The Maldives: beautiful, unspoiled islands surrounded by clear blue water, perfect for diving holidays.
They are 2000 coral islands in the Indian Ocean, only 200 of which are inhabited, 87 of which are tourist resorts. 394,451 people live on 113 islands: 28% of GDP, more than 60% of foreign exchange receipts, and 90% of the government’s revenue comes from import duties and tourism-related taxes. It’s a tiny country which, in effect, sells beauty and a dream tropical island paradise to people who are rich enough to pay for it.
The visitor may take the opportunity to stroll through the lanes of the village, observing children playing contentedly beside the wooden huts and village women weaving and creating traditional handicrafts utilizing natural materials such as palm leaves, coconuts and reeds. Visitors can also visit schools and mosques in the idyllic villages. Tourist advert
All around me are deepening shades of indigo, and for a minute or more the only point of reference is the surface light above. Sinking slowly through blue space is otherworldly. The sense of being surrounded by infinite depth is one of my favourite underwater experiences: no fish, no reef, no sound but my own breathing. Ahead, there is a smudge of darkness and, below, the shadowy shape of the thila against the seabed. No more than thirty metres long and perhaps half as wide, the reef sits like some ghost ship on the sand.
Close up, I see that the reef superstructure is undercut by a series of ledges and caverns, and I flip head-down to peer under the bottom-most overhang. Curious batfish, like polished silver dinner plates, immediately cluster around me. In the shadows, two giant groupers give me a bug-eyed glare. I retreat, not wanting to scare the huge fish, and catch sight of a smaller brighter flash of colour at the edge of the reef. The iridescent spots of colour on two powerful fore-claws betray a green mantis shrimp scouring the rocks for prey. There is colour everywhere here: bulbous stalks of soft corals in blues and purples, several hundred blue-line snapper, and bright orange coral groupers speckled with aquamarine spots nestling among blue and yellow sponges. Soon, too soon, it is time to move upwards, reducing my depth to decompress gradually and to spend time on the shallower reef-top.
The bounties of the seas have traditionally been the source of the Maldivians’ livelihood, and even today fishing is the occupation of a large proportion of the local population. The close-knit fishing communities present a unique way of life seen nowhere else in the world. Tourist advert
Fishing is the second leading sector, but the fish catch has dropped sharply in recent years. Agriculture and manufacturing continue to play a lesser role in the economy, constrained by the limited availability of cultivable land and the shortage of domestic labor. Most staple foods must be imported. In the last decade, real GDP growth averaged around 6% per year except for 2005, when GDP declined following the Indian Ocean tsunami, and in 2009, when GDP shrank by nearly 5% as tourist arrivals declined and capital flows plunged in the wake of the global financial crisis. CIA World Factbook
Set in remote Baa Atoll, with vast, empty ocean views, on a former coconut plantation, this is one of the larger resorts, with 102 villa-compounds tucked away among 18 acres of swaying palms. Pluses include a village-like Ayurvedic spa, dive computers and locators given out as standard, and the Four Seasons lounge to use at the airport. Cost: From $800 to $1,850 a night: seven-night packages start at £2,400.
A few miles and a short boat ride from the Maldivian capital, Malé, Thilafushi began life as a reclamation project in 1992. The artificial island was built to solve Malé’s refuse problem. But today, with more than 10,000 tourists a week in the Maldives adding their waste, the rubbish island now covers 50 hectares (124 acres).
So much is being deposited that the island is growing at a square metre a day. There are more than three dozen factories, a mosque and homes for 150 Bangladeshi migrants who sift through the mounds of refuse beneath palm-fringed streets.
Malé is one of the world’s most densely populated towns: 100,000 people cram into 2 square kilometres. Each tourist to the Maldives requires 500 litres of water a day – far more than the coral islands of the Maldives can provide – and each tourist produces 3.5 kilos of rubbish daily. It’s estimated that more than 330 tonnes of rubbish is brought to Thilafushi every day.
Brought on ships, the rubbish is taken onshore and sifted by hand. Some of the waste is incinerated but most is buried in landfill sites. There is, say environmental campaigners, also an alarming rise in batteries and electronic waste being dumped in Thilafushi’s lagoon.
