‘Junk’ councillor takes part in SLOW LIFE Symposia

Baa atoll Maalhos Councilor Abdul Matheen Solih has said the authority has been labeled the ‘Gondu’ – or junk – council after they started actively participating in improving the island’s waste management.

“The islanders have started calling us the ‘Gondu’ after we have physically started going to the junkyard and working on the waste management,” said Matheen.

Matheen and his fellow councillors have been the labelled with the derogatory term after they set out to do what the majority of the country has failed to by recycling materials rather than burning them or dumping them in a landfill.

Public disregard for work done towards the betterment of the environment was one of the main issues raised at the recent SLOW LIFE symposia which brought local environmental NGOs, councillors, and government officials together to discuss responsible waste management and sustainability.

The symposia – held on November 17- was a sister event to the annual SLOW LIFE Symposium which has previously seen the participation of philanthropists and celebrities such as UK entrepreneur Richard Branson and actor Ed Norton.

Maalhos council also complained of the lack of response from the government to the opposition majority council, with Matheen recalling the failure to be provided with the MVR45 (US$3) needed for gloves for safety reasons while working at the junkyard.

He provided assurance, however, that the council would not succumb to the challenges, revealing plans to implement a sustainable waste management system by adopting the recycling based model currently implemented in Baa Atoll Ukulhas.

NGOS making a difference

Meanwhile, Environmental NGO Save the Beach highlighted the plight of Villingili beach – filled with garbage every weekend by visitors from the capital Malé, where there is no natural beach.

Save the Beach – which started as a youth movement in 2008 aiming to conserve the natural beauty of the Villingili beaches – now conducts clean up and awareness programs not only in Villingili but also in many other inhabited islands.

Speaking of the busy Villingili beach, co–founder Hassan Ahmed ‘Beybe’ said that the NGO has no other option but conducting daily clean-ups alongside major clean up events to keep the beach garbage free.

A recent Save the Beach organised beach clean-up saw the participation of officers and crew from the USS Rodney M Davis – the US Navy’s 7th fleet missile frigate on its last tour of duty.

When asked about the reception of the work done by the NGO, ‘Beybe’ said that they have received positive support from the Villingili community and that it now “understands the importance of preserving the beach”.

Other active NGOs present at the Symposia included his manta ray awareness and conservation organisation Manta Trust, Maldives Lifeguard Association, Dhi Youth Movement and Maldives Body Boarding Association.

Environmental Activism

Environmentalist, Aishath Niyaz who has been involved in environmental activism for over 12 years shared her experiences as an activist and highlighted some of the broader issues with the current environmental situation in the country.

“The biggest constraint is definitely managing finances. I am very lucky as I do not have huge expenses but sometimes I wonder how long I will be able to keep on going like this,” said Aishath.

Aishath’s concerns of financial difficulty were not unique to her but were echoed throughout the Symposia by many of the younger participants.

Having reviously worked at various related institutions, Aishath now provides technical support for local NGOs and small authorities after completing her education in sustainable development by making a decision to not work in institutions which “lack integrity”.

Proving that activism can be done in various forms and arts was local photographer Asad Nazeer ‘Funko’ who, while specialising in fashion and portrait photography, also creates thought provoking art pieces about pressing environmental and social issues.

SLOW LIFE

The event was organised by the award-winning Soneva Fushi resort whose founders Sonu and Eva Shivdasani initiated the SLOW LIFE foundation based on the resort’s philosophies of low impact and sustainable luxury tourism with SLOW LIFE being an acronym for Sustainable-Local-Organic-Wellness and Learning-Inspiring-Fun-Experiences.

While speaking at the event, Shivdasani said that the SLOW LIFE initiative reflects Soneva group’s core beliefs such as ‘intelligent luxury’ and that he believes that dedicated businesses, not governments will bring change to the world.

The participants at the Symposia were given a platform to voice their concerns over environmental sustainability in the Maldives, resulting in an action plan for the upcoming year to address these environmental challenges.

The day long symposia, which included a tour of Soneva Fush’s gardens and waste management programme, ended with discussions on ‘real’ actions that can be done in the next 12 months to contribute to the cause.

During the discussions, the individuals and NGOs chose to commit to different initiatives which will come under the banner ‘Clean Maldives’.




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Climate experts and celebrities converge on Maldives for Slow Life Symposium

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Luxury eco-resort embroiled in “green-washing” dispute with “extortionist” NGO

Exclusive luxury resort Soneva Fushi is embroiled in an increasingly hostile dispute with Biosphere Expeditions, an international environmental conservation non-governmental organisation (NGO), over allegations of grant contract breaching and “green-washing”.

Soneva awarded Biosphere Expeditions a three year, US$79,000 Social & Environmental Responsibility Fund (SERF) grant to conduct coral reef research, give scholarships enabling research placements for Maldivian nationals, and provide educational materials to local school children, beginning in 2011.

Soneva maintains they have no legal obligation to continue the funding.

Biosphere Expeditions alleges Soneva was delinquent in making payments for the first two years of the contract and now refuses to pay the final grant installment, which has dramatically limited the scope of the project, the NGO’s founder and executive director Dr Matthias Hammer told Minivan News.

“Unfortunately, Soneva displayed a lack of co-operative spirit paired with a good dose of corporate arrogance and incompetence right from the start.

“Biosphere Expeditions tried to be sympathetic, realising that Soneva/Six Senses were in financial trouble and offering various deferred payment options,” Hammer said in a press release issued March 6, 2013.

