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Keywords:

  • Maldives;
  • climate change;
  • resettlement;
  • migration;
  • environmental discourse

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Understanding the relationship between climate change and migration
  5. The politics of environmental discourse
  6. The politics of resettlement in the Maldives
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

There is general agreement that migration is likely to play an increasingly crucial role in adaptation to climate change. However, as this paper argues, technocratic and de-politicised discourses of climate change have often been invoked to conceal underlying political agendas in which environmental concerns are drawn upon to justify unfavourable government policies of mobility and resettlement. This paper examines the politics of climate change discourse through an analysis of resettlement policies in the Maldives where the government is proposing the consolidation of a population dispersed over 200 islands onto 10–15 islands. However, this initiative is not new. The government has long thought it economically, rather than environmentally, unsustainable to provide services and resources to a dispersed population, and has for many years muted policies to move people in order to reduce the costs on government. Today, the same initiatives are gaining renewed leverage by being couched in environmental terms. Without denying the realities of the negative consequences of climate change for small island states, this article explores the political imperatives that are influencing discussions of climate change and migration, and specifically how environmental discourses are being mobilised to re-introduce previously unpopular resettlement and migration policies.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Understanding the relationship between climate change and migration
  5. The politics of environmental discourse
  6. The politics of resettlement in the Maldives
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

There is general agreement that migration is likely to play an increasingly crucial role in adaptation to climate change. However, the form and extent of the relationship between mobility and climate change continues to be hotly debated. This is complicated by the multiple, and sometimes conflicting, political interests and agendas that are embodied in discourses of climate change-induced migration. Indeed, understandings of the processes of scientific knowledge production and use reveal the enormous political and discursive power of environmental narratives (Liverman 2009; Randalls 2011), and migration has always been a highly political issue. This paper explores how particular climate change narratives and concerns are mobilised by governments to justify the implementation of unfavourable policies which, while couched in environmental terms, may be driven by a range of other economic and political imperatives. As such, environmental discourse, and particularly responses to environmental crises, ‘can be seen as yet another attempt to discipline society’ through the exercise of power (Hajer and Versteeg 2005, 180).

This paper provides an analysis of resettlement policies in the Maldives where the government is proposing to consolidate the population dispersed over 200 hundred islands onto about 10 islands. However, this initiative, largely presented as an adaptive response to climate change, is not new. The government has long thought it economically, rather than environmentally, unsustainable to provide services and resources to a dispersed population, and has for many years muted policies to move people in order to reduce the costs on government. These strategies have never been fully implemented because of overwhelming resistance from the wider population. Today, however, the same initiatives are gaining renewed leverage by being couched in environmental terms. Without denying the realities of the negative consequences of climate change for small island states, this article explores how economic and political interests are influencing discussions of climate change and migration, and specifically how invoking an environmental discourse is providing support to a Maldivian government keen to reintroduce migration policies.

This paper is based on research in the Maldives in 2008 and 2010. Interviews were carried out with Ministers, including those from Ministries of Legal Reform, Information and Arts, Planning and National Development, Construction and Public Infrastructure, Home Affairs, Fisheries and Agriculture, Housing, Transport and Environment. Additionally, information was gathered from the UNDP representative in the Maldives for Environment and Energy, editors of newspapers, including the Executive Director of the Haveeru Daily, the National Disaster Management Centre, the National Chamber of Commerce and those working in the tourist sector as well as the former Minister of Tourism. Since the research began there have been changes to the Maldivian government, with some ministries and departments being restructured, and mandates revised and personnel switched. From 1978 to 2008, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was the president of the Maldives. In 2005, under political pressure, he allowed the formation of political parties and, in November 2008, following the country's first multi-party presidential elections, Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldivian Democratic Party was elected into office. However, public protests against him led to his resignation in February 2012, with the Vice President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik, previously a UN official with UNICEF, UNDP and UNESCO, taking over as President.

The paper begins with a summary of the key debates on the relationship between migration and climate change, before highlighting the construction, political underpinnings and implications of this discourse. By way of exemplifying these debates, the paper goes on to examine how previously unpopular resettlement policies in the Maldives are being reintroduced through the mobilisation of a particular environmental discourse, one in which there is almost universal acceptance of the relationship between sea-level rise, vulnerable livelihoods and risk to personal safety. Whether or not these effects are likely to be realised, ignoring the political underpinnings of environmental change discourse used to compel people to move, confines political debate and engagement, and reduces spaces of negotiation, resistance and contestation.

