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Argentina’s Stolen Children

1st May, 2011

DNA tests may reveal the truth about the adopted children of an Argentinean media tycoon. Were they stolen during the country’s ‘dirty war’? Christine Toomey investigates.

 The sleek neighbourhood of Martinez in the north of Buenos Aires had never seen anything like it. Police cars slewing across the road after giving chase from a nearby courtroom. Federal agents in combat gear spilling onto the streets. Press photographers swarming around the frightened figures of two of Argentina’s most prominent media scions.

Those who live in the sprawling mansions here are accustomed to being chauffeured to and fro in limousines with darkened windows to protect their identity. But on the morning of May 28 last year, all rights to privacy were stripped from the adopted son and daughter of one of South America’s wealthiest media moguls, Ernestina Herrera de Noble, head of the multibillion-dollar media conglomerate Grupo Clarin.

Marcela and Felipe Noble Herrera were forced out of their car at the gates of their mother’s estate and bundled into her home under armed guard. They were then ordered to undress in front of at least seven officials. When it came to removing their underwear, the brother and sister, then both 34, were escorted to separate bathrooms. But, still under observation, they were forced to strip naked. Court officials sealed the siblings’ clothes in plastic bags, together with other personal items such as toothbrushes, combs and a pair of Felipe’s slippers.

With Felipe in tears, the siblings were told that their personal effects were being taken away for DNA testing on the orders of the court, contrary to their wishes, in an attempt to trace their biological origins. More specifically, to determine whether, as is alleged, they could be among the hundreds of Argentinians stolen as babies from parents arrested by the military dictatorship during the brutal 1976-1983 “dirty war” against suspected dissidents and subversives, and “disappeared” — the euphemism coined during those dark years for mass murder.

“In a normal country, a normal judge would have summoned Marcela and Felipe and listened to what they had to say. Instead she authorised evidence to be taken in such a way it left them traumatised,” says the siblings’ indignant lawyer, Alejandro Carrio, who witnessed their humiliation. “They both feel caught in the middle of a battle that has so many political overtones. It is all spectacularly unfair.”

But these are not normal times in Argentina. After more than two decades during which military henchmen behind some of the worst war crimes imaginable have luxuriated in comfortable retirement, the country’s current president — Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner — is determined to bring those responsible to book. To most Argentines, the details of the depths of depravity to which the military regime sank during those years are sickeningly familiar. After arresting and torturing those they dubbed “subversives” — in many cases students, intellectuals or union members whose names were simply in the wrong address book — many thousands were loaded onto military aircraft, stripped naked and hurled to their deaths in the South Atlantic.

On February 28, eight military men, including General Jorge Rafael Videla, who once ruled the country as de facto president, went on trial in Buenos Aires charged with systematically stealing babies from parents murdered for their suspected left-wing sympathies. The majority of those killed were young adults. Many of the women were pregnant or mothers with small children who were abducted with them. Those infants not killed at the same time as their parents were handed over to sympathisers of the regime, in many cases childless military officers and their wives, who brought the children up as their own, changing their identities so they had no idea of their origins.

Of the estimated 500 babies and children abducted in this way, 102 have so far recovered their true identities after a tireless campaign by a group of their grandmothers, known as the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who never gave up hope of one day tracking down their stolen grandchildren. Some were traced to the homes of those who had illegally adopted them, after years of detective work by the Grandmothers acting on tip-offs from suspicious neighbours, teachers or doctors, and were restored to their biological families when they were still young. Many others only discovered the truth as adults. In the most harrowing instances, some had to face the appalling reality that they had been born in clandestine torture centres where their mothers were kept alive only long enough to give birth, so that their newborns could be snatched from their arms and, in some cases, raised by those directly responsible for their parents’ deaths.

This last nightmarish scenario could not have been the case with Marcela and Felipe, if official records are to be believed. According to court documents at the time, both were adopted within six months of the March 1976 military coup — before the junta’s murderous machinery had swung into full gear. These papers state that Marcela was left in a cardboard box on Ernestina Herrera de Noble’s doorstep at the beginning of May 1976, while Felipe is said to have been handed to Herrera de Noble when she went to court to submit papers to adopt Marcela in July of that year — the baby boy apparently having been abandoned by a single mother unable to look after him. Within a month, both newborns were registered as the legally adopted children of Herrera de Noble, already by then a powerful businesswoman with close links to the military regime following the death of her publishing impresario husband.

But a 2002 court investigation into the legality of the siblings’ adoption, instigated by the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, found nobody in Argentina by the name of the woman said to have abandoned Felipe. Meanwhile, a man said to have witnessed Marcela being found on Herrera de Noble’s doorstep was revealed as a long-time employee of Grupo Clarin. The discoveries led to the brief arrest of Herrera de Noble that year on suspicion of knowingly adopting children of the disappeared — an allegation she has consistently denied.

The charges were later dropped for lack of evidence. But in a statement after her release Herrera de Noble admitted she had been open with her children as they were growing up that “they and their parents may have been the victims of illegal repression” — an admission the Grandmothers have since used to press for the siblings’ genetic testing. If DNA matches were to reveal Marcela and Felipe were stolen children of the disappeared, and if it were proven that they were knowingly adopted as such by Herrera de Noble, the 85-year-old publisher could face criminal charges carrying a lengthy jail term.

Herrera de Noble claims investigations into the biological origins of her adopted children are politically motivated, driven by revenge on the part of the country’s president because of opposition to her regime in recent years by Grupo Clarin, which includes the country’s largest circulation daily newspaper, Clarin.

For their part, Marcela and Felipe say they have no interest in discovering their true origins because they are happy with Herrera de Noble as their mother. Although they both live independently now — Felipe is married with a young child, Marcela is divorced — both work as executives with Grupo Clarin. In one of the very few public statements they have made about the dispute, they complain of “being treated like criminals, though we have committed no crime”. “For the last 34 years we have lived with the blessing of a mother who chose us as her children and we chose her as our mother. Nothing and no-one can destroy that bond,” Marcela said in a rare television address, with her brother Felipe wringing his hands at her side.

Yet after forensic tests carried out on the siblings’ seized clothing concluded it had been contaminated with DNA traces from other people, courts ordered Marcela and Felipe to subject themselves to compulsory donation of blood, saliva, skin or hair samples, which they are refusing to do — despite having voluntarily given similar samples back in 2009, which were said by a former judge to have also been contaminated. Their lawyers argue that the latest court order requiring compulsory donation is an illegal invasion of their personal and physical integrity. The reclusive siblings contend that their biological identity is a personal matter and are preparing to take their fight as far as the Supreme Court.

At the heart of this continuing battle is a profound moral and legal conundrum. On the one hand is the right of children, now adults, to choose not to know their biological origins; on the other is the right of grandparents to attempt to restore the identity of those they believe could be the stolen offspring of their own children. Caught between these intensely emotional, conflicting interests is the obligation of the state to see that

Forty miles to the south of Buenos Aires, in the provincial town of La Plata, one grandmother is in no doubt about the rightful solution to this dilemma. Chicha Mariani, 86 and now nearly blind, sits surrounded by photographs of her murdered son, Daniel, daughter-in-law, Diana, and their smiling three-month-old baby, Clara Anahi, for whom she has spent the last 34 years searching. The fate of her son and daughter-in-law are beyond dispute. Diana died in a hail of bullets when the family’s home on the outskirts of La Plata came under army attack, including by helicopter gunships, on the morning of November 24, 1976. Under the guise of running a small meat-packing operation, she and Daniel had allowed their home to be used to house a secret printing press for a left-wing guerrilla group known as the Montoneros.

Eyewitnesses later testified that they saw Diana shot in the back and legs as she ran, with her baby in her arms, from the burning house. But while her charred remains and those of three other militants were later recovered, no trace was ever found of Clara Anahi. One witness says she saw the baby being bundled away in the arms of a man in uniform. Chicha’s son was shot on the street the following year.

On Chicha’s wall is a photograph of Clara Anahi propped up in a baby seat, wearing a pink woollen outfit. “I knitted that for her when she was born,” Chicha recalls, her face lighting up for an instant. “She was with me for just three months. But she is still part of me. For the little life I have left, my only wish is to see her once more, hold her in my arms and tell her about her parents.”

Even during the dictatorship, in defiance of the generals, Chicha and other Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo ignored the ban on public gatherings and started assembling weekly in the central square of Buenos Aires, marching silently in white headscarves, carrying pictures of their missing sons and daughters.

It was during these repressive years that Chicha first suspected that her grandchild might have been passed to Ernestina Herrera de Noble to raise as her adopted daughter, Marcela. In the years after adopting Marcela and Felipe, photographs of the media magnate and the children would sometimes appear in the pages of her flagship daily, Clarin. “When I saw those early photographs of Marcela, there was something about her I recognised,” says Chicha. “Even now when I see photos of her I see certain characteristics that are similar to mine — the way she holds her hands, the shape of her legs.” But there is more to it than that.

In the first desperate months after Clara Anahi disappeared, Chicha went knocking on the doors of senior figures in the Catholic Church, both in La Plata and Buenos Aires, asking for help in tracing her granddaughter, but was quickly told to stop looking because the infant was “untouchable” and, by then, “in the hands of a very powerful person”. Some Catholic clerics have since been convicted of colluding with the military in covering up crimes committed during the dictatorship.

Despite her suspicions, Chicha did not act on them for many years, not only because the prevailing political climate made progress difficult, but also because her granddaughter disappeared months after records showed Marcela was adopted. When investigations revealed errors and obfuscations in both Marcela and Felipe’s adoption papers, the veracity of the date on which they were signed was also called into question and the Grandmothers’ petition that the siblings submit to DNA testing led to years of legal wrangling.

