This year for the first time, the Maldives has a Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. It is called ‘Portable Nation: Disappearance as a Work in Progress – Approaches to Ecological Romanticism,’ and is curated by the Italian-Egyptian-Syrian artist collective, Chamber of Public Secrets (Alfredo Cramerotti, Aida Eltorie and Khaled Ramadan). The Pavilion was conceived of as a space for representing the sinking island paradise of the Maldives and as a platform for campaigners, artists and thinkers to present work on global environmental issues. The theoretical idea behind it was that attempts to re-establish vital, sustainable relationships between humans and the planet on which we live are romantic desires to restore humans to a place of intimate intercourse with the earth. The pavilion was conceptualized as a forum to present and debate the value of this nostalgic, romantic impulse. I would contest this position, for it is based on the idea that nature is something out there that we can still contemplate from a distance. Contrary to this, nature is nothing if not part and parcel of the complex post-natural, post-human, post-anthropocenic hybrid in which we now live and in which objective contemplation is no longer possible. We need to find alternative ways to engage other modes of our technologically mediated reality (see Braidotti 2013).
I am starting research on the Maldives Archipelago as the next site of my Folded Ocean research project. Unlike at the Venice Biennale however, I am going to be approaching the archipelago through its accretive geology, in particular an island called Thilafushi, which has only appeared in the last 20 years and is still growing.
Thilafushi has been taking shape since 1992 as a municipal landfill site, to deal with the growing mountains of rubbish produced by the tourism industry, mostly located in Male, its capital province. Contrasting with images of luxury resorts, white sands, clear waters and swaying palm trees, Thilafushi is an image of nature as piles of filth, contaminated water, open fires and clouds of pungent, toxic smoke; and in contrast with the mostly European tourists visiting the Maldives, Thilafushi is inhabited by another class of global migrants, impoverished Bangladeshi workers. These two images of the Maldives, one the sinking island paradise of the Portable Nation show, the other the growing toxic island of Tilafushi, has initiating my investigation into the complex ecological present of the Maldives.
The Malidives stretches 900 kms from north to south and 130 kms from east to west and lies just north of the equator in the Indian Ocean. It comprises 25 coral atolls, faros or reefs (these are words for different kinds of reef formations), with a total reef area of 4,500 kms2, though not all of this is inhabitable by humans (Naseer and Hatcher 2004). Water drops to thousands of metres deep in the surrounding ocean and in the atoll lagoons from 30 to 80 m. This archipelago is the seventh largest coral reef system in the world, and the historical archetype of a ‘coral reef province’ (Republic of Maldives 2006:1).
I discovered to my surprise Charles Darwin (1842) wrote his first monograph, The structure and distribution of coral reefs. Being the first part of the geology of the voyage of the Beagle, under the command of Capt. Fitzroy, R.N. during the years 1832 to 1836 on these amazing bio-geological formations. Darwin’s theory was that coral reefs grow around subsiding marine mountain ranges, with atolls growing as fringing reefs as they do so.
In the 1970’s the theory of plate tectonics supported this, by explain why mid-oceanic ridges sink or migrate. In the 1990’s, drilling and seismic studies undertaken as part of an oil-drilling program on the Maldives Ridge showed that the Maldives atolls and coral reefs were built on a volcanic ridge stretching from a hotspot beneath the island of Reunion to the Deccan Traps of India. The hotspot began its activity in about 67 Ma, after which complex tectonic activity led to the migration of its basalts northwards as far as the Deccan traps today. Once this volcanic ‘basement’ was established, coral began to grow. The modern day atolls and reefs of the Maldives are the surface of a 2000m, thick coral platform, with a 55 million year history (Republic of Maldives 2006).
In a document entitled ‘Vulnerability and Adaption Assessment of the Maldives Coral Reefs’ (Republic of Maldives 2006) an extraordinary statement is made: ‘The Maldives is a country built entirely by coral reefs.’ It is not a country built on coral reefs, or dependent on coral reefs, but built by coral reefs. This intrigued me. How can a coral reef build a country? What is a coral reef and to what can this agency be ascribed? Gordon Chancellor in his introduction to Coral reefs at Darwin Online proposes that it was Darwin’s genius to see that coral reefs, although ‘plainly geological structures on a stupendous scale, were created by slow, gradual growth of countless billions of tiny creatures over vast periods of time’ (Chancellor 2008). This discovery was in perfect symmetry with Darwin’s last book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits (1881), in which he showed how the humble earthworm toiling beneath his feet was literally creating the landscape. In both Coral reefs and Earthworms Darwin was exalting ‘small agencies’ which, without the slightest idea of what they were doing, were, given time, changing the face of the earth, history and human culture (Bennet 2010).