Understanding the relationship between climate change and migration

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Understanding the relationship between climate change and migration
  5. The politics of environmental discourse
  6. The politics of resettlement in the Maldives
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

The emergence of climate change as a major issue of global concern since the 1980s has led to the accumulation of a vast amount of academic and policy-relevant research attempting to demonstrate, understand and address the likely effects of climate change on human development (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2007). More recently, much of this work has focused on the relationship between climate change and the movement of people, with the now widespread acceptance that the impacts of climate change are likely to affect population distribution and mobility (Morrissey 2009; Tacoli 2009). Gleditsch et al. (2007), for example, show how environmental change contributes directly to migration by pushing people out of areas that are becoming increasingly uninhabitable. Indeed, moving from one set of circumstances to another is recognised as a significant response to environmental change and is widely acknowledged as representing an important strategy to reduce vulnerability. However, despite this recent and growing literature, the relationship between environmental change and migration remains little understood (Black et al. 2008), is poorly theorised and lacks detailed empirical evidence (Stal and Warner 2009). Thus, while the impact of climate change on population movement is attracting growing concern and interest, it has also led to much debate and controversy over the methodologies and implications of future scenarios of movements, and the assumptions made about the causal links.

Since 1990 when the IPCC noted that the greatest single impact of climate change could be on human migration (Asian Development Bank 2009), numerous attempts have been made to quantify the extent and characteristics of the potential flow of movement, and to predict future numbers of migrants. The number of those permanently displaced primarily because of climate change-related phenomena and environmental deterioration has been estimated at 50 million by 2010 (UNFCCC 2007) and between 200 million and 1 billion by 2050 (Christian Aid 2007; Stern 2006; Brown 2008). While these predictions are frequently cited, they are also being increasingly challenged, not least because of the methodological difficulties of unpacking ‘environmental drivers and triggers of migration’ (Black et al. 2008), and of confidently measuring future environmentally induced migrants. Additionally, these figures are simply estimates of the numbers of people at risk and not necessarily of those who are likely to move (Tacoli 2009). Indeed, many poor people at risk may not be able to afford to move (GECHS 2008). Furthermore, these numbers form an inadequate basis for formulating policies as they vary widely, obscure regional variations and homogenise the diversity of potential responses (Boano et al. 2007; see Forced Migration Review 2008).

The conceptual problems identified above have become reified in the coining and widespread use of the term ‘environmental refugee’. Myers, who popularised and legitimised the term, defines environmental refugees as those ‘who can no longer gain a secure livelihood in their traditional homelands because of environmental factors … In face of these environmental threats, people feel they have no alternative but to seek sustenance elsewhere, whether within their own countries or beyond and whether on a semi-permanent or permanent basis’ (Myers 1996, 18–19; see also Myers 2001). While the phenomenon and estimates of ‘environmental refugees’ are compelling to some in academic and policymaking arenas, the term has been criticised on the grounds of its usefulness, appropriateness and intellectual rigour (see McNamara 2007; Wisner et al. 2004). Black (2001), for example, contested that the term constructs migrants as a relatively undifferentiated group all making similar emergency responses and its use homogenises the effects of different kinds of environmental conditions. Farbotko and Lazrus (2012) also advise that the term should be used with caution since more inclusive sets of concepts and tools are needed to equitably and effectively approach and characterise population mobility. Other concerns are based on the perceived lack of empirical evidence (see Kniveton et al. 2008) and an absence of appropriate methods to identify and measure them. Furthermore, the ‘environmental refugee’ concept naturalises the economic and political causes of environmental degradation, and masks the role of institutional responses to it. Whether or not people are forced to migrate permanently from their homes usually depends on pre-existing social relations and post-disaster responses. The concept also overemphasises the role of demographic pressures because there is yet little evidence that these pressures are at the root of many population movements (Hartmann 2009, 235).