Chicha admits she is losing hope. “For the past 35 years I have continued to believe I would one day hold my granddaughter in my arms again. But now, because of my age, I’m beginning to doubt it. All those years my love for my son and his family kept me going, maybe my anger fed me too. But now I can hardly see or hear. I don’t have the force I once had. It is very hard,” says Chicha, who eventually separated herself from the Grandmothers to found her own organisation, Asociacion Anahi, dedicated to the search for her granddaughter.

With unlimited financial resources, however, lawyers for the Noble siblings are determined to fight to the bitter end any court orders relating to DNA testing. For Chicha Mariani is not the only one to suspect Marcela could be her granddaughter. Another family also believes that Ernestina Herrera de Noble’s adopted daughter bears a striking physical resemblance to the mother of their missing granddaughter, Matilde Lanuscou. Barbara Miranda and Roberto Lanuscou, both Montoneros, died in a shootout with soldiers in September 1976, along with two of their three children, aged four and five. Six-month-old Matilde was said to have died with them, but during an investigation after the dictatorship ended, Matilde’s coffin was found to contain only baby clothes and a dummy. Photographs of Matilde’s mother, Barbara, in her twenties show she shares very similar looks to Marcela.

It is believed Felipe, meanwhile, could be the son of Maria Gualdero, who was 20 years old and nine months pregnant when she was seized by security forces in June 1976, though her family is reluctant to discuss the case publicly. In an effort to bring the legal wrangling to an end, Marcela and Felipe did agree seven years ago to their DNA being tested against that of the Miranda and Gualdero families, though not that of Chicha, who appealed to them separately.

When the Grandmothers insisted that, if no match were found in these two instances, their DNA should be kept on record so that testing could be expanded in future to include all those families in the National Genetic Data Bank, the siblings’ lawyers dug their heels in and prevented the DNA testing from going ahead. Since this data bank, originally set up as an independent organ at the insistence of the Grandmothers, now falls under state jurisdiction, they argue its results could be manipulated by the government. “They are afraid if their genetic map ends up in that data bank, it could be the basis for

Lawyers for the families of the disappeared, on the contrary, believe it is the siblings who are trying to delay court proceedings for as long as possible. “The legal strategy of Grupo Clarin is to drag this out until Ernestina dies to avoid the possibility of her facing any kind of trial,” argues Pablo Llonto, who represents the Lanuscou family. To those stolen children who have recovered their identities, however, the lengths to which Marcela and Felipe are prepared to go to protect their adoptive mother are entirely understandable.

Even those who have discovered the most shocking truth of all about their origins, and whose cases form the basis of the current trial against Videla and his henchmen, sympathise with the dilemma the siblings face.

“I believe there are many similarities between what happened to me and what is happening now with the Noble children,” says Pedro Sandoval, who was 29 when he discovered, in 2006, that his whole life to that point had been a lie. Pedro was raised with the name Alejandro Rei and believed he was the natural son of a military policeman called Victor Rei and his wife. When Rei was arrested in 2004 on suspicion of having appropriated a stolen child, Pedro was convinced of Rei’s innocence. But his DNA confirmed he was the son of a murdered 32-year-old union activist, Pedro Sandoval, and his 20-year-old wife, Liliana Fontana. Liliana was five months pregnant when she was arrested in July 1977 and gave birth to him in a secret detention and torture centre before she was killed.

Yet even when he knew the truth, Pedro testified in favour of his abductor at a trial in which Rei was sentenced to 16 years in prison, saying how well cared for and loved he had felt as a child. “It was only at the end of the trial that the reality of what had happened sunk in,” he says. “I believe I was suffering from a severe form of Stockholm syndrome, completely unable to think for myself while I was still under the influence of those who abducted me.” Pedro believes the Noble siblings could be suffering in the same way. “It is much harder the older you are.”

Another recovered grandchild who understands this only too well is Victoria Montenegro, who was 25 and married with three children when she discovered the man she had grown up believing was her father was in fact the person who had shot her real parents dead. Victoria was only 13 days old when the house where her parents, Hilda Torres and Roque Montenegro, lived on the outskirts of Buenos Aires was stormed by soldiers under the command of the army colonel Hernan Tetzlaff, who, together with his wife, went on to raise her under a false date of birth and the name Maria Sol Tetzlaff.

After a tip-off about her real identity, the Grandmothers filed a petition with the courts that eventually led to her being forced to submit to a blood test that confirmed their suspicion in 2001. “The first thing I felt when they gave me the result of the tests was a terrible shame that I was the daughter of subversives. Then immediately I became afraid that my father would not love me any more,” says Victoria, who, despite everything she now knows at the age of 35, continues to call Tetzlaff her father. A large framed photograph of Victoria as a young child perched on his shoulders, gently clutching his cheeks, stands on the bookshelf in her home. “I can’t lie to myself. I loved him very much,” she says picking up the picture of Tetzlaff, who died in jail.

It took Victoria five years to accept her real identity and change her name from Maria Sol. “I didn’t want to know the truth. I didn’t want to see the man who had raised me go to prison. I felt that by giving my blood for DNA testing, that gesture of extending my arm for the needle, made me responsible for someone I had spent my whole life loving ending up in jail.”

It was partly in order to take away any misplaced feelings of culpability, but also to speed up the process of stolen children recovering their true identity, that a law was passed in November 2009 making it compulsory for those suspected of being children of the disappeared to submit to DNA testing whether they wish it or not. It is the constitutionality of this legal obligation that the Noble siblings are determined to fight as far as the Supreme Court.

There are some Grandmothers who agree, however, that a compulsory blood test is going too far. “By forcing someone to have a needle stuck in their arm against their will, you are in danger of using the same repressive attitude that our own children suffered as a result of. There are other ways of obtaining DNA that are not as intrusive,” says Elsa Pavon, whose daughter and son-in-law are among the disappeared, but whose granddaughter, Paula, was found living with a senior police officer and his wife and returned to her when the child was just eight years old. Yet Paula’s true identity was also confirmed as a result of a blood test, and Paula herself does not question this. “I think the state has the right to know. The truth is the truth, and there is no going back from that,” says the 35-year-old mother. She has two young daughters, to whom she has yet to explain the circumstances in which she lived as a child. “When they are old enough I will talk to them about it. But these things are very hard for children to understand.”

Twelve years ago, when I first wrote about the children of the disappeared, I was haunted by the words of one psychologist who worked with the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. “The aim of the military, in abducting babies and annihilating their real identities, was to institute a form of state terrorism that would operate over generations,” said Dardo Tumas. “What the military did was introduce a form of poison that continues to seep through this society.”

This is precisely why the state has a duty to make DNA testing mandatory, argues the lawyer Pablo Llonto. “It is the obligation of the state to protect the rights of future generations,” he contends. “Identity is not just a matter for the individual, whose right to privacy can be protected if it affects just that person. But what has happened in Argentina is something that will affect generations to come, including the children of those who were stolen as babies.”

Chicha Mariani’s gentle face hardens for a moment when I ask if she feels those suspected of having been abducted as babies should be forced to submit to genetic testing against their will. “If it was your grandchild who was stolen, would you be asking that question?”

Ecuador: the Amazon’s dirty war

November 29, 2009

In the Ecuadorean Amazon basin our thirst for oil has triggered an eco-disaster: wholesale pollution and catastrophic cancer rates. And a bloody turf war has broken out. Ecuador is taking a survival plan to the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference. But will western governments listen?

Torrential rain has washed away the blood where the family fell under a hail of wooden spears. But memories of what happened this summer are still fresh in the minds of those who live and work here.

At first the security guard inside the perimeter fence of the oil drilling station is nervous and warns us to keep our distance as we approach. Darkness is falling and he is alone on duty. But he slowly opens up and describes how, on a morning in August, a 12-year-old girl, run through with two spears nearly 12ft in length, managed to stagger to the front gate of the drilling station to raise the alarm before she collapsed and died.

A short distance away, on a dirt track hidden from view by dense foliage, the bodies of her mother and 17-year-old brother were found by oil workers, pierced by more than a dozen similar spears. Her baby brother had been kidnapped. Before she died, the girl gave a description of their attackers: they were almost entirely naked.

From the shape of the spears and the coloured feathers on them, they have since been identified as almost certainly belonging to one of the world’s last known “uncontacted” tribes: the Taromenane.

In the whole of its history the tribe has never had any peaceful contact with the outside world, choosing to live totally isolated from civilisation in this area of breathtaking beauty at the headwaters of the Amazon. They are supposed to be a protected people, but they are fighting for their survival and that of their ancestral land. It is a struggle with surprising implications for all of us.

Sandra Zavala, her son Byron and daughter Damaris were easy targets, stragglers behind a group of men with machetes who were working to clear a path through the rainforest. Oil exploration in the forest has encouraged illegal logging and colonisation by poor Ecuadoreans from other parts of the country and led to clashes in which many innocent lives have been lost. Sandra, 35, and her children were just the latest victims in a vicious turf war triggered by our thirst for oil.

Close to Ecuador’s borders with Colombia and Peru, this swathe of territory — much of it now included in the Yasuni national park — is also at the forefront of another, global battle. Yasuni is home to a vast array of rare flora and fauna. It has the largest number of tree species per hectare in the world (more in just one hectare than the whole of North America), together with endangered monkeys, pumas and jaguars and 44% of the entire bird population of the Amazon basin stretching far beyond its borders. But beneath the surface is immense wealth of a different kind: more than a billion barrels of crude oil.

Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, is promoting a plan he describes as “not only simple, but audacious and revolutionary”. In the run-up to next month’s UN climate-change conference in Copenhagen, he and his team have been circling the globe to drum up support for a scheme that would leave 850m barrels of oil in the eastern section of the park untouched underground.

In return for not pumping this oil, they are asking other countries to pay Ecuador $350m a year for the next 10 years to compensate for lost income. Correa’s plan is designed to preserve what is left of Yasuni’s unique biosphere and the territory of its indigenous people and would also prevent carbon-dioxide emissions caused by extracting and burning this oil — an estimated total of 410m metric tons of CO2.

In Yasuni, meanwhile, the battle is raging for control of resources. Active drilling and oil production are taking place in several blocks of land, including one close to the heart of the park operated by the Spanish conglomerate Repsol and two in the northwest operated by the Chinese company Petro Oriental, which runs the drilling station where the Zavalas were killed. The family came from a small community of settlers, Los Reyes, that has sprung up close to the oil wells.

The Taromenane have killed settlers and illegal loggers before, in retaliation for attacks on their dwindling numbers. In 2003, 26 Taromenane women and children were ambushed and killed. Their attackers were never caught but are thought to have been Waorani, another, larger group of indigenous people, many of whom have been co-opted to work for the oil companies.

In an effort to protect the territory of these indigenous communities, the southern half of Yasuni and an area beyond was marked out two years ago as a so-called “untouchable zone” where they could continue their hunter-gatherer existence undisturbed. But the Taromenane have no way of knowing that such a zone exists, let alone its limits. They only know that their ancestral land is under threat. Those who attacked the Zavala family a few miles beyond the boundary of the zone did not keep the kidnapped baby. They stole back to the area two days later and left the infant propped in a hollow tree trunk close to where his mother had died. He was quickly found, dehydrated but otherwise well.

In line with official policy of not forcing contact with the Taromenane, no action was taken in the aftermath of the killing. (In the past, indigenous peoples have been decimated by diseases brought in through forced contact with the outside world.) “We don’t want to put these tribes in a crystal box and conserve them for eternity,” says a government spokesman, Eduardo Pichilingue. “We want to leave it up to them to decide how and when they change. They have that right.”

Instead of punishing the tribe, the government called for the Hormiguero Sur drilling station to be closed down. But as we stand talking to the guard there two months later, straining to make ourselves heard above the roar of a generator pumping oil, it is clear this order is being ignored. Attempts to challenge Petro Oriental executives at a nearby headquarters are met with indifference.

“We can’t comment,” said Luis Gomez, director of community relations. “All I can say is we get blamed for everything bad that goes on around here. It’s even our fault, they say, when a wife leaves her husband.” He laughs, before hastily ushering us out of the floodlit compound.

This brushoff is mild compared to the repeated stonewalling of the Spanish company Repsol, which has drilling operations close to the heart of Yasuni. In addition to triggering tensions of the kind that led to the deaths of the Zavala family, Repsol has recently been accused of causing some of the worst environmental destruction in this part of the Amazon rainforest, with a series of huge oil spills. According to the Spanish branch of Greenpeace, Repsol sent 14,000 barrels of crude oil gushing over the landscape in February. The spill caused such widespread pollution that environmental activists called for all concessions granted to Repsol throughout the Amazon region to be withdrawn. Repsol refuses to comment.

We were initially given permission by Repsol to visit a scientific research station run by Ecuador’s Catholic University within its concession area. From there we planned to travel to some of the indigenous communities said to have been affected by the spills.

But when we arrive by motor launch at Repsol’s first security outpost, we find a notice pinned on a perimeter fence warning employees: “It is your responsibility to maintain strict secrecy regarding your work.” As our photographer starts taking pictures, he is warned by security guards with submachineguns to put his cameras away.

At the scientific station: impasse. Repsol backtracks on its offer of co-operation and says it has nobody for us to liaise with locally. Fearing repercussions from the oil company, which controls all access roads to and from the university-run scientific station, academic staff there become anxious and reluctant to talk. They withdraw an offer of a truck to visit indigenous communities several hours’ drive away and seem keen for us to leave.

Stark evidence of the long-term destruction caused by oil companies in Ecuador’s Amazonian rainforest lies less than 100 miles northwest of Yasuni. In parts of the rainforest as yet untouched by the incessant search for oil, the song of rare birds and the screeching of monkeys fill the air. But close to the oil installations, the only signs of wildlife are the vultures circling on thermal currents above flare stacks burning off unwanted gas and emitting an acrid smell.

People in the sprawling area between the oil towns of Coca and Lago Agrio, which has been booming since the 1960s, have had a chilling foretaste of what others may face unless the drilling is contained. Here, in a region dubbed “the Rainforest Chernobyl”, decades of drilling by the American giant Texaco, taken over in 2001 by the Chevron Corporation, has led to toxic contamination over thousands of miles. Local communities are suffering catastrophic rates of cancer and other diseases, which has prompted a historic $27-billion court battle. If the 30,000 Ecuadorean plaintiffs are successful, legal history could be made, with the largest damages award ever handed down in an environmental case.

A few miles east of Coca lies the village of San Carlos. Most who live here came to the area in the 1970s to farm along routes cut through the rainforest as oil exploration began. There is little forest left now and little productive farming. Much of the land in this region that stretches north to the border with Colombia was long ago contaminated by millions of gallons of toxic waste, gas and crude oil released untreated into the environment. Most of the inhabitants have depended for decades on contaminated drinking water from polluted rivers and streams. Rates of cancer of all kinds are nearly four times higher than in areas where there is no oil drilling. The incidence of other illnesses such as skin and bone disease, respiratory and digestive problems and spontaneous abortions are also far higher. Most of the people living here have been dependent for decades on contaminated drinking water taken directly from polluted rivers and streams.

Beatrice Mainaguez cradles a photograph of her younger sister Maria, who died of uterine cancer three years ago aged 35. She talks of the “bitter pain” of watching her grow thinner and thinner before she died. Maria, a mother of five, had lived in San Carlos since she was an infant. Her family took their drinking water from a creek that ran close to one of the many oil wells Texaco sank in and around San Carlos in the 1970s and ’80s. It was not until four years ago that the family shack was connected to mains water, and eight months ago to electricity.

A short distance away, Orlando Molina hugs his daughters Sofia, 15, and Yuri, 17, who squirm with embarrassment as he asks them to roll up their trouser legs to show me the bone deformities both were born with.

Orlando says doctors told him the deformities were likely to have been caused by their mothers’ milk being leached of nutrients because she drank water that had drained through soil contaminated by spills from the Texaco wells. His extended family used to live on a coffee farm within a few hundred feet of a Texaco facility on the outskirts of San Carlos that was subsequently taken over by the state company Petroecuador. Both his parents died of stomach cancer, his sister of breast cancer and a brother of prostate cancer.

Orlando spent most of the $4,500 Petroecuador eventually gave him for gobbling up his small landholding on medical treatment to help straighten his daughter’s legs. With the $1,200 left over he bought a two-room wooden shack where his family of six now live.

“Sixty-five per cent of the population around here are suffering from respiratory and gastric problems, skin disease and other illnesses,” says Rosa Moreno, a nurse who has been in the San Carlos area for 25 years. “We don’t have any specialist doctors to diagnose them properly or analyse the causes. But to anyone who lives round here it’s obvious that the problems are related to pollution caused by the oil companies.”

Walk anywhere near these waste pits and you still sink ankle-deep in tar. Other stretches of land that appear green move unnervingly underfoot; poke a stick through the grass and you simply find lakes of black sludge.

Last year a team of engineers, doctors and biologists submitted a court-ordered report, which concluded that Texaco had polluted streams and drinking water across an area of nearly 2,000 square miles, and caused 2,091 cases of cancer, leading to 1,401 deaths between 1985 and 1998. Chevron’s lawyers say the area’s health problems are caused only by poverty and poor sanitation.

Faced with the possibility of losing the legal battle and having to pay staggering levels of compensation, the company has now made moves to argue before an international court of arbitration in the Hague that the case against the oil companies in Ecuador has been unfair. The outcome is still uncertain: the judge in Ecuador is not due to hand down his judgment until next year.

So far only Germany has made a concrete effort to support Correa’s plan, offering to donate $50m a year for the next decade — on condition that an international trust fund be set up into which donor countries would pay money. All donors would receive “Yasuni bonds” guaranteeing that their contributions would be returned, with interest, if Ecuador were ever to tap the protected oil reserves. Spain, France and Italy have also expressed interest by cancelling debts owed by Ecuador. The British government has not yet been formally approached, but when Correa’s advisers were due to meet MPs earlier this year to discuss the plan, they were told that our parliamentarians were too busy dealing with the expenses scandal.

Correa has made it clear that if he does not get backing for his plan, he will be forced to allow further drilling in Yasuni. “Climate change has been produced principally by the rich countries,” he has said, “and they have a duty to take responsibility for that. What we are proposing is a constructive way to redress the imbalance and stop further polluting of the planet.”

The entire Amazon region is the largest green lung in the world. Its trees and plants produce one-fifth of the Earth’s oxygen and absorb as much CO2 every year as is created by the burning of fossil fuels in the entire EU. Preserving the natural environment in this area is a key element of the fight against global warming.

The bloodbath among the locals must also come to an end: the Zavala family were innocents swept up in the thirst for oil.

But is anyone really listening?



Can Iran’s young ring the changes?

June 7, 2009

As a crucial election looms, young Iranians are once again standing up against a repressive and brutal regime

Four layers of curtains prevented Havva from ever seeing out of the window of the small apartment in an affluent neighbourhood of central Tehran that she once shared with her husband and young daughter. More importantly, as far as her husband was concerned, the thick folds of material ensured nobody could ever see in to catch sight of her — even though their apartment was on the second floor and overlooked only by a tall willow tree.

Not once in nine years of marriage was Havva allowed to pull those curtains back.

When I ask Havva gently what drove her to finally try to take her own life, she wrings her hands, revealing scars on her wrists. Over a period of four months she made numerous suicide attempts. The first were undoubtedly cries for help. The final time she thought she had ensured success by swallowing 140 tranquillisers and barricading herself in her home. But a last-minute call to a relative to say goodbye raised the alarm. Emergency services broke in, and she was rushed to hospital, where she remained on life support in a coma for several days. “There was no one incident that pushed me to do this, just very heavy pressure for a long time until I understood I couldn’t take it any longer,” says Havva, a strikingly beautiful 31-year-old who asks to be identified only by this pseudonym (meaning “Eve” in Farsi), since she comes from a rich and prominent Iranian family. “All my dreams were destroyed when I married at 17. There was no light, no hope in the way I was forced to live,” she says. She talks in a low voice of how she could never leave the house without her husband’s permission, nor make friends, work or resist him forcing himself on her several times a day. “But it is the traditional way. I thought that was all there was.”

Havva’s experience is far from unusual in modern-day Iran. Despite some advances in women’s rights over the past decade, and the fact that 60% of the country’s university graduates are now female, legally and socially women are still considered far inferior to men. In the words of the lawyer Shirin Ebadi, winner of the Nobel peace prize, “criminal laws adopted after the revolution took away a woman’s human identity and turned her into an incapable and mentally deranged second-class being”.

When Havva refers again to the curtains that she felt symbolised the crushing restrictions imposed on her by her marriage, the apartment feels claustrophobic and suffocating. It’s an all-too-common feeling in Iran today. As the country sits on the cusp of what many regard as the most significant presidential election since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini deposed Reza Shah Pahlavi from his Peacock throne at the start of the Islamic revolution 30 years ago, denouncing westernisation and ordering every woman to cover herself with the chador, there is wide acknowledgment that Iran is sitting on a powder keg of barely suppressed fury at the stifling political, economic and social constraints its citizens have had to endure under the leadership of the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

While deep discontent is felt at all levels of society, it is the women and young of Iran — 60% of Iran’s 70m population are under 30 — who are the most frustrated at the backward turn their country has taken in the past four years under Ahmadinejad’s fundamentalist administration. If this Friday’s presidential poll is truly open and democratic, which few believe it will be, their votes will be crucial in deciding the outcome, just as they were in propelling the reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami to power, twice, in landslide victories between 1997 and 2005. Khatami was prevented by a two-term limit from standing again in 2005, and it was then that Ahmadinejad, the ranting former mayor of Tehran and a religious zealot, took over the presidency. After throwing his clerical hat into the ring once more in the early stages of the current race, Khatami quickly withdrew, having reportedly been warned by the country’s ultra-conservative forces that he would suffer the same fate as Benazir Bhutto if he continued, leaving the opposition reformist camp fielding little-known candidates.

It was when Khatami was still in power that I last visited Iran, nearly 10 years ago. The light he let into this long-suppressed society by throwing open the country’s political curtains, if only partially, was refreshing. Though, even then, the conservative mullahs who opposed him, and who pull the real levers of power in Iran by controlling religious institutions that run parallel to and oversee every branch of government, saw to it that most of his reformist legislation was quashed. Hundreds of activists continued to be jailed and killed. But during his time in office, Khatami oversaw a brief flowering of civil society, advocated freedom of expression and promoted a series of legal reforms to the rights of women. These included giving women limited divorce rights, previously reserved only for men, and easing constraints on the Islamic dress code that had once made shedding the chador an offence punishable with prison and 74 lashes.

At that time there was an explosion of colour on the streets of the capital, with growing numbers of women throwing off the drab floor-length black cape in favour of knee-length coats and shoulder-length head coverings or bright headscarves. In the past four years, many women have gone back to wearing the chador, not out of piety, but out of self-protection as the country’s “morality police” are once more omnipresent, stopping, fining and arresting girls and women whose hijab is not “modest” enough, resulting in a police record potentially preventing them from getting a job or studying in future.

But during the easing of social constraints overseen by Khatami, Havva was finally able to divorce her husband. She has since acquired a psychology degree and supports herself and her 11-year-old daughter by working with an organisation that counsels young people on how to avoid depression. In recent years, the demand for such help has burgeoned beyond the capacity of Iran’s mental-healthcare professionals. Iran’s suicide rate, especially among women, is increasing, as is prostitution, alcoholism and gambling — though there are no reliable statistics on the prevalence of any of these as, officially, such problems do not exist.

The one serious social problem the government is unable to deny is drug abuse; Iran now has the highest rate of opiate addiction in the world. Ten years ago it was officially confirmed that there were 2m heroin and opium addicts in Iran, then equal to 2.8% of the adult population. This figure is thought by some to have now doubled.

“In a society where so much is prohibited, everything somehow becomes allowed,” says an Iranian expert on drug abuse. “As soon as a young person buys a forbidden pop CD or DVD of a western movie or banned alcohol on the black market, he or she comes into contact with an illegal underworld, and that is quickly exploited. I worry the moral decay in my country is increasing so rapidly that a point will be reached soon where it is very hard for us to turn back,” she adds. She, too, requests anonymity for fear of government reprisal for airing such pessimism.

In stark contrast to the cautious, but outspoken, optimism of some of those I met a decade ago, an atmosphere of extreme suspicion and paranoia now prevails in Iran. As I struggle on occasion to understand what people are trying to tell me, my interpreter explains that his countrymen have become used to talking in metaphors rather than saying clearly what they feel. “In Iran there is an expression that the walls have mice and the mice have ears,” says one young woman, meaning that Iran’s intelligence service is 70m strong — the country’s entire population.

Only those who have already paid the price of standing up to authority, with prison sentences and other sanctions, or those who enjoy some degree of protection from retribution thanks to powerful family connections, seem prepared to voice their opinions freely. Among them is Zahra Eshraghi, granddaughter of Ayatollah Khomeini, the country’s first supreme leader and author of the 1979 Islamic revolution. With rare candour she says she believes her grandfather, whose own brutal suppression of dissent led to the death of tens of thousands of political opponents, would disapprove of the repressive methods of Iran’s current regime.

Her black chador slips constantly down the back of her head and shoulders as we sit talking, revealing a bright silk Burberry headscarf knotted under her chin and an elaborate diamond brooch in the shape of a flower beneath her religious garb. “Please don’t take any photographs of me like this,” she asks politely of the photographer.

Eshraghi, 45, refuses to be drawn on her feelings about wearing the black veil, despite confessing in an interview with The New York Times six years ago that she hated wearing it and regretted the fact that the chador had been forced on women. “There must have been some mistake in the translation,” she says disingenuously. Voicing such views about a garment symbolic of the sacred is clearly more problematic in the current climate. When she spoke openly of her frustration at having to wear the chador — which she said she only did because of her family status — her husband was one of the most visible reformist politicians in the country, and his brother, Khatami, was president. As former head of the interior ministry’s youth department, Eshraghi has also been an influential figure in the reformist movement. But her outspoken criticism has led her more recently to be disqualified from running for parliament by the Council of Guardians — the powerful and deeply conservative body loyal to Iran’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which vets, and can block, potential candidates.

Yet Eshraghi cannot contain herself when I ask what her grandfather would think of Iran’s present state of affairs. “Things would not be the same if he were still alive. I would talk to him and he would listen to me, as he always did,” she says, glancing across at a photograph in a cabinet of her daughter as a young girl curled up beside Ayatollah Khomeini, who died aged 86 in 1989. She implies her grandfather mellowed with age, astounding as that might sound to relatives of thousands of political prisoners he ordered killed in mass executions the year before he died. She says if Khomeini were still alive, he would have adjusted his views to take in some of the rapid changes of the past 20 years, especially the expectations of more freedom among the young.

“For the past four years, we have been living in the most closed society we have had since the revolution,” she continues. “That is in stark contrast to the ideals of the revolution, which were freedom and independence.” Eshraghi’s hazel eyes take on a piercing quality when she talks about the way women activists have been harassed and imprisoned in recent years for trying to improve women’s rights — which she supports in her work for an NGO promoting the education of women.

In the lead-up to this month’s presidential election, a renewed government crackdown on those who oppose or challenge the ruling conservative forces has led to repeated waves of arbitrary arrests and harassment directed not only against women’s-rights activists, but also student leaders, trade unionists and human-rights workers. Even Shirin Ebadi’s Centre for the Defence of Human Rights was closed down six months ago because it allegedly “threatened national security”.

Dozens of women working on a controversial petition, the “One Million Signatures Campaign”, calling for equal legal rights for women, have landed in jail, some subject to 20 lashes, beatings and solitary confinement. One, Alieh Eghdam-Doust, is now serving a three-year sentence in Tehran’s feared Evin prison — notorious for torturing, raping and killing inmates. Most legal changes the campaign is seeking are rights women in the West take as given. These include equality in divorce (even the law amended under Khatami holds that a man can divorce his wife at will whereas a woman must prove her husband guilty of misconduct); more equality in child custody, normally granted to fathers after children reach the age of seven; and fairer inheritance legislation. Currently wives are entitled to only one-eighth of a husband’s estate when he dies, this to be shared between wives if the marriage is polygamous, the rest going to the children; daughters are only entitled to half of what sons inherit.