“However, Soneva is now ‘flat out’ refusing to pay the remaining US$24,000 owed, claiming Maldivian laws don’t obligate them to pay, only that they make ‘optional donations’. This is nonsense. They are legally obligated to fulfill the contract we’ve signed.

“Soneva cannot argue the contract hasn’t been enforced, because they eventually paid the agreed upon amount for the two years,” Hammer told Minivan News.

Hammer further explained that Biosphere Expeditions was “perplexed” by Soneva’s behavior given the company’s eco-friendly claims. The NGO claimed to have filed a case with the Civil Court last week.

“We were initially happy to receive the SERF grant. They were the last sponsor we’d expect to behave like this given their reputation. Their actions don’t match up.

“They have tried every trick in the book: saying the payment has been made but is late, there are internal issues within the company, the Six Senses company is being split, and they don’t have the money,” Hammer said.

“Payments were always late and a drain on our resources.

“I have never come across anything like this in the last 15 years of my career in this field. Given Soneva’s green claims, I am astounded by this apparent case of green-washing and how Soneva is treating its partners in conservation,” the NGO stated in a press release.

Soneva hits back

Soneva’s founder, president, and chief executive officer (CEO) Sonu Shivdasani also spoke to Minivan News about the dispute.

“Our public relations manager Sophie Williams proposed funding the Biosphere Expeditions project, but ultimately this project had more public relations benefit than real substance in terms of community development,” he said.

“We do not have a charter together [for evaluating proposals], but we have the different environmentalists on staff, such as our marine biologist, our management team, and representatives from the host committee to discuss the project proposals.

“Soneva didn’t do exhaustive diligence, but our team had discussed the project and went ahead [with approving it],” Shivdasani stated.

He cited three primary reasons Soneva will not continue to fund the Biosphere Expeditions project: the company has limited funds to donate, the project did not meet Soneva’s standards, and the agreement with Biosphere Expeditions is not legally binding.

“In essence, Soneva/Six Senses donates .5 percent of total revenues for charitable projects, which comes to about US$300,000 from US$20 million annually,” said Shivdasani.

Shivdasani explained that given the recent sale of Six Senses and Soneva Gili, the amount of charitable donations dropped. Thus, the company had to review and reevaluate the charitable projects they were funding.

“In 2011, Eva sold Six Senses, because we wanted to focus on the one brand Soneva, with one owner, management company, and philosophy,” Shivdasani stated.

“[Downsizing] to one resort and the subsequent reduction in SERF allocations from US$300,000 down to US$120,000, meant we had to carefully review how to use this money to create maximum impact on the environment.

“Invariably we needed to cut US$180,000 from our annual donations. US$24,000 is quite insignificant in context. There are so many more worthy causes, we’d rather spend money on other things,” added Shivdasani.

Shivdasani also spoke about the timing of the first two grant installments.

“The Biosphere Expeditions program has been very piecemeal and due to the specific nature of payments, any delays should not have caused payment hardships with the world in deep recession in 2009 and 2010.

“This was the worst recession since World War Two. 2009 was a slow year. Revenues were down and cash flow was tight. I can’t see how Biosphere Expeditions was inconvenienced. We were careful about the timing of charitable payments,” explained Shivdasani.

Soneva also decided the Biosphere Expeditions project did not “pass muster”.

“Unfortunately, Biosphere Expeditions did not meet up with our strict standards and we felt there were more worthy initiatives to support,” Shivdasani said.

“The feedback from hosts (staff) trained on the [liveaboard] expedition was negative, they didn’t enjoy the experience. Furthermore, we felt the education campaign did not have much of an impact, while the scholarship program only benefited two Maldivians.”

Regarding Biosphere Expedition’s allegation that Soneva had breached the grant agreement contract, Soneva maintained they did not have a legally binding contract.

“Rather than a contract with the Biosphere Expeditions, we had a charitable ‘Letter of Grant’ dating back to 2010. This involved a schedule of donations from Soneva Gili, Six Senses Laamu and Soneva Fushi.

“We could stop grant donations by giving notice, which Soneva did in the form of a formal letter in October 2012.

“We consulted our lawyers in Malé and they confirmed that three months was an adequate period of time to give notice to Biosphere Expeditions,” said Shivdasani.

He maintained that Soneva had no legal obligation to continue funding Biosphere Expeditions and that no case has been filed against the resort.

“Hammer is lying; no legal case has been launched against us. Our lawyers have not been notified of any case being filed in Male’. We are within our rights to stop funding.

“As of today’s date, we cannot contest any court case because Biosphere Expeditions have not put any case before us. No lawyer would want to represent someone who sends out press releases before lodging a case with the courts.

“If it was a legal contract, then we would have honoured it, but it’s within our rights not to continue.

“Soneva happily funded US$50,000-60,000 [of Biosphere Expeditions’ project], now it’s time to stop,” Shivdasani stated.

Soneva prides itself for being “an innovator in the field of responsible tourism, taking environmental and social responsibilities very seriously”.

Soneva states that its ‘SLOW LIFE’ philosophy “applies to everything” they do, with SLOW standing for Sustainable-Local-Organic-Wellness Learning-Inspiring-Fun-Experiences.

Thus, the Soneva SLOW LIFE Trust handles the Social & Environmental Responsibility Fund (SERF), which was created to “provide funding for a wide variety of humanitarian and environmental projects”.

