Is it too late to save the Maldives from climate change and Islamic extremism?

Three years ago, thanks to its enterprising president, the Maldives was leading a global climate change response. Now, that president is out of office, living under armed guard, and watching his country wilt under the threat of extremism and rising sea levels

Simon Usborne
Saturday 06 December 2014 01:00 GMT

Three years ago, Mohamed Nasheed had the dubious honour of appearing on David Cameron's guestlist for a hypothetical 'dream' stag weekend. After naming Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy during a magazine Q&A, the PM added: "My new best friend is the President of the Maldives. He's great. That's a weird mixture, isn't it?"

Weird, perhaps, but indicative of the standing of the leader of one of the world's smallest nations (Croydon is more populous than the Maldives, an archipelago of more than 1,000 islands and 350,000 people off southern India). With an eye for headlines and oration that made Obama look amateurish, Nasheed had elevated a sinking country to the top of the global climate change debate. A year after his 2008 election, he convened an underwater cabinet meeting to sign a document demanding cuts in carbon emissions before the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen.

"This is what will happen to the Maldives if climate change is not checked," he warned world leaders as parrotfish and TV cameras circled. The stunt made front pages everywhere, fuelling Nasheed's battle to save a nation. He travelled to Copenhagen with a film crew who made an award-winning documentary, The Island President. Asked while still in scuba gear what would happen if the superpowers failed to commit to emissions targets, he replied: "We are going to die".

Fast forward to last month and Nasheed sits alone in the small courtyard of a borrowed house in Malé, the Maldives' crazy, cramped capital. Walled by the rising Indian Ocean, the booming city of 150,000 people is only half the length of its own runway, which forms an artificial island to serve the tourists who transfer to luxury resorts (none of them take the public ferry to Malé). Two protection officers guard the unmarked door to the house, where Nasheed has retreated after his office was firebombed in September.

"I get a death threat almost every week," says Nasheed, the leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party, which is now in opposition. "They say they will kill me, they will kill my family and sometimes they go into graphic explanations of how they will do it." He holds out his phone. "It's not very reassuring to wake up to a text saying that someone's going to murder you, but that's what we've been living with."

What went wrong? How did a fêted president once compared to Nelson Mandela go from Cameron's guestlist to a safehouse in Malé, and what does it mean for his country's perilous position in the race to slow down climate change? To answer these questions, I came to meet the former president as well as journalists and activists who warn that politics and religious extremism are not only threatening democracy and lives here but, as one editor puts it, "forcing the environmental issue on to the fossil-fuelled back burner".

I would then travel to a resort to join ministers and big brains in ecology and economics at an unusual conference. Hosted by an eccentric old-Etonian and a former Swedish supermodel, and chaired by the renowned environmentalist Jonathon Porritt, the 'barefoot symposium' would put the environment on the solar-powered front burner. In a paradise nation propped up by luxury tourism, where oceans divide the dream and the reality, its incongruity would be very Maldivian.

As a young journalist and pro-democracy activist during the 1990s, Nasheed was repeatedly detained and tortured by the state at an island prison. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, an oppressive, religious leader, was halfway through his 30-year rule. Nasheed's stunning victory in 2008, in the first democratic elections, prompted the Mandela comparisons. But his doomsaying and Western embrace gave new ammunition to old enemies, who depicted him as un-Islamic and unpatriotic. In February 2012, he resigned "at gunpoint... had I not done so I would have been mobbed and in the process we would have lost at least 100 lives," he says.

Nasheed, who is 47 and has a degree in Maritime Studies from the former Liverpool Polytechnic, plays tennis most mornings and is still free to travel. He gives speeches and receives awards for his environmental campaigning. The democratic framework he helped to build remains, too, but now he says it is teetering. Gangs who Gayoom had politicised to do his bidding have become radicalised, too, and Wahhabist extremists are mirroring the flags and rhetoric of the Islamic State. Nasheed says more than 200 Maldivians are now fighting with IS in Syria and Iraq. Hundreds marched through Malé in September, calling for hardline Shariah. 'To hell with democracy' one placard read.

The new president, who has now ruled for a year after Nasheed narrowly lost disputed elections, is Abdulla Yameen, Gayoom's half-brother. Nasheed believes Yameen is at best powerless to stop the rise of extremism, which he says is infiltrating the police, military and government. "It is likely that they might actually take us over," he says. "If they don't do it now, they're going to do it tomorrow or next month." What will happen to him? "Well, they will murder everyone, that's what they do. But we we will stay here until it's all over and done with."

