Paradise Sinking

sea change in the Maldives

by by Muhammad Saigol

illustration by by Julieta Cárdenas

The Maldives is best known as an island paradise, a fact that belies the turbulent environmental and political changes that are threatening the country’s existence and propelling it to the center of an international debate on climate change.

The Republic of the Maldives is made up of 1,200 tiny atolls—most of them uninhabited—250 miles southwest of India. With a population of only about 350,000 people, the Maldives holds the title of Asia’s smallest country—both in terms of size and population. Tourism keeps the economy afloat: over 800,000 people visit each year, according to Tourism Maldives.

The atolls also comprise the lowest-lying country on earth; an average elevation of only 4 feet 11 inches makes the Maldives particularly susceptible to the topographical consequences triggered by climate change. A 2007 study conducted by the UN-affiliated Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that if conditions were not drastically alleviated, rising sea levels and coastal erosion would make the scenic islands uninhabitable by as soon as 2100. As an indication of how dire the situation is, National Geographic named the Maldives “ground zero” for climate change impacts in 2011, recognizing the nation’s status as a microcosm for the world ecosystem.

The condition of Maldivian politics is hardly any better than that of its ecosystem. The country has been controlled by an authoritarian regime for much of its existence since gaining independence from the United Kingdom in 1965. More recently, however, an appealing young leader emerged as both the face of democracy and action against climate change—only to be swiftly ousted in a coup that may have taken with it his environmental aspirations.

For the thirty years between 1978 and 2008, autocratic President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom governed the Maldives under a thin guise of democracy. According to a BBC profile, his tenure was marred by allegations of nepotism, the silencing of dissent by torture and imprisonment, and the refusal to allow any opposition. His dictatorial ways led some critics to brand him as a “sultan” instead of a president. At the same time, he was instrumental in transforming the Maldives from a dirt-poor country into South Asia’s richest, by encouraging investment, creating jobs, and framing the islands as an internationally renowned tourist destination.

In 1990, an environmentalist by the name of Mohamed Nasheed rose to prominence after he penned an article in the Maldivian political magazine Sangu, alleging that Gayoom had tampered with the results of the 1989 election. Nasheed was young, British-educated, and a journalist by profession. He had not been trained in the ranks of the Maldivian bureaucracy, as Gayoom had, and so branded himself an outsider to a corrupt system. His critique of the government led to the publication being outlawed and to his imprisonment—the first of over twenty incarcerations he would suffer from 1989 to 2005 for his political activism and enduring criticism of the status quo.

By 1999, Nasheed had become a popular enough personality to win a seat in Parliament. In 2003, he requested an investigation into the death of 19-year-old inmate Hassan Evan Naseem, who was in jail for minor drug offenses. The inquiry revealed that Naseem had died at the hands of state security officials during torture, a discovery that prompted mass protests in the capital city of Malé.

Nasheed became the face of the struggle for democracy in the tiny nation. He formed the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), which presented the promotion of human rights and democracy as primary objectives. When the state held its first multiparty presidential election by popular vote in 2008, Nasheed ran and won on the MDP ticket, ousting the incumbent Gayoom. The media dubbed him the “Mandela of the Maldives,” and celebrations across the country heralded what seemed a new age of democracy.

From his early days in office, Nasheed made climate control a priority of his administration. In an April 2 interview with The Daily Show, Nasheed remarked that the Maldives was a nation without a single hill—meaning that there was virtually no place for the population to relocate to internally if the sea began to claim the Maldives’ limited land. He linked environmental change with a strong democracy, saying at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association’s Conference on Climate Change, “it is going to be very difficult for us to adapt to climate change issues if we do not have solid and secure democratic governance.”

Nasheed’s environmentalist program was ambitious and relied on both international and domestic support, sending him on a host of television channels, talk shows, and meetings with world leaders. He pledged to make electric cars cheaper than regular ones, committed to drastically reducing fossil fuel dependence, and even held cabinet meetings underwater to garner publicity. He went so far as to declare that the Maldives would become the world’s first entirely carbon-neutral nation by 2020. By the Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change in 2009, Nasheed had emerged as what Salon called “the developing world’s most charismatic and dynamic spokesman on the causes, and the costs, of global warming.”

Nasheed understood that a nation the size of the Maldives going carbon-neutral would have a negligible effect on global climate change. But by setting a moral example, other nations could follow suit. “At least we will die knowing we did the right thing,” he is heard saying in one scene of The Island President, a documentary by American Jon Shenk on Nasheed’s climate fight. He also reminds his staff that Manhattan is an island, too, and that the effort would have lessons for all.

But the euphoria surrounding Nasheed’s ambitions was short-lived. In February 2012, Nasheed resigned from the presidency in a national telecast under pressure from protests that involved prominent members of the police and military. In an op-ed in the New York Times just days after his resignation, he claimed that he was “forced, at gunpoint, to resign” and that he did so to “avoid bloodshed.” He also alleged that the protestors were supported by powerful networks of Gayoom loyalists, and implicated his former vice-president, Mohammed Waheed Hassan, in a conspiracy to overthrow the democratic government. Hassan subsequently ascended to the nation’s highest office but has denied Nasheed’s accusations, calling the transfer of power voluntary and constitutional. His office issued a statement that President Hassan is “fully committed to strengthening democratic processes.” The United States and India were both quick to recognize the new government as legitimate, but in the Maldives, Nasheed’s supporters have been taking to the streets almost daily, calling for his return.

It seems that Nasheed was right to link democracy with climate change. Although Hassan continues to pay lip service to the cause, little has been done to advance the plans put forth during Nasheed’s administration. The Maldives had been promised a $30 million grant from the Climate Investment Funds’ Scaling-Up Renewable Energy Program for Low Income Countries, but when the nation was due to present a proposal to the committee in March, the new government simply failed to produce one. “Due to political developments in February, it was decided by the government that the submission date be delayed,” Yusuf Riza, the newly appointed Minister of Economic Development, told MediaGlobal, an independent news outlet based within the United Nations.

Foreign investment to the Maldives may also be cut due to the political instability in the country. “Nobody in their right mind would ever invest in the Maldives right now,” says Paul Roberts, Nasheed’s advisor on international media and communications. “It’s too risky.”

The former president has taken advantage of media coverage of The Island President—which has already been honored at Sundance and the Toronto International Film Festival—to call attention to his ouster and pressure foreign governments to help him get back in office. While Nasheed claims he is seeking the restoration of true democracy, his actions may be interpreted as ploys for reelection.

Appealing to India for help would be futile, since the big neighbor to the north helped quash a 1988 coup against Gayoom. Nasheed has instead decided to apply pressure on the United States by openly criticizing it for unquestioningly accepting the new regime. According to his Daily Show interview, one of the reasons he came onto the show was to persuade the government to help him take democracy back to the Maldives. He told The Washington Post, “To suddenly see the United States, so quickly—they could have held onto their horses for a few minutes and just asked me—so quickly to have recognized the status quo, that was very sad and shocking.”
Nasheed continues to campaign for a return to democracy in the Maldives, as well as a reprioritization of his climate control agenda. The political and environmental future of his country may depend on his ability to make people listen.

MUHAMMAD SAIGOL B’12 does his homework underwater.