“We are seeing used batteries, asbestos, lead and other potentially hazardous waste mixed with the municipal solid wastes being put into the water. Although it is a small fraction of the total, these wastes are a source of toxic heavy metals and it is an increasingly serious ecological and health problem in the Maldives,” said Ali Rilwan, an environmentalist in Malé.
Despite the growing crisis, Thilafushi remains largely hidden from view. Nobody goes there apart from workers.
Meanwhile, tourism has made the Maldives the richest country in South Asia in terms of GDP a head – which is around $4,500 (£3,100) – though that wealth is thinly spread.
However, almost everything has to be imported. Most tourists can only be catered for by bringing in thousands of tonnes of meat, vegetables and diesel oil every year.
The government of the Maldives says it has “temporarily banned” the dumping of rubbish on Thilafushi from the outlying resorts “which, reportedly, do not follow the rules on crushing their waste” (December 2011) and the head of the Maldives’ Environment Protection Agency, Ibrahim Naeem, says that delays in dealing with rubbish are caused only “by technical problems with the unloading of trucks”.
He stressed that Thilafushi was not full up and that work was under way to improve waste disposal and ban open incineration.
Mr Naeem said the jetty for rubbish from outlying islands will be closed until the lagoon is cleaned up – although a separate quay for the capital, Male, remains open.
From November 1978 to October 2008, the President of the Maldives was Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. He stood for election in 1983, 1988, 1993, 1998, and 2003, always polling over 90% of the vote, always as the only candidate that anyone was allowed to vote for. The President is Head of Government, Head of State, and Commander-in-Chief of the Maldives National Defence Force. (The next election will be July 2013.)
In February 2004, Amnesty International reported:
The rally planned for 14 February is to protest at the government’s failure to curb a rising tide of criminal activity in the country. One of the sponsors of the rally is the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), which was recently formed in defiance of the government’s refusal to allow political parties to function. MDP supporters have planned to carry a letter on a march from the parliament building to the President’s office, to inform the President of the formation of the party and to recommend measures to strengthen the protection and promotion of human rights.
The exact number of those detained is not known. Among those arrested are the entire family of an MDP political activist, Ahmed Falah. Police came to his house at around 3am this morning and said that they had instructions to arrest his entire family. Ahmed Falah was not at home and his family ran into the street to look for help. However, the police caught Aishath Najib, his partner, and their two sons, Shafeen Ahmed,18 and Habhin Ahmed,17. Aishath Najib was grabbed by several police officers and thrown onto the rear deck of a police van.
On 26th December 2004, the tsunami that struck the Maldives was devastating. Jawish Hameed describes it as an eyewitness and from first-hand reports:
The events unfolded more terrifyingly for most islands. The islands, numbered at 1190, that Maldives is composed stand at an average of 1 meters above sea level. Islands lack a sea wall and have no wave protection other than that provided by the reef. The massive waves crashed into the islands and crossed from one side to the other uprooting trees and shrubs located in the beach area. Few boats were dragged into the land as well. The loose sands of the islands were washed away leaving behind eroded beaches. Fishes were seen swimming in the flooded streets. Several houses, often shoddy and not built as strongly as that in the capital, collapsed in the islands.
The tsusami was a disaster for the Maldives. But the global financial meltdown of 2008 meant that their best customers – the well-off upper middle class, looking for a comfortable holiday in a tropical paradise – were struggling financially and simply couldn’t afford the cost.
In October 2008, for the first time in thirty years, President Gayoom allowed the election to be contested – and Mohamed Nasheed, who was 11 years old when Gayoom became President and who had been imprisoned more than twenty times for his opposition to the thirty-year reign of Gayoom, was elected President.
At the UN summit on climate change, 22nd September 2009, the new President of the Maldives warned that if global warming continued, his country would cease to exist.
MDP members Mariya Didi, Eva Abdulla and Alham Fahmy sustained serious injuries after being attacked by police and opposition supporters on Monday and were taken to Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital for treatment.
Protests began last month after Mr Nasheed ordered the military to arrest top criminal court judge Abdulla Mohamed on charges of corruption and political bias. Abdulla Mohamed is said to be close to former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Government said the judiciary was unwilling to allow investigation of judicial misconduct against Abdulla Mohamed.
