Maldives in Peril: From the SLOWLIFE Symposium part II

Perhaps the most essential weapon — or tool — in affecting environmental change is political will. While individuals can make a difference, and must often lead the charge, for change to stick it demands governmental teeth.

When it comes to the ocean that means things like creating Marine Protected Areas, dictating what fish can be taken when and where, eliminating plastic at every step of life since so much of it eventually ends up in the sea and attempting to control leaks into the ocean, from waste to oil.

During nearly three years in office, President Mohammed Nasheed of the Maldives has shown a backbone far stronger than his petite frame would suggest (he’s not much more than 5 feet tall). On a humid, blue-sky day on the island of Kunfunadhoo, the 43-year-old took time out from his global campaign to encourage nations big and small to reduce carbon footprints to give the crowd gathered at the 3rd Annual SLOWLIFE Symposium an update on how it’s going.

A former journalist and human rights activist, Nasheed was jailed — and tortured — by his predecessor, Maumoon Gayoom, an autocratic leader who held the presidency for 30 years and is expected to run against Nasheed in 2013.

There is concern that Nasheed’s globe-trotting presidency, which has earned him accolades such as The Green President and been the subject of a documentary, “The Island President,” which recently won a prize as best documentary award at the Toronto International Film Festival, may have distanced him from voters back home.

For now he shrugs those concerns off, at least publicly, preferring to keep the focus on mankind’s continued burning of fossil fuels, which he believes, is killing the planet. “We don’t have much time,” he says, “just a window of opportunity of about seven years. If our leaders are not able to sort it out by then they should stop calling themselves leaders and get out.”

He gets a rise from the 80-person crowd, feet dug into the sand, when he asks, “Do you know what politicians get the most applause for?”

“Cutting ribbons at new power plants.”

“Politicians, including me, love to hear clapping. Now we just need to find an equivalent of ribbon cutting for green power plants, renewable energy sources.”

The president said he doesn’t regard climate change as an “earth science, but an economic, development, security and safety issue.” “Too often we hear leaders who say capping carbon emissions would result in poverty, of course this is not true at all.” He cites Iceland, an island state that became a developed country through its emphasis on renewable energy as a great model.

“But it’s an upside down world. The richest country on the planet, the United States, is the one most in debt. And the leader of the poor countries, China, is now the biggest investor in the world.”

Nasheed is not against a good publicity stunt to draw attention to his rhetoric, like he did by holding the first-ever underwater cabinet meeting in 2009, which attracted more than a billion Internet hits. There is concern though that he may be more popular outside of his own country than inside, where the economy and jobs, crime and illegal drugs are growing problems.

Sonu Shivdasani, CEO of the Six Senses resorts, called the president on his ability to get re-elected. “All of your actions have been well received on the global stage, the idea that politicians bicker too much and we just need to get down to the black and white of things. But what are you doing in the Maldives to get that message across, to get the Maldivians to vote for your green party ticket?

“Local Maldivians do not refer to you as the Green President. Isn’t your legacy at risk if you don’t get re-elected?”

Forecasting that he would get re-elected “handsomely,” the president insisted in the future no matter who is president of the Maldives will have to keep the focus on the environment.

“We have always lived right next to the elements, the sea is everywhere around us, making it far easier for us Maldivians to understand that if the ocean is out of balance, things will go wrong. Since the tsunami (2005) I think Maldivians are much more concerned about the environment.”

In general though we protect what we love and sometimes it’s hard to know just how much Maldivians love the beautiful ocean that surrounds since so many of them don’t swim. Marine conservation is just beginning to be taught in elementary schools; most kids have never used a mask and fins to explore the shallow reefs. To that end, a group of a dozen “Ocean Rangers” dressed in matching blue shirts kneel in front of the stage to hear the President. They have volunteered to help monitor the nearby Baa Atoll, recently declared a UNESCO Biosphere.

Nasheed counters that he thinks young Maldivians in particular appreciate what’s at risk. “I am very clear with them that if they destroy the reefs, they are destroying their homes.” The reefs in the Maldives are already in big trouble thanks to warming seas, most of them bleached and white. “If we also dump garbage on them and continue to take all the fish, they will break down even faster,” said the president.

Concerns about Nasheed’s re-electability prompt actor and environmental activist Edward Norton to praise the president for his honesty. “I don’t think your comments were just positive they were completely inspirational and amazing, I can’t think of many leaders around the world talking with such clarity and vision …”

Prompting the President to quip, “exactly why Sonu thinks I won’t get re-elected.”

Norton continued. “I’m pretty sure you’re going to have a long tenure, but you’re still a young man. When you’re finished here could you come and consider being president of the United States, we could use some of that clarity and honesty.”

“Most political leaders will do what their people tell them to do,” replied the president. “In the Maldives and the United States people must galvanize themselves to political action. People who can embrace the future now — today — will be the winners.”

[both pictures credit: six senses]