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No man is an island

The Island President directed by Jon Shenk (2011), focuses on former president in the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed and his first year in office as he is facing the serious issues of the rise of the sea level and the survival of his country. With breathtakingly beautiful turquoise sea and numerous golden beaches and palm trees, The Maldives are to many synonymous to Paradise, making it an idyllic holiday destination. However, the country’s history has been a lot less than idyllic, with autocratic ruler Maumoon Abdul Gayoom as president from 1978 until 2008. Many Maldivians were victims of Maumoon´s repressive and violent regime during his time in office. As an opposition to Gayoom, Nasheed has been arrested 12 times for various charges and spent years in prison, surviving 18 months of solidary confinement and torture. In 2003, a death of a young man who had been tortured to death in prison, sparked massive anti-government protests and unrest. Nasheed went into self-exile to Sri Lanka where he founded the Maldivian Democratic Party. In April 2005 he returned to the Maldives and in 2008 he was elected president in the first democratic elections in the country´s history.

One of the first problems Nasheed had to face as president was the rise of the sea level as a result of global warming. The Maldives are one of the most low-lying countries in the world with an average rise of 1.5 meter above sea level and the 1200 islands and reefs that make the Maldives are eroding fast. The Maldivian are forced to use more and more of their national budget on building and maintaining sea walls, causing less money to be put into the educational system and the health system.

During his first year in office, President Nasheed managed to get the world´s attention on the issue, with f.ex. ‘media stunts’ such as the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting on 17 October 2009. Same year, he also pledged for the Maldives to become carbon-neautral within 10 years. The highlight of the documentary is when President Nashed attends Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009. The level of the filmmakers’ access is rare, the film crew attended and filmed some of the meetings between the Maldivian delegation and world leaders. As a result, these scenes give insight to political negotiations where many things are at stake and how a ‘little’ country like the Maldives has to challenge bigger countries like China on their climate regime. But the stakes are high and President Nasheed has to fight for the survival of his country and nation. Otherwise his fellow Maldivians might become environmental refugees in just few years time.

The Island President has done well at film festivals as winner of Cadillac People’s Choice Award Best Documentary Toronto International Film Festival 2011 and Official Selection at Telluride Film Festival 2011, as well as screening at numerous film festivals around the world. The documentary has an important message that every nation, big or small, must do what it can to reduce it´s carbon dioxide emissions. The cold hard fact is that if nothing is done the Maldives and other countries might vanish for good.

Since the release of the documentary last year, the political landscape has changed a lot in the Maldives and president Nasheed left office in February this year in an alleged coup d’etat. Demonstrations for elections this year continue in the Maldives, but elections are due next year. Police has responded violently and arresting several demonstrators and many remaining in custody. Nasheed has urged tourists to boycott the Islands; ‘please don’t bankroll an illegitimate government,” Mohamed Nasheed told the FT. This – and the current unrest might have a damaging effect on The Maldives economy, but according to FT ‘tourism makes up 30 per cent of GDP and is the main source of employment’.

For information on screenings at film festivals, check out The Island President´s Facebook page or the film´s website. The documentary is also available for rent or download on the iTunes store.

2 comments on “No man is an island

  1. Anne

    Hello and thank you for this article. So-called environmentally induced migration is multi-level problem. According to Essam El-Hinnawi definition form 1985 environmental refugees as those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural or triggered by people) that jeopardised their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life. The fundamental distinction between `environmental migrants` and `environmental refugees` is a standpoint of contemporsry studies in EDPs.

    According to Bogumil Terminski it seems reasonable to distinguish the general category of environmental migrants from the more specific (subordinate to it) category of environmental refugees.

    Environmental migrants, therefore, are persons making a short-lived, cyclical, or longerterm change of residence, of a voluntary or forced character, due to specific environmental factors. Environmental refugees form a specific type of environmental migrant.

    Environmental refugees, therefore, are persons compelled to spontaneous, short-lived, cyclical, or longer-term changes of residence due to sudden or gradually worsening changes in environmental factors important to their living, which may be of either a short-term or an irreversible character.

    According to Norman Myers environmental refugees are “people who can no longer gain a secure livelihood in their homelands because of drought, soil erosion, desertification, deforestation and other environmental problems, together with associated problems of population pressures and profound poverty”.

    • Hi Anne

      Thank you for your informative comment. I´m no specialist in environmental migration but I used the words ‘environmental refugees’ in my post because that´s the term used in the documentary ‘The Island President’. Hope you get the chance to see this film : )

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