Richard Branson calls for early elections “as soon as feasibly possible”

Founder of the Virgin empire, multi-billionaire Sir Richard Branson, has again delved into Maldivian politics with a third blog post on the subject, declaring his support for early elections “as soon as feasibly possible”.

Branson first wrote an open letter calling on “interim” President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan to “do the right thing” and hold free and fair elections before the end of the year, describing it as “completely astounding that you have been part of an overthrow of a democratically elected government that has effectively let the old regime back into power.”

Several days later he had a phone call with Dr Waheed, and subsequently said he believed the new president was “determined to be an honest broker” who “had nothing to do with [the coup]. He watched the situation unfolding on television.”

Branson’s third and most recent post came after “a lengthy conversation with former President Mohamed Nasheed”, who “wanted to be sure that it was completely clear what had happened in the Maldives.”

“Mr Nasheed said that he had been overthrown by a coup. He said that the confusion about what happened in the first two days came about because he was forced to remain in the Presidential Palace in order to keep him away from the press, was therefore incommunicado, and only managed to escape after a couple of days,” Branson wrote.

“He said that he was very concerned the Maldives could become another Afghanistan. He believes that the way to resolve this is for interim President Waheed to step down and for The Speaker to hold court for two months.
He said he sees no reason why there shouldn’t be early elections during this calendar year, preferably within two-to-three months. The people of this country, he said, need to be asked as soon as possible who they want to rule them. The Maldives and the Maldivians urgently need to get back on track.

“He believed that there was is Islamic element of the military and mentioned that some of them chanted on the street “God is great”. He said that the new government had thrown out all human rights cases and corruption cases, which he felt was wrong. He said that some of his MPs had been removed, others had court cases brought against them.

“He ended by saying: ‘Governments should only be changed through the ballot box and not by any other means. No military in the world should be allowed to take over a Government and hold on to it.’

“We now have both sides of the story,” Branson declared.

“Having listened to both sides, it does seem wise for an election to take place as soon as is feasibly possible so that the people of the Maldives can begin to put this ugly chapter behind them.”

Branson attended the Slow Life Symposium at the upmarket Soneva Fushi resort in October 2011, a highly eco-conscious resort owned by Sonu and Eva Shivdesani.

Other attendees at the resort included actress Daryl Hannah, star of films including ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Kill Bill’ and ‘Splash’; Ed Norton, star of films including ‘Fight Club’ and ‘American History X’; Tim Smit, founder of the Eden Project; Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed; and an array of climate experts and scientists including Mark Lynas and Mike Mason.


Q&A: Shinaz, Maldivian Antarctic explorer

Mohamed Shinaz Saeed, 25, a professional photographer and co-founder of the Maldivian Youth Climate Network (MYCN), came to the spotlight following an eye-catching stunt to display the risk of Maldives submerging by the rising sea levels, crawling into a tank filld with 200 gallons of frigid water during the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009. Today he again making headlines as the first known Maldivian to travel to the Antarctic, as part of the International Antarctic Expedition 2012 organised by ‘2041’ – a movement founded by lead environmental activist Robert Swan, OBE, the first person in history to walk to both the North and South poles.

HL: Tell me about the expedition.

MSS: This expedition’s purpose is to create ambassadors for education, environment and sustainability across the globe. The participants of the expedition will get to explore sites in the Antarctic previously only seen by early heroic explorers. We will get first-hand knowledge of the fragile ecosystem of Antarctic, it’s unique wildlife and at the same time observe the magnificent landscape of Antarctic. Experts on the environment, climate change and sustainable development will provide us with the latest information and knowledge in their respective fields in the dynamic classroom of the Antarctic, and the difference will be that we’ll get to see everything in person.

HL: How did you get involved?

MSS: I was attending the British Council International Climate Camp 2011 in Goa where we had a presentation by an Indian scientist who recently returned from Antarctic. He was telling us about how the continent is gradually affected by climate change. Even though we read these findings on reports, I thought I could there and observe things for myself and present the appalling scenario through my photography – a lot of my friends supported the idea as well.

So, after returning home from the camp I started searching for a way to get there and I found the 2041 website, from where I learned about their International Antarctic Expedition programme. I wrote to them immediately and subsequenty received a request for an application to participate in 2012 expedition. With my dedication towards creating positive change, I was told that it would be pleasure to have me onboard the expedition. As far as I know, around 60-70 participants will be joining from all over the world.

HL: So you will be making history as the first known Maldivian to make it to Antarctic right? Your thoughts?