The petition also calls for the age at which a girl can be married to be raised from 13 to 18, and the age of criminal responsibility for girls to be raised from 9 to 18 (it’s 15 for boys). Iran is the only country in the world that still executes child offenders; one young woman, 22-year-old Delara Darabi, was hanged in early May, while her appeal was still being heard, for a murder she vehemently denies having committed at 17. The petition also calls for honour killings, the stoning to death of women for adultery and polygamy to be banned, and the wearing of the hijab to be a personal choice.

“I don’t think anyone should be arrested for what they believe in,” says Eshraghi, who has also signed the petition. “You may live in paradise, but if you’re not free you have nothing.”

Among those who’ve paid for supporting the campaign is Parvin Ardalan, one of its founders. She was held in solitary confinement at Evin prison after being charged with threatening national security with her work on the petition. She is appealing against three separate jail sentences, totalling more than three years, on related charges. “We’re challenging the status quo, and as far as the government is concerned that threatens national security. If these laws are changed then Iranian society will change fundamentally,” she says. But one lawyer supporting some of those jailed goes further, explaining the authorities justify their crackdown by claiming the campaign is a front for foreign intervention: “They still do not believe this is a domestic, grass-roots movement. They accuse us of instigating a ‘velvet revolution’ and say we’re under the influence of foreign countries trying to subvert the regime.” In recent years the campaign has opened branches in Europe and the US to collect signatures from Iranian women living abroad, which, she argues, “hardly constitutes subversive activity”.

“At the heart of this is the fact that if women are given equal rights, it will open the way for more democracy in this country, and those who oppose women’s rights here in Iran oppose democracy,” says Narges Mohammadi, vice-president of Shirin Ebadi’s now-banned Centre for the Defence of Human Rights. “But people, especially women and the young, are now so fed up with the constraints and injustices they face, I believe we’re near to a tipping point, and if changes don’t come soon, Iran will face a very serious crisis.”

Two days after we sit talking in Mohammadi’s office she is stopped trying to board a plane to attend a Nobel-committee peace conference for women in Guatemala. Her passport is confiscated and she is forbidden from further travel abroad.

Another of those who have had their passport confiscated in recent months is the former student spokesman Saeed Razavi-Faqih, charged in absentia while studying in France with “propaganda activities against the system” for posting comments critical of the regime on internet sites. He has also been jailed in the past in Evin prison for alleged “subversive activity”. Razavi-Faqih fears, despite widespread discontent, that the turnout in a country where more than 50% routinely vote may not be high enough in the coming elections to oust Ahmadinejad: “Coverage of the election in the state-controlled media has been very low-key. It’s not in the government’s interest to promote a high turnout, because low numbers of voters favour Ahmadinejad and his fanatical support base, who’ll vote no matter what. I fear when Khatami left the race we lost the game. The other opposition candidates are so uninspiring. They are out of touch with the young.”

It is only in the past two weeks that opposition candidates have been allowed access to state media to put their message across. In an effort to reach out to the young, some have tried garnering support by posting speeches and slideshows on Facebook. But even though more than 20m Iranians have access to the internet, the regularity with which government censors block sites means access to such messages is patchy.

Leading opposition candidates have also struggled to show they represent a break with the past. The opposition frontrunner Mir-Hossein Moussavi was last active in politics 20 years ago when he served as prime minister during the devastating 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war; he was then considered a hardliner, and he only looks like a reformer now compared with the fanatical Ahmadinejad. The track record of the reformist cleric Mehdi Karroubi, another opposition candidate, is hardly more inspiring. A former speaker of the parliament, he is best remembered by the older generation as the former head of the Martyrs Foundation in the wake of the revolution, making him particularly hated by many exiles for the part the foundation played in the mass expropriation of private property. Karroubi also failed to beat Ahmadinejad when he ran for president in the last election. When I meet Karroubi, he is keen to expound on one of his newly favourite themes: women’s rights. In an attempt to win the crucial female vote, he has been promising to pay more attention to the concerns of women, and vows he will be the first president to appoint a female member to the cabinet if he wins. The meeting is pointedly held at the Research Institute for Enhancing Women’s Lives. Karroubi strokes his white beard when asked what specific changes he would make to the laws concerning women’s rights, and answers vaguely that he has “always had an open mind when it comes to women’s affairs”. He only becomes animated when I raise the thorny issue of polygamy, which, though culturally alien to the majority of Iranians, Ahmadinejad’s administration has been quietly promoting; 67 of 290 members of the country’s parliament, the majlis, are understood to have more than one wife. “They try to keep this secret, which shows they are ashamed of it,” says Karroubi, condemning polygamy as “little more than legalised sexual relationships”.

One heroine of the revolution who considered running for president herself in this election is the former vice-president to Khatami, Massoumeh Ebtekar. She was once the radical mouthpiece of students who stormed the American embassy in Tehran in 1979, seizing 52 diplomats and holding them hostage for more than a year. The last time I met her, she was reticent and guarded. This time she is outspoken in her condemnation of the current regime’s “Taliban-like policies of wanting to keep women in the home”. Ebtekar, who supports Moussavi, does not rule out running for president in future; although the constitution does not explicitly exclude a woman running, some doubt whether the Council of Guardians would approve of it. But she says her priority now is to promote rather than dilute the opposition, and she wants to animate the young to vote, though she offers few fresh ideas on how to do this. “We need major change in the political and economic direction of this country,” she says, in her office in Tehran city hall, where she is now a city councillor. “We need more freedom of the press, more freedom for opposition parties…” At this her chador-clad assistant gesticulates firmly that my time is up and I am ushered out, reminded that, regardless of the outcome of this week’s vote, real power in Iran will continue to rest in the hands of the country’s conservative clerical regime.

Saeed Leylaz, one of Iran’s most influential political and economic analysts, disagrees: “This is a very important moment in Iranian history. All revolutions reach a point where they either progress to democracy or descend into dictatorship. We are at that pivotal stage now.”

Ahmadinejad’s populist economic policies, the reason he was elected in the first place, have led to soaring inflation. Unemployment has risen rapidly, and Iran’s economy has been hit hard by the oil-price crash, which has curtailed the spree of state hand-outs that Ahmadinejad built his popularity on, and on which Iran’s ruling mullahs who support him have relied. The country is still shackled by multiple sanctions, the latest imposed for its failure to halt its uranium-enrichment programme. Despite overtures by President Barack Obama to engage in talks, few expect international relations with Iran to be normalised any time soon.

“Iran’s economy is now teetering on the brink of disaster,” says Leylaz, who is allied to Moussavi’s election campaign. “We will have difficult times no matter who is elected. But if Ahmadinejad is re-elected we will be heading off the edge of a cliff.”

At first glance there is little evidence that the capital’s youth feel a sense of impending disaster as they stand chatting and laughing outside the bars and ice-cream parlours that line one of the main roads of Sa’adat Abad, a middle-class district in northwest Tehran. Even though they are just a stone’s throw from Evin prison, some daring young women risk arrest by donning skintight jackets, instead of chadors, and headscarves that reveal shocks of bleached hair. When a patrol car of morality police order two teenage girls dressed this way to sit in the back while a charge sheet against them is drawn up, they try to look nonchalant, and wave across at friends, smiling. Other cars full of teenage boys and young men cruise past the patrol unit, with some male passengers shouting out their names and phone numbers to girls on the pavement. This is speed-dating Tehran-style. Mixed-sex socialising and parties outside the family are formally forbidden. But they take place behind the scenes, many arranged in such ad hoc street exchanges.

When I speak to young people, they’re nervous at first and unwilling to give personal details. But when I ask them if they’ll be voting in this week’s elections their answer is a unanimous “100% yes”.

“I believe there will be a last-minute rush to vote,” says Faraz, 23, an engineering student. “Freedom is the key issue. People don’t feel secure when they go out on the streets. They’re afraid they’ll get arrested, particularly the young. We want change. We want to feel hope for the future, and to have a good time. We want this to be a good country to live in, where the government cares about what’s happening.”

As one young doctor confessed to me, “The problem with Iran is the bowl here is often hotter than the stew.” That is, too little attention is paid to domestic problems and too much to matters outside the country — such as funding terrorism and international posturing by Ahmadinejad against his nemesis, the USA, “the Great Satan”.

“But we have to be optimistic. We have to believe change is possible,” says Hannaneh, 20, a shy trainee teacher. “Anything is better than this.”

As she and her friends turn to walk away, I find myself fervently hoping their generation gets the chance to throw Iran’s curtains wide open.

Rites of passage

May 7, 2009

From birth to gap years, says Christine Toomey, it’s vital to mark key events in a child’s life

There are times in our lives and the lives of our children that change us for ever; the moment of their birth being the most profound and widely recognised by society. Regardless of religious faith, or lack of it, both private celebrations and public formalities surrounding the birth of a child are universal.

So I was struck by the recent heated debate surrounding the proposal — in the wake of a damning report by the Children’s Society on the state of Britain’s youth — that parents in this country undertake a civil birth ceremony when their child is born at which they formally acknowledge and accept the full responsibilities of parenthood. Perhaps the furore hit a personal chord because I found myself grappling with how to mark another milestone at the opposite end of the parenting spectrum — that of my daughter flying the coop.