The tiny marine animals that build coral reefs do a similar thing. Reefs are underwater calcium carbonate (CaCO3) structures secreted by polyps, little animals in the same family as sea anemones and jellyfish, to support and protect their bodies. Limestone, chalk, marble and travertine are all made predominantly of the same material. Polyps usually live in warm tropical waters up to 50m deep, called the photic zone because it is the depth to which sufficient sunlight penetrates the water to allow photosynthesis to occur. Coral polyps do not photosynthesise themselves however, but have a symbiotic relationship with zooxanthellae, algae-like organisms that live within the tissues of polyps and provide organic nutrients that nourish them. Corals get up to 90% of their nutrients from these symbionts and it is the zooxanthellae that give coral its extraordinary colours. As they grow, polyps deposit calcium carbonate beneath and around themselves, pushing their heads upwards and outwards. Waves, grazing fish, sea urchins, sponges and other forces and organisms act as bio-eroders, breaking down coral skeletons into fragments that settle into spaces in the reef structure or form sandy bottoms in reef lagoons. Other organisms living in the reef community also contribute skeletal calcium carbonate. For instance, coralline algae contribute to parts of the reef subjected to the greatest forces by waves by depositing limestone in sheets over the reef surface. But if polyps grow above the water, they die and their skeletons harden and turn into white limestone.
Polyps, as living creatures, do not just grow and die, they also reproduce, both sexually and asexually. An individual polyp uses both reproductive modes within its lifetime. Corals reproduce sexually by either internal or external fertilisation. Their reproductive cells are found on the mesentery membranes that radiate inward from the layer of tissue that lines their stomach cavity. Some mature adult corals are hermaphroditic; others are exclusively male or female. A few species change sex as they grow. Internally fertilised eggs develop in the polyp for a period ranging from days to weeks. Subsequent development produces tiny larva, known as planula. Externally fertilised eggs develop during synchronised spawning. Polyps release eggs and sperm into the water en masse, simultaneously. Eggs disperse over a large area. The timing of spawning depends on time of year, water temperature, and tidal and lunar cycles. Spawning is most successful when there is little variation between high and low tide. The less water movement, the better the chance for fertilisation. Ideal timing occurs in the spring. Release of eggs or planula usually occurs at night, and is sometimes in phase with the lunar cycle (three to six days after a full moon). The period from release to settlement lasts only a few days, but some planula can survive afloat for several weeks. They are vulnerable to predation and environmental conditions. The few planula that do successfully attach to the substrate form the next generation of coral. (Note that this reproductive information comes from Wikipedia).
In short, coral is a vibrant, intelligent, gregarious, sexy, collaborative, versatile organism and millions of other species, including humans, depend on its tiny agency for survival.
In the Maldives, it produces the country’s geology, biodiversity, security, tourism, fisheries, trade, architecture and aesthetic and cultural value. The Maldives is totally dependent on coral and the goods and services it provides. Today this threatened by many things that humans are largely responsible for. Amongst these are increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Oceans are sinks for carbon dioxide, which affects the chemistry of calcification and hence the ability of coral reefs to grow (Gattuso et al 1999). While it inhibits reef growth in this way, increasing levels of carbon dioxide are also responsible for global warming and rising sea levels. Coral responds to rising sea levels by growing vertically, but, if sea levels rise at rates faster than vertical reef growth, reefs will be drowned. Many Maldive reefs are in catch up mode at present (Republic of Maldives 2006). There is also reason to believe that increased sea surface temperatures kill off coral’s symbiont algae. This is called bleaching as, when corals lose their symbiotic algae, they also lose their vibrant colours (Heogh-Guldberg 1999). Prolonged bleaching results in the death of the coral. In the Maldives, warmer sea temperatures associated with an El Nino event in 1998 caused extensive bleaching, killing 98% of its shallow reefs (Republic of Maldives 2006).