Hostile exchanges

Communications between Biosphere Expeditions and Soneva have become increasingly hostile since the partnership agreement began, with numerous emails exchanged between Hammer and Shivdasani.

Following repeated correspondence requesting the agreed upon grant installments be paid, “Sonu said I was on a ‘high horse’ and ‘chasing the money’, all of which was in really bad taste,” Hammer explained.

“Soneva’s condescending top-down communication is a problem that comes from the very top [levels of management] and percolates throughout the company systemically.

“They think are a big powerful corporation and we’re just a small NGO.

“We shouldn’t be treated like this. Having jumped through all the hoops [to receive the grant] we bloody well expect the other side to pay what’s agreed,” exclaimed Hammer.

Hammer said that Biosphere Expeditions was surprised a luxury resort was “quibbling” over US$24,000.

“This is peanuts for them and we are not prepared to be treated like serfs or go away. By a funny coincidence that is what their grant 
is called: ‘Social & Environmental Responsibility Fund (SERF)’. I am only now beginning to understand its true meaning,” said Hammer.

Ultimately, Biosphere Expeditions has taken the stance that Soneva is not only violating the terms of their grant contract, but also guilty of “green-washing”.

“I can only conclude that Sonu Shivdasani and Soneva’s priorities are to maximise profits. They surely do not appear to be serious about conservation and the environment.

“It seems the company’s claims of ethical behaviour and environmental awareness are, sadly, simply marketing-driven lip service,” read the press release from the NGO.

Shivdasani maintains he has been misquoted by Hammer.

“The press release from Dr Hammer involves various threats of a slanderous nature. It is a sham. Hammer is not pursuing a legal case. If he does, Soneva has a very strong case,” said Shivdasani.

“Hammer is an extortionist. Someone needs to look into his operation. Is Biosphere Expeditions really a non-profit?” Shivdasani questioned.

The project

Originally, both Biosphere Expeditions and Soneva were partnered with the Maldives Marine Research Centre (MRC) of the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture, Reef Check and the Marine Conservation Society “to study and safeguard the spectacular coral reefs and the resident whale shark population”.

The funding dispute between Shivdasani and Hammer has curtailed the project’s activities.

According to Hammer, scholarships for and hiring of Maldivians has been halted, educational leaflets will not be distributed, and research studies cannot continue, with coral reef studies being “slashed to one week”.

Earlier in 2012, the Soneva Group faced controversy when allegations that Shivdasani had engaged a PR firm to “spruce up” the image of President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik’s government were published in UK media.

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“Fragile democracy under threat”: Richard Branson, Ed Norton among signatories for fresh elections

Business tycoon Richard Branson and ‘Fight Club’ actor Ed Norton are among dozens of international celebrities and activists who have signed a letter calling for the Maldivian government to halt harassment of the opposition and “hold democratic elections at the earliest opportunity.”

The letter, published in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, expresses concern over former President Mohamed Nasheed’s “island arrest”.

“The ban was then followed by a series of orders to appear in court this week on spurious civil and criminal charges – a strategy of legal harassment pursued by the illegitimate regime of Mohamed Waheed. Its sole purpose is to sideline Nasheed from active politics and further stamp out any political opposition,” the letter stated.

President’s Office Spokesperson Masood Imad told Radio Australia on Tuesday that the government on assumption of office “made it clear we would in no way interfere with the process of the judiciary. The judge summoned Mr Nasheed but he absconded. I believe he will be summoned again and if he does not appear in court, he will issue an order for his arrest.”

The letter further stated that “the outlook for democracy in the Maldives is deteriorating. The circumstances surrounding Nasheed’s removal from power earlier this year remain a matter of dispute, but other matters are beyond doubt.”

Specifically, it noted that “no date has been set for free and fair elections by this unelected regime, which has links to former dictator Abdul Gayoom,” and that “nearly 2,000 peaceful demonstrators calling for elections have been detained by security forces, many beaten and hospitalised.”

“Sadly, much of this remains largely unreported by the world’s media. A young and fragile democracy is under threat once more and we therefore call upon [President] Mohamed Waheed to set a firm date for free and fair elections immediately, to end the culture of systematic police brutality and to release all political detainees including opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed.”

As well as Branson and Norton, signatories included Radiohead guitarist Thom Yorke, actress Darryl Hannah, 350.org founder Bill McKibben, the Eden Project’s Tim Smit, and philosopher and ethicist Peter Singer.

Norton, Branson and Hannah were fixtures at last year’s Slow Life Symposium held at the upmarket Soneva Fushi resort in the Maldives.

Branson first waded into Maldivian politics on his blog on February 24, calling on President Waheed to “do the right thing” and hold free and fair elections before the end of the year.

It was, Branson wrote to Dr Waheed, “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.”

“Knowing you, I would assume that you were given no choice and that it was through threats that you have ended up in this position,” Branson said. “I do very much hope that was the case rather than you doing it of your own free will.”

Days later, Branson wrote another entry, saying that he had spoken on the phone to Dr Waheed, who told him he had appointed “a respected person” to examine the truth of what caused President Nasheed to “resign”.

“He says that he didn’t know who issued an arrest warrant for President Nasheed after he left office but that it had been rescinded within 48 hours. He is determined to be an honest broker, to be seen to be one, and to get everyone’s confidence. He said that he offered to bring in people from President Nasheed’s party but they refused to join.”

A few days later, Branson wrote a third post, resuming his first call for early elections “as soon as feasibly possible”.