MSS: I’m not exactly sure whether I’m the first Maldivian to visit Antarctic. But I’m certain that I will be the first Maldivian to explore the harsh unforgiving landscape of Antarctic and share it with the world. I’ll be very proud when I get to take the first picture with the Maldivian flag on the Antarctic.

HL: What‘s interesting on the itinerary?

MSS: Right now I am in the southern most city of the world; Ushuaia of Argentina. In three days will set sail to Antarctic. Depending on ice and weather conditions, we’ll be exploring the western coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.

A lot of friends have asked me to take photos of penguins, so Cuverville Island is a yes – the domed shape 250m tall island is home to vast population of well-sized Gentoo penguins. If weather permits, the team will also be visiting a lot of other exciting places and will probably camp overnight on the Antarctic ice to explore the amazing continent under the night sky. The team will also get to attend Robert Swan’s personal leadership and sustainability programme “Leadership on the Edge” which encompasses themes including environment, education and survival.

HL: Now all ready face the extreme cold?

MSS: I don’t expect the journey to be easy. Going from one of the warmest countries in the world to the coldest is a great challenge. But I am positive that I’ll get through everything put in my way with the guidance of the expedition leaders. All and all this would not have been possible without the generous support extended by my sponsors ; STO, LeCute, Panasonic, Soneva Fushi, Maldivian, Allied Insurance, Bandos Island Resort & Spa, CDE Consulting, Villa College and all those great individuals who encouraged me in every way to get this far. I also thank my amazing family and friends for their unwavering support.

HL: What’s the message you want to give to your readers?

MSS: I always felt that working towards preserving the environment is only for the environmental experts. But from what I have learned and from what I have seen I have come to understand the rest of the world has a much larger role to play. So I’m going to be using my skills as a photographer and designer to spread the message my way. And I want everyone reading this to know that even you can do something regardless of your background…no matter how small it is, do it.

It’s never about believing in climate change but it’s all about being prepared for what may come at us. So we at the Maldivian Youth Climate Network (MYCN) are working towards creating a resilient Maldives to climate change. We wouldn’t want any harm to come to our beloved nation. So let Maldives set an example to the world.

The expedition can be followed on the website and more photo and detailed updates from Shinaz can be found on and


Q&A: Jonathan Porrit on having faith in the environment

Jonathan Porrit is an eminent writer, broadcaster and commentator on sustainable development and was chairman of the UK sustainable development commission for nine years until he stepped down in July 2009. He is also the founder and director of Forum for the Future, the UK’s leading sustainable development charity. Porrit’s talk at the Eco Symposium, held last week at Soneva Fushi, was on ‘Leadership for a low carbon world’.

Aishath Shazra: What do you think about the leadership the Maldives has shown so far on climate change?

Jonathon Porrit: Given where Maldives located, its economy and its size, the work of President Nasheed is really special, imaginative and has made an impact.

He has woken people up to the reality faced by small islands. Given that the Maldives is not big and affluent, it has made such an impact which is really something.

But like President Nasheed himself noted, delivering on the promises is a different matter. The Maldives faces enormous challenges in becoming carbon neutral by 2020, and the President knows work needs to start soon to have any prospect of getting there.

AS: You have said that governments are going to take minimal action on this issue until the moment comes when total panic ensues, and that the travel and tourism industry is most at risk of fallout. What is the danger?

JP: If governments do what I fear they will do – that is, not much – the impact on long haul tourism will be huge. If the price of fossil fuel increases dramatically people won’t travel because of cost. This will impact countries like the Maldives that are dependent on long haul travel. This event [the Eco Symposium] and all other initiatives are being held so that doesn’t happen. Nobody wants it to happen so it’s better to plan, in a sensible way, rather than panic.

AS: Words are not powerful enough to bring change. You have said even an image as powerful as the underwater cabinet meeting proved ephemeral to some. What would have an impact enough to bring about the desired change?

JP: Matters connecting to people’s cultures, religions, things that matter to people’s lives. Sustainability will only work when it touches people directly.

AS: You have raised the question of why religious and faith leaders don’t get to the forefront of this issue and take leadership in finding solutions. Do you have more faith in religious leaders than politicians?

JP: For politicians only the next few years matters most, the business of getting re-elected. Religious and faith leaders have a much longer term perspective, and a deeper sense of history. It’s easier for them to overcome the ‘short-termism’. It matters to religious leaders that we are stewards of this world.

In the holy world, this was never as powerful or more evident than in the extraordinary period of Islamic history from the 8th century onwards. The connection with nature that manifested in Islamic culture, in arts and architecture was incredibly strong. Prince Charles, who is very well versed on this subject, has written about Islamic history and its approach to the environment.