Although much of the debate revolves around an assumed link between migration and climate change, identifying a causal relationship is conceptually, methodologically and empirically problematic. Migration is too complex a process to label simply as environmental or climate induced (Dun and Gemenne 2008; Morrissey 2008) and climate change itself is a hugely complicated process. People move for a range of reasons of which a changing environment is only one, and population mobility is only one possible adaptation to environmental change. Migration has always been adopted as a survival strategy by some poor people, thus producing the challenge of isolating environmental factors from other factors that motivate movement. Importantly, there has been a tendency in climate refugee narratives ‘to discount long histories of ordinary mobility among affected populations’ (Farbotko and Lazrus 2012, 383). The characteristics, composition and volume of the movement of people are often more closely linked to dimensions of social systems than to environmental transformation, which is itself not independent from class, gender, ethnic or other power struggles (Swyngedouw and Henen 2010, 83). It is thus important, as Farbotko and Lazrus 2012, 382) highlight, to integrate perspectives, values and knowledges of people who live in climate change affected places and incorporate multiple voices as well as recognise the agency of vulnerable populations.

Key geographical, social and temporal factors, and how they interconnect, are now receiving more attention (see Brown 2008; Morrissey 2009) in studies of climate change and migration. Recent empirical work has demonstrated that environmental change affects human mobility most directly through livelihoods and specifically the extent to which individuals and communities incorporate environmental risk into their livelihood strategies (Warner et al. 2009). Identifying past patterns of migration is also seen as important to understand the characteristics and location of future mobility, and the extent to which climate is a relevant factor in the migratory decisionmaking process (Black et al. 2008). Furthermore, while the poor are often the most vulnerable to environmental degradation, they may, paradoxically, be those with the least social and economic capital to migrate (Kothari 2003). Thus, those with fewer resources are often left behind in an environment characterised by decreasing levels of investment as the more mobile and wealthy move out. Additionally, there are place-specific differences, such as those between small island states subject to sea-level rise and the impact of drought in sub-Saharan Africa. There are also temporal differences with longer term changes resulting in more long-term displacements or people moving shorter distances as part of a stepped migration process.

These recent contributions, however, while acknowledging place-specific differences and unequal access to resources, continue to ‘represent all social actors as having the same interests, rationality, and aspirations’ and little mention is made of ‘contradictory or conflicting needs, desires and interests’ (Felli and Castree 2012, 2). Consequently, responses to environmental degradation are not found in political-economic transformations, but are located at the individual/community level and essentially amount to increasing the ‘resilience’ of the affected populations to ‘external' shocks’. Thus, environmental debates often take place in situations of ‘institutional ambiguity, in which there are no generally accepted rules and norms according to which politics is to be conducted and policy measures are to be agreed upon’ (Hajer and Versteeg 2005, 182). Additionally, different, and often conflicting, policy positions are presented by a range of actors (Keeley and Scoones 2000, 90). For example, in the recently published Foresight report (2011), while some negative impacts are identified, migration is largely seen to build ‘long-term resilience to environmental change’ for individuals, households and communities, and policymakers are encouraged to promote migrations that can support people in leaving areas that are suffering adverse environmental change, to bring developmental benefits notably through remittances and to impact positively on places of destination. However, there is limited discussion in the report of how discourses of climate change and migration have been constructed, appropriated and mobilised in support of particular political ideologies. These issues have been highlighted by others, such as Farbotko and Lazrus (2012, 383), for example, who suggest that ‘even if the interests of climate vulnerable populations are ostensibly at the heart of the crisis discourse’ their voices are ‘effectively marginalised by the imposition of alien conceptual frameworks?’ Similarly, in their study of displacement in Bangladesh, Chaturvedi and Doyle 2010, 206) explore how the discursive production of knowledge on climate change by a variety of actors is in support of ‘certain domestic as well as foreign policy agendas’. What these ‘one-eyed’ (Hulme 2008, 10) agendas might be are explored in the following section.

The politics of environmental discourse

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Understanding the relationship between climate change and migration
  5. The politics of environmental discourse
  6. The politics of resettlement in the Maldives
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

Despite ongoing concerns over definitional, methodological and policy issues, the diverse political motivations and agendas underpinning discourses of climate change and migration, and their impact, remain largely under-acknowledged. Yet, power and politics are manifest in multiple ways through the ideology, language and knowledge base of environmental discourses (Castles 2002).