The Soneva Group meanwhile found itself embroiled in local politics in August, composing a statement in response to allegations published in the UK media that the company’s head, Sonu Shivdasani, had engaged a PR firm to “spruce up” the image of Dr Mohamed Waheed’s government.

The article in Private Eye magazine contended that post February 7, an “unlikely alliance” had emerged between certain resorts – desperate to stabilise the sudden political instability for the sake of their bottom lines – and the new government, a loose alliance of ambitious political elements who came to power on a platform of Islamic conservatism.

“The reality is that the Maldives – already favoured by footballers, Russian gangsters and off-duty Israeli arms dealers – are an even harder sell since the coup has given us an unlikely alliance between hoteliers promoting bikini-clad, cocktail-fuelled luxury and a government that includes two imams, wants to bring back the death penalty and has done nothing about the destruction by supporters of the coup of the national museum’s entire pre-Islamic collection,” the article stated.

In a counter statement from the group, obtained by Minivan News, the company sought to clarify the “facts” of the case.

“Sonu Shivdasani does not have a political relationship with President Mohamed Waheed, their interaction revolves specifically around environmental and ecological issues,” the Soneva statement read.

A source within the Soneva Group described the situation as “a bloody mess”.

Shivdasani “completely fell for Waheed’s line that Nasheed didn’t resign under duress” and had – unsuccessfully – asked a number of PR agencies to set up interviews for the new President, Minivan News was informed.

The source surmised that Shivdasani had “innocently, stupidly, somehow believed Waheed”, and “gone out of his way to help [the new President].”

Soneva’s statement meanwhile disputed the resort’s motivation to support the new government as being based on supposed plans to amend a corporate tax bill implemented by Nasheed, as, “to the best of my knowledge, there are no plans by the current President Mohamed Waheed to reduce or eliminate this tax.”

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World famous eco-resort embroiled in local politics

The Soneva Group has composed a statement in response to allegations published in the UK media, that the head of the upmarket resort company, Sonu Shivdasani, had engaged a PR firm to “spruce up” the image of Dr Mohamed Waheed’s government.

The company’s flagship resort, Soneva Fushi in Baa Atoll, is known for its ecological innovation. It hosts the annual ‘Slow Life Symposium’, drawing environmental luminaries from around the world – including, last October, former President Mohamed Nasheed.

However, “No fan of [former President] Nasheed’s tax proposals, Sonu was keen to help the new administration spruce up its image,” alleged a recent column in the the UK’s Private Eye magazine.

The article contended that post February 7, an “unlikely alliance” had emerged between certain resorts – desperate to stabilise the sudden political instability for the sake of their bottom lines – and the new government, a loose alliance of ambitious political elements who came to power on a platform of Islamic conservatism.

“The reality is that the Maldives – already favoured by footballers, Russian gangsters and off-duty Israeli arms dealers – are an even harder sell since the coup has given us an unlikely alliance between hoteliers promoting bikini-clad, cocktail-fuelled luxury and a government that includes two imams, wants to bring back the death penalty and has done nothing about the destruction by supporters of the coup of the national museum’s entire pre-Islamic collection,” the article stated.

The article alleged that “in April [Shivdasani] e-mailed Britain’s well known PR guru Matthew Freud, saying: ‘I just spoke to President Waheed. He is happy to engage your services (for tourism PR) on a barter basis whereby Reethi Rah and Soneva Fushi would offer accommodation at our resorts in lieu of the barter. Did you manage to speak to Alan Leibman from One and Only?’” the column stated.

“Freud initially appeared thrilled at the prospect of free holidays: ’We greatly look forward to working with you and the president,’” it stated, apparently having obtained the relevant correspondence between the pair.

“But by the time President Waheed had got in on the act later in the month, writing to Freud: ‘We had discussed along with Sonu that a contract will be signed first among SixSenses, One and Only and Matthew to assist us with tourism promotion in the UK. Matthew will send us an outline a proposed activities as discussed’ – the legendary PR guru had developed cold feet: ‘I am sorry that the adverse political climate prevents us from being more directly involved but going to a doctor who will make you sicker is rarely a good idea.’”

In a counter statement from the group, obtained by Minivan News, the company sought to clarify the “facts” of the case.

“Sonu Shivdasani does not have a political relationship with President Mohamed Waheed, their interaction revolves specifically around environmental and ecological issues,” the Soneva statement read.

“In addition to former President Mohammed Nasheed, President Mohamed Waheed demonstrated an active level of support and interest in Soneva Fushi’s sustainable practices during his vice presidency.  He attended both the 2010 and 2011 SLOWLIFE Symposia at Soneva Fushi.

“President Mohamed Waheed’s interest in environmental issues has remained consistent; it is on these grounds and issues that he and Sonu Shivdasani have interacted since his assumption to the Presidency.”

The company claimed that the discussion between Freud PR and President Waheed had concerned the PR firm’s Director, Arlo Brady, “who is associated with the Blue Marine Foundation.”

“The discussions focused on creating the World’s largest Marine Reserve in the country and other environment initiatives. I offered Freud PR complimentary accommodation at Soneva Fushi in return for their support of the government with this campaign and other environment initiatives in the country that were discussed,” the Soneva statement read.

A source within the Soneva Group described the situation as “a bloody mess”.

Shivdasani “completely fell for Waheed’s line that Nasheed didn’t resign under duress” and had – unsuccessfully – asked a number of PR agencies to set up interviews for the new President, Minivan News was informed.

