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.”
Saffah 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 full-time 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 are frequent. 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.” While hopeful, he says he has “mixed opinions about the new administration,” especially concerns that sizable projects are being begun without sufficient public consultation.
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 in a doomsday scenario. I don’t see that as a solution for Male’s problems. 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 are indifferent.
“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.”
THE PROBLEM WITH SAND
Intertwined with concerns about rising sea levels and the potential impact on this, the lowest-lying country in the world, are worries about beach erosion. One afternoon this past week I sat on a seemingly hot, calm day and watched as small tidal waves crashed onto the sand beach. Each wave seemed to climb higher up the beach, each washing a new swath of sand off the beach from beneath the mangroves and into the sea.
On some Maldivian islands it’s estimated that four out of eight homes have already been lost to beach erosion. Careful environmental planning has not been the watchword for development here; one concern is that as the population grows and prospers there is more demand for building of homes, work places and new ports. Development requires cement, which needs sand. While efforts have been made in recent years to limit how much of sand for construction can be taken locally and how much needs to be imported, it’s a fine line in the sand here.