Following a well-worn gap-year tradition, she and her boyfriend had just set off for six months, journeying through Latin America from Buenos Aires north to Havana, moving as the spirit takes them, and as their small pot of earnings and Foreign Office travel advisories allow. In my daughter’s case, you could argue that such extended wandering has some educational focus, given she will embark on a degree in Hispanic studies in the autumn. But the real intention of their trip is far more fundamental to human nature.

Throughout the ages the restless young have ventured abroad in search not only of adventure but also a deeper understanding of themselves and the world around them. It is the urge that lies at the core of centuries of mythology. There is also the underlying desire to make a leap from the parental nest and spread wings of independence.

As one wise observer remarked before my daughter and her boyfriend left, just how far they fly could be interpreted as a mark of how deeply this desire is felt. So, as they hop on and off buses the length of South America and we stay in touch almost daily by text message, e-mail and the occasional video linkup via Skype, I find myself wondering if this wealth of new technology is, to an extent, undermining the purpose of their travels.

Nevertheless, in advance of their return, I find myself yearning to recognise their having made this break with some symbolic gesture. I have always been keen to mark rites of passage in my daughter’s life. As a foreign correspondent for this newspaper for more than 20 years, it is little surprise I have chosen travel to commemorate such memorable transitions.

When my daughter reached puberty, for instance, in order to celebrate her growing maturity, rather than have her see it as the beginning of “the curse”, we paid a visit to the Eiffel Tower in Paris. And in the summer she truly seemed to be turning into a young woman, we shared a rare time of peace and reflection sleeping under the stars at a Bedouin camp in the Sinai desert. At other important moments in my daughter’s life I have written her letters, which I know she treasures and rereads, as talismans for the future.

But still I find myself longing to be able to place some of these private celebrations within a more formal framework, and wonder what we have lost as a society by failing to recognise more publicly significant events in both our own life cycles and those of our children.

More traditional societies, and many religions, are still rich with rituals marking an individual’s passage from one stage of life to another. But in the absence of many substantial rites of passage in the West, particularly regarding transition from childhood to adulthood, kids make up their own — like flying thousands of miles to trek through the jungles of South and Central America.

The scholar Arnold van Gennep, whose book Les Rites de Passage, published a hundred years ago, formed the backdrop for much anthropological work on the subject, envisaged life in society as a house with many rooms in which an individual needs to be moved from one to another by formal ceremony.

Perhaps, in addition to a civil birth ceremony — where, using van Gennep’s analogy, an infant is conveyed from the metaphorical bedroom into the kitchen for nurturing — there could be some sort of “cutting the apron strings” rite where a grown child is ushered from the kitchen into the garden of life, in full knowledge that this transition does not preclude them returning regularly with bags full of washing.

The vows could include one where a parent formally acknowledges that their job is, in many ways but financial, largely done and promises to let go. Another could involve the child accepting responsibility for his or her own life from then on. It could also, if they wished, include forgiveness for parental mistakes and offer thanks for help given along the way, as my daughter has done in sweet terms as she travels. All this on the understanding that the latter, at least, is unnecessary, since that help was part of a spoken, or unspoken, parental promise when they were born.

Sun, sea and debt

April 26, 2009

After pooling everything to buy a place in the sun, thousands of Brits are drowning in debt and having to kiss their dream lifestyle goodbye. Photographs: Clemente Bernad

A wedding album thick with cards offering congratulations and photos of a smiling couple lies abandoned on the kitchen counter. Boxes full of toys, clothes and other personal belongings stand stacked in corners. One box full of family snapshots shows two young children with their parents in a swimming pool, on the beach, at a restaurant — in all the pictures the sun is blazing and the family looks happy.

This, in the apartment they fled in the small village of Benijofar on the Costa Blanca, is all that remains of the dream of one British expatriate family who moved to southern Spain two years ago in search of a better life.

“They just disappeared overnight, packed a couple of suitcases and went, leaving no forwarding address,” says the British employee of a Spanish bank whose job it is to prepare repossessed properties in the area for auction.

“There are thousands of others like them. Often they don’t tell anyone they’re going, because they’re leaving behind debts that they can’t pay, even though they might have substantial equity in the property they’re abandoning.”

In the case of the family whose apartment he shows me, this amounted to nearly £50,000 on a property bought for £140,000. But since the collapse of the Spanish property market the family would have stood little chance of reselling. Spain has a massive glut of unsold properties — around 1m, of which 500,000 are newly built.

“Many people, particularly young families in recent years, sold up in the UK and put everything they had into their ‘place in the sun’, only to find everything go badly wrong as the economy collapsed and work dried up,” says the bank worker, requesting anonymity for fear of repercussions from his employers. Spain currently holds the European record for unemployment at more than 15%.

“Some feel badly treated. The banks here can get very heavy-handed as soon as people fall into arrears on their mortgages. Men in suits turn up at the door making demands, and people don’t know what to do.”

“Many Brits are running scared. Many are angry,” he says, describing the damage some have wrought on their properties before leaving. One man backed a cement lorry onto the rear patio of his apartment and had the entire ground floor filled with cement.

“The mood here has turned ugly,” he adds, estimating that around 10% of all properties bought by the 40,000-50,000 British who live in the Valencia region of southeast Spain alone are going through various stages of repossession.

Multiply this across Spain, where more than a million British passport holders now live either full time or for part of the year, and a sorry exodus back to the UK is unfolding.

While Spain is unique because of the sheer number of Britons who have moved there over the past 20 years — only Australia has more, with approximately 1.3m — and because of their tendency to create enclaves that could easily pass for small-town England, it is not the only country where expats are now hard-pressed.

Those living throughout the eurozone and relying on fixed incomes from savings or pensions in the UK have found the value of their incomes drop by around a third as the pound has plummeted in value against the euro, from €1.5 in January 2007 to near-parity. (At its peak in 2000, £1 was worth €1.75.) On sun terraces and verandas across Europe, in the shire outposts of “Dordogneshire” in southwest France and “Chiantishire” in Tuscany, conversation revolves around little else.

Many who moved to these more affluent areas in search of sunshine and a better quality of life may talk of cutting back on meals out, or reducing the quality of the wine they drink at home, but they are not facing economic disaster.

Many of those who moved to Spain, however, are pensioners or have taken early retirement and are relying on diminishing fixed incomes paid in pounds in the UK. For them — and for young people who went abroad with their families in search of work — times are increasingly tough.

In Dubai, too, the dream is over. Those who bought into the promise of quick fortunes to be made in businesses such as property speculation in Dubai — where Sharia law metes out harsh sentences for defaulting on debt — risk jail merely for bouncing a cheque. The prospect of such draconian penalties accounts for the growing number of luxury cars being found abandoned at the country’s international airport — 3,000 in recent months. Most are found by airport police with keys left in the ignition and some with used-to-the limit credit cards in the glove box. A few of them display notes of apology from the owners that gather dust on the windscreen.

Those who face financial hardship in Britain are at least on familiar ground and are able to fall back, in extreme circumstances, on support from the state. They are also more likely to have friends and family at hand. But those who have moved abroad enjoy few such benefits: when hard times hit, many find themselves struggling to understand the legal, health, social-security and other backup systems of the countries to which they have moved.

Rational observers might say they should have done their homework more thoroughly before they left the UK and now deserve little sympathy. But it is difficult to accept this view when you meet those affected, particularly those who have worked hard for much of their lives and made plans for a new life at a time when few had any idea that the global economy was facing meltdown. Even the government, with all the problems it faces at home, is turning its attention to the plight of expats, particularly those in Spain and Portugal, where many young families and pensioners are facing real hardship.

In recent months, the British embassy in Madrid has teamed up with the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to create a programme advising expats on the help they might be entitled to. Co-ordinated through local British consulates along the length of Spain’s southern and eastern coastline from Tarragona on the Costa Dorada to Benalmadena on the Costa del Sol, a series of “road shows” have been held to answer questions from worried expats on how best to weather the economic downturn. The programme could soon be extended to Portugal.

There was little cheer, however, for those who turned up at one of these road shows held in Torrevieja on the Costa Blanca at the end of February, attended by the DWP’s most senior civil servant, Sir Leigh Lewis. Far from lifting the mood of those gathered in a large hall in the town centre, Sir Leigh struck a sombre note: “Much as I would love to wave a magic wand and tell you everything is going to be all right and we will pay your pensions and benefits in a standard euro rate in future, the truth is we are not.

“The fall of the pound against the euro must be extremely tough for those of you receiving pensions and other benefits who have seen their value fall. But the fluctuating exchange rate is something we all have to live with,” the mandarin said bluntly. “Over the years there have been good times and bad. It’s a case of swings and roundabouts.”

“The big message to anyone still thinking of moving abroad is: think very carefully before you go and don’t take anything for granted,” says Gillian Merron, minister for consular affairs, who has recently returned from a visit to southern Spain. “Life happens. Things go wrong, and they go wrong in Alicante just as they do if you stay at home.”

Take a turning off many of the main roads lined with swaying palms that run through the Vega Baja del Segura area of Valencia, where Torrevieja is located, and you feel like you are straying into a slice of 1950s Middle England. This southern part of the region of Valencia has the highest concentration of British residents anywhere outside the UK — in some communities they make up over 75% of the population. Ask some of the British who moved here why they left the UK and Britain’s “open-door immigration policy” quickly crops up in conversation; few seem to see any irony in having themselves become immigrants who make little effort to integrate with the local Spanish community.

The older expats, who moved here for a more comfortable retirement, are keen to put a brave face on the financial predicament they are in now that their pensions have fallen in value by a third. Volunteers at the Torrevieja branch of

Age Concern, for instance, have been horrified by reports in the British press of their efforts to provide a warm lunch for struggling pensioners run under headlines such as “Costa del Soup Kitchen” and “Helldorado”.