The source surmised that Shivdasani had “innocently, stupidly, somehow believed Waheed”, and “gone out of his way to help [the new President].”

Soneva’s statement meanwhile disputed the resort’s motivation to support the new government based on supposed plans to amend a corporate tax bill implemented by Nasheed, as, “to the best of my knowledge, there are no plans by the current President Mohamed Waheed to reduce or eliminate this tax.”

Following the controversial transfer of power the Maldives now faces spiralling budget deficit of 27 percent, an ongoing foreign currency shortage, plummeting investor confidence, spiraling expenditure, and a drop off in foreign aid.

A proposal by the Finance Ministry last week to curb impending economic crisis included raising the tourism goods and services tax (TGST) to 15 percent, among other measures. Several resort managers told Minivan News earlier this year that a sudden TGST increase would have to be taken out their margins due to contractual commitments with tour operators, following the International Monetary Fund (IMF)’s demand that this be raised to 12 percent.

“To the best of my knowledge, President Mohamed Nasheed did not have plans to raise further taxes from resorts in the Maldives,” the Soneva statement read.

“There were discussions about taxes being introduced on other industries in the Maldives as well as the introduction of an income tax on Maldivian nationals. Neither of these would impact Soneva or I as we are not involved in other businesses in the Maldives,” it added.

Soured relationships

Sonenva Fushi’s Slow Life Symposium in October attracted an array of high profile business, media and environmental figures including Virgin head Richard Branson, 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; Mike Mason, founder of Climate Care, one of the world’s first carbon trading companies; and British author, journalist and environmental activist Mark Lynas.

Branson waded into Maldivian politics on his blog on February 24, calling on President Waheed to “do the right thing” and hold free and fair elections before the end of the year.

It was, Branson wrote to Dr Waheed, “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.”

“Knowing you, I would assume that you were given no choice and that it was through threats that you have ended up in this position,” Branson said. “I do very much hope that was the case rather than you doing it of your own free will.”

Days later, Branson wrote another entry, saying that he had spoken on the phone to Dr Waheed, who told him he had appointed “a respected person” to examine the truth of what caused President Nasheed to “resign”.

“He says that he didn’t know who issued an arrest warrant for President Nasheed after he left office but that it had been rescinded within 48 hours. He is determined to be an honest broker, to be seen to be one, and to get everyone’s confidence. He said that he offered to bring in people from President Nasheed’s party but they refused to join.

“He also pointed out that President Nasheed’s party had been a minority party and had only been in power due to the support of others. It would be for those others, and the electorate to decide who rules in the future. He ended by pledging elections in July of next year – in line with the constitution – once confidence has been restored,” Branson wrote.

“Based on his personal reputation I believe he’s sincere in wanting to do what’s right for the country and return it to a true and lasting democracy.”

A few days later, Branson wrote a third post, resuming his first call “for early elections “as soon as feasibly possible”.

“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 wrote.

Lynas – another Slow Life participant who also worked as Nasheed’s Climate Advisor – was quick to condemn Dr Waheed’s new government, claiming that his “lack of democratic legitimacy” had lost the Maldives’ its voice at international climate negotiations.

“Waheed and his representatives have no moral authority because they were not elected, have strong connections with corrupt and violent elements of the former dictatorship, and took power in the dubious circumstances of a police coup,” Lynas argued.

“The Maldives has lost many years of work already – it has little credibility left with donors or international investors. Investors and donors alike are looking for stability and strong governance – and they will not get either of those whilst the political system is essentially deadlocked between competing parties, with regular protests and ensuing police violence.

“In climate terms the Maldives is well on its way to becoming a failed state – I see no prospect of it achieving Nasheed’s 2020 carbon neutral goal, even if that goal is still official policy,” Lynas said.

“I think time has basically run out now – unless there are early elections quickly and a legitimate government re-established there is no real prospect of resurrecting the Maldives’ leadership on climate change.”

Yet another Slow Life participant, Mike Mason, who worked pro bono as Nasheed’s Energy Advisor, resigned following Nasheed’s ousting despite being asked by Waheed to remain.

“I don’t think Dr Waheed is a bad man – actually I like him a lot personally,” he wrote, in an email to an official in the Trade Ministry obtained by Minivan News.

“However, he has done nothing to assure me that this is really a democratic process. Rather, my intelligence tells me this is a Gayoom inspired coup with Dr Waheed as an unfortunate puppet.

“Even if I did work with Waheed, I couldn’t deliver the plan now [because of falling] investor confidence,” he subsequently told Minivan News. “[The perpetrators] have destroyed US$2-3 billion worth of investment and condemned the country to an unstable economic future based upon diesel.”

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“Do the right thing”: Virgin founder Richard Branson to President Waheed

Head of the Virgin empire, multi-billionaire Sir Richard Branson, has called on President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan to “do the right thing” and hold free and fair elections before the end of the year.

In an open letter to Dr Waheed, addressed to the “interim” President, Branson recollected his recent meeting with the former Vice President, who he said had told him about about the need for a truth and reconcilliation commission “to examine past misdeeds and the people who perpetuated them”.

It was, Branson wrote to Dr Waheed, “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.”

“Knowing you, I would assume that you were given no choice and that it was through threats that you have ended up in this position,” Branson said. “I do very much hope that was the case rather than you doing it of your own free will.”

