Monday, September 19, 2011

Documentary highlights sinking of the Maldives

It's a late-night party at the Toronto International Film Festival, and Mohamed Nasheed is trying to stifle a yawn. It's been a long week. Nasheed flew in from the Maldives, the island nation in the Indian Ocean of which he is the leader, and attended the premiere of the documentary The Island President. ("I thought it was excellent," he says.) Fighting jet lag, he is now moving among the guests at the after-party, talking about the problems of global warming that threaten to flood the entire nation in 40 or 50 years.

"It's getting worse and worse, and we are having to spend more money on it, on water breakers and embankments and so on," says Nasheed. When he returns to the Maldives this week, his first job is to build an embankment on one of the 1,200 islands - 200 of them inhabited - that comprise the tiny country. The Maldives is a tourist mecca, a place of luxury resorts, but even there, the effects of erosion are becoming visible: a disappearing shoreline and fallen palm trees.

The Maldives is one of the lowestlying nations in the world - the average elevation above sea level is 1.5 metres - and Nasheed has become a leader in the fight to lower the carbon emissions that warm the air that's raising the ocean waters.

If things unfold the way scientists say it might, what will happen to its 400,000 people? Where will they go? "They won't go anywhere," says Nasheed. "They'll die. That's what's going to happen."

The Island President was directed by Jon Shenk (Lost Boys of Sudan), an American documentarian who followed Nasheed through his first year of office, ending at the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference. There, the diminutive leader of the small nation became a driving force for a compromise agreement, the first ever signed by the U.S., China and India. His stirring speech to other world leaders salvaged the summit.

Nasheed - who came to the filmfestival party with an entourage that included plainclothes security guards - said it was helpful to watch the movie, because he gained perspective on the compromises that were necessary.

"It is only through compromise that we will actually be able to move forward on climate-change negotiations," he said, sitting at a small bistro table at a hip downtown restaurant. The Island President notes that carbon emissions have actually risen since the Copenhagen meetings, but Nasheed maintains his hope: "It perhaps would have gone up much higher, if not for Copenhagen. People could have been very mindless about opening new power stations. Lots has changed, even in developing countries. They're mindful of what they're doing, even if they're doing it."

The Island President also provides a kind of tour of the Maldives - its impossibly blue waters and pristine, if disappearing, beaches - and of its history. The country was a dictatorship under Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, and Nasheed was a pro-democracy advocate who was once held for 18 months in solitary confinement in a small metal shack. He was arrested 12 times over 20 years and tortured twice. He went into exile and returned in 2005 to the cheers of crowds yelling his nickname, Anni.

"It won't do any good to have democracy if we don't have a country," he says in the film. At one stage, in order to draw world attention to the impending disaster, Nasheed holds an underwater cabinet meeting, with ministers wearing scuba gear.

The country has raised taxes so it can afford to build the embankments and seawalls that are protecting it from the rising waters.

"There's no other way," he said. "We have to fend for ourselves. Our means are very modest, but we have to fend for ourselves."

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