AS: Ancient civilisations respected boundaries, so where did we start going wrong? And do you think we can we get back to those boundaries?

JP: At the start of the industrial revolution. We thought we could free ourselves of our limits. We started seeing nature as a source of raw materials, so humanity could grow and grow. Nature became an instrument in man’s progress. But I am convinced that if we can get it back, we will get back to the elements and benefit from it.


Tax tourists to fund conservation efforts, suggests report

Tourists to the Maldives should pay an environmental levy to fund conservation programmes in the country, according to a report produced by the Environment Protection Agency (EPA), in collaboration with the College of Fisheries in Mangalore, India, Florida International University in Miami and the South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics (SANDEE).

The report, titled ‘User-based Financing of Environmental Conservation of the Maldivian Atolls’, places a monetary value on the use of natural resources for tourism, and proposes the use-tax as a means of compensating for the current “lack of political will and budgetary resources [which] appear to hinder the effective implementation of the above marine protection law.”

Tourism should fund conservation, the report suggests, as the study “found a large disparity between the amount of economic value generated from this nature-based tourism and the amount going into atoll environmental conservation.”

“Even a small tax levied on tourist expenditure on the islands or a direct conservation check-off as a user fee collected from the tourists would help defray the costs of the atoll conservation,” the report suggests.

Specific threats to the marine ecosystem – and the tourism industry – include threats to coral from development activities such as near-shore reclamation, harbor construction, dredging and other island expansion activities.

“Additionally the nutrient enrichment from sewage discharges from the resorts and nearby inhabited islands encouraging algae growth on the reef,” the report notes.

“Over-exploitation of reef fisheries also indirectly impacts the corals. Overfishing removes the herbivorous fishes and these fishes such as parrot and surgeon fishes are integral part of reef as they prevent the over growth of macro-algae on the reef as they deprive corals of essential sunlight.”

Despite the implementation of 31 marine protected areas, high demand for reef fish by resorts and seafood exporters means local fishermen continued to fish in these areas, with little funding allocated to education or enforcement.

“From inception the marine protected area program received only meager financial support from the government, and inadequate staff,” the report notes.

“In the year 2007, the entire environmental conservation program in the country received less than one percent of the Gross Domestic Product while the tourism and transportation sector together contributed about 46 percent.

“The inadequate funding of such programs seriously limits the ability of the management agencies of enforcing protected area boundaries, use restrictions, and penalties and conducting educational programs.”

The report suggests that part of the reason protected areas receive insufficient funding “is the government’s failure to recognise both market and non-market values derived from natural resources.”

“With nature-based tourism there exists a significant amount of economic surplus, which the tourists derive and which does not enter the market process. As a result, the government fails to recover at least a portion of that surplus toward the costs of protecting the resource from its users.”

Currently, visitors spend an average of US$1,666 per person per trip within the country, a total annual spend of US$1,126 million, the report noted, broken down into hotels (35%), followed by food and beverages (23%), recreational activities (19%), miscellaneous (18%) and retail shopping (5%).

If the government were to introduce a user fee of US$35, spread across these or levied at once, then based on current visitor numbers the country would generate US$27.36 million – “more than 85 percent of current environmental expenditure.”

Sim Mohamed Ibrahim from the Maldives Association Tourism Industry (MATI) counters that passing additional taxes to tourists is “not a good idea at all”, as “the Maldives is already seen as an expensive luxury destination, and unaffordable for tourists in the mid-market segment.”

“Resorts already need to apply best practice to maintain and manage natural resources to ensure they remain in business,” he said, favouring education and greater involvement between the industry and the local communities.

Resorts “could do more” to pass on best practice to the community, Sim acknowledged.

“In particular we have to catch the younger generation before they begin dropping waste in the ocean, for instance,” he said.

The report anticipates the industry’s economic counterargument, in that the main challenge faced in implementing such a conservation fee would be “political resistance from local businesses that serve the tourism industry. It is feared that excessive taxes and fees may turn tourists away to other places.”

“Ironically, Maldives’ tourism continues to expand significantly [and] users who greatly benefit from the rich natural resource are foreigners, while the responsibility for sustainable and fair use of such resources largely falls on the local population and the government,” the report reads.

“One way to resolve this disparity issue is to identify funding sources from within those who directly benefit from the tourism experience and the tourism dollars, and to design policies to ensure appropriate money transfer from beneficiaries to those responsible for conservation and regulation,” it notes.