Although, supposedly objective, scientific knowledge tends to dominate how climate change and its impacts are understood, environmental discourses are not fixed or homogenous but are mediated by an array of understandings and claims. A wide range of actors, including scientists, government bodies, nongovernmental agencies and activist groups, are involved in the ongoing production of the discourse, delimiting the boundaries of the debate and producing shared meanings across different scales. Adger et al. (2001) demonstrate these competing but also shared understandings in their analysis of major discourses associated with environment issues. They suggest that there is ‘a global environmental management discourse representing a technocentric worldview by which blueprints based on external policy interventions can solve global environmental dilemmas’, as well as a ‘contrasting populist discourse that portrays local actors as victims of external interventions bringing about degradation and exploitation’ (2001, 681). Furthermore, climate change discourses and the policies and interventions that stem from them are clearly constitutive of, and articulate, (unequal) power relations. Power operates through the production of dominant narratives shaping shared meanings and perceptions that influence the terms of the debate. Accordingly, globally powerful discourses of climate change are continuously reworked, drawing on particular ideas, practices and representations that embody and reflect power relations but are also ‘based on shared myths and blueprints of the world’ (2001, 683). Moreover, when invoked strategically these reinforce the interests of certain groups and implement unfavourable policies in local contexts.

While these dominant environmental ideas may appear tenacious and durable, they do not remain unchallenged. Instead, they are continuously subject to various forms of negotiation and contestation that are significant in shifting and shaping the terrain of the political. Thus, as some scholars argue, understanding climate change demands a more nuanced analysis of political power relations that goes beyond that of science and governments (see special issue of ACME: An International E-journal for Critical Geographies, Mason 2013). As Featherstone highlights, though dominant understandings of climate change are often abstracted from considerations of unequal social and environmental relations, they need to be located within them (2013, 46). Furthermore, there is a need to consider the cultural and political resilience among affected populations as Farbotko and Lazrus (2012, 383) show in their study of Tuvalu. Here people are resisting representations in climate change narratives that tend to symbolise them purely as victims (see also Farbotko 2010). Despite these forms of resistance and negotiation, however, there are multiple ways in which climate change politics is mobilised to close down forms of contestation and de-politicise key issues (Swyngedouw 2010).

The construction and status of particular kinds of knowledge have played a significant role in the politicisation of climate change and migration discourses. Hulme (2008, 9) criticises the way in which the IPCC has come to dominate representations of climate change, presenting ‘its reports to the world as the consensus view of the leading climate change experts in the world’. Environmental change is often presented in overly scientific terms using the exclusive language of so-called ‘experts’ and climate change policies are often legitimised through this professionalisation and technicalisation of knowledge. While environmental arguments may appear as factual and scientific, they are also ‘suggestive and atmospheric’ (Hajer and Versteeg 2005, 176) and can serve to obscure the political agendas of those involved (Lohmann 2011). Thus, for example, the tendency to represent climate change as primarily a physical phenomenon (Hulme 2008) has concealed the importance of political, sociocultural and economic dimensions, and inequalities, of human societies (Artur and Hilhorst 2011), glossing over ‘particular geographies of inequality’ (Liverman 2009, 280). This tendency to represent ‘nature’ as uncontested and apolitical (McKibben 1990) has allowed ‘climate change to be appropriated uncritically in support of an expanding range of ideologies’ (Hulme 2008, 9). ‘Principles of authority’ (Escobar 1995) then valorise certain kinds of knowledge and privilege the role of the expert who identifies problems, categorises and labels them, and then intervenes to resolve them. This exclusivity of knowledge is reinforced when the environment is framed by policymakers as an overly complex system that can be only be understood by experts (Fischer and Hajer 1999).

These technocratic approaches to climate change steer attention away from the difficult politics that result from differentiated social groups and nations having different interests in causing and alleviating environmental problems (Taylor and Frederick 1992, 406). Arguing for a new political economy of climate change and development, Tanner and Allouche (2011, 11) suggest that techno-managerial solutions do not pay sufficient attention to ‘the ways that ideas, power and resources are conceptualised, negotiated and implemented by different groups at different scales’. Importantly, such solutions fail to grasp a wider array of alternative political possibilities, or framings, generated by and through warnings about climate change (Swyngedouw 2007; see also de Goede and Randalls 2009). Thus, too often, ‘adaptation is imagined as a non-political, technological domain and enacted in a defensive rather than a progressive spirit’ (Pelling 2011, 1). Similarly, Hulme writes of the IPCC that the danger is that ‘uncritical submission to the globalised knowledge claims of an elitist and labyrinthine institution closes down spaces in which the negotiation of politics might get to work’ (Hulme 2008, 9). Thus, while climate change discourses could offer political opportunities, they have become ‘post political’ due to their overly managerial, technical approach to environmental issues and the supposed consensual agreement that has been built around them (Swyngedouw 2007, 27). This globalised knowledge, when invoked by governments, justifies their ‘simplified constructions of people and nature’ (Fogel 2004, 112) and adds legitimacy to their policies and interventions. It is this mobilisation of a particular narrative that represents one of the key arenas through which a post-political consensus becomes constructed (Swyngedouw 2007). Furthermore, through processes of professionalisation (see Bondi and Laurie 2005), climate change discourse becomes consumed by an overarching neoliberal agenda (Kothari 2005) and subsequently accepted as the dominant political-economic philosophy (Swyngedouw 2007, 27). Felli and Castree (2012, 1) challenge the precepts of the concept ‘migration as adaptation’ as an extension of this neoliberal mindset and warn of the ‘wider diffusion of neoliberal views in contemporary environmental governance circles’.

