Waking Up to 'Greenwashing' in the Maldives

Going carbon-free is not only impossible for the Maldives, but it would severely penalize the country's main industry: tourism, which would, needless to say, cause the Maldives to slip into dangerous financial waters.
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We've come to a time in history when caring for the environment is becoming big business, especially where hotels are concerned. When I visit hotels I always ask about their green initiatives and I almost always expect my host to go into a lengthy description about towel-service and bottled water. But is this really enough to claim a green reputation? And more importantly, is the spiel true? Earlier on this month I found myself in the Maldives for hotel reviews and was outraged by the gap between President Nasheed's "carbon neutral promise within a decade" and the reality that I was faced with.

Following the Maldivian government's ministers' highly-mediatized underwater conference in October 2009, a conference with the aim of highlighting the pressing environmental issues with regards to the sinking archipelago, I must say that when my editor announced that I would be jetted off to some of the most dazzling islands in the world, I was keen on getting a sample of this forward thinking. Upon return however, the Maldives, as beautiful as the islands are, left a sour taste in my mouth as far as the environment is concerned. My visit only confirmed that the president's environmental avant garde-ism is a nothing more than a marketing ploy to get himself in his people's good books.

My trip lasted three weeks and my skepticism about President Nasheed's wonderful ideals was far from overruled by what I saw. Going carbon-free is not only impossible for the Maldives, but it would severely penalize the country's main industry: tourism, which would, needless to say, cause the Maldives to slip into dangerous financial waters, in addition to the already rising sea levels around the islands.

A little harsh of me, you might be thinking -- let me explain. Going carbon neutral in the Maldives would require offsetting to a monumental degree. First, the only way of getting around the archipelago's 26 atolls of 1,192 islands is by boat or plane. The President's objectives are without doubt perfectly admirable, but how does he imagine the tourism industry functioning without transport?

Second, very little produce is found locally, so almost everything is imported; another few thousand plane and boat journeys to add to the list. Third, hotels with water villas look incredibly enticing, but it is rare for hotels to put the environment first when it comes to building these sumptuous bungalows. It is startlingly obvious that to build the villas a great part of the coral barrier has had to be cleared to make way for them. Coral can take thousands of years to grow back if the water acidity levels remain acceptable -- something that cannot be guaranteed with rising water pollution levels. Doesn't take a genius to do the math. Less coral means less fish and less fish means less fishing. And after tourism, the main industry is fishing in the Maldives.

Fourth, hotels are only too proud to tell you that they desalinate their own water and bottle it themselves. I agree that this may be more efficient than importing tons of non-biodegradable plastic bottled water, but the desalination process requires the burning of fuel. Another point to add to the list. Fifth, hotels are extremely keen on providing their guests with as many wow-factors as possible, which includes ray-feeding, a major attraction at some hotels, such as the Chaaya Reef Ellaidhoo and we also have our doubts on the Conrad Ranveli's ability to keep the surrounding fish exactly where it can be seen through the glass of its spectacular underwater restaurant, Ithaa, without keeping them fed throughout the day and night. Highly entertaining and beautiful, sure, but extremely counterproductive as this risks severely disrupting the ecosystem; if rays are used to getting their daily fill with minimal effort, then they will no longer scour the ocean floors in the same way, thus changing the way the ecosystem works underwater.

Last but not least, the Maldives stores its rubbish on an island, Thilafushi, close to the capital, Malé. This rubbish tip seems to be poorly controlled however, as many hotels close by will confirm. Our hosts point to the shocking amount of rubbish that both washes up on their paradise-like beaches and gets swept out to sea. And it's not surprising considering the island, like most of the others, is only one meter above sea level. An interesting feature published on the Guardian's website, published in January 2009 by Elin Holyland, illustrates the Maldives' waste disposal problem in pictures.

The above issues however go deeper than the surface we have merely scratched, for when I spoke to locals in the southernmost atoll on Khaadedhdhoo Airport Island, they explained that they understood what the president's objectives are in terms of the environment because they have access to international media, but they explained that President Nasheed has never actually explained the environmental problem the country is faced with to the Maldivian people. According to a very passionate Maldivian gentleman sitting at the café across from the airport, what the president said in a radio broadcast was the following: "We are sinking. So we have to move somewhere else." This, according to the same gentleman, was the extent of the president's discourse to the people on the problem of rising water levels and his initiative to build a second island and plots of lands in nearby Sri Lanka and India to relocate the population.

The fact that President Nasheed hasn't taken the time to explain the problem in detail to the Maldivian people means, for those who understand the extent of the problem, that they have lost all respect for him and affirm that, "All this talk of green issues is just for his own self-promotion." If his people don't understand the problem then how does the president expect the Maldives to be carbon neutral in less than 10 years? For surely a sustainable environmental impact would have to be a general effort made by the entire population.

The only thing President's Nasheed's transparent ploys promote are disillusionment and ironically, more carbon -- a rise in tourist numbers undeniably leads to a rise in carbon emissions. Sadly, the Maldives isn't the only country to use green wash as a marketing tool to promote the country as a top tourism destination. There are plenty more.

So -- still wish you were here?

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