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The Guardian/UK

Paradise Almost Lost: Maldives Seek To Buy A New Homeland

Randeep Ramesh

Kurumba island basks in the sunshine in the Maldives. The Maldives' newly-elected president said in an interview Monday that his government will begin saving to buy a new homeland in case global warming causes the country to disappear into the sea. (AFP/File/Sanka Vidanagama)

MALE - The Maldives will begin
to divert a portion of the country's billion-dollar annual tourist
revenue into buying a new homeland - as an insurance policy against
climate change that threatens to turn the 300,000 islanders into
environmental refugees, the country's first democratically elected
president has told the Guardian.

Mohamed Nasheed, who takes power
officially tomorrow in the island's capital, Male, said the chain of
1,200 island and coral atolls dotted 500 miles from the tip of India is
likely to disappear under the waves if the current pace of climate
change continues to raise sea levels.

The UN forecasts that the
seas are likely to rise by up to 59cm by 2100, due to global warming.
Most parts of the Maldives are just 1.5m above water. The president
said even a "small rise" in sea levels would inundate large parts of
the archipelago.

"We can do nothing to stop climate change on our
own and so we have to buy land elsewhere. It's an insurance policy for
the worst possible outcome. After all, the Israelis [began by buying]
land in Palestine," said Nasheed, also known as Anni.

president, a human rights activist who swept to power in elections last
month after ousting Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the man who once imprisoned
him, said he had already broached the idea with a number of countries
and found them to be "receptive".

He said Sri Lanka and India were targets because they had
similar cultures, cuisines and climates. Australia was also being
considered because of the amount of unoccupied land available.

"We do not want to leave the Maldives, but we also do not want to be climate refugees living in tents for decades," he said.

say the issue raises the question of what rights citizens have if their
homeland no longer exists. "It's an unprecedented wake-up call," said
Tom Picken, head of international climate change at Friends of the
Earth. "The Maldives is left to fend for itself. It is a victim of
climate change caused by rich countries."

Nasheed said he
intended to create a "sovereign wealth fund" from the dollars generated
by "importing tourists", in the way that Arab states have done by
"exporting oil". "Kuwait might invest in companies; we will invest in

The 41-year-old is a rising star in Asia, where he has
been compared to Nelson Mandela. Before taking office the new president
asked Maldivians to move forward without rancour or retribution - an
astonishing call, given that Nasheed had gone to jail 23 times, been
tortured and spent 18 months in solitary confinement.

"We have
the latitude to remove anyone from government and prosecute them. But I
have forgiven my jailers, the torturers. They were following orders ...
I ask people to follow my example and leave Gayoom to grow old here,"
he said.

The Maldives is one of the few Muslim nations to make a
relatively peaceful transition from autocracy to democracy. The Gayoom
"sultanate" was an iron-fisted regime that ran the police, army and
courts, and which banned rival parties.

Public flogging,
banishment to island gulags and torture were routinely used to suppress
dissent and the fledging pro-democracy movement. Gayoom was "elected"
president six times in 30 years - but never faced an opponent. However,
public pressure grew and last year he conceded that democracy was

Upmarket tourism had become a prop for the
dictatorial regime. Gayoom's Maldives became the richest country in
South Asia, with average incomes reaching $4,600 a year. But the wealth
created was skimmed off by cronies - leaving a yawning gap between rich
and poor. Speedboats and yachts of local multimillionaires bob in the
lagoon of the capital's harbour, while official figures show almost
half of Maldivians earn less than a dollar a day.

Male is the
world's most densely populated town: 100,000 people cram into two
square kilometres. "We have unemployment at 20%. Heroin has become a
serious social issue, with crime rising," Nasheed said, adding that the
extra social spending he pledged would cost an immediate $243m. He said
that without an emergency bailout from the international community, the
future of the Maldives as a democracy would be in doubt.

To raise
cash, his government will sell off state assets, reduce the cabinet and
turn the presidential palace into the country's first university.

desperate. We are a 100% Islamic country and democracy came from
within. Do you want to lose that because we were denied the money to
deal with the poverty created by the dictatorship?" he said.

At a glance

  • The highest land point in the Maldives is 2.4 metres above sea level, on Wilingili island in the Addu Atoll
  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that sea levels could rise by 25-58cm by 2100
  • The country comprises 1,192 islands grouped around 26 Indian Ocean
    atolls. Only 250 islands are inhabited. The population is 380,000
  • The main income is from tourism, with 467,154 people visiting in 2006

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