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“The Island President” Director Jon Shenk Recounts Coups and Courage

Jon Shenk had never been to the Maldives when, in the fall of 2008, he read about a young activist named Mohamed Nasheed who had just become the country’s first democratically elected president after 30 years of horrific dictatorship.

Photo: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

“When I started paying attention to Nasheed’s presidency, I was struck by his willingness to say these brutally honest things about the global environment. His was a truly unique political story.

“A lightbulb went on in my head. Here was a chance to completely shift the conversation about climate change from something a lot of people consider boring or are powerless over—climate change—to a story with both inherent drama and a kind of hero.

Weeks later the San Francisco-based filmmaker—who was director of 2004’s Lost Boys of Sudan and was DP on the Academy Award-winning Smile Pinki—was face-to-face with the new president, attempting to convince Nasheed to be the subject of a David-versus-Goliath bio-doc.

Shenk asked for unprecedented fly-on-the-wall access to the president, his office, his travels, and backroom negotiations. Within three minutes after meeting, Nasheed agreed.

The filmmakers ultimately trailed the president across five continents, filming him 78 times, gaining backroom access to high-level climate-change negotiations at both the U.N. and Copenhagen’s international climate-change conference in November 2009, where the film ends.

But Shenk could not have predicted that just as his film was to be released across the country, Nasheed would be forced out of office by a coup d’état.

“Only later,” Shenk tells me on the eve of the nationwide opening of The Island President, “did he tell me he never thought we’d stick around as long as we did.”

As I talk to Shenk, he keeps his fingers tightly crossed, hopeful that among the film’s opening-night guests at New York’s Film Forum (on Wednesday) will be the now-ousted island president.

Jon Bowermaster/TakePart: What was your reaction when you heard President Nasheed had resigned, on February 7?

Jon Shenk: It was devastatingly sad news. I was immediately worried for his safety, and his family’s safety.

During our research I’d seen hours of [archival] footage of what is possible when people want to use force in the Maldives, and what we saw last month when he was forced out of office looked eerily similar to the protests he’d led during the fight for democracy days.

One of the first things he did when he was elected was to order all of that riot gear be put away. But as soon as he was deposed, all that stuff—batons, pepper spray, water cannons—came out of the closet.

Jon Bowermaster/TakePart: His deposing was amazing in how quickly it happened, a kind of reverse Arab Spring. You had a democratically elected president being forced out by allies of the dictator he had worked so hard to defeat.

Jon Shenk: It was spooky because late last year Nasheed had publicly cautioned activists in Egypt and Tunisia that just because you oust a dictator doesn’t mean it’s over. Sure enough, he became the victim of just that.

Jon Bowermaster/TakePart: Even with the incredible access you had to the president and his backroom meetings and strategy, was it difficult to film a sitting president?

Jon Shenk: Yes and no. While we had his cooperation, having one man’s cooperation in the Maldives did not mean it was all carte blanche. The Maldives is a country that had been traumatized, so people were wary of cooperating with us. These are people who had lived under a dictator, with people disappearing and constantly fearful of disappearing. We would ask questions about politics, and people would whisper back to us, looking around first before answering to make sure no one was listening.

I got the sense from the start that the shadow of the dictator had not gone away. At the time I thought that was absurd, that the dictator was never going to take power again. Of course, now I’ve been proven wrong: their fears were founded.

Jon Bowermaster/TakePart: As a journalist and human rights activist before being elected president, Nasheed had been imprisoned by his predecessor, held in solitary confinement, and tortured. He clearly is a big believer in transparency and a free press and has been very good at reaching out to the media. As president he vowed to make the Maldives the first carbon-neutral country and held an underwater cabinet meeting to illustrate the coming impacts of climate change on low-lying island nations. In your time with him would you consider him more activist…or politician?

“…what you see in the film is this journey, this guy trying to get something done that is so bloody hard, nearly impossible. And then to read at the end that he’s been deposed by his enemies—it’s like twisting the knife in.”

Jon Shenk: He’s been an activist for much of his life, a Martin Luther King/Gandhi-like figure. To put his own safety on the line, to put up with solitary confinement and torture…this is not activism light.

But he is the first to admit that in order to get attention for important issues you have to be dramatic. He’s better at that than any politician I can think of.

So while he’d spent his life organizing on the streets and Internet I was amazed by how really good at governing he became when he stepped into office. But ultimately his efforts to turn out the entrenched corruption in the Maldives and create a functional economy made him a victim of the very wealthy people who were no longer getting their share as he tried to change the system.

Jon Bowermaster/TakePart: What do you think of the criticism Nasheed was receiving in the Maldives before he was ousted that he was spending too much time traveling and working on international climate-change issues and not enough time at home focused on local problems like the economy, crime, drugs, education, etc.?

