Last month’s coup in the Maldives cost the country more than just its president. It may also have lost one of the world’s most outspoken advocates for climate change adaptation.
Former president Mohammed Nasheed, the Maldives' first democratically elected leader, was overthrown last month in a suspected military-backed coup in which he was allegedly forced to resign at gunpoint. It’s the latest twist in the life of activist leader who was recently referred to as a “godfather of the Arab Spring” by the Global Post, describing the Maldives' 2008 elections as a precursor to the protests that swept the region. And for his country, Nasheed’s ouster means not only a backward step for democracy, but a silenced voice against one of its biggest environmental and economic challenges.
Nasheed’s activist history includes a stint in jail for political protests in the 1990s, but his recent focus as president had been on a very different opponent: the rising ocean around his country, 80 percent of which is less than one meter above sea level.
In his three years as president, Nasheed gained worldwide recognition for his role as a global leader calling attention to the problems of climate change and their impacts on vulnerable populations in low-lying, tourism-dependent countries like the Maldives.
A poor country but popular tourism destination, the Maldives count on tourist money and development taxes as a primary source of income. Too low-lying for farming, the country relies on fishing stocks for food and export capital. Rising seas will change all that. Livelihoods are in the imminent path of destruction now, and the country’s entire existence may soon be washed away.
According to the Ecologist, climate scientists have expressed concern that much, if not all, of the country could be under water as early 2050 with current climate projections.
Early in his term, Nasheed pledged that the Maldives would be carbon-neutral by 2020, and started exploring options for a ‘plan B’ to protect the population of a country where residents of 16 islands are already being relocated because of the rising sea level. In 2009 he held a meeting of his cabinet underwater and led what he called the “largest underwater political demonstration in history--divers and snorkelers down on the reef with banners and signs, reminding people what's at stake.”
What’s at stake are the livelihoods and home of 350,000 people. Beyond the Maldives, other small island nations, like Kiribati, face similar threats.
The economic impacts of climate change are already being felt in the Maldives. Rising sea temperatures caused the death of many coral reef and fish around the islands over the past decade, devastating one of the country’s prime industries. And scientists say these kill-offs will only continue.
Nasheed told the Guardian that "What we really need is a huge social 60s-style catalystic, dynamic street action” against climate change," and wrote in the Huffington Post that “mobilizing public opinion is central to finding a climate solution...[because] politicians are reluctant to act unless the people act first.”
Nasheed’s passion for climate activism captured the attention of documentary filmmaker Jon Shenk, who documented a year of Nasheed’s presidency in the film The Island President, to be released later this month.
The decision to tell Nasheed’s story stemmed from “the provocative things he was saying about the climate compared to other world leaders,” said Shenk. “It's such a secondary issue for most heads of states, whereas Nasheed would say these out-there things that were amazing in their honesty and vision.”
Shenk’s film, with its trailer shown below, might have just missed Nasheed’s era as the Maldives president. But its timing can add to an awareness of the work of a climate warrior, and the reality of the threats facing vulnerable countries like the Maldives.
The former "island president" faces an uncertain political future. But what is more certain is the impact of current climate patterns on his country. And without the grassroots action that Nasheed has called for, his presidency might not be the only thing sinking in the Maldives.
Watch the trailer for Jon Shenk’s documentary about Mohammed Nasheed, The Island President: