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: A Q&A with actor Edward Norton

There was no b.s. in actor Edward Norton’s introduction of himself at the recent SLOWLIFE Symposium in the Maldives: “Films are now my sideline,” he said. “Waste is my business.”

He admitted of course that what he referred to as his “day job” had provided him with the “storytelling skills” that aid him in his variety of non-acting pursuits, from CEO of Baswood Inc., a green wastewater treatment alternative he and his partners are currently selling and building around the U.S. and abroad to U.N. Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity. He’s also a board member on a handful of non-profits, including the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust, which gives him direct insight into sustainable tourism and eco-system preservation.

The move from fulltime acting to mixing it up in a diversity of projects focused on social good does not strike Norton as unusual. In a long interview with author Mark Lynas (Six Degrees, God Species) while in the Maldives, he sees it as more obligation than option.

“I think the defining challenge of the era right now is that we have recognized that we are living our lives and operating our civilization in a way that will not sustain life as we know it on the planet,” said Norton. “I don’t think an artist any less or more than anybody else should stay out of that conversation. I think artists, if they are serious about what art can do, are trying to engage in the times they are living in.”

Norton’s wide-ranging level of professional curiosity can easily be traced to his father, Edward Norton Jr., an environmental lawyer who has worked extensively in Asia, was a federal prosecutor in the Carter Administration and has close links with the Nature Conservancy, the Wilderness Society and the National Trust for Historic Conservation.During the three-day symposium Norton’s emphasis in private conversation with various Maldivian government officials and local U.N. workers focused on how Baswood might bring its recycling expertise to island states, like the Maldives, where coasts and reefs are at great risk due to the tendency of dumping waste and wastewater just offshore.

For a full interview with Mark Lynas, adviser to the President of the Maldives on climate change, click here.

Excerpts on Norton’s take on the power of storytelling, the real impacts of tourism and the greenwashing of travel journalism are below:

The conventional image of tourism is that it’s quite environmentally destructive. We’ve worked out for the Maldives that the carbon cost of all the flights of people coming in is pretty much equivalent to the domestic emissions of the country, so that does beg the question of whether tourism can ever be a net benefit environmentally.

When people talk about the ‘extractive industries’ they mean forestry, fishing, mining, the industries that clearly extract from the environment . We don’t tend to think of tourism as one of the extractive industries, but the more I learn about it the more I think that tourism should be judged on the same types of metrics that many of those other extractive industries are judged. Because tourism is an industry that uses the environment as its draw to give an experience but yet may at the end of the day be depleting the very resources upon which it is based in an unsustainable way.

Right now we are in a beautiful resort called Soneva Fushi, surrounded by these bright blue ocean waters and fringing coral reef, and I’m sure its appeal to visitors is that it’s some sense located in nature, yet it’s hardly a wild environment.

Look, the thing about tourism is that it is based on the allure of having an experience in a beautiful environment, and perhaps even on interacting with nature in a certain way. Those used to be experiences, which were accessed only by a very privileged few. In the last 25 years the number of people who are travelling further and further abroad to more remote places to have these types of experiences has just gone up exponentially. So places that just a decade or two ago were truly remote indigenous communities are suddenly having to grapple with having to balance that sudden economic benefit of new waves of tourism and yet figure out how they do that without destroying the very thing that’s bringing the people to them.

You’ve done work with the Maasai in Kenya, and in other parts of the world. Have you got any lessons that you’ve taken away about how to manage tourism sustainably?

One is sustainability of operations – how are you actually operating your business, and are you operating it in a way that will maintain the natural resource capital that your business is based on. Number two is community benefit. How do we assess community benefit, to what degree is a tourism business representing a micro-economy where actual benefit is penetrating meaningfully into the local community, as opposed to a vortex where all the benefit is coming in through the business and then going out of the country.

People talk about carbon footprint but I think the thing that gets less often assessed is water. In many of the most remote places, whether they are beach resorts or safari lodges, the way that these places use water is a fundamentally problematic issue. Guests are looking for luxury, so tourism operators are afraid to ask the guests to change their narrative of what luxury is they are visiting. But I think that it needs to happen more. I think if you ask most people if they want to ruin a place during their visit of it they would say no. I think most people don’t want to feel that they came to a place and trashed it.

I also think the ‘tourism media’, the travel writers, and actually the travel agents too, have to do a better job. There’s a lot of ‘greenwashing’ in the industry… resorts claiming to be ‘eco’ and ‘green’ and promising ‘community benefit’ that are really doing very little. And the writers just buy the marketing and assist the lie. They need to investigate deeper.

This also depends perhaps on the cultural background of the tourist. I think this year for the first time the majority of the visitors to the Maldives have been from China. So no longer is this primarily a Western market.

Yes, that’s fascinating, because then you’ve got people coming out of a completely different narrative in terms of familiarity with even those concepts. Tourism operators have to be courageous in the sense that they’ve got to be a part of introducing people to that value system, not because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s in their best interests economically in the long term.

The thing I can’t get my head around, and I hope you’ll forgive me for this, is to talk with someone who’s had such a high-profile, successful Hollywood movie career about the economics of waste management, and the peculiarities of certain septic systems. Isn’t that a weird combination?

I think the defining challenge of the era right now is that we have recognized that we are living our lives and operating our civilization in a way that will not sustain life as we know it on the planet. And if we are living in the moment when that kind of clarity has been reached, then I look at that as a generational sort of mission. I don’t think an artist any less or more than anybody else should stay out of that conversation. I think artists, if they are serious about what art can do, are trying to engage in the times they are living in.

But do you find it difficult to be taken seriously? People might think it’s some celebrity fad..