Branson attended the Slow Life Symposium at the upmarket Soneva Fushi resort in October 2011.

The three day event brought together big names in business, climate science, film and renewable energy to come up with ways to address climate change.

Other attendees 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; then President Mohamed Nasheed; and an array of climate experts and scientists including Mark Lynas and Mike Mason.

Branson’s letter follows the Commonwealth’s temporary suspension of the Maldives from its democracy and human rights arm – the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) – and its call for  President Waheed and former President Nasheed “to commence an immediate dialogue, without preconditions, to agree on a date for early elections, which should take place within this calendar year.”

Sir Richard Branson’s open letter to Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik, “interim President of the Maldives”:

Dear Mr Waheed

It was a real pleasure meeting you and your delightful wife when I was last in the Maldives. At that time there was a democratically elected government in the Maldives, after many years where that certainly wasn’t the case and where opposition members languished in prison and were even subjected to torture.

You personally said to me that the Maldives needed a truth and reconciliation commission to examine the past misdeeds and the people who perpetuated them, and asked if I would speak with The Elders to see whether they would set one up.

Therefore, forgive me for finding it 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. From knowing you, I would assume that you were given no choice and that it was through threats that you have ended up in this position.

Anyway, I do very much hope that was the case rather than you doing it of your own free will. With the world moving towards democracies, how dreadful it is to see the beautiful Maldives moving in the opposite direction.

As interim President, you are in a position to do the right thing. We beg you to make sure that there are fair and free elections held this year, as the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group have called for. I look forward to renewing our friendship after those elections.

Richard Branson. Founder of Virgin Group

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Social stigma limiting employment of local women in resort industry, report finds

A new study finds that Maldivian women are the least employed demographic in the resort industry, accounting for only three percent of the total eight percent of female workers at resorts in 2010. Local and foreign men constitute 92 percent of the industry.

Tourism directly accounts for 30 percent of the Maldives’ GDP, and for 70 percent indirectly.

The thesis, “Women in Tourism: Challenges of Including Women in the Maldivian Resort Sector” was prepared by Eva Alm and Susanna Johansson during their five-month stay in the Maldives in 2010.

According to their findings, “culture, religion, and women’s role in the family, the role of the family, safety, geographical spread, transportation, education and awareness” were the main factors preventing women from seeking resort employment.

Interviews show that resort life is perceived as ‘western’ and imposes the negative practices of consuming pork and alcohol, supporting nudity, and allowing extramarital sexual encounters on Muslim Maldivian women.

By contrast, Maldivian male resort employees are exempt from these risks.

“Working in a resort as a woman is perceived as bad, as going the wrong way, as not a good place for a woman to be,” said one source.

Women interviewed said social stigma prevented them from seeking resort employment. The combination of not being able to come home at night and working at a resort with a significantly higher ratio of men to women is considered intimidating, sources said.

One father said, “If my daughter would not have the possibility of going home every night, I would not let her work in the resort, it is not safe […] if a woman will not come home at night after work, and she would maybe have a relationship with a man in the resort, which could result in a pregnancy […] this would have very bad impact on the family and would not be tolerated.”

Maldivians who engage in extramarital intercourse risk social ostracism, and women sometimes face punishment for pregnancy outside marriage. The country has among the highest divorce rates in the world.

Parents are said to play a significant role in a woman’s professional future. “In Maldives, in our religion, we are not allowed to drink or be with just any guys and things like that. So our parents are scared about that,” said one young woman.

One resort manager said awareness is a major challenge to promoting female employment. “Convincing the parents is difficult. They are very possessive of the girls. The parent’s perception is that they will mix with the European culture and do bad things such as drinking alcohol.”

A government representative added that “there needs to be a focus on educating mothers and fathers of the women who are willing to join the industry and demonstrate that it is perfectly in order for their daughters to work in the resort sector.”

Female unemployment in the Maldives is estimated at 24 percent, while male unemployment is only eight percent. Reports indicate that the industrialization of fishing, an enterprise previously shared between women and men, and the beginning of tourism eliminated the need for two incomes per household.

According to the report, Maldivian culture does not encourage women to take on entrepreneurial or leadership roles in business. Women are found to be raised to follow men, and a lack of domestic care services prevent women from leaving their posts as mothers and wives.

Women interviewed said that in order to employ more women resorts should “become more Muslim.” Most said they would not work where they could not wear the burqa, although when told that several resorts allow the burqa they maintained their position.

Women were also unaware that many resorts provide mosques for their Muslim employees.

Separating resorts from local island culture was an early tourism strategy, claims the report. Tourism officials at the time were said to believe the policy would protect local culture.

The separation is now considered a factor in island underdevelopment. “The problem we have is that we have first class resorts in the Maldives, next to them are the third world local communities, the villages,” said a government representative quoted in the study. “We have to get these engaged as the people from the island communities can get direct benefit from the resort industry through participatory involvement and inclusive growth.”

Some resort companies, such as Hilton and Soneva, try to compensate for this gap by outsourcing tasks to local islands.

Hilton resort began the “Green Ladies” program, bringing in groups of women from neighboring islands to sweep the resort during the day. Soneva supported the Veymandhoo women’s production of chili sauce in 2008.

Soneva’s Social and Environmental Manager said localizing resort development made Muslim women more comfortable in new professional opportunities. “It has got all the elements necessary for a solid livelihood project. You got women involved, it’s got livelihoods, it’s got commercial value to it, and it’s got localization aspect to it”.

