless we insist upon it.

“As long as people get out there and start sharing information with each other then people can make their own decisions. Most people wouldn’t make a decision to commit suicide or poison their own children … or kill their loved ones. They are going to make wiser, more informed decisions if they know that choices are available.”

She returns to the core belief that individuals can, and must, lead. “We have to hold people accountable, hold corporations accountable and hold politicians accountable. But we have to hold ourselves accountable first.”