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Maldives, Live from the SLOWLIFE Symposium

If there is a ground zero for observing the impacts of a changing global climate the Maldives are definitely a front-runner.

Photo by Jon Bowermaster

It is a place many have heard of but few could easily pick out on a map. Comprised of twelve hundred islands and atolls, most pancake flat, the highest reaches no more than five feet above sea level … making the Maldives the lowest country on earth. Only two hundred of the islands are inhabited, by roughly 320,000 people. It is an always hot, exceedingly beautiful, Muslim country stretching about 600 miles from north to south in the heart of the Indian Ocean off the tip of Sri Lanka.

I have been visiting the islands since 2005, when I first went to assess the damages wreaked by the massive tsunami that rolled from Indonesia to Somalia. The Maldives were largely spared; its coral reefs absorbed the brunt of the wave. In the years since, as rising sea levels and warming sea surface temperatures have gained more and more headlines, so has this tiny island nation.

Today erosion is a big problem on many of the islands and most of its coral is badly bleached.

In the past few days an invested crowd of thinkers and doers, including the Maldives’ President Mohammed Nasheed and several members of his cabinet, gathered on the small island of Kunfunadhoo, for the third annual S.L.O.W.L.I.F.E Symposium.

Daryl Hannah and Richard Branson, photo Six Senses

Organized by the owners of the resort company Six Senses, Eva and Sonu Shivdasani, the barefoot conference brought together environmentalists from the United Kingdom including Jonathan Porritt, Tim Smits and Jeremy Leggett, National Geographic Emerging Explorer Mark Lynas (author of “Six Degrees” and the new “God Species”), renewable energy and island nation leaders from as far away as Reunion and Bali, ocean mariners including Fabien Cousteau and some incredibly dedicated headline-makers (Richard Branson and the actors Edward Norton and Daryl Hannah).

The subject of three days of talks was, What can be done fast to slow climate change, before it’s too late.

Topics ranged from how small island nations can become energy independent, how to engage local communities in ambitious carbon reduction plans and the challenge of adapting transportation in a low-carbon economy.

It’s clear there are no easy answers. Soon after arriving by float plane President Nasheed delivered a harsh message. “Carbon dioxide emissions are going to kill us,” he said. “Here in the Maldives our goal of becoming carbon neutral is not to scare the world, but simply to make a step in the right direction.”

Sonu Shivdasani, SLOWLIFE Symposium, photo Six Senses

While Nasheed leads an effort to make the Maldives the first carbon neutral country on the planet, by 2020, there are some good things to brag about here on the Laccadive Sea. Last year the country banned all shark fishing and any tuna in the Maldives are caught only by pole. Recently the Baa Atoll was declared a UNESCO Biosphere.

While the Maldives, with few natural resources but a growing population and energy demands, is on the forefront of nations attempting to take themselves off the grid it’s clear the problems are not a lack of knowledge and information. But the Maldivian government officials reiterated what stands in their way is not lack of knowledge but of money. It’s one thing to have great ideas and access to information; paying for progress is something else, especially in a country with a fledgling democracy and a history of high debt and bad credit.

But it is trying. By 2020 the Maldives hopes to generate 60 percent of its electricity from solar, without raising the cost of power to its consumers. It has introduced a new import regime by the Transport Ministry to ensure that in the future electric cars will be a third of the price of conventional gasoline cars. And it has pledged to spend two percent of its national income on renewable energy deployment in the country. If that figure were matched worldwide, we would be collectively be spending $1.25 trillion a year rather than the $260 billion we spend today on renewable energy sources.

Worrying to all island nations of course is that CO2 in the world’s atmosphere is not declining but growing, as development and growth continue to mount globally. The goal of reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million — what scientists regard as the safe limit for humans — may fast becoming an unreachable goal, since it has already risen to above 392 ppm.

One industry that prospers in the Maldives of course is tourism. Nearly 1 million visitors a year, including increasing numbers from China and India, fly into the capital city of Male each year and jump out to various island resorts by float plane or small boat. Taxes on resort development — and potentially new tariffs on visitors to support renewable energy projects — are the lifeblood of the Maldivian economy.