Jon Shenk: We showed The Island President at a theater in (the Maldivian capitol) Male for a week in November, and it got almost unanimously positive reviews, even from opposition websites. They said they had no idea what he was doing when he went abroad, but when they saw the film, when they saw him trying to get adaptation money and mitigation for the future, then they understood.

When he traveled abroad he was obviously working on international issues that couldn’t be more important to the Maldives. In the film you see him working like a dog. If I were a Maldivian, I would realize this is not some playboy going off to have fun; he was a hard-working negotiator working on behalf of the Maldives.

Jon Bowermaster/TakePart: Though he’s only been out of the presidency a few weeks, do you have any idea what’s next for him?

Jon Shenk: I asked him the same question over the phone 10 days ago. What he said kind of shocked me in its optimism. He basically said he thinks this may turn out to be a good thing, that if and when there are new elections in the Maldives, the people are going to know much more about who the remnants of the corrupt oligarchy are. Perhaps if Nasheed or some decent person is able to take power again, maybe that person will have more leeway to root out the criminals.

I look forward to following his career. The world of international climate politics is virtually impossible to change, because there is so much inertia. But he has carved out a place for himself in the environmental movement, which is looking for leadership.

Of course, that’s all on a back burner right now since he fears for his life and is still trying to maintain democracy in the Maldives. Because he’s smart, charismatic, and knows what’s right and wrong, I think he still has an amazing career ahead of him.

Jon Bowermaster/TakePart: Have you made any changes to the film given that he is no longer the president?

Jon Shenk: We never really saw this film as a news story but as a kind of David vs. Goliath tale about one of the “good people.” You see him standing up to leaders from China, Europe, the U.S. and India, saying over and over, “We’re not going to stand down.” So the film is really about leadership and the story of a man and how he’s chosen to live his life.

To change the film would pierce that. It is about what happened to him during that period, a precious document of that time of his life.

We did add a card at the end of the film that explains what’s gone on in the last couple months. I’ve been in audiences when that card comes up at the end, and there are audible sighs, because what you see in the film is this journey, this guy trying to get something done that is so bloody hard, nearly impossible. And then to read at the end that he’s been deposed by his enemies—it’s like twisting the knife in.

Thanks to Rising Seas, Kiribati Looks for New Homeland

There is a growing list of small island leaders fervently scanning the horizon of the flat—and rising—seas that surround them, looking desperately for new homes.

The list has included the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, the Maldives and Seychelles. And this week the leader of equator-straddling Kiribati officially let it be known that he is also on the hunt for a new place to settle as lapping waves and eroding beaches become increasingly part of his island nation’s daily worry.

Even if the best-case scenario were to come true and all greenhouse gas emissions were braked tomorrow, ocean levels around the world would still rise three to six feet by 2100. This will make life untenable on islands from Polynesia to Manhattan and particularly Kiribati, which climbs no higher than six feet.

The government in Kiribati has already experimented with building sea walls and has even considered construction of floating “homes,” like something straight out of Waterworld. Some of Kiribati’s residents have already moved inland or to one of its other 32 islands, since fresh water resources are contaminated by salt water and growing fields are flooded.

Making plans for his 103,000 citizens to higher grounds was not a backup plan, Kiribati President Anote Tong said, but “our last resort.” Tong has his eyes on purchasing a piece of Fiji, specifically nine-square miles on its second largest island, Vanua Levu. He announced to his cabinet this week that he intends to buy the 6,000 acres of fertile land, currently listed by a church group, for $9.6 million.

“Making plans for his 103,000 citizens to higher grounds was not a backup plan, [the president] said, but ‘our last resort.’ ”

Not only is the President putting together a war chest for purchasing property, starting with foreign reserves built up during the island’s 1970s phosphate-mining boom days, but he will also eventually call on the international community to kick in. In addition, he has a rudimentary migration plan, which involves initially sending 500 of Kiribati’s most skilled workers to Fiji to “carve out a niche” so that when mass migration begins later in the century, Kiribatians will have a foothold and not be regarded as environmental refugees.

To avoid being considered second-class citizens, President Tong has also launched an “Education for Migration” program, aimed at increasing the employability of his people. In addition, President Tong is looking at Australia and New Zealand as potential new homelands for some of his people.

The president made it clear that any move from his homeland would not be made for him and his generation, but for the youth of Kiribati. “Moving won’t be a matter of choice for them,” he told the Associated Press, “it’s basically going to be a matter of survival.”

Fiji-based realtors have actually been engaged in the negotiation between the Kiribati government and private landholders. Making the land arable so that new settlers can grow vegetables and fruit is a top priority; so is taking sand and dirt from Fiji by barge back to Kiribati to help stem rising sea levels.

