In the 1960s a United Nations report warned the Maldives that, sadly, it was unlikely to attract tourists.
Not much grows on lumps of coral in the Indian Ocean apart from coconuts and fish, the report pointed out: the Maldives is largely dependent on imports and the nearest ports are hundreds of miles away. Few of its 1,000-odd scattered islands even had electricity. Yet within ten years, the Maldives had established the reputation it has now, as a holiday paradise for honeymooners, scuba divers and the super-rich.
On Tuesday, the tiny country of 350,000 people once again showed it can punch above its weight. The Maldivian President, Mohamed Nasheed, shared a billing with Barack Obama and Hu Jintao at the United Nations General Assembly, where he pleaded the cause of small island states at risk from climate change. In many news outlets, it was Nasheed who made the headlines.
In many respects the Maldives has always been the little nation that could. Despite its minuscule population and strategic location, it has never been colonised (it peacefully dismissed the British, who had made it a protectorate, in 1965). It has retained its unique language and script, and hung on to its cultural identity while incorporating Islam, elements from African religions, black magic, Indian cooking and the occasional British naval tradition. In 2008 it made a peaceful transition to democracy and was hailed as an example to other, more troubled Muslim nations.
Now, if Nasheed and many climate scientists are to be believed, it faces the greatest challenge of all. Its highest point is 2.4 metres above sea level and according to gloomier predictions this could be submerged within 100 years if man-made climate change continues.
Nasheed, a former journalist, has since his election made the Maldives a mouthpiece for the millions around the world who may be at risk (who listens to Kiribati or Tonga, or even Bangladesh?). At first, in the euphoria that followed democracy’s arrival, Nasheed suggested that he might set out to buy a new country on higher ground. Consternation followed from investors and locals, so he moved to more positive plans, promising that the country would lead the way by becoming carbon neutral in ten years. It has since signed an agreement to pioneer carbon capture technology by trapping carbon dioxide in burned coconuts.
Yet there is a contradiction at the heart of the Maldives campaign, which is powered as much by chutzpah and an eye for a good story as it is by any long-term plan (indeed, some scientists cast doubt on whether the country is at risk at all).
Tourism directly and indirectly generates 70 per cent of its GDP, and although renewable energy and carbon capture are wise areas in which to diversify, the Maldives will never ask the tourists to stop coming — which means it will never ask the planes to stop flying. With new technology it may be possible to power a resort on renewable energy, but green aircraft are many years away.
To stop the planes would be to shut off the engines of development that have made the Maldives South Asia’s richest country. So its rhetoric and new schemes must be tempered with a large dose of exhaust fume-scented realism. And in this respect, Mohamed Nasheed is little different from Barack Obama or Hu Jintao.