And then on 7th February 2012, President Nasheed was forced to resign at gunpoint and Vice President Mohammed Waheed Hassan took office.
An official close to Mr. Nasheed denied that the president had ordered soldiers to fire on the protesters. Rather, he said, the president chose to resign specifically to avoid such violence. “He faced the choice of seeing a lot of blood by asking the military to crack down,” said the official, who asked not to be identified, given the political volatility of the moment. “But he wasn’t prepared to do that.”
The official close to Mr. Nasheed accused supporters of the former president of engineering the protests, as well as the mutiny by police officers, as part of a conspiracy. “This hasn’t been a popular revolt,” the official said in a telephone interview. “Make no mistake, it is a coup.”
The official added, “They will not tolerate a genuinely, democratically elected president running the country.”
“This was handled constitutionally.”
When Amy Goodman spoke to Nasheed in March 2012, he told her:
“It was really shocking and deeply disturbing that the United States government so instantly recognised the former dictatorship coming back again. The European governments have not recognised the new regime in the Maldives.”
Amy Goodman notes that support for Nasheed or support for the coup d’etat that ousted him lines up along opposition to climate change against climate change deniers – that those who support Nasheed’s overthrow are those who also oppose political solutions to climate change.
The problem, according to Nasheed, is that the constitutional reforms that followed the first democratic elections failed to dismantle Gayoom’s control of the judiciary, and what he saw as the old elite’s network of corruption.
“There wasn’t enough focus placed on these institutions; everyone was just focused on getting rid of Gayoom.” And yet the deposed president has received strikingly patchy international support; India’s prime minister conveyed his “warm felicitations” to his successor, the former vice-president Mohammed Waheed Hassan, and Nasheed admits: “I was very shocked and confused by that. And not just India – the US did the same thing, the UN did the same. I think I find it very strange and shocking that they were not able to understand what was going on. I think the international community is coming round now, they are understanding that this is the dictatorship coming back and that democracy is slipping away and it has to be restored and got on track again. I think now they understand. They didn’t understand that it was Gayoom’s doing. Now they are understanding it.”
Organized tours will take the traveller to one of the typical serene Maldivian fishing villages. The visitor will be enthralled by the rich cultural heritage of the villagers and their simple yet contented lives. The fishermen and their families exist as they have for centuries, with customary lifestyle and culture; they still observe local traditions handed down over the generations. Tourist advert
Falling tourist arrivals and fish exports, combined with high government spending on social needs, subsidies, and civil servant salaries contributed to a balance of payments crisis, which was eased with a December 2009, $79.3 million IMF standby agreement. However, after the first two disbursements, the IMF withheld subsequent disbursements due to concerns over Maldives’ growing budget deficit. Maldives has had chronic budget deficits in recent years and the government’s plans to cut expenditures have not progressed well. A new Goods and Services Tax on Tourism (GST) was introduced in January 2011 and a new Business Profit Tax is to be introduced during 2012. These taxes are expected to increase government revenue by about 25%. CIA World Factbook
The Maldives depend on tourism not as a luxury but as a means of paying for vital necessities – fresh food, clean drinking water. This last has been in especially short supply since the tsusami. Reports on TripAdvisor suggest that many tourists are noticing the change in the ecology and the economy even if they don’t know the cause.
Nine thousand people were made homeless on the idyllic holiday location and 13 of the 200 inhabited islands were evacuated.
Lisa Morgan, 30, a legal secretary from Chatham, Kent, clung to a tree for six hours, surrounded by human corpses and dead animals.
“I managed to cling to a tree and there were lots of other people trying to keep hold of the trunk,” she said. “We were trying to spur each other on but we were all crying for our lives. It was as though someone had pulled the plug out to the earth. There was contaminated water everywhere, dead rats and bodies were floating around me and sewage was mixed in the water with sanitary products sticking to you. I was sick several times and absolutely terrified. I stayed there for six hours until we were helped to safety. We were all absolutely exhausted.”