The Maldives, Ground Zero for What Ails the Ocean

For the next two weeks I’ll be in the Maldives participating in a pair of very cool eco-symposiums. I’ve been to the Maldives three times before — the first, in 2005, on assignment for the New York Times post-tsunami (attached here) — and find it one of the best informational grounds for a variety of environmental issues currently challenging the world’s ocean. Obviously climate change and resulting rising seas are an every day concern in a place where 400,000 people live just a few feet above sea level. As are concerns about its vast system of coral reefs, which are suffering due to warming seas, and the impacts of overfishing even in a most-isolated part of the Indian Ocean. Check out the programs for both the first-ever WaterWoMen event to take place on Laamu atoll and the third annual S.L.O.W. Life Symposium at the Soneva Fushi resort. Both events are sponsored by the Six Senses Resorts and Spas and hosted by owner Sonu Shivdasani.

In person at the WaterWoMen event will be a mix of some of the world’s great ocean athletes (surfers, free divers, kite boarders, windsurfers) and ocean conservationists and non-profit thinkers; the S.L.O.W. Life Symposium will feature presentations by President Mohammed Nasheed of the Maldives, Sir Richard Branson, climate change writer Mark Lynas, Ashok Khosla, president of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and many more. I’ll be posting from the Maldives for the next couple weeks, so please stay tuned!

Green Ocean Hero At Risk in the Maldives

As political unrest swept through the Muslim nations of North Africa, even the remote island nation of the Maldives was caught up in its own Arab Spring in the form of political protest and street clashes.

One major difference: Efforts in the Maldives were focused on pushing out a young, democratically elected president and replacing him with an aging despot.

Photo: AFP/Getty Images

President Mohamed Nasheed, 44, has gained accolades around the globe for his commitment to preparing the Maldives for the coming impacts of climate change and simultaneously attempting to turn the country carbon neutral. Since the first of May, intermittent protests have wracked the streets of the tiny island capital of Male – just two square miles and home to 100,000 – with some calling for Nasheed’s resignation; the irony, of course, is that he is the country’s very first democratically elected leader.

As many as 5,000 protestors have been shouting not about green issues, but about homegrown concerns, including a sour economy and increases in crime and inflation. They have also complained about Nasheed’s alleged “westernization” of the traditional Islamic culture. One report has his popularity rating at just 18 percent. The military has dispersed youthful crowds with high-pressure hoses and batons.

Waiting in the wings? None other than Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, 74, whose 30-year dictatorship ended in 2008 with Nasheed’s election. Nasheed has no love lost for the former president, who still lives in the Maldives. A former journalist, activist and political prisoner, Nasheed was tortured while in prison during Gayoom’s presidency.

Many attribute today’s economic mess to the 30-year-long Gayoom administration. It’s no big surprise that it’s the previous president and his representatives who are working behind the scenes to fan the current protests.

Nasheed spokesman Mohamed Zuhair suggested to the BBC that the former president is encouraging violence in the streets. “In the Middle East, you have democrats on the streets bringing down dictatorships. Ironically, in the Maldives, the remnants of the former dictatorship are trying to bring down a democratically elected government.”

It doesn’t help that oil prices are going through the roof, since almost everything in the Maldives is imported and one quarter of its GDP is spent on oil. Tourism, which accounts for 70 percent of the Maldives economy, has been negatively impacted by the unrest.

On May 25 the government proposed an agreement with representatives of the International Monetary Fund that would raise import duties, lower capital spending, freeze public sector wages, raise the tourism tax and introduce a general goods and services tax as a way to help fix some of its economic woes.

Nasheed is well known internationally for his outspokenness regarding the fate of all island nations as sea levels rise. Among his first announcements after he was elected in 2008 was that he would set aside money from tourism to help buy land to move Maldivians as sea levels rose (to India or Pakistan, maybe Australia). To draw attention to the very real impact of climate change on a nation that is barely more than six feet above sea level, he held the first underwater cabinet meeting, which garnered more than a billion global media impressions.

