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Drowning in the Garden of Eden

By Helen Benedict
Sunday, November 22, 2009

Last October, the president of the island nation of Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, made all his ministers put on diving gear and held the first underwater cabinet meeting in history. His point? If nothing is done to slow global warming at next month's United Nations climate-change conference in Copenhagen, his country will drown.

The gesture may seem amusing, but it underscores the danger facing low-lying lands all over the world, from Venice to Hawaii, the Netherlands to New Zealand, London to Manhattan. The difference is that island nations in the Indian Ocean, such as Maldives, are expected to drown first.

One such nation is the Republic of Seychelles, where I used to live. Seychelles is a cluster of 100 or so stunning islands off the coast of East Africa. The biggest island is about the size of Manhattan, the smallest the size of a coffee table, and they are so beautiful that the 19th-century British explorer Gen. Charles Gordon once declared them the original Garden of Eden.

In August, Seychelles presented a report about its fate to the United Nations that reads like a script for a science-fiction apocalypse. It says that if nothing is done to correct global warming, rising seas will submerge 60 percent of the country's islands by the end of this century, possibly sooner. Drought, disease and fire will scourge the land. People will fight to the death for water and food. And the inhabitants will find themselves, as the report puts it, "in the unprecedented situation of being citizens of a state that no longer has a territory."

Imagine your country disappearing underwater forever. Where do you belong? Where do you go?

I discovered Seychelles in 1960, when my parents, the first anthropologists to study its culture, brought me there as a small child to live. Its beauty was breathtaking. Palm trees stood bold against fathomless blue skies. The sands were white as teeth, the sea a dancing turquoise. Huge round rocks crowned the mountains, lit by a bright and spangling sun. And a spectacular coral reef circled the islands, one of the grandest reefs in the world.

Seychelles was still a British colony when I lived there, populated mainly by the descendants of slaves, along with Indian and Chinese traders. It gained independence in 1976 and has developed flourishing tourism and fishing trades, its two main sources of income.

It is also one of the most ecologically aware nations in the world; in 1990 it became the first country to adopt a government plan for the environment. Seychelles fiercely protects its land and seas, and nurtures the scientists who study its many unique species of flora and fauna. Entire islands are designated as bird sanctuaries, century-old giant tortoises are protected there, and national parks cover 46 percent of the total land area. From an early age, Seychellois children are taught to care about and protect their environment.

It is hard to imagine that a place so full of life could simply cease to exist. Yet already global pollution and rising temperatures have badly damaged the islands. In 1998, a spike in ocean temperature killed more than 90 percent of that once-glorious coral reef, and today Seychelles' fish are diminishing, its birds are at risk, its freshwater is becoming scarce -- and its people are afraid.

Robert Grandcourt, a Seychellois who worked in his country's government for 10 years and is a former adviser for UNICEF, told me that his principal worry is how his countrymen will cope if fishing and tourism are destroyed.

Based on data in the Seychelles's August report to the United Nations, Grandcourt estimates that in 20 to 50 years, the country's airport could be underwater, along with its ports, its offices and government buildings, its banks and shops and luxurious seaside hotels; all are at sea level, all are at risk. The 85 percent of the population living by the coast could be displaced, and pollution from drowned villages and towns would kill the fish.

So the people of Seychelles and other island nations are awaiting the Copenhagen conference with trepidation. The challenge is clear. Connie Hedegaard, the Danish minister for climate and energy and incoming president of the conference, recently said that never before have the nations of the world had such an opportunity to collectively address the planet's crisis. Failure, she said, is "not an option."

I hope she's right. Because, to paraphrase President Nasheed talking about the Maldives, if we can't save these island nations today, we can't save New York, London or Hong Kong tomorrow.

Helen Benedict is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and the author of "The Edge of Eden," a novel set in Seychelles.

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