Two years later, UNICEF reports that the tsusami damaged rainwater collection systems which had still not been repaired and that human sewage was contaminating the groundwater:
At one house, the water has a white cloudy colour and smells horribly. At another, the water is clear but still bears an intense odour. It turns out that on this island, as in much of the Maldives, the wells that residents use for their daily water supply sit perilously close to their septic tanks.
Tourists get desalinated seawater:
Desalination is considered as an expensive alternative in Maldives, but one that is necessary in some islands. Desalination is widely used in the 87 tourist resorts. These are islands set aside solely for tourists, and each island has its own small desalination plant. This is only an affordable option because the islands are generating substantial revenue from the tourists.
An Oxfam report also published today notes that the effects of climate change on food prices is underestimated. Tim Gore, Oxfam’s spokesperson, says:
“Rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns hold back crop production and cause steady price rises. But extreme weather events – like the current US drought – can wipe out entire harvests and trigger dramatic food price spikes. We will all feel the impact as prices spike but the poorest people will be hit hardest.”
From a UNICEF report in May 2012:
Although the country has already achieved five of the eight Millennium Development Goals, including the goal of reducing the number of people suffering from hunger, nearly 17 per cent of its children remain underweight and up to 19 per cent suffer from stunting or low height-to-age ratio.
This is a picture from a story by Aylie Baker, Hearing Humanity. Baker visited the Maldives on a Watson Scholarship in 2009, and tells the story of her Ramadan on Dhuvaafaru to her grandparents.
A Maldivian Member of Parliament, Mariya Ahmed Didi, was detained by security forces at an opposition rally in February:
“Police and military officers forcefully opened my eyelids. They went for the eye that had been injured the day before. They sprayed pepper spray directly into my eye. Then they did the same with the other eye… At one point when they were beating me one of them shouted: ‘Is she still not dead?’”
Other women are reported to have been beaten, stripped naked, and sexually molested by Maldive security forces.
On 7th March 2012, Amnesty International reported that Maldives police and military forces responded with excessive force against a peaceful rally backing the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP):
At least six protesters were injured, some seriously, when combined police and military officers attacked around 300 MDP protesters in the Lonuziyaarai Kolhu area of the city – part of a wider pattern of attacks, documented by Amnesty, on supporters of the political party of the ousted former President Mohamed Nasheed.
The victims told Amnesty that the military and police personnel shouted abusive words against the MDP when they raided their rally. One of the victims said: “They grabbed hold of my hair and pulled me up, shouting they would teach me a lesson for demonstrating against the new President.”
The protesters were part of an ongoing nightly rally in the capital Malé in support of Nasheed, who was forced from office last month and replaced by Vice President Dr Mohamed Waheed. Nasheed said a day after his resignation that he had been forced to resign by elements in the police and military.
Amnesty International’s report, published today, documents
how police and military personnel have used unnecessary force against peaceful demonstrators – including striking people on the head with batons, aiming pepper spray directly into demonstrators’ eyes and kicking them.
The security forces have apparently targeted individuals for their political affiliation – including ministers, parliamentarians and supporters of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party.
Hundreds of people have been arrested, and most of them injured by police. Methods used include beatings, the use of pepper spray in the eyes, being denied drinking water and being held in dog cages. Police also tracked down injured protesters in hospitals, to beat them again.
Mohamed Nasheed writes in response to the Arab Spring, from his own experience as a democratic President ousted by the dictator-appointed judiciary:
The problems we are facing in the Maldives are a warning for other Muslim nations undergoing democratic reform. At times, dealing with the corrupt system of patronage the former regime left behind can feel like wrestling with a Hydra: when you remove one head, two more grow back. With patience and determination, the beast can be slain. But let the Maldives be a lesson for aspiring democrats everywhere: the dictator can be removed in a day, but it can take years to stamp out the lingering remnants of his dictatorship.
Interviewing Nasheed at the end of March 2012, Decca Aitkenhead wonders “if he suspects they may have been privately happy to see this energetic nuisance thrown out of office.”:
“Well, I was a bit of a nuisance,” he agrees, laughing again. “I think that’s all I’m saying.” Which sounds to me like a yes.
