Bowermaster’s Adventures — Bluepeace

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.”

Bowermaster’s Adventures — Eydhafushi, Maldives

Late on a Sunday afternoon, hardly a day of rest in this part of the world, the small island of Eydhafushi 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 3,000 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.

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. A four-hundred-foot tall, red and white striped telephone tower adorned with a variety of satellite dishes shouts modernity has arrived; the head scarves worn by all women over thirty suggests a powerful connection to centuries-old tradition hangs on. As I walk the streets, obviously an outsider, I stop to chat people up and the responses are friendly, smiling. Everyone I meet – man, woman, child – gives me 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 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.

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.

A new port reinforced by thick cement walls has been dredged in the last year, long enough to accommodate thirty to forty fishing boats. It was needed post-tsunami, which turned the local fishing fleet into matchsticks in December 2004. “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.

Bowermaster’s Adventures — Snorkeling through the Maldives

Swimming along the coral edge of what transplanted marine biologist Anke Hofmeister calls her “home reef” the line dividing the shallows and deep blue is exact. To our left in the brightly sunlit coral, hundreds of shiny reef fish dart and feed; in the dark blue, just to our right, which descends straight down a dramatic hundred foot wall, swim the Maldivian big guys – jackfish, tuna and red snapper, each over one hundred pounds. An occasional spotted eagle ray elegantly flaps its way past in the dark blue below the surface of a calm Indian Ocean.

During a mile-long swim paralleling the beach we spy an incredibly beautiful and vast variety of wrasses, clown, surgeon and parrot fish. A dusky moray eel peeks out of its coral hideaway. A solitary hawksbill turtle flippers past. And a square-headed porcupine fish attempts to hide itself deep inside a rock crevice. As Anke dives to tickle an anemone hugged tight to the coral, a nasty titan triggerfish nips at her; they can be aggressive little buggers and when they bite literally take a chunk of flesh. The shallow, sandy floor running to the beach is heavy with gray-beige coral, colorful clams and even a few handsome sea cucumbers (black with red dots).

The relative health of the coral is somewhat remarkable because recent history here hasn’t been particularly kind to it. In 1998, thanks to shifting ocean patterns associated with El Niño, sea temperatures rose above 32 degrees C for more than two weeks badly “bleaching” the coral (the killing of the symbiotic algae that lives within the coral and gives it color). Between seventy and ninety percent of all the reefs surrounding the Maldives 26 atolls are estimated to have died as a result. Slowly they are trying to come back.

While that temperature rise was considered a fluke, today after our swim I ask Anke to guess at the water temps now. “Around 31 degrees C (88 degrees F),” she says, though she not guessing since she’s worked and swum here nearly daily for the past four years. “For this time of year, that seems to be normal now. In two more months it will be colder, down to 27, 28 degrees.”

In 1998 scientists were astonished that the water temperatures could rise so high, so fast. Now they are worried it may one day become the norm. With approximately 80 per cent of the 1,192 coral islets that make up the island nation just three feet or less above sea level, making it the world’s lowest country, the temperature of the ocean is very important. If the temperatures stay high and the coral continues to suffer and die, there goes another barrier protecting these already fragile, at-risk islands.

While warming and rising seas and coral die-offs are everyday concerns throughout the Maldives, as Anke and I walk back down the beach another environmental worry is evident: Many of the beautiful white sand beaches are narrowing, on some islands quite dramatically. It’s estimated that fifty percent of the inhabited islands and forty five percent of those with resorts only are suffering from some degree of coastal erosion.

Some of the beach loss is due to man. Continued development demands more sand for cement (though much of the sand used for building in the Maldives today comes from Sri Lanka or India). Increased wave action due to more boat traffic takes a toll. But a major blame is placed on the tsunami of 2004, which sucked massive amounts of sand off the beaches, and it never returned.

When you fly above the Maldives it’s easy to see there is no one shape characterizing the outline of the exterior of the atolls or the hundreds of islands sheltered inside them. Strong tides and powerful currents shape each, there is no one pattern thus no single way to reduce or limit the erosion. On different islands different attempts have been made to save the beaches, including building of seawalls or jetties, dredging and pumping. In some cases it is working, in others not.

On one hand it’s easy to think of these coral atolls and the islands they protect as tough and impervious, imagining that they’ve been here a long time and will be here for a longer time to come. But a short swim and a simple walk on a beautiful, hot, hot day quickly reminds just how fragile, how vulnerable they can be.

Bowermaster’s Adventures — The Maldives and carbon effects

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.