Much critical work on the dangers around the particular language and politics of climate change has addressed the discursive categorisation of people, most notably through the earlier introduced concept of ‘environment refugees’. An understanding of ideas, values and assumptions at the root of this classification and how it is used provides an indication of why, despite ongoing critiques, particular environmental discourses have persisted. Hartmann (2010) suggests that they persist because they have proved useful to a diversity of political actors and interests. The term ‘environmental refugee’ depoliticises causes of displacement and absolves states of responsibility because ‘it is both an evocative call and one which has no teeth since states make no promise of international protection to environmental refugees’ (Blitz 2011, 435) and has no obligation to provide asylum (Kibreab 1997, 21). Furthermore, the effects of shaping popular imaginations with scenarios of uncontrolled mass migrations (Piguet 2008) fuel western anxieties by drawing on ‘deep-seated fears and stereotypes of the dark-skinned, over-breeding, dangerous poor’ (Hartmann 2010, 238). These representations and concerns persist despite the fact that no trend towards large south–north migrations has been identified (German Advisory Council on Global Change 2008). Indeed, most such migration currently takes place and is likely to continue to occur within national borders, and any cross-border migration is expected to take the form of south–south migration. Interestingly, some recent research has shown that environmental migration is typically internal and short term (Raleigh et al. 2008).

Government and international development aid and immigration policies are also informed by these politicised discourses (Black et al. 2008). Migration is often perceived by governments as problematic, and their policies are subsequently aimed at controlling the volume, direction and types of movement rather than supporting migrants. Gleditsch et al. (2007), for example, provide the kind of ‘evidence’ that supports the need for tight controls, arguing that climate change is likely to lead to mass exodus from increasingly uninhabitable areas, and can place excessive burden through increasing densities of population on migrant-receiving areas. Politically charged narratives around human security and environmentally induced conflict are also gaining ground, with resource depletion being seen to contribute to conflicts between migrants and local inhabitants and violent conflicts destroying landscapes leading to further migration flows (Warner et al. 2008). Climate refugee and conflict narratives are also sometimes deployed strategically by actors in affected areas to demand that western states take seriously their obligations to curb carbon emissions and provide adaptation assistance to affected communities (Hartmann 2010, 239). Indeed, western governments are increasingly concerned about the legal, governance, socioeconomic, political and citizenship implications of climate change and, in this context, the need for a strong policy response has gained much support (IPCC 2007; Boyd et al. 2009). Furthermore, and importantly, dominant, global narratives around climate refugee discourses can embed ‘vulnerable communities in inequitable power relations, redirecting their fate from their hands’ and additionally, ‘the circulation of climate refugee narratives affects those it identifies as likely victims of climate crisis, producing new configurations of inequity’ (Farbotko and Lazrus 2012, 382–8).

Critiques of aid and immigration policies that challenge government responses to migration tend to suggest that most policies seek to prevent people moving. However, migration is often promoted as a ‘transformational and strategic approach to adaptation’ (Foresight 2011, 200) and not moving, it is warned, can lead to increased vulnerability (Foresight 2011, 173). The political implications of this kind of discourse are also acute when, for example, people are forced to move, and compulsory relocation and resettlement are adopted as policy responses. Here, people are not prevented from moving but compelled to move. Whilst in some exceptional cases this may be deemed necessary, the politics of resettlement policies, whether environmentally or non-environmentally instigated, has been seriously challenged within the international development literature (Oliver-Smith 2009; see also Martin and Warner 2012). Most notably, large-scale World Bank financed projects have been severely criticised for requiring the involuntary resettlement of often poor and vulnerable people ‘when a project's need for ‘right of way’ is deemed to override the ‘right to stay’ of the inhabiting populations' (Cernea and Schmidt-Soltau 2006, 1810). Criticisms of forced resettlement have shown that many people end up being worse off than before due to, for example, the loss of livelihoods, reduced access to social services, disruption of sociocultural structures and potential conflict in the receiving area (Warner et al. 2009). Resettlement is a highly political issue and has great potential for abuse by governments. Indeed, environmental change has been used by governments to justify controversial policies of relocation and resettlement (Governance and Social Development Resource Centre 2009) and, as such, raise important questions of ethics, equity and justice (Randalls 2011, 135). These issues are explored further below in the context of environmental change and resettlement in the Maldives.