He would die rather than flee? "I'll stay here," he says. "I can't go, there's so much expectation on me. We must stick our ground."

But for how long will that ground survive? A view out of a plane window reveals the beauty and madness of Maldivian geography. Its islands, some of which barely break water, are horribly vulnerable. The highest point in the country is just 2.4 metres above water. Dolphins can leap higher. Global sea levels have risen by 20cm since records began in 1880, buoyed by melting ice and water expansion caused by rising temperatures. The worst predictions of further rises are just under two metres by the end of this century – game over for the Maldives and coastlines everywhere.

Small nations can only adapt or shout at the people with the power to cut global carbon emissions. By shouting so powerfully as president, Nasheed focused the minds of world leaders on a nation with a death sentence. Now, as upheaval here threatens that influence, the islands continue to act as a microcosm of global threats. Yet leaders including Cameron and Obama still address climate change at their political peril – or not at all. Despite Nasheed's efforts, Copenhagen failed. "If countries are bogged down with Islamic radicals or little conflicts as the preoccupation of humanity, then you are unable to get a view of the core problem," he says. "How will this planet survive?"

Palm trees and black magic have become unlikely symbols in this fight. As a child, Nasheed remembers reaching his friend's house from his own home by climbing between trees, one of which survives in the courtyard where he now sits. But the city's population has boomed and Malé is now a tight grid of choked streets. "The mango trees went first, then the breadfruit trees, and the fig trees," Nasheed recalls. To restore a glimmer of green, his administration planted dozens of roadside palms. Last month, they were hacked down. The Government accused Nasheed's party of having used them to curse President Yameen, who had been ill. "They decided that our fortunes were linked to the growth of these trees," Nasheed says. "They realised they couldn't suppress us, so they cut them down."

If not always superstitious (black magic is part of Sufist Muslim belief here) the current leadership is routinely suspicious of anything linked to Nasheed or his administration. The former president and activists on the island identify a pattern of anti-Nasheedism, which therefore inspires anti-liberalism, a challenge to democracy, isolationism and, to some extent, a denial of climate change in a place where it should be impossible to ignore.

A short walk from Nasheed's temporary office, Dan Bosley and Zaheena Rasheed work on the top floor of a non-descript building. The young journalist from Cheshire and his Maldivian deputy edit Minivan News, an English-language website ('minivan' means independent in Dhivehi, the Maldivian language). 'Future stories' are scrawled on a whiteboard – 'whale shark research', 'gang rape', 'scooter stats'. Next to it, by the unmarked door, a fingerprint-scanning lock is about to be installed. In September, a gangster left a machete buried in the door of the old office, forcing the team to move. One of Bosley's reporters received a text that day: 'You will be killed or disappeared next'.

A month earlier, a Minivan News reporter disappeared. Ahmed Rilwan had been working on stories about corruption and extremism. A private investigation by a Scottish agency, commissioned by the Maldivian Democracy Network, found evidence that he had been abducted by radicalised gangs. "This exposes so many things," says Bosley, aged 30, who has taped the fingertips on his left hand to stop him pulling out his beard – a result of stress. He has lost hope of seeing Rilwan alive, he says, or of the authorities doing anything meaningful to investigate his abduction. "It shows a lack of accountability, potential complicity, lawlessness – and that anything like this could happen at any time."

Violence and intimidation now occur with alarming regularity, and extremism links them. On the day we meet, Rasheed, aged 27, has been interviewing an activist who has been beaten up by a gang after they forced him to give up the password for his pro-democracy Facebook page. Government ministers have been photographed alongside gang members at public events. "They have nothing to show for one year in power," says Rasheed, who has been threatened herself. "They need something as propaganda and the strongest tool they have is Islam. But if they're unable to pacify the Islamists or keep them on-side, this Government is going to fall as well."

In the meantime, the environment is becoming a secondary victim. One of Rilwan's last stories was about the prospecting for oil and gas in the Maldives by a German research vessel. When Nasheed was president, he pledged to make the country carbon neutral by 2020. Now the Government talks openly about drilling into the reefs. "Because Nasheed became such a climate hero, the Government refuses to talk about it," Rasheed says. "They see it as Nasheed scaring off investors, and tarnishing the country's reputation. You can't have the debate about climate change in such a polarised country."

