Gone Before The Wave

November 5, 2014


A few years ago, the Maldives was the poster child of climate change. Scarce in land, abundant in natural beauty, and hovering dangerously close to sea level, this archipelago in the middle of the Indian Ocean provided an urgent image of a sinking nation. It appealed to the popular imagination and made a splash in the media. Today, the Maldives is largely forgotten. It is yesterday’s news.

Although the Maldives has not yet disappeared under water, there is a slow and structural violence at work—an everyday apocalypse that evades recognition. Rob Nixon points to the representational challenges of “slow violence” in its incremental and long-term unfolding. It’s simply not as sexy as catastrophic events, and thus harder to draw attention to. Similar to the concept of “structural violence,” coined by Johan Galtung, its source is often invisible, woven into institutions of power that span across many generations. Time renders change invisible, preventing action.

The Maldives, one of the countries least responsible for climate change, once played a critical role in saving the UN climate negotiations from outright failure. In late 2009, President Mohamed Nasheed and his environment minister, Mohamed Aslam, arrived in Copenhagen with a small army of activists and a list of scientifically-backed targets to seal the deal for a just and binding climate treaty. They were greeted by a process doomed to fail.

“There were only two possible outcomes in Copenhagen,” Aslam explained after reflecting on his experience: “that the whole conference would become a complete failure and all the leaders of the world would go back home in shame, or that they would have an agreement to move forward and the process would stay alive.” The Maldives was instrumental in keeping the process alive, and Nasheed and Aslam went home eager to return and fight for a better deal in the coming years.

Instead, they discovered a process rigged in favour of the powerful and polluting countries. Unlike the democratic process, the climate negotiations require unanimous consensus making it all too easy for the United States and other big players to block amendments that would protect those most vulnerable. For Nasheed, “it was becoming an endless talking shop without any substance.” Aslam agreed, equating it to “a never-ending story.”

Two years later, at the 2011 UN Climate Conference in Durban, Aslam joined forces with civil society activists like never before. Frustrated and fed up, they occupied the conference space and demanded that world leaders take action. “I honestly believe,” Aslam argued, “that unless we have the right level of pressure from civil society, nothing will happen.” Echoed by the “People’s Mic”, Aslam shouted into the crowd: “You need to save us! The islands can’t sink! We have our rights! We have a right to live! We have a right for home!

That would be the last time that Nasheed and Aslam would attend a UN Conference on behalf of the Maldives. In February 2012, they were stripped of their titles in a coup that was deemed legal and constitutional by a coup-backed commission, for which the global community gave the benefit of the doubt. This generated an outcry met with police brutality. In a matter of days, the country’s first democratically elected president was ousted along with his struggles for climate justice and the Maldives was handed back to the authoritarian regime that had ruled the country for thirty years prior.

Nasheed acknowledges that “the coup has had a strong impact on climate change issues.” It launched the country into political turmoil, causing the Maldives to lose its influence. Mark Lynas, author of Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, spoke to Minivan News in 2012 and said: “The country is no longer a key player, and is no longer on the invite list to the meetings that matter.”

Sadly, the Maldives was set to sign into existence a solar plan that would have launched the country onto a path of carbon neutrality the very afternoon of the coup. The Scaling-Up Renewable Energy Program, driven by Nasheed’s energy advisor Mike Mason, was never signed. Now, five years after Copenhagen, the Maldives is making plans to drill for oil.

With Nasheed and Aslam no longer in power, the country has also succumbed to a religious fundamentalism that is threatening the human rights of the Maldivian people who have worked tirelessly to bring democracy back to the country. At every corner they have encountered resistance. Recently, a young journalist who dared to report on these sensitive matters disappeared. As the climate march in New York City drew over 300,000 people, Nasheed spoke remotely and said: “we again are having to speak to you intimately and as loudly as possible… for many of us it is very clear that there is an organised radical Islamist element within the Maldives… and our society has been taken for ransom by these extremists.”

Walter Benjamin once wrote: “A storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” The Maldives is both the victim and manifestation of the paradise Benjamin alludes to in his critique of modernity. The capital city of the Maldives contains one third of the country’s population, its towering buildings jet out of its circular surface. Today, it is one of the most densely populated islands in the world and it is caught in a storm of competing conceptions of progress.

The slow violence of the Maldives is not only constituted by the rising seas to come and the return of authoritarianism, but also by a political culture that requires evidence of catastrophic events to understand the plight of a people and to take action. The Maldives is a place where apocalypse is not a matter of the future, but a matter of everyday life.

As the Maldives now joins hands with fossil fuels, it takes part in its own slow violence. Shauna Aminath, a young Maldivian who worked closely with Nasheed, is outraged by such a shift: “It is the most bizarre and illogical thing I’ve heard for the Maldives to drill for oil.” She goes on to acknowledge that while catastrophic events like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami are indications of a country’s vulnerability, “climate change is a slow process, and it’s going to slowly make these islands uninhabitable. People are going to leave before the wave hits.”

By Summer Gray | @veranogris


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