The politics of resettlement in the Maldives

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Understanding the relationship between climate change and migration
  5. The politics of environmental discourse
  6. The politics of resettlement in the Maldives
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

There has been much research on the vulnerability of small island states to sea-level rise and the disproportionate effects this will have on their economic and social development. These include, for example, the potential disruption of the tourist industry through beach loss, inundation, coastal ecosystem degradation, saline intrusion, storm surges and damage to critical infrastructure (Huq et al. 2003, 18; Warner et al. 2009). There are already climate change adaptation plans being developed for groups of islands. The government of Kiribati is adopting a strategy that involves the up skilling of i-Kiribati to ensure their competitiveness in international labour markets and resettlement schemes are being developed in the Maldives. More extreme impacts include ‘the unimaginable prospect not only of displacement on a massive scale, but the possibility that entire nations may become completely incapable of sustaining populations, and in some dire instances, may eventually cease to exist all together’ (Leckie 2009, 130).

According to the IPCC, the Maldives is among those small island nations most vulnerable to the impacts of global warming. The highest point in the chain of 1200 islands and coral atolls is just 1.8 m above sea level and the IPCC predicts that sea levels could rise by 25–58 cm by 2100 (IPCC 2007). The Maldives has therefore attracted a great deal of attention concerning dangers of rising sea levels that threaten to make the nation uninhabitable by the end of the century (McGranahan et al. 2007). Additionally, with almost 16% of the 370 000 population living below the poverty line, unemployment at 20% and an economy heavily dependent on tourism, which accounts for almost 30% of the GNP, the country is susceptible to the exigencies of global capital and is highly dependent on external aid. Malé, the capital, is very densely populated, with 120 000 people living in 2 km2. Additionally, there are already serious problems of food insecurity, with a reduction in domestic production as well as in affordable imports (Perch-Nielsen et al. 2008).

In 2007, a National Adaptation Programme of Action was established with the goal ‘to present a coherent framework to climate change adaptation that enhances the resilience of the natural, human, and social systems and ensures their sustainability in the face of predicted climate hazards’ (Ministry of Environment, Energy and Water 2007, 3). This plan prioritised population consolidation and development, and acquiring support for the implementation of the Safer Island Strategy in which communities would be persuaded to move to designated ‘safe islands’. In 2009, to publicise the impact of climate change on the Maldives, the then President, Mohamed Nasheed, and 11 ministers sporting scuba diving equipment, held an underwater cabinet meeting (BBC News 2009). Nasheed went on to pledge to make the country carbon neutral by 2020 and received $6.5 million from the European Union to assist in meeting this goal. In this way, countries heavily affected by climate change such as the Maldives ‘have led the way in raising the human rights elements of climate change to the higher echelons of international policy making’ (Leckie 2009, 119–20). The government has also embarked upon a number of initiatives to establish a ‘sovereign wealth fund’ to buy a new homeland elsewhere as an insurance policy in the event of wholesale displacement, and to consolidate the population dispersed over 200 islands onto 10–15 islands. Whilst these strategies have raised the global profile of the Maldives as a place where the consequences of climate change are likely to have devastating impacts in the not so distant future, environmental concerns have also been used to justify and legitimise other agendas.