I think people should never throw generalizations about those types of things. I mean, look, I think that these particular issues are ones that everybody should get involved in. I don’t think anybody should look down their nose at an actor or a musician any more than a lawyer, or a doctor or an economist. People are starting to engage with these issues from all sorts of different angles. For instance, what can someone who works in a storytelling medium bring to the equation? I’ve sat with lots of climate scientists, or biodiversity specialists who are just absolutely incapable of articulating a narrative of why that matters to the average person.

So when I got asked by the UN to be an ambassador for the biodiversity program I don’t engage with something like that flattering myself that my qualifications come in the category of biology or science, but I do think that I am in some ways more capable than some of the scientists in the field of explaining that story to other people – of taking examples, case studies, things that I’ve learned about and helping rearticulate them in a way that a new generation of people can begin to see what’s the connectivity between a very abstract idea like biodiversity and me and my life. And that is storytelling.

That’s actually how humans actually receive information successfully, isn’t it, storytelling?

Absolutely, and that’s part of the story we’re living in now, we need a new narrative. We need a narrative where we relocate ourselves literally within the biosphere. We have looked at ourselves for a long time as exceptional, as disconnected from the natural systems on the planet that support us, and we need a new narrative in which people on a broad global level become conscious and aware of their interconnectedness with those systems. So helping to get that story out there, helping people reframe their sense of themselves in the world in a way they understand that they are reliant – and their children are reliant – on the health of these systems, so they care about it, is important.

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.”

Maldives in Peril: Richard Branson on impacting climate change

I’ve bumped into Richard Branson a couple times now, in vastly different settings. The first was in the high Arctic village of Clyde River, where he’d come to join his son Sam for a weeklong dogsled expedition. He introduced himself with what he admitted was a weakish pinky-tap, blaming his inability to lift his arm on having rolled an ATV at his African safari camp the week before.

When we met again a few days ago on a beach in the Maldives, again he extended just a pinky. This time he blamed it on a nasty cold, which he was politely attempting not to spread.

He had flown in for a few days to participate in the SLOWLIFE Symposium as I had; ironically he’d arrived by British Air from London, rather than aboard his own Virgin, which doesn’t fly to Male, the capital of the Maldives. Given his longstanding competition and high-level squabbles with BA, he joked that he’d brought along his own “food taster.” I assume he wasn’t referring to his lovely wife Joan, who accompanied him.

During the course of three days spent in sessions where 80 or so participated in conversation and debate about subjects ranging from the consequences of not taking climate change seriously to the energy future of small island states, Branson sat in on every one, taking notes in a small red notebook, participating in round table debates.

It wasn’t as if he didn’t have plenty on his plate that might have kept him otherwise occupied: The bankruptcy of the American solar company Solyndra had cost him a bundle; his house on his Caribbean island paradise, Necker Island, had burned to the ground just a month ago (thanks to a lightning strike during Hurricane Irene); and in a few days time he would be outed by Wikileaks for participating in covert plots to oust Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, announce plans to have Virgin Atlantic Airways running on recycled industrial gases by 2014 and by the following weekend be testing a new submersible amongst great white sharks off the coast of Mexico.

When it was his turn to present in the Maldives he chose the challenge of running a transportation business — an airline — while simultaneously trying to limit contributions to climate change and still make money. A relatively recent convert to environmental activism — which began with a literal house-call from Al Gore, “who did his whole ‘Inconvenient Truth’ routine in my living room” — Branson has since pushed many of his various companies towards greener ethics and is the prime motivator behind both The Elders and the recently announced Ocean Elders, as well as the Carbon War Room.

The latter, he suggested, was focusing on 25 sectors for which clean technology is available, like shipping, which he said emits 1 billion tons of CO2 annually and spends “some $70 billion dollars a year needlessly.” Similarly, fifty percent of all carbon emissions worldwide, he said, come from inefficient buildings, which led to his gathering 30 mayors of the largest cities in the world together to plot how to be less polluting.

“We do need to keep broadening the debate,” he said. “As arguments continue to rage around the weather patterns and reality of climate change, we are missing the bigger picture that there is no scientific debate about that every single one of our natural eco-systems is in decline. Part of this shift must be a new perspective on how we value our natural assets and how we change our consumption patterns. If we don’t move on this, Mother Nature will force us to.”

The week before been in China, to help launch a campaign there against shark fin soup, and had met a man he believed to be one of the richest in China whose company could put up a 20-story, full functioning, environmentally sound building in 10 days. He loved the spirit behind the effort.

“At Virgin we have always backed the power of the entrepreneur and inventor to find solutions to tricky problems,” he said. “With this in mind why should climate change and the battle against carbon be any different.”

To that end, in 2007 he had announced the Virgin Earth Challenge, an idea he credited to his wife, which offered a $25 million prize to whomever — inventor, scientist or entrepreneur — could come up with the best way to remove carbon from the atmosphere. The original deadline was 2010; to-date they’ve received 2,500 entries but have not yet chosen a “grand prize winner.” Instead, he said, the panel — which includes James Lovelock, Tim Flannery, Al Gore and James Hansen — had decided to choose a handful of promising entries and give them grants to help develop some experimental technologies.

Ever the optimist, he was the first to admit “we have a lot of work to do on many fronts and not much time to change the course we are on.

“We must look at the issues around protecting our natural resources as one of the biggest entrepreneurial opportunities of our lifetimes. We have the technology to realize this opportunity – we now need the right government policies to put the capital in place to build a new economy that puts people and the planet ahead of just business as usual and creates a more equitable way of life in harmony with the planet.”

In typical Branson form, of course, he refused to end on a dour note, choosing optimism instead and closing by referencing Martin Luther King. “He did not get his message across by saying ‘I have a nightmare!’ “

[images via Six Senses]

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]