Picture perfect, palm fringed sandy beaches, luxurious resorts, where guests arrive by seaplanes, coral reefs right at your feet, teaming with exotic, colourful fish – who hasn’t dreamed about the Maldives? This is the image most of us have of this unique and fascinating archipelago.
I am not a seeker of luxury, plus I am a very bad swimmer, why would I want to come here?
Yet, Maldives intrigues me. It might have been since I learned that the islands, with their average ground level elevation of 1.5 metres above sea level, were in danger of disappearing within my lifetime. Maybe because we so often forget that all famous tourist destinations are also a place that other people call home. It is especially easy to overlook here, in the Maldives, where each resort occupies its own, isolated island and most guests thus marooned, never meet locals other than their hotel’s staff.
Maldives, however, have a long history and their inhabitants, strong sense of identity; they are also fiercely attached to their island paradise. Who could blame them?
There are over a thousand islands in the archipelago, grouped in 26 atolls, composed of live coral reefs situated on top of the submarine ridge almost a thousand kilometres long. Most of the islands remain uninhabited, whilst 30% of the over 400 thousand people live in the capital, Male. Maldivians have Asian (Indian and Sri Lankan), Arabic and African ancestry. 100% of the population are Sunni Muslims, Islam having been introduced here in the 12t century. Maldivian language, Dhivehi, is closely related to Sinhalese, widely spoken in Sri Lanka. Maala Divaina in Sinhala means ‘Necklace Islands’.
Fishing is, apart from tourism, the main industry in the Maldives. Traditional boat, dhoni, is still a common sight. Although nowadays fitted with motor, it used to be a sailing boat made from coconut timber. Coconut is an amazing tree and I guess the key answer to how people survived for centuries on these remote, tiny and in many ways inhospitable islands. Apparently one person on a desert island needs just two coconut trees to survive. Apart from being part of a diet, its leaves can serve as a roof for a house, the fibre from the husk makes good rope and the timber and bark was used to build boats; last but not least, from an empty shell you can make nice bowls.
Maldivians are no doubt a resourceful nation, but their very survival, though always fraught with dangers, is nowadays facing new challenges. Due to global warming the ocean levels are rising, threatening to swallow the islands. Rising temperatures are also causing coral bleaching and the ultimate death of the reef. The islanders have been aware of the precarious condition of their country for some time and successive governments were making environmental assurances or preparations for possible evacuation. Unfortunately, without worldwide cooperation, the future of the Maldives looks rather bleak.
Rising sea levels are not the only environmental threat to the country. Ever wanted to visit one of Maldivian uninhabited islands? What do you think you’d find: a pristine paradise? Even if no one lives here, we, humans, have left our footprint on those whiter than white beaches: the plastic. Only a small portion of what washes ashore every day is consumed locally; most have travelled long distances sometimes from the other side of the ocean. This is a sinister reminder that what goes around, comes around: the plastic we produce doesn’t simply disappear and our oceans are already full of it. How we use and dispose of plastic is our responsibility towards the planet and the fellow humans. If we want to enjoy this magical paradise we all need to look after it, it is too precious to loose.