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Maldives: Paradise threatened?

Endangered because of climate change, it works to be friendlier to the environment.

January 10, 2010|By Amanda Jones
  • Male is the capital of Maldives, which has 1,190 islands. Only 200 of the islands are inhabited and the highest point in all the islands is less than 8 feet.
Male is the capital of Maldives, which has 1,190 islands. Only 200 of the… (Sally Tagg )

Reporting from Malé, Maldives >>> — Here's what happens when you travel to the Maldives with someone who followed an Indian guru for 20 years: You find yourself convinced that the dazzling liquid topaz ocean surrounding you is energizing your chakras and healing your inner turmoil. You may not have been aware of any inner turmoil, but apparently most of us suffer it, and isolated tropical islands such as the Maldives are just the sort of place to wrestle it to the ground.

Sally Tagg, a dear friend from New Zealand, was my travel companion and the former guru follower. Former because eventually reality set in, but she still lives her life mindfully. We were in the Maldives not, in fact, to pursue personal satori (enlightenment) but to learn firsthand how enlightened the Maldives is when it comes to being eco.

A string of coral islands lying 3 degrees above the equator in the Indian Ocean and 477 miles west of Sri Lanka, the Maldives has 1,190 islands. Only 200 of the islands are inhabited, home to about 390,000 Maldivians. But here's the doomsday foreshadowing: The largest of these 1,190 islands is 2 miles long, and most are smaller than a football field. The highest point in all the islands is less than 8 feet. A basketball hoop is 2 feet taller than the whole country.

The Maldives has never been known for much except its idyllic tropical beauty, which appears on screen-savers and posters worldwide. In 2008, however, the watery nation hit the news with a splash. If experts are right and global warming escalates, sea levels will rise and the Maldives will disappear. (We should note that some experts dispute this claim.) U.N. pundits say that oceans could rise as much as 2 feet in the next 90 years. Imagine what that might do to an island the size of a football field.

The Maldives also was in the news because its citizens voted in its first democratic leader, Mohamed Nasheed, 42, a kind of South Asian Nelson Mandela. Nasheed is a young, dashing, educated hero who was imprisoned and tortured by the former president, who reigned with a totalitarian fist for 30 years.

In 2009, while attending the premiere of "The Age of Stupid" (a British climate-catastrophe movie), Nasheed unveiled a plan to make the Maldives the world's first carbon-neutral nation by 2020.

"Climate change is a global emergency," Nasheed said, introducing a proposal involving wind turbines, giant solar panels and biomass plant-burning projects. "The world is in danger of going into cardiac arrest, yet we behave as if we've caught a common cold."

There is heartbreaking irony in all of this: The first landmass victim of human rapaciousness could be a place that defines tropical flawlessness, a nation that is clean, peaceful and doing its best to be green. The Maldives is also a favored playground of the rich, including many Middle Eastern sheiks and Russian magnates who made their fortunes on fossil fuels.

And, yes, I came here too, despite being aware that flying here exacerbated the problem. Nasheed's carbon-neutral plan expects tourist establishments to change their ways, and I was curious to see whether resorts were practicing real sustainability.

The Six Senses by Soneva Gili was our first destination, a 45-room resort that's 20 minutes by boat from the international airport on Hulhule Island. Six Senses, a Thai company, is known to walk the walk when it comes to social and environmental policies.

Our über-private, two-story eco-chic villa was built on a boardwalk over the lagoon that required no cutting of trees or erosion of land. It was constructed of sustainable materials -- bamboo, old telegraph poles, water hyacinth and palm wood.

Soneva also grows organic vegetables, buys locally from farmers and fishermen, and offsets carbon emissions from guests' flights by purchasing wind turbines to fuel small villages in India. (This bit helped assuage my guilt.)

The resort also is building a waste-to-methane plant and planning on going solar with a giant sun-tracking dish. And there wasn't a plastic water bottle in sight. All Six Senses hotels bottle their own water, both sparkling and still, in reusable glass containers. Globally, we produce more than 100 billion plastic water bottles annually, most of which end up in landfills, taking 700 years to decompose.

Our days at Soneva Gili were not spent, I confess, stressing about global warming. Instead we swam, snorkeled, ate organic food and wafted off to the over-the-water spa to be massaged with handmade products.

As the equatorial sun drooped and faded, we'd head to the underground cellar for wine tasting with the Maldivian sommelier, then migrate to the bar to gaze at gaudy purple jellyfish and opalescent Fusiliers through the glass-bottomed floor.

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