Earth Hour illuminates Maldives’ ongoing eco-concerns

Maldivians across the country are being encouraged to turn away from the creature comforts of electricity between 8:30pm and 9:30pm tonight to celebrate the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Earth Hour initiative.

With 5,200 cities around the world taking part in the scheme, Male’ residents are being asked to turn off their lights and other non-essential electronics tonight in a bid to raise awareness of the potential dangers facing the planet from factors like global warming. The Maldives has been an outspoken advocate for cutting the planet’s global carbon footprint in recent years, particularly under the previous government.

The current Ministry of Environment and Housing has run two days of events this weekend in collaboration with the Maldives Energy Authority, the Scout Association of Maldives and the Maldives’ State Electricity Company (STELCO) relating to renewable energy developments to coincide with Earth Hour.

Fifty students from each of Male’s schools have  have received invites to the ongoing events, which began yesterday at Hiriya School under the banner of promoting renewable energy sources. Several tourism enterprises and properties will be hosting special events during the day. These include Ibrahim Nasir International Airport, which has said it to be switching off all lights at non-critical areas of the premises to mark earth hour.

Political power

Whilst some enterprises and homes in the Maldives capital will temporarily cut their power supplies, the country does not however appear quite as able to switch off the increasingly fraught political divides exacerbated by former President Mohamed Nasheed’s controversial resignation last month.  Nasheed has himself since claimed he was ousted in a “coup d’etat” by political opposition and a mutiny involving certain sections of the police and military.

In this climate, local environmental NGO Bluepeace has claimed that the current political uncertainty in the country relating to questions over the legitimacy of the government of President Mohamed Waheed Hassan would unquestionably set back the country’s commitments to sustainable development.

With demonstrations raging both in and out of the Majlis between pro- and anti-government supporters over the legitimacy and the functioning of democratic institutions, Bluepeace Director Ahmed Ikram claimed discussions on domestic environmental commitments were being sidelined.

Ikram claimed that national media, beyond covering international campaigns like Earth Hour, were not providing much coverage or promotion to climate change adoption in the Maldives. Ikram alleged this was in part due to sections of the media favouring the former president’s political opponents, reflecting the politicisation of environmental commitments.

“We support [former] President Nasheed. Yes there are times when we may have disagreed with his policies, but we still supported him as our president,” said Ikram. “What we are experiencing today with Maldivian businesses making use of solar panels are the benefits of Nasheed’s work on the environment.”

Despite his personal criticisms of the current government and the long-term prospects for democracy in the country amidst coup allegations raised by Nasheed and Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) supporters, Ikram said Bluepeace fully supported the Earth Hour event.

The NGO’s director was therefore confident that the Maldives’ contribution to Earth Hour would be successful tonight, with significant numbers of people expected to turn off their electricity for the one hour.  When asked if he felt that Maldivians were commited to year-long energy conservation beyond one-off annual events like Earth Hour, the Bluepeace Dirctor again claimed that the Maldivian public were generally committed in adapting to climate change.

“I believe that the Maldivian people are the ones who will serve as climate change champions in the end,” he said.

President Waheed has himself committed to follow his predecessor in acting as a spokesperson over the potential impacts climate change poses for low-lying nations like the Maldives during his inaugural address to the country’s parliament earlier this month.

However, Bluepeace Director Ahmed Ikram said the NGO was presently turning its attention to issues related to human rights and democratic reform amidst allegations that Nasheed, who has been an outspoken international advocate for climate change adoption, was forced to resign under duress.

Early days

Though it remains early days for President Waheed’s government, which came to power on February 7, Bluepeace said it had so far heard very little from the new cabinet about how it would be addressing the country’s green agenda in the lead up to the Rio +20 United Nations Conference on sustainable development later this year.

Bluepeace also claimed that while recent appointees such as Tourism Minister Ahmed Adheeb has begun to raise issues such as how climate change was being linked to destructive coastal erosion across the country – question marks remained over their experience in dealing with environmental affairs.

Adheeb, as well as being the current Tourism Minister, has also served as the Treasurer of The Maldives National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MNCCI).

Government commitments

Adheeb and President Waheed’s Spokesperson Abbas Riza were not responding at time of press.

Waheed earlier this month pledged to ensure his government remained outspoken internationally in regards to the plight small nations faced from the potentially destructive impacts of climate change.

“The government will encourage the voice of small island nations to be heard in the global arena with regard to climate change,” said Dr Waheed in his inaugural address in parliament. “The Maldives will always participate in voicing the concerns of small island nations.”

Nasheed himself is current travelling the US to raise awareness on the current political upheaval in the country, as well as promoting a documentary film, “The Island President”.

The documentary chronicles his government’s ambitious pledge to become a carbon neutral nation by 2020, and has been garnering increased global coverage since Nasheed was removed from office last month.

Speaking to the Conde Nast Traveler publication to promote the film, Nasheed expressed hope that the country would continue to work towards becoming carbon neutral, but he also challenged the legitimacy of Dr Waheed’s government.

“We were making real progress. I hope the government will continue our policies. But you can’t have good policies without democracy. And you won’t address the climate change crisis without good policies,” Nasheed told journalist Dorinda Elliott. “All democratic movements must talk about both climate change and human rights.”

Despite Nasheed’s high-profile activism to use the Maldives to promote international recognition of the perceived need to cut carbon footprints globally, Greenpeace in 2010 told Minivan News that the Maldives acted more as a symbol than a practical demonstration of how national development and fighting climate change can be mutually exclusive.

“The Maldives can become a strong proponent of a paradigm shift in the World Bank and in developing countries whereby it is recognized that fighting climate change and promoting development go hand in hand,” said Wendel Trio, Climate Policy and Global Deal Coordinator for Greenpeace International.