President Nasheed's first public address following his election to government in 2008 announced the establishment of a ‘sovereign wealth fund’ to buy a new homeland for Maldivians as an insurance policy in the event of wholesale displacement and relocation. He described plans to divert a portion of the country's annual tourist revenue into buying this homeland, naming India, Sri Lanka and Australia as possible destinations. Drawing a somewhat bizarre analogy he said, ‘we can do nothing to stop climate change on our own and so we have to buy land elsewhere. After all, the Israelis [began by buying] land in Palestine’ (quoted in Randeep 2008). That the population of the Maldives may eventually become stateless raises important questions about what rights citizens have if their homeland no longer exists and the extent to which international laws can protect them (Randeep 2008). Through these pronouncements of a mass exodus, the President wanted to demonstrate that the small island state was a victim of climate change caused by rich countries, to shame the industrial countries into action and to threaten, ‘if the Maldives is not saved, today we do not feel there is much chance for the rest of the world’ (BBC News 2009).

As a political weapon to demonstrate to the world that the President was taking climate change seriously, however, these declarations caused major problems for Nasheed internally. Politically motivated, his proposals backfired when Maldivians expressed serious concerns about leaving their homes and becoming exiles. His political opponents claimed that his proposition also cost the Maldives international respect and frightened off investors and tourists and made other governments fearful of having to accept large numbers of immigrants in the future. He was accused of trying to ‘hog the global media limelight’ rather than expressing any serious concerns for the country (interview with President's office).

A second initiative involves internal displacement and population consolidation. In the early days of Nasheed's government, and following the backlash from his ‘wholesale displacement’ speech, the Mauritian Democratic Party (MDP) attempted to appease the population saying that ‘population consolidation should not be done – it will not work. People want to live in clusters of islands and smallness is better. What is needed is better transportation systems’ (interview with MDP 2008). However, while Nasheed shied away from invoking the terminology of population consolidation for fear of alienating Maldivians, his policies of increased connectivity, improved transportation and building accommodation on a few regional islands implied relocation of the dispersed population. The Safe Island Strategy of the previous government, which had met with considerable resistance, was re-packaged by Nasheed as the ‘Resilient Island’ approach, in which populations would similarly be encouraged to migrate but through incentives of improved social services and transportation networks. In an attempt to appease those opposed to his plans, however, he emphasised that ‘consolidation of population is not depopulation of smaller islands’ (Miadhu News 2012).

Resettlement and population consolidation, however, are not new to the Maldives. In 1912 the populations of Addu-Gan were resettled in order to build a British Royal Air Force base. In 1968, the Giraavaru people were forced to abandon their ancestral home as a result of regulations based on religious beliefs and were relocated to Hulhule from where they were again forcibly resettled to make way for the expansion of the airport. From the 1980s a more systematic and widespread proposal for population consolidation was developed founded on concerns about the diseconomies of scale and the inefficiency of distribution of social services and basic infrastructure on islands with a small population. Indeed, as the Ministry of Planning and National Development 1998, 17) argued, ‘the Maldives, with its sparsely distributed small communities, has a unique spatial distribution known to result in increased costs of providing socioeconomic services and related infrastructure’. It proposed that if the entire national population were living on the same land mass it could be served by a single large public hospital, fewer educational institutions and harbours. Later, in 2001, President Gayoom embarked on the ‘National Population Consolidation Strategy and Programme’. Under this proposed strategy, two regional growth centres would be created and 85 focus islands would receive a high level of services; the other inhabited islands, called primary islands, would receive a minimum level of services and their populations would be encouraged through various forms of subsidies to move toward the focus islands and the regional centres. Two islands, Kulhuduffushi and Hithadhoo, were identified as growth centres (Bertaud 2004, 1–2), with further aims to reduce migration to the already very densely populated capital. Indeed, as one interviewee noted, while economies of scale are presented as an argument for population consolidation, at the same time relocations have been undertaken since the 1990s to alleviate population density in the capital by reclaiming land and establishing a satellite island (interview with Ministry of Construction and Infrastructure 2008).

Therefore, the government has thought for a long time that it is economically, rather than environmentally, necessary to promote population consolidation. Tellingly, Hithadhoo, one of the identified growth centres, is low lying and consequently will be among the first islands to be affected if sea levels rise (Titus 1989, 3). These earlier resettlement plans have always been met by widespread negative reactions and there is little trust and support for these policies. Fearful of losing popular support, population consolidation has periodically been muted and subsequently pushed to the background, most recently in the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami and the pre-2008 democratic reforms. However, they are now being revitalised through their couching in environmental terms in order to gain new leverage. To illustrate, in 2008 the Ministry of Atoll Development stressed, ‘population consolidation has always been a very difficult issue and so was presented as being voluntary, but now the government can talk about climate change and so can be more forceful’ (interview 2008). Often expert knowledge about the effects of climate change is pitted against the ignorance of local people in order to persuade people of the need to move. For example, the Ministry of Fisheries said that ‘farmers are not aware of the effect of temperature increases. So, harping on about a rise in sea-level does not mean much to the ordinary person. What the government is now doing is raising awareness of climate change, telling them what the experts say’ (interview 2010). People in the President's office suggested that the general population are now ‘more willing to think about moving as they have been told that the environment is changing and if they stay where they are their health will be affected and they will lose their livelihoods’ (interview 2010).