Fiji sits about 1,400 miles south of Kiribati; adding additional people to its 850,000 would obviously cause some stress. Historically its high islands (Fiji is made up 106 islands, with peaks rising as high as 4,000 feet) have been regarded as safe havens by low-lying neighbors that are running out of resources.

For the moment, the Fijian government is said to be “studying” Kiribati’s plans and will have a formal statement next week.

But the reality is that the globe will witness a future where nations build and die with the rising tides as more and more citizens of low-lying countries bcome environmental refugees.

Palmer Station — Science Ramps Up as Ice Disappears

Palmer Station—When we sail into the narrow channel fronting the U.S. science base here at the tip of Anvers Island, it is clear of ice except for one sizable iceberg, which we wait out, watching it drift slowly out to sea.

Once anchored and tied to the rocks at four corners—a necessity in Antarctica given the unpredictable winds and constantly moving ice, which are the twin constant threats of boats both big and small down here—we settle in for a good night’s sleep before going ashore the next day to interview and film scientists based here for the austral summer.

But when we awake the scene around our boat has changed: Big winds have pushed a field of brash ice—small chunks of floating ice that have a tendency to congeal into bigger masses when temps are cold—into the narrow channel, threatening to trap the sailboat and make getting back and forth to shore a nightmare.

Tying our nine-foot rubber Zodiac up next to the station’s row of a half-dozen bigger, sturdier versions, it feels a bit like we’ve ridden up to an Old West town and saddled our Shetland pony next to a string of quarter horses.

Though it is gray and misting heavily when we climb ashore, the station’s manager, Bob Farrell, wearing sweatshirt and jeans, meets us outside. His charges this summer total just 41, a third of them scientists, the rest support staff.

Whether krill expert or IT guy, whether studying Antarctica’s longest-living insect (a midge) or looking after the station’s wastewater system, every one of the 42 people based here for three to six months treats the place with equal parts reverence and occasional disdain. While each scientist loves Antarctica in his/her own way, many returning year after year, the isolation—and grayness—of the place can sometimes make the assignment feel more jail sentence than golden opportunity. The two days we are at Palmer it rains and snows and rains and snows, with the sun coming out for just a tempting 30-minute peek, and then it starts to sleet.

Luckily for us, the place is busy with interesting science and super-committed-scientists. While the NSF-supported scientists are often in the field counting penguins or sampling underwater algae, a handful are here working the first-floor labs doing what scientists do: count, recount, analyze, compare, dissect, hypothesize, write and edit. Among the hi-tech support here is a full-on Wi-Fi connection, which allows phones with U.S. prefixes to ring and Skype or Immarsat conferences on experiments to take place between scientists and colleagues back home in New Jersey.

For example, we find Rutgers’s University grad student Travis Miles in a lab preparing a four-foot long yellow “glider,” which he and assistants will slide into the ocean a couple miles from the station to collect data from deep channels nearby. The program has already sent one of its gliders 7,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean.

In a similar but different underwater endeavor, across the hall we meet Kim Bernard—native of South Africa and currently studying at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science—who shows off colorful screen grabs from her own undersea work, which is focused on krill fluctuations. The mainstay of Antarctica’s food web, krill have recently seen its population decline. Is it the warming waters? Overfishing? Extra-hungry predators? While the Rutgers’s team goes deep for answers, Kim studies the potential influence of tides on krill.

And both studies benefit Palmer’s most long-term study, of Adelie penguins, led by Bill Fraser, who has been coming to Palmer since the mid-1970s. HQ for Fraser and his birding team—he currently has two teams of two scientists out on remote islands, counting—is a sturdy half-dome tent on the station’s front deck.

Sharing a glass of early evening whisky, Fraser details some of the changes he’s seen since first arriving at Palmer in 1975-76, staying the first season for three months, the next for 13 months. During those decades he’s watched Adelie penguin populations decrease significantly, due to warming temperatures; Gentoo penguin numbers increase, as they move into the warming neighborhoods abandoned by the Adelies; and krill numbers fluctuate wildly.

But the main thing he’s witnessed is less and less ice. Photographs assembled by various Palmer Station managers and visiting photographers show that at this tip of Anvers Island the retreat has been significant; they show a glacier behind the station that has retreated by 1,500 feet.

“That is the future of the Antarctic Peninsula,” says Fraser. “The ice is definitely disappearing. And fast.”

Disaster Tracker: Interactive Map of 2011′s Scary Weather

Just in time for all those end-of-year wrap-up reports, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has put together an Extreme Weather Map detailing just how unusual 2011 has been for its abundance of unnatural disasters.

The map documents 2,941 monthly weather records that were broken during the year, including flooding, droughts, punishing snowstorms and wind events—and that’s just in the United States.