Before my journey to the Slow Life Symposium, Bosley agrees to show me two more islands off the tourist map. Gulhi Falhu, a £400m 'Global Green City' designed to ease overcrowding on Malé, is a strange place. Funded by a UK development company and piped into existence by a Dutch dredger, it lies just 6km west of the capital. Nasheed came here in 2011 to launch the second phase of what he called a "showpiece development", and dozens of families have put deposits on the first flats. But now the Government has shut down the project.

Wathsala Thelisinghe, the manager, takes us on a tour of the deserted island. Four-storey blocks of flats make up its first street. The one completed block has been painted a garish pink and green. Outside, the Maldives' only fairground, a collection of rides imported from China, lies in silence beside a shuttered burger bar. A man strolls past in the heat, one of 200 mostly Sri Lankan staff who live here. "He's the imam for our new mosque," Thelisinghe says. "He is waiting for people to come here. We are all waiting."

Raj Manivannan, a Sri Lankan from west London and chief executive of the investment company, has flown in for crisis talks with the Government. He says they have not explained their refusal to allow the homes, which have been built at three metres above sea level, to be inhabited. Manivannan has already pumped more than £30m into a would-be ghost island. "Malé is overcrowded," he says. "People are taking turns to sleep because there is no space and rents are sky-rocketing. All we are doing is trying to build a sustainable community."

The next island in Malé's atoll is also artificial. Claimed from the sea in the early Nineties to serve as a waste island for the nearby capital, Thilafushi has expanded since to become a rubbish volcano. Black smoke rises permanently from its centre, blocking the sunset in Malé as Bangladeshi migrants sort and burn waste from the resorts and capital. Rubbish spills into the sea at the dump's edges, like toxic lava. The Government had signed an agreement with an Indian company to develop a modern waste management system, but in October it tore it up. "This is typical," Bosley says on a boat as we float between scraps of plastic. "MDP [Nasheed's party] projects are becoming renegotiated or cancelled, or there's just this big silence."

Thilafushi, as much as Malé now, symbolises what seems like the basic unsustainability of the Maldives, a beautiful constellation of vanishing sand smudges. "Islands are eroding and running out of water," Rasheed says at the Minivan office. "Farmland is going dry, over 90 per cent of our food is imported, our economy is on the brink and the fishing industry is suffering. It's as bad as it gets." And still the waters rise. Nasheed, who has two daughters, insists the Maldives can function and survive, but not without major change here and globally. He is now campaigning for "climate justice", and the planning for a forced, mass migration to higher ground, a future he says the Government is not facing up to. "We are talking about our grandchildren," he adds. And if the Islamic coup he fears happens first? "Then the country is held by a far more extreme group of people who wouldn't even believe in the science."

In the 1960s, a UN development team visiting the Maldives declared it unsuitable for tourism. There was no infrastructure, fresh water or electricity. Yet paradise beckoned and in the 1970s the first resorts opened with salt-water showers and rooms of coral and thatch. Today, a million visitors each year descend on more than 100 resorts, many staying in villas built on stilts. Tourism accounts for almost a third of the Maldivian GDP, overtaking fishing as the country's biggest earner. It has brought prosperity to many, but also amplifies the pressures on the islands.

Sonu Shivdasani, a British-Indian son of a merchant, came here in the 1970s while studying in Britain. He followed the same Eton-Oxford path as his contemporaries, Boris Johnson and David Cameron, but his leadership potential would later focus on an uninhabited island more than 100km north of Malé. Soneva Fushi, the resort he opened in 1995 with his wife, Eva Malmström, a Swedish model, still sets the standard for luxury in the Maldives. Madonna and Sir Paul McCartney feature in its guestbook. But Shivdasani also ditches convention as part of what he calls his "slow life" ethos. Shoes are banned and in 2010 he hosted the first Slow Life Symposium, an annual, barefoot conference on environmental sustainability. Chaired by Jonathan Porritt, the writer, campaigner and former director of Friends of the Earth, it has convened scientists, business leaders (Richard Branson), NGOs, celebrities (Daryl Hannah, Ed Norton) and, while he was president, Mohamed Nasheed.