Yet island production capacity does not meet resort demand. “’The communities have to be very much upscale to be able to manage small businesses, because resorts are big business and they wont rely on people who can‟t provide for their demands’”, said one source.

“Women in Tourism: Challenges of Including Women in the Maldivian Resort Sector” was presented at Sweden’s Lund University in May, and is due for publication this month.

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Tourist volunteers collecting data to protect Maldives reef ecosystems

A team of 15 volunteers from around the world have begun an expedition in the Maldives to collect data that will be used to compare and protect the health of the country’s vulnerable reef ecosystems.

The amateur marine biologists from countries as diverse as Germany, Russia, Australia and the Maldives have departed on a week-long tour aboard the luxury live-aboard Carpe Diem, during which they will be trained up on the Reef Check program and conduct as many as three research dives a day under the supervision of a team of professional biologists.

The hands-on ‘voluntourism’ trip is organised by not-for-profit wildlife conservation organisation Biosphere Expeditions and Six Senses resorts, which has provided a grant of US$79,000 over the four year program, and scholarships for two young Maldivians – Nishan Thoufeeg and Ahmed Shan – to participate on the trip.

At a press conference launching the expedition this morning, Executive Director of Biosphere Expeditions Dr Matthias Hammer explained that the objective was to involve ordinary people in conservation efforts while generating scientifically-rigorous data that can be used to recommend and implement policy.

Previous expeditions have focused snow leopards in Central Asia, turtles in Australia and jaguars in Brazil, “usually charismatic megafauna,” Hammer said.

Dr Jean-Luc Solantt, a scientist from the Marine Conservation Society in the UK who is accompanying the volunteers, noted that there was a lack of “basic, coarse-level data” required for monitoring reef ecosystems.

“We need to know what is happening on a national scale. The [Reef Check] program has a very basic methodology but it is very scientifically robust.”

The data would contribute to the monitoring and understanding of commercial fish populations, determine the reefs most resilient to environmental pressures, and serve as an early warning system for problems related to warming, bleaching and algae.

“In 1998 the water temperature reached 32 degrees for 4-6 weeks, and that caused most of the reefs down to 30 metres in the Maldives to die,’ he explained. “This data will help us see the pattern of recovery from that global impact, and recommend places that should be made marine protected areas.”

Solantt will check and evaluate the data collected by the group and produce a report based on the expedition. The data will then be collated and made available to scientists worldwide, as well as the Maldives Marine Research Centre (MRC) and the Maldives Whale Shark Research Project, if any of the creatures are spotted.

The group also presented 2500 copies of a colouring book, ‘The Adventures of Anees the Anemonefish’, to State Minister of Education Ibrahim Rasheed.

The book, written by Soneva Fushi’s Marine Biologist Kate Wilson and illustrated by Maldivian artist ‘Angel’, is intended to raise awareness around reef protection and inspire children to seek a career in environmental protection.

“Our country is the most beautiful in the world and we want to keep it that way,” said Deputy Minister Rasheed, “but we can only make policies based on the information and data we receive.”

“We need to make sure people are aware of the fragility of our environment. Education can create this awareness, which is why environment studies is a compulsory subject in the new curriculum,” he said.

Presenting the book "The Adventures of Anees The Anemonefish" to the Deputy Minister of Education

Program participants arrived last night from Europe, North America, Russia, Australia, Asia and the Maldives. Some had participated in previous Biosphere projects.

Tina Kuersten from Germany said the biggest results of a Biosphere expedition are seen long-term. “After my first expedition in Altai, I would get emails and updates about the project. It was great to see the results of our work, and to see how I had contributed to something significant.”

Kuersten’s husband Uwe said, “The value of these trips is that you can do something valuable, and learn more about biology.” He said seeing results motivated him to stay involved.

Riswil Ismail, who is from Malaysia, had followed Biosphere’s work for several years. She said in spite of the prohibitive cost, the diving aspect was very attractive.

“I’ve done a lot of dives, and I think because Malaysia and the Maldives are similar it would be great to learn about conservation in this way.”

Ismail said that the concept of paying to go on a volunteer work vacation was “not so popular” in Malaysia.

“People can donate money to a cause, but they don’t always get to see what their money can do. Paying to work on a vacation is a harder concept to understand in Asia, but I think it’s a really valuable way to contribute to a cause. If Maldives is doing this, why not Malaysia?”

Curnow said the average participant is “a well-educated person with a good job who wants to learn something new.” She said that scholarship programs are designed to attract students from the target location. This year, Six Senses’ Soneva Fushi and Soneva Gili resorts are co-sponsoring two Maldivians to take part in the expedition.

Biosphere Expeditions will run trips this week and next week; results are usually published six to eight months afterwards.

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Maldives becoming an attractive place to own property: CityAM

For years, the Indian Ocean’s most exquisite islands, the Maldives, have been solely the preserve of hotels. Now, they’ve begun to open up to foreign buyers, thanks to new laws introduced by the pro-enterprise President Mohamed Nasheed, writes Zoe Strimpel for London’s CityAM newspaper.

“Before Nasheed, elected two years ago, leaseholds were too short to attract European buyers – but they have now been extended to 50 years, with plans to extend them to 99 years over the next few years. As a result – with zero income or capital gains tax, not to mention utterly idyllic surrounds – the islands are swiftly becoming an attractive place to own property.

