Climate experts and celebrities converge on Maldives for Slow Life Symposium

Luxury Maldivian resort Soneva Fushi is currently hosting a three day ‘Slow Life’ symposium bringing together big names in business, climate science, film and renewable energy to come up with ways to address climate change.

Attendees at the Symposium include famous UK entrepreneur Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Empire; 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.

Richard Branson

Branson described how six years ago former US Vice President and environmental advocate Al Gore arrived at his house “and made me realise I had to make changes to the way I was doing business in the own world.”

Among other initiatives, Branson described his creation of a “Carbon War Room” funding scientific work into both climate education and the development of a renewable alternative to jet fuel.

“Ethanol was not a good idea because it freezes at 15,000 feet,” Branson noted. “So we’re investigating alternatives such as algae, isobutanol and fuel created from eucalyptus trees,” he said, adding that Virgin would be making a significant announcement on the subject next week.

Big business had the ability and prerogative to break down market barriers to the development of low carbon technologies, he said. Inefficient shipping, for instance, wasted US$70 billion a year, and led him to create a website allocating ratings to the most efficient vessels and ports, that had attracted interest from large grocery chains.

Branson also outlined his US$25 million prize for the development of a commercial technology capable of removing carbon from the atmosphere, an idea he said was inspired by the 1714 prize offered for developing a means of measuring longitude on a ship, and had attracted thousands of innovative ideas.

President Mohamed Nasheed

Speaking at the symposium on Saturday, Nasheed said it was “very clear, that regardless of whether you are rich or poor, too much carbon will kill us.”

“For us, this is not just an environmental issue. We need to become carbon neutral even if there was no such thing as climate change, simply because it is more economically viable. We spend more than 14 percent of our GDP on fossil fuel energy, which is more than our education and health budget combined.”

The most important adaptation measure, Nasheed said, “is democracy. You have to have a responsive government to discuss this issue. When I do something people do not believe in, they shout at me. But they are not doing this on this issue.”

The government had reformed its economic system and introduced new taxes “so we can fend for ourselves. We cannot endlessly rely on the international community.”

Since last year’s symposium the government had launched its renewable energy investment plan, and contracted an international firm to process waste at Thilafushi, Nasheed said, as well as introduced a feed in tariff which would make generating solar “more profitable than a corner shop.”

“If you are buying electricity at 40 cents a kilowatt hour you can sell electricity to the state at 35 cents. Soneva Fushi is going to be able to produce electricity with solar at 15 cents. We will be able to finance households as a loan to pay back from savings they are making. If you do the sums in the Maldives it is really quite possible, and I’m confident that households will see the commercial viability.”

Ed Norton

Meanwhile Ed Norton, star of films including ‘Fight Club’ and ‘American History X’, linked sanitation and waste management to human development, noting that more people had cell phones than toilets. As a result, Norton said, 1.7 million people died yearly of preventable diarrheal diseases – 90 percent of them under the age of five.

“The World Health Organisation estimates that for every dollar spent on sanitation, $3-34 is returned to the economy,” he observed.

Ocean dumping of sewage was standard, he noted, while septic tanks could leak and contaminate groundwater. He proposed a greater focus on using waste water for fertiliser and water recycling, rather than thinking of it simply as a matter of waste disposal.

Jonathan Porritt

UK environmentalist Jonathan Porritt, founder of Forum for the Future, observed that just by attending the Symposium he had contributed four tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

He referred to a colleague who was “so overwhelmingly conscious” of his carbon footprint that he weighed his attendance at such events by “the gravity of the audience, the quality of his speech and the effectiveness in lobbying and networking.”

However, he noted that travel and tourism was, overall, a “force for good in an increasingly troubled world.”

“We live in a world where governments invest US$1.4 trillion a year in war. We live in a world where US$4 trillion is invested in the war against terror, a world were fundamentalism is rampant and aggressive nationalism is all over the place. Many countries taking a lead on the issue suffer from a deep sense of exhaustion. Against that backdrop, hands-on [tourism] is a way to bridge the divide,” Porritt said.

At the same time tourism was driven by the balance sheet, and that while there was a great deal of ecotourism initiatives much of it was “marketing, with no credibility.”

“There is a focus on green rather than sustainable tourism, and no real understanding of what it means,” he said. “There is a reluctance to engage on socio-economic issues.”

“Gaps in equity are widening – and the gap between the have and the have nots is widening. Even as tourism contributes economically, because of the gaps resentment about the impact of the industry is rising – especially in a country where access to land, water, beachfront, reef and biomass is being privileged to support growth of tourism industry rather than the interests of local people.”