As the Maldivian the population is increasingly being pressured to move due to environmental changes, they continue to mistrust consolidation proposals which some feel conceal elite interests. For example, President Waheed Deen has recently been criticised for planning to allow the development of tourist resorts on islands which become uninhabited through relocation, thus providing lucrative business opportunities for the already wealthy and at the same time further denigrating the environment through tourist activity. Deen said that he envisaged ‘that people of Maldives will live in 25 to 30 islands. Around 60,000 to 70,000 will live on each island. This is the dream I see. I will try to make this dream come true’ (Minivan News 2012). Thus, while invoking a climate change discourse has to some extent added weight to population consolidation plans, it is yet to be seen whether these plans will be more readily accepted by Maldivians. Weary of policies devised by governments that have never fully addressed the very real social, economic and cultural disruption caused by resettlement, the poor and marginalised are becoming increasingly anxious about being left further impoverished as the government disinvests in outer islands and as the more educated, young and wealthy migrate to the capital or overseas.

Moreover, there is increasing concern amongst the Maldivian population that climate change is increasingly being used as a political tool by opposing political parties. Gayoom, for example, lamented that ‘the greatest tragedy of climate change is that we have not yet invented a politics to respond to the warnings of our scientists’ (Gayoom quoted in Limon 2008), while Nasheed suggested that the biggest problem was that Gayoom did not have the ‘high moral authority to address climate change’ (Nasheed quoted in O'Hehir 2012). As one interviewee commented, climate change has become a tool in popularity contests between political opponents, while some Maldivians are becoming increasingly concerned about, not if, but when they will be forced to resettle (interview with newspaper reporter 2012).

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Understanding the relationship between climate change and migration
  5. The politics of environmental discourse
  6. The politics of resettlement in the Maldives
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

Different political interests clearly play a role in how environmental narratives are produced, circulated and interpreted. Specifically, the risks of climate change to the Maldives are being emphasised to justify resettlement policies. Often legitimised through a consensual discourse of environmental change and its impacts, the political imperatives and interests embedded in these policies become readily masked. How the climate is changing and what impact this is likely to have on vulnerable populations are clearly important issues. Nonetheless, what needs further interrogation is how policies based on messages of the clear and present danger of pending environmental catastrophes are perceived as non-negotiable and beyond critique. As such, generic and universalising discourses of climate change and migration based on ‘expert’ knowledge has limited the space for political debate and dissent. Through the widespread acceptance of a singular, overarching narrative, it is increasingly difficult, therefore, for those being resettled to argue against overwhelming scientific evidence. At the same time, however, there are challenges to resettlement policies of the government. While many of the population are desisting resettlement, others are moving but not onto designated islands for resettlement but onto Malé, the capital, which is already over populated and posing a huge challenge to the government.

The issue here is not about the invention of a politics but the perpetuation of what Swyngedouw (2007, 27) argues is a post-political moment in which ‘the politics of the possible, the radical contestation of alternative future socio-environmental possibilities and socio-natural arrangements’ is evacuated. While Nasheed was hailed by the west as a progressive force for change, his government did not open up new spaces for political debate and it is as yet unclear as to what extent this will be enabled under the current government. What is clear, however, is that more inclusive and transparent discussions on climate change and its impacts is impeded by the absence of strong civil society organisations and representation in the Maldives (interview with President's Office 2010). However, as Hall (2011) writes, ‘no project achieves a position of permanent ‘hegemony’ … and excluded social forces, whose consent has not been won, whose interests have not been taken into account, form the basis of counter-movements, resistance, alternative strategies and visions … and the struggle over a hegemonic system starts anew’ (Hall 2011, 727–8). The population of the Maldives have challenged government policies in the past and it is not inconceivable that they will continue to do so.

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  5. The politics of environmental discourse
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  7. Conclusion
  8. References
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