Updated: Oct 24
On 17th October, 2009, President Mohamed Nasheed conducted the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting to publicise the looming threat of climate change and its effect on the Maldives. President Nasheed’s advisors had hit the PR jackpot. The images of the politicians signing documents in their scuba gear went viral and President Nasheed’s call for change was heard around the world.
But whilst former President Nasheed’s time in office has come to pass, members of his team are still campaigning. Chaired by a former environmental advisor to former President Nasheed, Soneva Fushi has just played host to an international convention dedicated to the issue of plastic waste in the Maldives. Around forty environmental policy makers, activists and charity workers from all over the world gathered together to share ideas and sign off on new schemes.
As an intrepid and entrepreneurial book-seller, I felt it was my duty to attend. So, on a teak wooden table on the sand I arranged a neat selection of books about the ocean. Sex in the Sea by Marah Hardt, How to Read Water by Tristan Gooley, Voices in the Ocean by Susan Casey, The Water Book by Alok Jha, Blowfish’s Oceanopedia by Tom Hird, The Wavewatcher’s Companion by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, Pacific by Simon Winchester, Coral by Steve Jones, and Blue Mind by Wallace Nichols.
Will McCallum’s How to Give up Plastic seemed especially relevant. Currently, for every three tonnes of fish in the ocean there is a tonne of plastic waste. If we continue to pollute the seas at the current rate then by 2050 the ratio of fish to plastic will have tipped in plastic’s favour. As the ratio between plastic and fish tends to equivalency, solutions become more scarce and hope for a cleaner future fades.
Addressing the island council presidents of Kihaadoo, Dharavandoo and Maalos (amongst many distinguished others), Sonu Shivdanasi, CEO of the Soneva Group, announced that, “companies caused the problems and so companies must solve them.”
And indeed the Soneva Foundation is taking bold steps towards solutions. Without the help of donations, the Soneva Foundation has generated a staggering $8,000,000 over the course of its existence from making small changes to resort operations, such as introducing a mandatory carbon levy of 2% of the room rate and swapping the little plastic bottles of toiletries for ceramic containers.
That money has built a 1.5 Megawatt Wind Turbine in Myanmar (to increase to three turbines over the next twenty years) and planted half a million trees in Thailand. Closer to home (home currently being the Maldives), the Soneva Foundation has raised $250,000 for local communities and the fresh water initiative Vitric is working with the island of Maalhos to totally eliminate plastic bottles from the island.
These communities can also expect reward from their efforts to recycle as recycled plastic is a huge asset: plastic can be chipped, bundled into bales, sold and transformed into other useful plastic items and sold for about $400 per tonne. Communities that collect plastic, chip it and sell it could boost their economy and transform their waste into wealth.
And it’s not like there’s not enough plastic to go around. According to Will McCallum, Coca-Cola alone produces 120-billion plastic bottles a year. That means, if you were to lay the bottles end to end, they’d be able to wrap around the circumference of the Earth seven times.
The room is buzzing with ideas and enthusiasm and soon proposals for new schemes and initiatives decorate the flip charts dotted either side of the speakers. Of all the proposed routes to a cleaner future, one in particular catches my attention as it addresses motivation. This is especially important as community leaders’ lack of will to combat the issues often hampers progress.
So, Hulwa Khaleel from the Ministry of Education asks us to consider a fairly straightforward question: why do we want to get rid of plastic in the ocean? The answer, she says, is that we want to protect the ocean. But why do we want to protect the ocean? Because we love the ocean and respect its beauty. So, if we want to get rid of plastic in the ocean, we must first foster a true love for it. The beaches, the reefs and the marine life must all be celebrated instead of taken for granted. If you love something you’ll want to protect it.
Schools are the best place to start. Through initiatives such as Soneva’s Ocean Stewards, classes from local schools are taught to swim, to surf and to enjoy the water. During the Manta Ray Festival, the local resorts each committed to providing the schools in the Baa Atoll with at least 20 sets of snorkelling equipment. So far, 71,429 out of 83,000 school children in the Maldives have been taken snorkelling at the edge of their local reef. That’s 93% of the school population - all afforded opportunities to explore and cultivate a passion for the reefs that they’ll one day inherit. Determined conservation is to be borne out of an informed admiration.
“The children are amazed to see that Nemo is real,” reflects Hulwa in her closing remarks. “They are amazed that Nemo is in our reef, not in Australia.”