(For the rest of my dispatches, go to takepart.com)

Roz Savage Departs Australia For … (Destination Secret)

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the ill-advised risks private boats take by venturing into pirate-heavy parts of the Indian Ocean. Every new killing and hostage-taking puts more people at risk, and not for reasons of national security or economic necessity. It’s a big world … why not stay out of “the most dangerous waters on the planet,” unless sailing them is absolutely necessary?

A quick response came from my friend Roz Savage, who is about to set off by 21-foot rowboat to cross a section of … the Indian Ocean. This is the fourth leg—out of five—of a seven-year adventure that will take Savage around the globe solo and self-propelled.

“The pirates are ranging up to 1,300 miles from the Somali coast, which covers a large swath of the Indian Ocean, but by no means all of it,” she wrote. “About 75 percent of the Indian Ocean is as yet untouched by piracy. I am all in favour of mitigating the risks involved in adventuring, but we need to get the right balance between sensible caution and over-reaction. These opportunistic pirates are already causing enough trouble. Let’s not give them more power than they merit.”

Fair point. But when Savage departs from Freemantle, Australia, Tuesday, April 12, her destination will be kept hush-hush, out of respect for the pirates.

Initially, her goal was to cross the entirety of the Indian Ocean, east to west, landing somewhere along the coast of Africa. To avoid ramped-up pirate activity, the end-point was switched to Mumbai. Now, she won’t say where she’s intending to make port. Unlike previous rows, global satellite tracking will not be posting daily locations at her website.

Here’s what she wrote to me a week ago: “I had an interesting meeting with the Australian maritime authorities yesterday. A pirate attack was reported further out into the Indian Ocean, closer to their territory, just a day or so ago. So you are quite right to urge caution.

“I just hope that NOT having a big white sail advertising my presence will stand me in good stead….”

To date, the former management consultant has covered about 11,000 miles of ocean by oar, crossing the Atlantic in 2005-2006 in 103 days, then across the Pacific in two stints (San Francisco to Hawaii in 99 days and Hawaii to Kiribati in 104 days) Once successful across part of the Indian Ocean, the final leg—New York City to London—is scheduled for 2012.

Some highlights from recent Q&As with Roz as she prepared her boat, the Sedna, in Freemantle:

What fuels you when you’re all alone out on a big ocean with just your boat and oars?

I can’t lie—I find it very challenging being out on the ocean. It’s not my natural habitat. It has its moments of beauty—the stars, the sea creatures, the sunrises and sunsets, and of course the moments of accomplishment—but generally it’s uncomfortable at best, and terrifying at worst.

But the ocean has been an incredible teacher. I’ve discovered resources within myself I never would have known existed if I hadn’t taken this leap of faith.

What is the single strongest lesson the open ocean offers an individual soul?

I am all too aware that I get no special privileges just because I am a human. Out there, I am just another animal, and subject to the laws of nature.

When I was rowing my first ocean, the Atlantic, I kept wondering why it was being so mean to me. I was (I thought) a good person doing the right thing for the right reasons. So why was it making my life so difficult? That year, 2005, was officially the worst year ever for weather in the Atlantic, including Hurricane Katrina. In the rough conditions, all four of my oars broke, I got tendinitis in my shoulders, and the 103 days of the crossing were mostly uncomfortable, and sometimes downright dangerous.

Ultimately, I learned not to take it personally. Nature does not make moral judgments—on me individually or on all of us collectively. Our continued existence as a species does not depend on whether we “deserve” to survive in a moral sense, but rather a practical, scientific sense. Given what we have done to our only planet, is human life sustainable in the long term? Time will tell, but big brains and opposing thumbs won’t help us much if we have poisoned our ecosphere beyond what our bodies can adapt to.

(For the rest of my dispatch go to takepart.com)

Deep Negotiations In the Maldives re: Climate Change

With fish darting amongst them in a blue lagoon, the Maldivian president and his cabinet staged an elaborate stunt to publicize climate change. Billed as the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting, President Mohamed Nasheed and 11 ministers, decked in scuba gear, held a meeting thirteen feet underwater.