Now in its fourth edition, the three-day event this year considers the role of capitalism in saving rather than ruining the planet – or at least ruining it less. Obama's ambitious carbon-cutting agreement with China days earlier shocked environmentalists – in a good way – but decades of dithering, oil addiction and empty promises (think Cameron's huskies, or Yameen's trees) have shamed governments everywhere as, at best, inept guardians of the planet. Porritt, a former chair of the Green Party, describes Cameron's "folding at every serious point on the green agenda" as "deplorable and disgraceful". In 1996, he co-founded the Forum for the Future charity to explore the potential for enterprise to do better. "Scepticism then was pronounced," he says on the beach. "Businesses are not set up to rescue the world from the idiocy of our own behaviour – that's not what their shareholders expect – but there is recognition now that working with business is more positive."

If corporate boards and presidents cannot value our environment for its own sake, would they behave differently if, say, a coral reef were given an actual value? Controversial phrases such as "natural capital" circulate, while many NGOs and aid agencies are becoming more businesslike. To further the cliché, don't give a man a fish, or even teach him to fish, but create a market for his fish – and sell him a rod for profit.

The arrival by seaplane of Government ministers brought this argument home, to the axis of religion, capitalism and the environment. Soneva lies in the Baa Atoll, a haven for whale sharks and manta rays that Unesco designated a World Biosphere Reserve in 2011. In 1998, the warming El Niño weather event bleached coral reefs across the tropics, reducing many to shattered graveyards. Fish are crucial to the recovery and survival of the reefs because they eat the seaweed that would otherwise dominate. But now they are protected, fishermen must motor beyond the biosphere, and pay for tracking devices. The European Union has given their exports duty-free status in recognition, but Mohamed Shainee, the Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture, told the conference that Brussels had threatened to stop this if the Maldives continued to outlaw religious freedom and homosexuality. "We don't care if the fish marry the same sex, or what religion they follow," he says. "This has nothing to do with sustainability."

I sit down with Thoriq Ibrahim, the Minister for the Environment and Energy in President Yameen's year-old Government. Wearing a floral Hawaiian shirt and eating a pastry, he admits that the Maldives has retreated from the global debate that Nasheed fuelled, but rejects the accusation of climate-change neglect or denial. "We depend on our environment, so we have to take care of it," he says. But will the Government limit religious extremism? "We are cautious about it but I'm sure there are no incidents of it," he says. Isis flags do not concern him. "That is flags, in other countries, they are active and doing harm." He says Thilafushi will be cleaned up, but demurs when asked about the stalled Gulhi Falhu project. Longer term, mass migration will not be necessary. "I'm confident we will be here in 100 years," he says.

Others, including Nasheed, are less confident. The final day of the conference features local environmental groups. Thanzeela Naeem and her husband Hassan Ahmed live on Villingili, the smallest in the sorry chain of islands that link Malé, the airport, Gulhi Falhu and Thilafushi. Formerly a prison, then a beach haven for residents of the capital, Villingili is now being developed as an annex of Malé. "You used to see turtles and sharks every day," Ahmed, aged 27, recalls. The couple launched the Save the Beach movement, organising awareness days, litter collections and reef transplants. "We have done surveys in Villingili and most people say, 'Nothing will happen to us – God will not do such a thing'," Ahmed says.

Back at the Minivan News office, Zaheena Rasheed is reflective. She grew up in Malé, where her father converted his fishing boat into a cargo ferry. "You had a population living in peaceful existence with nature, and within the space of 20 years we have this," she says, gesturing outside the window. "In any large, global event, the ones who are most vulnerable always fall before the world acts. Unfortunately we are in that position, and it's too late to save the Maldives as we know it." She echoes Nasheed's demands for what she calls "dignified migration". In the meantime, journalism here is about more than reporting the menacing, blurred lines between the authorities, extremists and gangs. "In some ways it's about creating an archive," she says. "How we lived, what people loved – the sounds, smells, memories of growing up. What was it that made us Maldivian?"

The Maldives: 1965 to the future


The Islamic sultanate and British protectorate of more than 1,000 islands gains independence.


President Maumoon Gayoom begins 30-year rule, crushing dissent. Tourism boosts the economy.


Mohamed Nasheed, a once-imprisoned democracy campaigner, wins first free elections.


New President stages underwater cabinet meeting to galvanise world leaders over climate change threat.


Nasheed resigns in what he calls a coup. Vice President sworn in.


Abdulla Yameen, Gayoom's half-brother, narrowly wins disputed elections, depicting Nasheed as un-Islamic and unpatriotic.


Now in opposition, Nasheed and activists warn that politics and religious extremism threaten progress on climate change.


According to current worst predictions of global sea-level rises, the Maldives disappear.

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