International Day of Tropics

Remarks by H.E. Mr. Ahmed Sareer, Permanent Representative of Maldives to the United Nations

29 June 2016


Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen

I would like to commend Australia for spearheading these efforts to designate an international day of tropics, to highlight the challenges, the opportunities and the many unique features of the tropics at a global level.

I am honoured by this opportunity to present some perspectives on life in the very beautiful, tropical country, what we call "paradise of earth", "the sunny side of life": the Maldives.

50 years ago, the Maldives was a little known country, that had just become independent, and joint the UN. Our membership at the UN sparked a debate about the ability of small, micro states to engage at the international level as an equal contributor. Many questioned the viability of states like the Maldives.

50 years ago, when we got independence, we were one of the poorest countries in the world. We were a traditional fisheries based economy, with little potential for diversification and expansion. A UN Team that visited concluded that there was little viability in the Maldives for sectors such as tourism, due to the lack of infrastructure and enabling environment.

The environmental vulnerability was always there. We were exposed to the harsh realities of nature, and the creeping effects of global warming and climate change. Seeing the effects first-hand, we were the first country to start raising the impact of these phenomenon, especially on island states.

Today, Maldives is still one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change worldwide. Yet, despite a bleak initial assessment, we have managed to become one of the premier tourist destinations in the world. Our resorts are world famous. Our fisheries products carry the brand of "dolphin friendly": we practise one of the most sustainable forms of fisheries, pole and line. From being one of the poorest countries in the world, we have managed to graduate from LDC status, only the third country to do so. All things to be proud of. The question is how did we do it?

The Maldives was able to develop, advance due to the strategic use of our natural resources. We saw the potential of our white sandy beaches, our crystal clear blue seas, and the beautiful coral gardens filled with various different species of fish and marine life. We saw that we had something unique, that the world wanted to get more of. The Government of Maldives was able to leverage our natural assets for economic activity. But it is not without the necessary safeguards. To this day, the highest building on a resort island cannot be higher than the tallest tree on that island. Turtle poaching, coral mining, sand mining is banned throughout the country. Strict environmental standards are applied to every resort. The entire Maldives is a shark sanctuary. We have declared one of our atolls, a biosphere reserve. These are all necessary safeguards the Government has placed on tourism, to make the industry sustainable and environmentally friendly. But the industry is also moving full steam on sustainability initiatives.

Just recently we saw the opening of the first resort that is entirely powered by renewable energy. Others are working on coral reef regeneration, on innovative approaches to liquid and solid waste recycling and power generation. The industry is using the label of "sustainability" as a marketing tool. Resorts in the Maldives are judged annually on their environmental sustainability. We were able to leverage the natural environment in the most sustainable and durable way to garner economic development.

It is a similar case with our fisheries sector. We have always, for centuries, been intimately linked with our oceans. Fishing is in the hearts of our people, and oceans part of our identity. For centuries Maldivian fishermen have used pole and line as the preferred method for fishing: one fish at a time. This method prevents catching of juveniles, over-fishing and helps to avoid catch such as sharks and turtles and other protected species, which is difficult to avoid with other methods such as nets.

Over the years, the vessels have grown larger and fisheries sector has moved from being a traditional activity to feed our people, to an economic industry. Yet, the methods and principles have not changed. We still use pole and line. We still discourage over fishing. This is why our fish carry the brand "dolphin friendly". This is what makes our brand different.

The point I am trying to highlight with these two examples is that yes, there are many vulnerabilities and fragile environments associated with the tropics. There are many challenges associated with being small and far flung. But it is also about knowing how to use these challenges as opportunities. And this is how we, a tropical country, that is in the middle of the Indian ocean, has been able to overcome our challenges, and advance our development.

But we remain continuously aware of the dangers placed on our economic activities such as tourism and fisheries due to the adverse impacts of climate change and other phenomenon such as ocean acidification.  Warming of our planet, and our seas are endangering our coral reefs. Coral reefs are the lifelines of our industries. Rising temperatures are also leading to associated sea level rise and extreme, more frequent and intense weather events, which could potentially pose an existential threat to countries like ours. Climate change is the biggest threat to our sustainable development.

This is also where our limitations come into play. We are some of the least contributors to the problem. Yet we will pay the highest price. This is why we continue to advocate for addressing urgently the threat of climate change. This is why we take the lead in calling for immediate action.

When we think about the tropics, we tend to envision the sun all year around, a nice balmy breeze, and perhaps a white beach and clear warm waters. We most often see the natural beauty of these places. But it is the underlying endurance and resilience of the people of these places that make the often daunting challenges into enormous opportunities. And we hope that we are able to bring you more stories of life in the tropics, the resilience of our people, and the stories of our development paths so that we can all work to make our common home a better place.

Thank you.