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The Island President

The Mandela of the Maldives


It's the story of one man's crusade to tackle two of the most important issues of our times - climate change and human rights. Documentary film The Island President puts the spotlight on former president Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives, a man striving for democracy on the one hand, and on the other, fighting to save his homeland from literally sinking into the ocean. Nasheed, who ushered in democracy to the Maldives in 2008 but was recently forced by a coup to resign, was present at the screening of the documentary in New York City, along with the director Jon Shenk. "I believe that for us to be able to articulate on climate change issues, Maldives must have democracy. We will continue the fight and I will not give up, " said Nasheed. "I believe that it is not only possible to have democracy back on track in Maldives, but also to reach a mutual agreement on climate change. "

The film follows Nasheed in his first year in office and focuses on his efforts to take the Maldives cause to the global stage at the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit in 2009. For years, the activist, often called the 'Mandela of the Maldives', had fought the 30-year reign of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. He was repeatedly imprisoned and beaten, but emerged to lead the country after free elections made him President in 2008. His biggest enemy remains more amorphous - climate change. The Maldives, comprising more than 1200 sparkling little islands in the Indian Ocean, is the lowest-lying country in the world, and a slight rise in sea water levels could result in a whole nation disappearing under the waves by 2050 or 2100. Nasheed says, "When you live in the Maldives, you can understand climate change. People can see fish catch dwindling, land visibly eroding. There is water contamination due to salt water infusion into fresh water vents, and you can see coral reefs bleaching - these issues are very real. "

The documentary provides an inside look into his tireless negotiating with global leaders, especially with politicians from India and China, to get them to acknowledge the problem and reach a consensus on the Copenhagen Accord. Aware of the challenges of fighting developed countries as well as emerging economies on the issue of carbon emission, Nasheed leveraged his country's underdog position, and used the media to draw global attention to climate change, even holding an underwater cabinet meeting. He also took the high road, announcing that the country would become carbon neutral, and said, "We know that the Maldives going carbon neutral will not save us from annihilation. But at least we will die having done the right thing. "

By introducing a new paradigm towards climate change, Nasheed has shown that it is deeply connected with freedom and human rights. Director and cinematographer Jon Shenk, who shot the Oscar-winning documentary Smile Pinki in India, says this was what interested him. "Few people in the world were looking at it in the way like Nasheed did - viewing climate change as a problem of human rights and liberty rather than a problem of science. I'm a big believer in media having an impact. Newspapers, TV and documentaries can be so powerful in getting the message across. But there are many steps between seeing a film and changing policy, people actually have to work and put pressure on their leaders. "

In New York, Nasheed once again reiterated the human connection to climate change. As climate change legislation continues to be ignored, some low-lying countries at risk like Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean have resigned themselves to their doom, negotiating with Fiji this year to buy land to move its population of climate refugees. Nasheed says that there can be no compensation for the loss of country. "I asked people if they would leave the islands. One grandmother told me, 'Yes, I can leave, but where will the colours, the butterflies and the sounds go?' We've been in the middle of the Indian Ocean for the last 5, 000 years;we have a written history that goes back 2, 500 years, it would be such a shame for us not to be there. But among the climate refugees in the future, there will be 350, 000 Maldivians. We have a window of opportunity of seven years, and if we are unable to correct that, the world can reach the tipping point. "

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