My first inkling that there was something a bit “off” about The Island President, a documentary opening at the Film Forum in NYC on March 28, was when the opening credits revealed that the Ford Foundation was a co-producer. Since the film is a profile of recently deposed Maldives Islands president Mohamed Nasheed’s efforts to reverse the global warming that is threatening to turn his country into a new Atlantis, I had to wonder how such mainstream backing would influence the film’s editorial content.
The Island President is directed by Jon Shenk, who is best known for Lost Boys of the Sudan, a film that deals with the problems two Sudanese youth have adjusting to American life. This is a deeply moving film that thankfully eschews Nicholas Kristof moralizing about Sudan’s civil wars despite the fact that they were fleeing Janjaweed violence.
After seeing some of the obvious mainstream environmentalist bias of The Island President, I did a bit more investigation of Shenk’s previous work and was disconcerted but not that surprised to learn that he co-directed Democracy Afghan Style, a documentary shot in 2003-2004that features Larry Sampler, described on Shenk’s website as “a logistical expert whose military precision is balanced by a hard-won understanding of how things can go wrong in the field.” In fact Sampler is a long-time USAID functionary, part of the killing machine that has made life miserable for the average Afghan.
Notwithstanding all these warning signs, The Island President is a stunning look at what amounts to the canary in the coal mine when it comes to climate change. If there is a rise of three feet in sea level, the Maldives will be completely inundated. You can imagine the impact of a tsunami there, as the one that occurred in 2004. But even more threatening would be a “normal” rise in sea level that would have little impact on, for example, most cities in the imperialist North. But not every city would be immune, as President Nasheed pointed out when he arrived in New York for a speech to the United Nations. The island of Manhattan is at about the same sea level as his nation’s capital. Just this week the N.Y. Times reported about the danger that New York and other coastal cities faced:
About 3.7 million Americans live within a few feet of high tide and risk being hit by more frequent coastal flooding in coming decades because of the sea level rise caused by global warming, according to new research.
If the pace of the rise accelerates as much as expected, researchers found, coastal flooding at levels that were once exceedingly rare could become an every-few-years occurrence by the middle of this century.
By far the most vulnerable state is Florida, the new analysis found, with roughly half of the nation’s at-risk population living near the coast on the porous, low-lying limestone shelf that constitutes much of that state. But Louisiana, California, New York and New Jersey are also particularly vulnerable, researchers found, and virtually the entire American coastline is at some degree of risk.
“Sea level rise is like an invisible tsunami, building force while we do almost nothing,” said Benjamin H. Strauss, an author, with other scientists, of two new papers outlining the research. “We have a closing window of time to prevent the worst by preparing for higher seas.”
Mohamed Nasheed was Maldive’s Nelson Mandela, leading a 20 year pro-democracy movement against the brutal kleptocracy run by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. After suffering torture and repeated imprisonments with long periods of solitary confinement, he was elected president in 2008.
Of all the urgent tasks a reform administration was facing, catastrophic flooding was at the top of the list. In a cabinet meeting, he told his appointees that the world had to understand that Maldives was like Vietnam. Global warming was like communism. Unless it was stopped in the Maldives, dominoes would fall everywhere else—a remark that evoked embarrassed laughter from a top official who apparently had a better sense of recent history than the President. When Nasheed drew the same analogy in a speech to the United Nations, one could hardly escape the feeling that his worldview was far too much in line with Cold War mythologies, a weakness that would inevitably shape his approach to Climate Change.
This was confirmed by the role he played at the Copenhagen Conference that amounted to taking sides against India and China for selfishly putting their own development needs above those of the planet. While India and China’s rulers have as about as much regard for sustainable development as do the imperialist powers, they rightfully make the point that their nations are not nearly as responsible for greenhouse gases as the U.S. and other advanced countries. In an article titled Rich Countries Sabotaging Climate Talks that appeared in the October 5, 2009 Guardian, John Vidal observed:
The G77 plus China group is incensed that rich countries appear to be seeking to establish a new agreement that would force developing countries to cut emissions, but allow rich countries to do little.
In the talks, the US has said it wants a new approach which would move away from a legally binding world agreement to one where individual countries pledged cuts in their national emissions without binding timetables and targets. It is a change from the top down approach of Kyoto, in which total emissions targets are determined by the science, to one in which individual countries pledge their own emissions cuts.
This is seen as undermining the Kyoto framework, which took many years to build, and has until now been the foundation for committing all countries to cut their emissions. The US team in Bangkok declined to respond to today’s criticism.