Tourism, Porritt said, was a microcosm of the local economy, with high end tourism such as that in the Maldives attracting the wealthiest and most influential people.

“For the one percent of the population that control more than 30 percent of the net wealth in a country such as the United States, it is very easy to insulate one’s self from real world by traveling from high security offices to gated communities to privileged, luxury resorts. It is a bubble through which the real world rarely penetrates.”

A state of low carbon with high inequality was “not a judgement anyone should be comfortable with. We should be thinking not just about the need to mitigate carbon impact, but offsetting inequality. I think what we are doing should be from the perspective of social justice as much as low carbon.”

However, he noted, it was easier to educate a few billionaires than the entire population of a country such as the US, distracted from the issue by Xboxes and cable TV.

“Billionaires have a vested interest in keeping the [planet sustainable], because they have enough money enjoy the planet,” he suggested.

Tim Smit

Founder of the Eden Project in Cornwall, Tim Smit, spoke about the need to mobilise people by capturing their imagination – and the responsibility the Maldives has as a symbol of a united effort combating climate change.

“Author CS Lewis said that while science leads to truth, only imagination leads to meaning,” Smit said.

“We are used to talking to halls of middle aged men who want to be inspired. We read the books about affecting change and they have the same language, and it is really dull: paradigm shifts, centres of excellence, leading edge thinking, cutting edge thinking, and when they are very excited, bleeding edge thinking. We don’t write books about the impact of this thinking.”

Incredible things, Smit said, were “being done by the unreasonable.”

“The Maldives has captured the imagination, and the elected political elite are showing charisma and leadership on the issue [of climate change]. The danger is that we listen to too many middle aged white people, and miss the point. I see an incredible moment when the story of Maldives becomes the story of us all – but it needs to be delivered with a pirate grin that says f*** it, we’re going to do this thing. I hate idealists. I like unreasonable people who do things.”

There was, Smit said, a danger that the Maldives would lose sight of its goal, and “lose the moment when the Maldives could become the most important place in world. The goal is open but the moment will be gone, and suddenly the bright future is no longer there, just a job – and not a job in the spotlight.”

The Maldivian people needed to be given the independence to make their own decisions, such as installing solar, and given control so that they knew the impact of flipping the light switch.

“Trust in the people of the Maldives to get excited of a picture of the Maldives reborn,” Smit suggested.

The Slow Life Symposium continues on Sunday.


National Museum will broaden exploration of Maldivian history

The New National Museum will give Maldivians the opportunity “to examine and reinterpret our culture and whole way of life”, claims Ahmed Naseer, the state minister for Tourism, Arts and Culture.

“It’s a great museum complex that includes Male’s best garden park. We now have a lot of space for people to express themselves in various ways, and where people can take refuge from this hectic life in Male. A place where they can relax, experience a bit of entertainment, and improve their historical and cultural knowledge.”

Built by the Chinese government as part of a UNESCO project planned for almost 20 years, the new museum will officially open on Independence Day, Monday 26 July.

For the opening, the new building facing Chandanee Magu will show exhibits mainly from the old museum at the nearby Sultan’s Palace, while the other new building across the park will feature an exhibition of 120 faiykolhu or Maldivian legal deeds and other official documents dating from the 1600s to the 1930s, according to Aminath Shareef, who has been cataloguing the faiykolhu.

They have never been exhibited before, and were selected from 800 documents discovered by chance in Male in December 2008. “We’ve chosen a variety of documents for Maldivians to see at the opening,” says Shareef. “They are written in Dives Akuru, Tana, English and Urdu scripts.”

“The first Maldivian museum was established in the early 1950s,” says Ahmed Naseer. “Our collection has moved four times. At last it has found a permanent home. We will also try to acquire other private collections that people have in their homes. These people are waiting for a secure place to exhibit their precious possessions. We will be inviting them to display their collections, or lease items to the museum. We may even buy their collections once we have the legal framework in place. So it’s a very exciting future.

“We can finally address many issues that have lain dormant in our society. Historians use old books and other things to interpret history, but in our case there are very few books and the questions about where Maldivians came from and who we were before and after we converted to Islam – these questions have remained unexplored. Through the museum we can start examining and interpreting periods of our history, and this will give us a chance to find some answers.”

“Many Maldivians are aware of the fascinating work done on coral stone at the old Friday mosque. We are in the process of applying to UNESCO to have the mosque placed on the World Heritage list. In the Maldives, coral stone sculpture is a common factor throughout the atolls and some experts claim Maldivian coral stone work is the best in the world. Of course that is debatable, but through the museum we can examine these issues, and assess our heritage.