“Of course, there’s always the threat of trouble in paradise – the Maldives were on the 2004 tsunami’s hit list, with several resorts totally wiped out. And, we’ve all heard predictions that the atolls could be under the ocean within a few years.

“Insurance is your main guard against the first concern. Buyers pay a small percentage of the overall insurance cost which is rolled into the annual maintenance charges and equates to 1.5 per cent of the purchase price per annum. Many villas have now also been constructed with tsunami-resistant timber.

“The second worry can be taken with a pinch of salt if you’re so inclined. Some scientists say that if the Maldives are to slip under water, it won’t be for 200 years. So, even if the worst is to happen, you should still have a while to enjoy your luxury villa in sunny Eden.”

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Eco Centres in the spotlight as Kuramathi centre wins prestigious industry prize

European travel and tourism group TUI has awarded the Eco-Centre at Kuramathi its ‘International Environmental Award’, “recognising its exemplary contribution to the protection and conservation of nature and biodiversity” and in particluar its work protecting coral reefs in the Maldives.

The award, which includes a prize of €10,000 (US$13,500), was presented during a ceremony held at the resort yesterday attended by President Mohamed Nasheed.

While many resorts in the Maldives now run eco-centres and environmental awareness programs, a trend that has grown in parallel with the increasing eco-awareness of guests from leading markets such as the UK. The Kuramathi centre, currently headed by Dr Reinhard Kikinger, is one of the oldest such facilities in the country. It was founded in 1999 by Director of Universal Resorts Ali Noradeen, in response to catastrophic coral bleaching caused by the el Niño effect which destroyed 95 percent of the country’s shallow reef coral – a disaster from which the country’s coral is still recovering.

“Water pollution and over exploitation through tourism can lead to irreparable damage,” TUI said in a statement following the event.

“The compelling concept of the Kuramathi Eco Centre was bringing nature conservation and tourism into harmony based on research, the sustainable use of resources and the raising of public awareness, which are performed in cooperation with TUI and the local population.”

Eco-conscious trend

Many resorts in the Maldives now run eco-centres and environmental awareness programs, a trend that has grown in parallel with the increasing eco-awareness of guests from leading markets such as the UK.

Marine biologist Verena Wiesbauer Ali, currently a consultant with Male’-based Water Solutions but who has worked at resorts all over the country, explained that the concept of running an eco-centre and employing a resident marine biologist was one that took off in the Maldives after increasingly eco-conscious guests began to ask more and more questions of resort staff.

“The first centre was opened at Kuramathi, but in 2009 I counted 12-15 centres at resorts across the Maldives. There will be many more by now,” she said.

Many of the marine biologists and eco-centres in the Maldives communicate with each other over a lively online newsgroup, reporting aquatic abnormalities and swapping tips on how to convince resort managements of the potential impacts of practices such as manta and sting ray feeding exhibitions (with one suggesting that feeding mantas leads them to mob snorkelers, who can panic and potentially stand on a sting ray).

Initially, Wiesbauer said, there was an assumption among many resorts that a marine station generated no income and was just “a luxury addition” to the resort – “but I believe that if run properly, they do [generate revenue] – I did my Masters thesis on it. ”

Guided dives and snorkel tours, and presentations on marine life and reef protection, might be the most self-evident activities of a marine station or eco-centre, Wiesbauer explained, but broadening the role of marine biologists to incorporate other aspects of the resort could greatly improve its sustainability – literally, in cases of beach erosion.

“As well as guiding snorkeling tours they can help improve things like energy efficiency, and even things like the purchasing department – for example, there are currently a lot of illegal transactions going on around the purchase of lobsters [from local fishermen]. Only a few resorts have asked their marine biologists to make sure the lobsters they are buying meet minimum size limits.”

Some resorts, Verena noted, were heavily involved in marine research – with academic work carrying the potential to greatly enhance the prestige of a resort.

“For a resort to fully benefit, the marine biologist has to be involved in many departments,” she explained. The end result – ‘going green’ – was a highly marketable benefit in key European markets such as the UK, and at upmarket resorts such as Soneva Fushi, a key feature of the resort.

A rising trend at many resorts with eco-centres was to develop them into focal points for environmental awareness programmes and marine biology classes in nearby communities and schools – effectively exporting the resort’s eco-knowhow to the community, as the Kuramathi centre does with neighbouring Rasdhoo.

“This is something that is especially important for resorts in the outer atolls,” Wiesbauer said, observing that in her experience many local teachers lacked enthusiasm for the field work and expeditions needed to bring the subject alive for young students.

“Mostly it is taught [in the Maldives] as a scientific, book-based subject, and the kids say it is not being made clear to them. Things like the nature expeditions for schools organised by Soneva are very successful.”

However resorts, she acknowledged, were very different from each other and not all had the scope for an in-house marine biologist – some relied on visiting consultants, others disregarded the concept altogether.

“Some resorts focus on diving and snorkelling, while at others guests hardly ever go in the water,” Wiesbauer said.

Nonetheless, she suggested, while there was a balance to be struck between sustainability and providing the five star luxuries such as monsoon showerheads that many guests expected, it was important to provide visitors a choice when it came to simple things – such as reusing towels. Far from feeling inconvenienced, guests were usually very supportive of such measures, she said: “across all the resorts I’ve worked, I haven’t once had a guest come up and say to me ‘I’ve paid thousands to be here, I can do what I like.’”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Verena Wiesbauer Ali was presently completing her Masters. She has completed her Masters and is now working on her PhD.

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