You might think climate change would be of less immediate concern to Nasheed right now, but he switches seamlessly from talk of the coup to carbon emissions. “I always expected the environment to be far, far more important than any other issue we had to deal with,” he explains, adding: “If you live in the Maldives it’s not easy to be unaware of the environment. I spent a lot of time in my 20s in banishment or in jail, so therefore had a lot of time to contemplate.”
The government has privatized the main airport and is partially privatizing the energy sector. Tourism will remain the engine of the economy. The Government of the Maldives has aggressively promoted building new island resorts. Due to increasing tourist arrivals, GDP growth climbed to 8% in 2010 and around 6% in 2011. Diversifying the economy beyond tourism and fishing, reforming public finance, and increasing employment opportunities are major challenges facing the government. Over the longer term Maldivian authorities worry about the impact of erosion and possible global warming on their low-lying country; 80% of the area is 1 meter or less above sea level.CIA World Factbook
The overthrow of a democratically-elected President and subsequent violent oppression of political opposition, as documented by Amnesty International, should be as profoundly worrying to us all as the issue of climate change.
What’s really worrying: it seems that – to our own government and to many others – both are a matter of equal indifference, as long as you can sell the right image.
The picture perfect spotless beaches and luxurious facilities of the Maldives resorts without a doubt provide a great location to spend your vacation time. But for the visitor who desires to obtain an authentic insight into the lifestyle of the local Maldivian villagers a visit to a fishermen’s island will prove delightful.Tourist advert
Oliver Smith asks in the Telegraph: Is it ethical to visit the Maldives? in a form that expects the answer Yes.
Ahmed Naish describes at Reporters Without Borders how the police arrested him during a protest by the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party on Thursday 30th August and held him for 24 hours.
Update, 7th September
In Minivan News:
State Minister of Foreign Affairs and daughter of former President of 30 years Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Dunya Maumoon, has said the Maldives would likely leave the Commonwealth if not removed from the formal agenda of the Commonwealth’s human rights and democracy arm.
Speaking at a press conference held in the Foreign Ministry on Wednesday, Dunya said, “We call on all the member countries of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) to remove us from the agenda at the earliest possible opportunity. We do not altogether deserve to have been put on this agenda”.
— Aishath Velezinee (@Velezinee) September 7, 2012
Update, 19th September
“In the Maldives, our democracy is being suffocated. We need help” writes Mohamed Nasheed:
If Cmag [Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group] were to remove the Maldives from its agenda the chances of securing justice for the victims of human rights violations, and of ever again having free and fair elections in the country, would disappear. The Maldives would once again become a police state, and our cherished democracy relegated to a footnote in the history books – a one-off experiment that failed.
So I urge the group members to keep the spotlight on my country until all violations have been dealt with, all victims have received redress, and conditions are in place for fresh elections.
You can write to the Commonwealth Secretariat here.
Update, 8th October
Maldivian police on Monday arrested the country’s first democratically-elected president Mohamed Nasheed after he again failed to turn up for the start of a trial for abuse of power, his party said.
“President Nasheed grabbed from protesting supporters, arrested and being taken away from Fares-Mathoda,” his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) spokesman Hamid Abdul Ghafoor tweeted from a remote atoll in the Indian Ocean archipelago.
The arrest came after a special court on Sunday ordered police to arrest Nasheed, who had challenged the legality of a criminal trial against him.
Update, 17th October
I have read with concern several articles and commentaries over recent weeks which appear to be based on two false premises: first, that the Maldives judiciary is independent and impartial; second, that it is capable of delivering a fair trial to the democratically elected President Mohamed Nasheed.
Neither premise holds-up to careful scrutiny.
Update, 5th November
The trial of Mohamed Nasheed has been suspended until Thursday 8th November:
The Maldivian high court on Sunday [4th November] suspended the trial of the country’s first democratically elected president who is accused of abuse of power while in office. Mohamed Nasheed, 45, who resigned in February after what he alleges was a coup, has challenged the legality of the special three-judge court that is hearing his case in Male, the tiny capital of the atoll nation. The special court, which held its first one-day session a month ago, had been due to reconvene later Sunday.
The article later describes the Maldives as “better known as a luxury holiday destination” as evidenced by the other reason they were in the British news this weekend.