The Island President is one of those films about climate change that hit you like nothing else. Unlike the 2004 climate change disaster film, The Day After Tomorrow, The Island President is a documentary film firmly based on the realities of climate change resulting in the erosion and sinking of the Maldives’ many islands.
The film starts against the background of the 2009 COP 15 Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen. It has an air of fiction, though, with the beautiful setting of the islands. We see then Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed and his close advisers and comrades try to wrangle an agreement in Copenhagen for 192 nations to cut carbon emissions so as to reduce atmospheric carbon to 350 parts per million (ppm), and to work to limit the increase in global temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius. A seemingly impossible task for a small country with no clout and that is steadily sinking into the ocean.
We learn that the Maldives are 2,000 islands in the Indian Ocean, low lying and without a single hill. The world is getting hotter and sea levels are rising, and if we don’t stop global warming, it will destroy the Maldives. We see the president checking an area along the ocean where 300ft of land has just eroded and are introduced to a whole new category of potential refugees—environmental refugees. Citizens of the Maldives will have to seek refuge elsewhere as their homes and land sink into the ocean.
Smartly dressed, erudite and exuding sincerity, Nasheed is larger than life and stands tall despite his slight stature. For him, it’s a matter of survival for his country and its people.
He has survived the odds before, having been arrested 12 times in 20 years, and has been held in solitary confinement, tortured and beaten. Nasheed returned to the Maldives in 1989 after completing his education in England and started a political magazine, Sangu. He first went to prison for alleging that the 1989 election was rigged by the government. The magazine also dealt with issues related to corruption and human rights violations under Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who was in power from 1978 to 2008 and is said to have ruled the country much like a mafia don.
Ahmed Naseem, a political prisoner for five years under Gayoom’s reign, says he has seen people left to hang upside down with coconut honey on their faces for the ants to feast on, and others buried or left in the rain and sun on the same beautiful beaches that draw tourists from around the world.
September 2003 was a turning point in the Maldives when the mother of a boy who was tortured and beaten to death in prison insisted on displaying the body to the public. Riots ensued in prison and on the streets. Shortly thereafter, Nasheed went abroad to form the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). The following year, the 2004 tsunami wreaked havoc on the Maldives.
Nasheed returned to the Maldives in April 2005 to promote the MDP. The MDP campaigned relentlessly and Nasheed visited 52,000 homes in a first-of-its-kind door-to-door campaign for democracy in the country. The public was ready for democracy and Gayoom had to relent and allow the country’s first contested presidential election in 2008. Nasheed’s supporters were certain of only two things: Either Nasheed would be president or he would be murdered.
Nasheed became president and in the first few cabinet meetings realized that climate change was the most pressing issue facing the nation. With the Copenhagen summit coming up in a year, Nasheed started action, hiring a climate change adviser to put together the compelling case of how his country was going under due to global warming and rising carbon emissions. He is perhaps best known for holding the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting to draw attention to his country’s plight. He has declared that the Maldives will work towards being a carbon-neutral country by 2019.
Watching Nasheed in action makes you want to chuck everything and go help him. Sadly, not one Indian politician is inspirational in the same manner as Nasheed. And Nasheed is fighting again for his life and for democracy. He has sought refuge in the Indian high commission in Male, the Maldives capital. Forced to resign last February over the arrest of a top judge, Nasheed’s life is once again in danger as he faces arrest and this time he may not come out of it alive.
India must help Nasheed. Atmospheric carbon in January 2013 was recorded at 395.55 ppm and is rising. The Maldives continue to sink. Nasheed is that country’s best hope and must be protected.