“We were simply serving a winter warmer soup to people who came into our centre when temperatures dropped in January, the coldest winter here for nearly 40 years,” explains Judith Ferris, the local Age Concern president. When pressed, however, she mentions one elderly British woman standing shivering outside the doors of the centre who has not been able to afford heating in her apartment for more than a month. The woman refused to be interviewed.

The truth is that this older generation are proud and reluctant to discuss their finances; they feel uncomfortable at the media spotlight turned on their straitened circumstances. Many are also more accustomed to hard times.

“My wife keeps a careful eye on the housekeeping, so we’ll muddle through,” said one 80-year-old retired postal worker from Truro sitting on the terrace of Torrevieja’s Casa Ventura bowls club.

The club’s vice-captain, Phil Mornachan, a 57-year-old private investigator from Stockport, was less optimistic: “Unless you’re well and truly loaded, the expat dream here is dead. I’m thinking of going home.”

His despondency is more typical of those who moved here with families in recent years, particularly those who sought work on the back of the property boom. Down the coast from Torrevieja is a vast complex of small villas and apartments known as Orihuela Costa, where of the 28,000 registered residents, around 23,000 are British, many of them young couples with children.

“This used to be a buzzing community, full of life, but now it’s turning into a ghost town,” says Paul Moran, owner of the Emerald Isle Leisure Centre, where young families gather on a Friday night. He cites the dozens of small bars and restaurants in the area that have closed in recent months as growing numbers return to the UK.

Of those families attempting to stay, many are finding they can only survive if the husband commutes out of the country to work. “We had to struggle to make a new life here. But we wanted a better quality of life for our boys,” says Mark Strudley, who moved to the area from west Wales with his wife and three young sons four years ago.

Like many new arrivals, Mark worked selling property for several years, but when the property bubble began to burst two years ago (prices have since plummeted by as much as 30-40%), he was forced to look for work much further afield. He has since found a job as an offshore oil worker on a rig in the North Sea and spends two weeks out of every four away from his family.

“We’re determined to stay here. We wouldn’t say we’d never move back, but we don’t want to,” he says, as his young sons play nearby.

This view is shared by another young family relaxing close by at the Emerald Isle. Neil and Denise Couzens originally wanted to start their own business in Spain so that their nine-year-old son and six-year-old daughter could enjoy a life “away from knife crime, gangs and bullying”. But Neil now finds himself commuting back and forth to Norwich to continue running a pub and sandwich bar he owns there so that his wife and children can continue to live in Spain. “It’s no different from working away from home in the army,” he says with a shrug.

Those with little stamina for long-distance commutes have no choice but to return. Derek Beetham, 55, also once sold property in the area, but was laid off in 2007 when the estate agency he was working for closed down — as have an estimated half of Spain’s 80,000 estate agencies in the past 18 months. “If I could afford to stay I would,” he says, looking out over the pool of the four-bedroom villa he bought with his wife eight years ago and has now put up for sale. “We bought this long enough ago that we should still make a profit. But who knows what we’ll be able to afford back in the UK.”

Mark and Julia Edwards are a younger couple who have also decided to make the move back this summer. They have run a small teashop in San Miguel, Orihuela Costa, for several years. “Our business has gone well and we have been happy in Spain. But this feels like the right time to return, mainly for our son’s education,” says 45-year-old Mark, from Bedfordshire. Their son, Jack, is 15.

“We have had a good seven years here. But things are changing fast. I hope what is happening now will make people stop and think about some of the madness that has gone on here,” he adds. “I hope it will put an end to the culture of greed, both that of the Spanish who have massively overdeveloped this area and that of many Brits who simply came out here looking to make a fast buck.”

In expat enclaves such as the Dordogne, where the property market has not collapsed so decisively, the effects of the recession have been less dramatic. “We don’t have hordes of Brits sitting around with their suitcases packed. They would have to sell a house in a market where it’s difficult to get a good price and they would be returning to a country where the credit crunch is hitting even harder than it is here,” says Alexandra Thevenet, of the Dordogne’s Franco-British chamber of commerce and industry.

Compared to Spain, the fall in property prices in France has been more gradual.

The French National Estate Agents Federation (Fnaim) estimates that prices dropped by 5% in 2008, though since last autumn the decline has become steeper, and Fnaim anticipates a drop of 10% this year.

The more frugal attitude to credit in France — where banks typically insist that credit-card bills be paid in full every month and few mortgages exceed 75% of the value of the property — means it is harder to sink into the sort of financial quagmire that has prompted Brits to flee from Spain because of substantial negative equity on their homes and bills they cannot pay.

Nevertheless, of the 200,000 British passport holders permanently resident in France, there are those who are bidding au revoir to the Gallic dream. Among them are Brits who traded in suburban semis for remote ruins that they turned into gîtes, with romantic visions of tourists pouring in. The financial crisis has meant that fewer tourists are travelling abroad — particularly to the eurozone, where the pound is so devalued — and the rising cost of living has made such ventures less viable.

Even those with more ambitious plans, such as the former City lawyers Patrick and Collette Bergot — whose renovation of a 16th-century chateau in the Limousin region of south-central France featured in the Channel 4 series No Going Back: Chaos at the Castle — say they have had to put plans to extend their family-run hotel on hold until they are more certain of the number of guests coming in future. “We can’t help but worry with the way things are going.There are definitely fewer people looking for holidays this year than last,” says Patrick.

“While we are fairly confident of bookings over the summer, the number of people booking weekends as a treat is definitely down.

“We would almost certainly not have been able to make the move out here in the current economic climate — we did it on the strength of the value of our property at home.”

In the 13th-century market town of Eymet in the Dordogne, meanwhile, where around a third of the population of 2,500 is British, one local removal firm reports a “flurry” of Brits moving back to the UK in recent months. The numbers are still small: half a dozen or so couples and families left the area in the weeks around Christmas. “Before that, we were dealing with an almost exclusively one-way traffic of people coming out,” says Alan Chorley of the locally based AC Light Haulage. “People are still coming, though in fewer numbers than before.”

Tony Martin, who runs French Liaison, a help centre in Eymet for British people, confirms that a steady number of expats are still arriving. “They are tending to rent rather than buy now, as they can’t sell their homes in the UK, and they are testing the waters here more carefully before they make a permanent move.”

The same trend is confirmed in countries further north, such as Belgium, where large numbers of British expats work on short-term contracts for international companies or organisations such as the European Commission.

“The sword of Damocles is hanging over some people I know as they await the verdict of contract renewal,” says Paul Morris, editor of Expatica Belgium and France, an internet forum for English-speaking expatriates.

In France, as in Spain, it is British pensioners and those who have taken early retirement and are relying on fixed incomes from UK-based funds and savings, who are hardest hit by the recession. Not only are they suffering the effect of the falling value of the pound, but changes to French law are forcing non-working expats who arrived in the country after November 2007 but are not yet of retirement age to seek private medical cover. Such cover can run as high as €2,500-3,000 per person a year — a substantial sum for a couple.

One financial-consulting firm based in Bergerac in the Dordogne reports a significant rise in the number of British expats seeking help with equity-release schemes, previously little heard of in France.

“I’ve had nearly 100 inquiries since the start of the year from British people who are struggling now to pay food bills and other expenses like medical insurance,” says Céline Monier, of Make It Easy Consulting. “Arranging these schemes now makes up 50% of my work. Last year it was less than 20%.”

Yet in exclusive enclaves such as the Luberon region of Provence, made famous by Peter Mayle’s original “flit-lit” bestseller, A Year in Provence, the credit crunch does not appear to be biting. “I’m sure there are people who are really hurting,” says one British writer living in the medieval village of Ménerbes, where Mayle set the book. “But I can’t get a table for lunch tomorrow at our favourite local restaurant because it’s overbooked, and I still can’t get a plumber to fix our radiators in anything less than six weeks, because they are all occupé.”

Likewise, in Tuscany, dubbed “Chiantishire” because of the generations of well-heeled Brits who have sought the good life among its rolling hills and vineyards, there is little evidence of expat suffering. “Like everywhere, people are feeling the pinch,” says Peter Shaw, editor of Italy magazine, who has a home near the walled city of Lucca. “But I’m not seeing any signs of a mass exodus. Those who can afford to live in Tuscany can afford to live in Tuscany.”

Compared with Spain and France, the number of British citizens registered as permanent residents in Italy is relatively small — around 19,000 — though there are an estimated 50,000 who own homes in the country and live there for part of the year. “Brits who moved to live here with a view to working or setting up businesses are in a rather different situation from those who went to countries where English is more widely spoken,” Shaw stresses. “In Italy you pretty much have to learn the language, and you also have to battle with so much more red tape than in other countries, so most will have done a lot more homework before moving here in the first place.”

Expatriates working in Italy are also less likely to be affected by the credit crunch than those elsewhere, argues Bill Thomson, head of the Italian department at the international estate agents Knight Frank and a Tuscany resident for more than 20 years. “There’s much less of a debt culture here, mainly because Italian banks are so strict in their criteria for lending money. So people live more according to their means.”

Those who are selling up and leaving Italy are more likely to be driven by the opportunity to capitalise on the increased value of their property by converting any profit from its sale in euros into sterling, argues one estate agent in the more recently popular central area of Le Marche.

“The market has changed,” says Gildo Ercoli, of A & G Immobiliare in the medieval hill town of Amandola. “There are more English selling and fewer buying, though their place is being taken by the Dutch, for instance, who are not affected by the problems of the falling pound.”

