Clean state

With the Maldives aiming to become carbon-neutral by 2020, tourism minister Ahmeed Shameem tells eco traveller about the project.


In October 2009, the Maldivian government held an underwater cabinet meeting. Ministers ditched their ties and dressed up in snorkelling gear. They converged on a seabed at five metres deep, on a small island 20 minutes away from Mahé, the capital. In a 30-minute meeting, they signed a document calling for global cuts to carbon emissions. Only one element remained familiar to the ministers: snorkelling journalists had followed them into the deep.

The meeting was a publicity stunt, staged two months before the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen. Earlier, in March, the then-president Mohamed Nasheed had unveiled an ambitious project to make the nation carbon-neutral by 2020. The move was understandable: Maldives is among the most low-lying nations on earth, and could literally be wiped off the map if sea levels rise. “If the Maldives cannot be saved today we do not feel that there is much of a chance for the rest of the world,” Nasheed said after the cabinet meeting. Asked what would happen if the Copenhagen summit failed, he replied: “We are going to die.”

There is substance to Nasheed’s warnings. The Maldives, a group of 26 atolls in the Indian Ocean, south-west of India, on which 400,000 people live, is in serious threat. Around 80 per cent of the nation lies less than a metre above sea level. Its highest point stands at 2.4 metres. Action on climate change is a must. “We are working with other lower-lying states to make this point to the bigger countries, and this is one area we are very active in internationally,” says Ahmed Shameem, the nation’s minister of state for tourism, arts and culture. “It is a concern. But then again, I should stress that we have had no negative impact that we can feel for the moment.”


The Maldivian governance has changed since Nasheed launched the carbon plan in 2009. Nasheed, whose election victory in October 2008 overthrew the three-decade rule of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, resigned in February 2012. But the new reign, led by Mohammed Waheed Hassan, the former vice president, says it is committed to the scheme.

Implementing the plan will not be easy. Upon its launch, the project included 155 wind turbines, a biomass plant to burn coconut husk, and half a square kilometre of rooftop solar panels. Homes and businesses would be powered by electricity. But in September 2011, the Maldives admitted it lacked the technological expertise to meet its goals. Its solution was to invite experts from around the world to submit suggestions via an online portal. It also revealed that specific plans for cars, boats and cooking were yet to be made. Today new solutions are still being pursued. “We have got some new regulations in the process of formulation, and are looking at the types of energy we can use,” says Shameem. “We are looking at solar energy in a very big way and have also had experiments with wind turbines. All this is going on at the moment.”


Since the project’s clampdown on fossil fuels will affect industries, ecotourism is bound to become a cornerstone. The tourism sector already makes 30 per cent of the Maldivian economy – and operating it unsustainably would be a suicidal act. The main dangers are overdevelopment and overcrowding. “That is something we have been very careful with from the beginning; making sure we do not overdevelop,” says Shaheem. “At the moment only 106 islands have been developed. That still leaves us with another 700-800 islands that we have not touched yet. If we expand tourism it will be on different islands.”

Shaheem points to several specific policies that underpin the Maldives’s sustainability drive: only a third of any given landmass can be developed, and there should be allocated five metres of beach per guest. “That means that if you are a couple, and if the hotel is following the guidelines 100 per cent, the next person on the beach should be at least something like seven to 10 metres away from you,” he says. “You seldom have all the guests on the beach at the same time; some are diving, snorkelling or in the park. So essentially, when you’re on the beach, your next neighbour will be at least 50 to 60 metres away. That’s why it’s so popular with honeymooners; there is a standard of exclusivity and privacy.”

Such measures give Shaheem reason to believe that the 2020 carbon project is achievable. “We are very much dependent on tourism and we do not have industries that are dangerous to the environment at the moment. It is not something that is so difficult to achieve.”

Photos: Filip Fuxa, R McIntyre, Willyam Bradberry [all via].