“There is a lot of interest among our young people and students. They are all looking forward to the opening. It’s something good that’s happening. We plan to integrate the museum with the education system. At the moment the heritage department is involved in setting up administration for training staff, but we will also be inviting lecturers to utilise the museum space.”

Inside the museum

“Now the building has been finished, and the President and his cabinet decided we should open it on Independence Day,” explains Mamduh Waheed, deputy minister for Tourism, Arts and Culture, “we have to show our appreciation to the Chinese government and assure them that we will utilise the facilities they have so kindly provided.

“Within the ministry and the new heritage department we don’t have the capacity to handle the opening. Former members of the National Centre of Linguistics and History (which has now been disbanded) are helping, but even then we needed much more assistance, so the cabinet decided to put together a taskforce.”

Many Male organisations and government departments are taking part in the effort to have the museum ready for the official opening, according to taskforce co-ordinator Aminath Athifa, “Dhiraagu are working on the PA system, the Male’ Municipality and STELCO are helping, and the police are providing security as well as the MNDF who are also handling the physical transfers and exhibit arrangements. Every movement of our collection is photographed and documented.”

Regarding the museum’s long-term plans, Ahmed Naseer says, “We’ll be exploring non-academic methods of creating interest. In the future, there’ll be exhibitions to attract people who would not normally think a museum is a place for them. A lot of our old craft skills are dying away and they need to be revived. For example, the mat weaving that still occurs in Gaadhoo on Huvadhu atoll, and the lacquerware from Thulhaadhoo in Baa atoll. We will have exhibitions that include the craftspeople, and they can show others how mats and lacquerware are made. In Male we have a very fast pace of life and young people are often quite unaware of these skills. The people from the islands can show us how these beautiful things are created and it will inspire a resurgence in our craft skills and ability to earn more tourism income.”

The training of staff is the biggest challenge facing the museum’s administrators, Naseer explains. “We expect to receive assistance from other countries who are experienced in museum management, and hope to send our young people to neighbouring countries to get training in preservation methods.

“Invitations will be sent to foreign students to come and work as interns with local people; for example through the Heritage Centre in Singapore. We are planning to have exchange programs enabling our people to work overseas in other museums. This will help alleviate our staff shortages. A lot of people are looking forward to this; the level of expectation is high.

Some of the new exhibits

“From the beginning of the consultative process almost two decades ago, an important issue was the provision of a human resource program to train people to run the museum and maintain the collection. But the human resource requirements were not attended to; all the focus was on getting these huge buildings erected. It’s a pity that UNESCO didn’t insist on the training part of the project.

“Maldivians are very interested to learn about their heritage,” Naseer believes. “Most of it is not known. They will be able to question things for the first time. They were used to just obeying and accepting what they were told; not using their own minds. This is an opportunity for Maldivians to improve their knowledge of their past. They don’t have to be afraid to ask questions.

“A museum can be an exciting place that inspires people and we will develop the sort of trained staff the Maldivian people need to help them understand their heritage.”

Sultan’s Park and the Eden Project
An integral part of the new museum is the development of Sultan’s Park, situated between the two museum buildings, into a unique Maldivian botanical garden.

“Maldives is Eden’s latest project area,” says the organisation’s English curator, Ian Martin. “At the moment we are trying to renovate this very attractive garden and turn it into something with a big emphasis on the plants of the Maldives – how people think about them, how they use them. These plants can be used for fruit and vegetables, but there can also be plants for their spiritual satisfaction, appreciated for their beauty.

“Over the next year or so, we’ll really get involved with the transformation of a rather traditional ornamental garden into something very special for Maldivians. It will become a place where Maldivians can understand themselves and what their future could be – giving them ideas about how they can progress towards a more sustainable economy that isn’t just relying on fish and tourism.”

The museum will help promote research into Maldivian culture

Ian Martin worked as a horticulturalist in tropical countries for 23 years before joining the Eden Project fourteen years ago. “My links abroad became useful to promote Eden’s philosophy of improving the understanding and care of plants for crops and conservation around the world,” he says.

“Helping in the initial landscaping work are labourers and other staff from the city’s nursery and the Male Municipality, and of course the MNDF personnel who have been really great and very easy men to work with.”

“The second phase of our work will be turning Sultan’s Park into a specialised garden – the only place in the world where you will find this particular collection of plants with these stories,” Martin explains. “We want to produce something distinct for the Maldives – something beyond being a nice garden with pleasant shade. Maldivians will find plants that have played a key role in their cultural identity. It will become a place for children to understand what it means to be a Maldivian. It can’t be boring, it has to be entertaining, and something they won’t be able to find anywhere else.”