Citing a year of “unparalleled extremes,” the NRDC report claims 14 major weather events resulted in $53 billion of damage, not including individual health claims. The report goes further, linking half of those extreme events to the changing climate, posing a troubling look into the future.

Along a similar vein, a TakePart post last week highlighted a new report from the World Meteorological Organization announcing that worldwide temperatures in 2011 were tied for the tenth highest since records began being kept in 1850. (Thirteen of the warmest years on record have all occurred since 1997.)
Help the NRDC Tell Congress to Clean Up the Air

Highlights (lowlights?) of the year in Extreme Weather:

• Record Snows: In New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut it was the snowiest January on record. South Bend, Indiana, recorded the all-time greatest 24-hour snowfall and Hartford, Connecticut, endured the snowiest month on record (57 inches).

• Record Floods: Above-average snowmelt plus high spring rainfall caused the Missouri and Souris Rivers to overflow their banks across the Upper Midwest (Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri), forcing an estimated 11,000 people to evacuate. In Minot, North Dakota, 4,000 homes were flooded as were thousands of acres of farmland along the Missouri River. Estimated losses exceed $2 billion and cost at least five lives.

* Record Heat: Historic drought, heatwaves, and wildfires spread across Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Kansas, Arkansas and Louisiana. The most destructive wildfire in Texas history, the Bastrop County Fire burned over 34,000 acres, destroying almost 1,600 homes and killing two. A total loss to agriculture, cattle and structures is $9 billion and growing.

(For more of my dispatches go to

Posted in Climate Change

2011: A Year of Unnatural Disasters

Scour the headlines that came out of Durban, South Africa, where thousands met to try, try, try to mediate a future for a warming planet (officially it is the “17th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change” — UNFCCC COP 17) and one key word spikes: Urgent!

Photo: Sukree Sukplang/Reuters

Expectations low, but urgency high.” “Stormy negotiations take on urgent need.” “Chinese say agreement by 2020 is urgent.”

The meetings were opened with a statement from the Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organization announcing that worldwide temps in 2011 are tied for the tenth highest since records began being kept in 1850. (Thirteen of the warmest years on record have all occurred since 1997.)

In a calendar year that has seen an unnatural number of natural catastrophes rock the planet (here in the Hudson Valley, New York we were jolted by an earthquake one day, flattened by Hurricane Irene winds the next) I’m probably not alone in thinking urgency actually sounds very … yesterday. Emergency might be a substitute.

Expectations low, but emergency high.” “Stormy negotiations take on emergency need.” “Chinese say agreement by 2020 is an emergency.”

The planet is expressing its concern as well. Durban attendees were greeted by a torrential rainfall (2.5 inches in one night), which killed eight, destroyed 700 houses, covered beaches with debris and left thousands homeless. The South Africa weather bureau reports the city has received twice as much rainfall as normal during November.

While conferees have been careful about directly linking the horrific weather pounding down all around them specifically to climate change, for many the correlation is not a hard leap to make. Durban is hardly alone in 2011 for having endured highly abnormal weather:

  • Record droughts and fires have wracked Texas and America’s southwest
  • The worst floods in 50 years have destroyed low-lying Thailand, filling Bangkok streets;
  • Mud slides have inundated suburban Sao Paulo;
  • Monsoons rains have whipped Sri Lanka;
  • More and more of China is turning into desert, thanks to rainfalls in some areas that are more than 50 percent below average;
  • While sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean is the second lowest since records began being kept in 1979.
  • Meanwhile the global ocean is turning hot and sour, a kind of giant sink for CO2 emitted by the burning of fossil fuels, making it 30 percent more acidic than just a few years ago.

One of the most-concerned groups represented in Durban was the 43-member Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), led by the prominent example of Tuvalu, the fourth smallest nation in the world, which a few months ago came within a few barrels of running out of fresh water.

But big nations are hardly safe: A heat wave in Russia drove world wheat prices up by 47 percent.

And there are political consequences too. The “Arab Spring” was fueled in part by protest against high and volatile food prices due to a combination of heat and floods raising the cost of everything from transportation to produce.

According to a report out of Canada, global insurer Munich Re, which has been studying climate change for 40 years, the number of losses around the world attributable to extreme weather has tripled since 1980. Floods have gone up by a factor of three and severe windstorms doubled.

The big question I have is, Can conferences really make a difference? Last time this same group met, in Cancun, it pledged to limit global average temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial times. That allowable limit has already been raised to as much as 4.5 degrees.

So much for urgency.

(For more of my dispatches go to










Posted in Climate Change, Floods

Real Impacts of Climate Change on Small Maldivian Islands

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.

Photo/Jon Bowermaster

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 ate 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 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.