In the Maldives, 300,000 people live 1 m above current sea level. Buddemire at al (2004) predict that sea level rise will be between .1 and .9 m by the end of this century, putting them directly at risk. However, coral islands are dynamic systems undergoing continuous change and islands and reefs are able to adapt to changes in prevailing winds and seas as well as sea level changes. For instance, the reversing monsoons across the Indian Ocean result in ongoing movement of beach sand moves in tune with their hydrodynamic regimes. Adaption to climate change may be possible if extreme weather events do not affect the customary monsoon cycle. In fact, direct human exploitation is possibly a greater threat to reefs than global climate change. Tourism is the Maldives lead economic sector and reefs and the goods and services they provide are its premium tourist product. These are increasingly threatened by their own success. As of this year, the Maldives has 89 tourist resorts in operation and the government announced its plan to open 41 more over the next 10 years (Minivan News no date). The most popular resorts are those built on uninhabited islands in atoll lagoons, with harbours dredged from reefs and lodges extending over the water on shallow reefs.
In some cases, islands are artificially constructed for resorts using dredged reef material. This clearly interferes in the geomorphology and geomorphically defined habitats of reef systems and causes considerable changes to island biodiversity and ecosystems. And Thilafushi, the waste island built as a consequence of soaring quantities of waste attributed to the expanding tourist industry on Male islands (tourists apparently produce twice as much trash as indigenous inhabitants of Male) is growing.
Thilafushi lies in a shallow lagoon just west of the country’s capital, Male. During the first years of its operation in the early 1990’s, pits were dug into its coral reefs, surrounded by the excavated material and filled with trash. Once full, they were topped with construction debris and a layer of white sand. The new land mass was soon itself exploited for industrial use and today houses a concrete manufacturing plant, a shipyard and a methane bottler, amongst others. As quantities of waste increased however, up to 300 tons a day, this time consuming process was abandoned and replaced by indiscriminate dumping. Toxic heavy metals from discarded asbestos cement sheets, e waste and other trash started entering the food web of algae, zooxanthellae and fish, and toxic plumes of smoke into the atmosphere, with as yet unknown consequences. Thilafushi has been called a ‘toxic bomb’, by Bluepeace, a Maldives Environmentalist NGO (‘Thilafushi: Toxic Bomb in the Ocean’ 2008).
It is this complex assemblage of islands, reefs, climate (in)security, tourism infrastructure, trash and the human and nonhuman lives they entangle, that I will be researching over the next few months.
- Bennet, J. (2010). Vibrant Matter. A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press.
- ‘Towards an Artificial Paradise on Earth.’ (2008).
- Bluepeace blog, 24 May <http://www.bluepeacemaldives.org/blog/biodiversity/towards-an-artificial-paradise-on-earth>
- Braidotti, R. (2013). The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press.
- Buddemeier, R. W., Kleypas, A. J Aronson, R. B. (2004). Coral reefs and global climate change: potential contributions of climate change to stresses on coral reef ecosystems. Report prepared for the Pew Center for Global Climate Change.
- Chancellor, G. (2008). ‘Introduction to Coral reefs,’ Darwin Online, July <http://darwin-online.org.uk/EditorialIntroductions/Chancellor_CoralReefs.html>.
- ‘Coral reef.’ (2013). Wikipedia <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coral_reef>
- Darwin, C. (1842). The structure and distribution of coral reefs. Being the first part of the geology of the voyage of the Beagle, under the command of Capt. Fitzroy, R.N. during the years 1832 to 1836. London: Smith Elder and Co.
- Darwin, C. (1881). The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits. London: John Murray.
- Gattuso, J.P., Allemand, D. and Frankignoulle, M. (1999). Photosynthesis and calcification at cellular, organismal and community levels in coral reefs: a review on interactions and control by carbonate chemistry. Amer Zool 39:160-183.
- Hoegh-Guldberg, O. (1999) ‘Coral bleaching, Climate Change and the future of the world’s Coral Reefs.’ Marine Freshwater Research 50:839-866.
- Minivan News (no date). ‘Maldives NGO Calls for creation of Nature Reserves.’ Bluepeace <http://www.bluepeacemaldives.org/news2007/coastal_vegetation.htm>
- Naseer, A. and Hatcher, B.G. (2004). ‘Inventory of the Maldives’ coral reefs using morphometrics generated from Landsat ETM+ imagery.’ Coral Reefs 23: 161-168.
- Republic of the Maldives. (2006). Integrated Climate Change Strategy. Vulnerability and Adaption Assessment of the Maldives Coral Reefs. The Very First Draft.
- ‘Thilafushi: Toxic Bomb in the Ocean.’ (2008). Bluepeace blog, 29 Feb <http://www.bluepeacemaldives.org/blog/hazardous-waste/thilafushi-toxic-bomb-in-the-ocean>
- UNEP-WCMC (2006). In the front line: shoreline protection and other ecosystem services from mangrove and coral reefs. Cambridge: UNEP-WCMC.