While officials said the event itself was light-hearted, the idea is to focus on the plight of the Maldives, where rising sea levels threaten to make the nation uninhabitable by the end of the century. Reported by the BBC’s Olivia Lang, the event reminded the world that Nasheed, the country’s first democratically elected president, has become an important global voice for climate change since he won in polls last October.

“We have to get the message across through a course of action which resonates with ordinary people,” the president said, as the boat neared our destination. “What we are trying to tell the people is that we hope there is a better deal at Copenhagen.”

The presidential speedboat took 20 minutes to arrive in the turquoise lagoon off Girifushi, in North Male atoll. The cabinet – minus two members, who begged off citing health concerns – then zipped themselves into diving suits and donned goggles and tanks of compressed air before jumping in the water.

Major Ahmed Ghiyaz, the co-ordinator from the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF), said all measures had been taken to protect the president, which included checking the coral for dangerous creatures.

“I am 99.9% sure there will be no harmful creatures,” he told the BBC before the dive. “I’m sure there won’t be any sharks. The nastiest thing would be a moray eel, but we have checked the reef”.

A horseshoe-shaped table was set up around a dark green coral reef with blue tips and home to an array of sea creatures in one of the world’s most famed diving spots.

The president and his team took their seats at 10 a.m. at the bottom of the lagoon, sitting at desks with name tags while colorful parrot fish and black and white damsel fish darted around them. Using hand signals to gesture that they were OK, ministers then passed round an “SOS” to be signed – an agreement calling for carbon emission cuts.

“We must unite in a global effort to halt further temperature rises,” the message reads.

President Mohamed Nasheed
Mohamed Nasheed
President of the Maldives

“Climate change is happening and it threatens the rights and security of everyone on Earth.”

Meanwhile, a handful of journalists kitted out in snorkel gear and swimming around on the surface tried to get a glimpse of the action below.

Emerging out of the water, a dripping President Nasheed removed his mask to answer questions from reporters and photographers crowded around on the shore.

“We are trying to send a message to the world about what is happening and what would happen to the Maldives if climate change isn’t checked,” he said, bobbing around in the water with his team of ministers.

“If the Maldives is not saved, today we do not feel there is much chance for the rest of the world.”

After the dive, the president told the BBC he had seen a stingray swim nearby during the meeting. “There was a sergeant fish that was particularly interested in what was going on,” he said during a typically Maldivian lunch of fish curry and coconut juice.

“I’ve never been worried about reef sharks and I’ve been diving for a long time,” the 42-year-old added. He says other Maldivians had heard about the event and wanted to get involved in some way. On the island of Kuda Huvadhoo, some islanders reportedly created a sealed box and put their TV in it so they could watch the footage of the meeting underwater.

“They told me, ‘if the president is under water, then they want to be too’,” Nasheed said.

But he was keen to push the need for action.

The 1,192-island chain is at severe threat from rising sea levels, with 80 percent of its islands less than a metre above sea level. “What do we hope to achieve? We hope not to die. I hope I can live in the Maldives and raise my grandchildren here,” says Nasheed.

The Maldivian Wild Life

It’s easy to get the impression that the Maldives is made up only of pancake-flat islands covered with white sand and a handful of coconut palms (which does happen to be the country’s state tree). But though no island here is much higher than six feet above sea level, there are some that are lush, jungle-like. Giant banyan trees are surrounded by hundred-foot-tall palms which are surrounded by dense mangrove and fruit trees. Though it would be hard to get lost for too long in these jungles, since if you walk for a half-mile in any direction and you hit beach, they do belie the lone coconut palm image many have of the place.

It’s tough to walk more than ten feet along the sandy paths here without having a lizard, rabbit or chicken run across your path. Geckos squawk at night as they climb the walls, the Asian koel’s melodious call rings through the trees during the day. White breasted waterhens scurry along the beach, just missing the myriad hermit crabs trundling their shells up and down. And sizable fruit bats hang upside down in the trees overhead and soar along the waterline at night.

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