Developed countries have so far refused to show their hand on what their emission cuts should be. The UN’s Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change has estimated that to keep below a 2C rise in temperatures they need to cut their emissions by 25-40% by 2020, compared with 1990 levels. But developing countries are calling for an aggregate cut of at least 40%.
But with fewer than 10 days of formal negotiations left before the Copenhagen talks begin, poor countries are complaining that they are being expected to cut emissions but the US and others are being allowed to get away with minimal cuts.
The film is more urgent than ever in light of the coup that removed Mohamed Nasheed from office on February 7th this year. Although he was replaced by his vice president Mohammed Waheed Hassan, there are suspicions that the military was acting at the behest of the former dictator. Reporting in the N.Y. Times and Washington Post have been singularly useless at pinpointing the exact causes.
In one of the more spurious takes on the coup, the Wall Street Journal blamed Islamists:
This paradise for wealthy tourists has shown a very different face in recent days, where hard-line Islam is an increasing part of the political scene and played a role in overthrowing the democratically elected government.
In the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s ouster of President Mohamed Nasheed, his political adversaries fomented opposition among conservative Muslims by claiming Mr. Nasheed’s government was trying to undermine their faith.
A group of Islamist organizations organized a rally in December in Male, the capital, which was attended by thousands of people protesting against Mr. Nasheed for failing to defend Quranic law and calling for a ban on spas and liquor parlors catering to foreign tourists.
On Friday, after prayers at Male’s central mosque—a donation from Brunei—Ahmed Yusry, an eloquent 22-year-old with a bushy beard who works on a tourist boat, said he had attended the December rally because of fears Mr. Nasheed was pushing a Western secular agenda.
“We are a 100% Muslim county. We should go with all the rules of Islam,” he said.
Although the Wall Street Journal had a reputation for maintaining a firewall between its lunatic-right editorial pages and its impeccable reporting, one cannot help but feel that Murdoch’s ownership of the paper is eroding that firewall based on this unlikely scenario.
Haruge.com, a Maldives-based website committed to democracy and human rights, makes the case that the coup was orchestrated by some of the nation’s superrich hotel owners:
In the series of events that led to the 7 February 2012 coup in the Maldives that ousted the first democratically elected President of the country Mohamed Nasheed, several Maldivian businessmen joined the 200 or so protestors who gathered on the Republican Square, adjacent to Police and Defense Headquarters in Male for close to three weeks. The protest, and the ensuing coup, is believed to be funded by key businessmen in the Maldivian tourism industry as well as by a half brother of former president Gayoom, MP Abdulla Yameen. Both Gasim and Yameen were seen addressing the protesters as well as the Police and Defence officers attending them, offering them to ‘join with us in return for taking care of them’.
Meeting with the press yesterday, ousted President Nasheed said “at least four resort owners are heavily involved in this” but he mentioned only Mr Gasim Ibrahim, owner of the Villa Group, “only because he was seen in the protests and has been openly vocal about his support to topple the government”, and refused to comment further until an investigation was carried out. Mr. Gasim Ibrahim has been running a hate campaign on Villa TV, a local channel he owns along with several five star hotels in the Maldives, an airline, airport, as well as several other businesses. He fell out with President Nasheed soon after he lost the 2008 Presidential Elections to Nasheed. Although he was an initial coalition partner in the Nasheed Administration, he resigned within weeks into the new government citing dissatisfaction with President Nasheed. Both MPs Gasim and Yameen were also arrested in 2009 for allegedly attempting to ‘bribe’ Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) parliamentarians.
Not surprisingly, the United States was eager to embrace the undemocratic regime that ousted a popularly elected and widely supported reformer, as Agent Press Francais reported:
The United States on Thursday recognized the new government of Maldives President Mohamed Waheed as legitimate and urged him to fulfill a pledge to form a national unity government.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland also said Robert Blake, the top US diplomat for south Asia, telephoned former president Mohamed Nasheed to tell him Washington backed a “peaceful resolution” of the crisis on the archipelago.
“We do,” Nuland told reporters when asked if Washington recognizes the new government as the legitimate government of the Maldives. She called Waheed the president and Nasheed the former president.
Blake, the assistant secretary of state for south Asian affairs, will travel Saturday to the Maldives to meet with both Waheed and Nasheed, who charges he was ousted in a coup, as well as civil society.
“He will be encouraging this national unity conversation,” she added.
In other words, another Honduras.