This underlines a point also made by Tony Martin in Eymet in the Dordogne: that many who are now moving back to the UK from Europe never intended to “stick it out” anyway. “Those who were never completely committed to living abroad are using the economic downturn as an excuse to return home,” says Martin.

It is a view echoed by the novelist and screenwriter Frederic Raphael, who divides his time between the Dordogne and London.

“I certainly don’t want to imply that it serves anyone right, because it is very easy to jeer at others’ misfortunes. A lot of people went abroad on fixed incomes thinking they were going to play golf for the rest of their lives, and they have been hit very hard — and I don’t think anyone should gloat about it.

“But for those who only went abroad for financial advantage, it is some kind of warning,” he says. “I don’t feel frightfully sorry for people who used to splash it about and now don’t have enough water in the bath to splash. To them I’d say: have a good wash with a flannel, ducky.”

The Maldives: Trouble in paradise

February 1, 2009

Rising seas are threatening to engulf the Maldives, so the president wants to buy a new homeland for his people. But should he instead be looking to build a new one on the grave of the old?

It is 1990 and a young writer sits in solitary confinement, his hands and feet shackled inside a metal tube, known as the “hot cell”. It is designed to heat up like an oven in the tropical sun. His food is deliberately laced with broken glass and laxatives, and he is repeatedly beaten — he has dared to openly criticise his country’s political elite. Through a slit in the metal walls he can see a sliver of ocean on the horizon. This is his only comfort. It is, he says, what opened his imagination, led him to think about a better future for his country.

Just a short distance from the small prison island where he is held, a paradise is being carefully crafted. The small knots of low-lying islands and coral-reef atolls that make up the Maldives are being engineered into one of the world’s most romantic tourist destinations.

Exclusive resorts are taking over many of the 1,200 tiny isles grouped in 26 coral atolls. Stilted luxury villas snake across translucent waters teeming with exotic marine life; glass floor panels have been installed underfoot in many. The trademark of these tourist oases is that no visitor’s request for pampering is considered too onerous. And the guest books will fill with the signatures of world-famous leaders and celebrities in the years to come. The daily grind for most Maldivians — prohibited from visiting these resorts to prevent what the government calls “cultural contamination” — was different. Little tourist revenue filtered down, and all dissent was brutally quashed. Those who criticised the country’s president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom — who ruled his country with an iron fist from 1978, and became Asia’s longest-serving leader — were beaten and thrown in jail.

The number of inmates on prison islands like Dhoonidhoo, where the young writer was held, burgeoned. Corruption was rife, and drugs, with their related crime and violence, were allowed to flow into the country virtually unchecked.

Islanders in the more remote atolls still led the traditional life, living in single-storey homes built of coral fragments on streets made of sand with the sea never far away. Most survived from fishing and trading, taking advantage of the strategic position of their small nation, once a British protectorate, at an important shipping crossroads 400 miles off the southwest tip of Sri Lanka.

But as the population expanded, more and more people moved to the capital, Male, an island of less than a square mile, where overcrowding in low-quality apartment blocks became so acute that families were forced to sleep in shifts. Mountains of garbage accumulated in the streets and raw sewage was pumped into the sea.

In 1989, Gayoom’s government hosted the first-ever conference of small island states threatened by sea-level rises. The serious threat of global warming was only just coming onto the public radar, but Gayoom paid little attention. His priority was promoting tourist development. Now, 20 years later, Gayoom has gone, and a new menace threatens the Maldives. The battle for democracy has been won — but the battle against the force of nature is just beginning.

The young writer repeatedly tortured and imprisoned 20 years ago is strapped into the seat beside me as our plane lifts away from Male. His name is Mohamed Nasheed and he has only recently been elected president of the Maldives. Pointing out of the window at a seemingly uninhabited teardrop of green below, he shows me the prison island of Dhoonidhoo, where he was held the first of 13 times he was jailed for dissent. It is then that he begins talking about the effect his incarceration there had on his determination to “think big”.

“All you have to do when you are in prison is think, and even then I knew we were going to need dramatic solutions to the problems my country faces,” says Nasheed, a slightly built man of 41 with a high-pitched voice.

In 2004 the former dissident was granted political asylum in the UK, and it was here that he consolidated his opposition movement, finally overthrowing Gayoom in elections in October 2008. When we meet, the man his countrymen call “Anni” has had little time to introduce many changes. But one of his “big ideas” has grabbed global attention. Shortly after taking office, Nasheed made the dramatic announcement that he intends to start banking enough tourist pounds and dollars to buy a new safe homeland in which to relocate his 386,000 citizens when — not if — rising sea levels make the Maldives uninhabitable. Tracts of land in Australia, India and Sri Lanka are said to be under consideration for purchase. Nasheed’s plan caught the attention of the world’s media and led to a flurry of doomsday headlines painting a picture of a nation packing their bags and decamping en masse, waves lapping at their ankles. The truth, as always, is more complex.

According to the latest scientific estimates, sea levels are expected to rise worldwide by up to 60 centimetres by the end of this century as a result of climbing temperatures and shifting weather patterns associated with the build-up of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. And this does not even take into account how much further sea levels could rise if the ice sheets of Greenland and west Antarctica start melting at ever more rapid rates.

But is it really feasible for an entire country to relocate itself to higher land? If so, how long would it be before it became necessary, and how do its people feel about such a prospect?

Nasheed leads me to his modest office at the back of the presidential complex. He refuses to use the opulent rooms Gayoom once occupied and plans to turn the sumptuous presidential palace into his country’s first university; one reason he thinks the Maldives has so many environmental problems is that Gayoom actively discouraged academic research and scientific inquiry among his countrymen, on the grounds that too much critical thinking could threaten his hold on power.

Nasheed explains that he has just received a visitor from Dubai. The businessman from the global investment company Dubai World — the company responsible for such futuristic land-reclamation projects in the United Arab Emirates as the Palm Islands and the World — had come to discuss the possibility of building underwater resorts for well-heeled tourists in the Maldives.

The president is reluctant to discuss the details. But one thing is clear: for those with money, whatever problems climate change brings will be regarded as little more than a financial challenge to be overcome with elaborate solutions. This is not the case for the majority of Maldivians. The country’s reputation as the richest nation in South Asia is misleading: its £3,100 GDP per head is unevenly spread; 42% of the population still live close to the poverty line.

“Every evil you think a society could have has found a home here in the Maldives,” Nasheed says. “We have inherited beautiful buildings from the previous regime, but almost empty coffers. There is an acute shortage of housing, sanitation, water, health, education, transport and basic infrastructures for a decent life.”

In addition, 30% of the country’s youth (and 75% of the population is below 35 years old) are now heroin addicts. Faced with such pressing social concerns, it seems surprising that Nasheed should give any thought to the long-term problems his country faces. “We’re in the front line of rising sea levels and we have to be prepared. I don’t want my grandchildren to end up as environmental refugees,” explains the president, who has two daughters aged 6 and 11.

The Maldives faced their first serious environmental wake-up call in 1998 when shifting ocean patterns associated with El Niño caused sea temperatures to rise to such a degree that normally vibrantly coloured tropical coral reefs around the globe suffered extensive bleaching, which causes the algae they feed on to migrate or die. Nowhere was this more dramatic than in the Maldives. Between 70% and 90% of all coral reefs surrounding the country’s 26 atolls are estimated to have died as a result. One diver swimming the length of reefs in North Male atoll at the time described it as an underwater equivalent of the snowcapped Alps.

Once the reefs died, coastal erosion escalated and the islands were left more exposed to the elements of nature than ever. Their vulnerability was graphically illustrated in December 2004, when the Maldives offered the tsunami of that Christmas scant resistance — it simply swept over them. With little of the damaging backwash that caused so much destruction in other Indian Ocean countries such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand, the death toll in the Maldives — where 82 died and 15,000 were displaced — was low. But the tragedy led to a deep shift in the national psyche. The event was widely interpreted by the largely Sunni Muslim population as the act of an angry God. In the wake of the disaster, the proportion of women wearing religious head coverings in the country soared.

In an effort to win political favour – Nasheed’s opposition movement was by then gaining momentum – Gayoom went ahead with a rapid programme of artificial-harbour construction. More than three dozen additional harbours were built on the country’s 200 inhabited islands in less than three years.

Just as the destruction of coral reefs had a disastrous effect on the islands’ natural defences, so too did this construction programme, which drastically altered sea currents surrounding the affected islands, leading to more coastal erosion.

As I trail Nasheed and his environment minister, Mohamed Aslam, on a visit to one of the Maldives’ southernmost atolls and then travel to islands in the north to see such damage first-hand, the prospect of the Maldives one day disappearing beneath the waves becomes a lot more believable. It is already happening to part of Maduvvaree island in the northern Raa atoll, and the fear and disbelief are written on the face of the 45-year-old fisherman Abdullah Kamal.

Two years ago there were more than 50 metres of grass and sandy beach between the sea and the home where Kamal lives with his wife and eight children. Now the beach has vanished, the result of changing sea currents caused by a harbour built on the opposite side of the island. Some of Kamal’s neighbours’ houses have already collapsed into the sea.

“At night I lie awake and listen to the water lapping against the back wall of our house. The children cry. They’re very afraid, but we have nowhere else to go,” says Kamal. He has heard about the president’s plan to start saving money to buy a new homeland if the Maldives are one day inundated. But he does not believe his countrymen would want to move so far away. “We’re a nation of fishermen, and if they try to change that, our wings would be broken.”

Just how quickly sea levels will rise as a result of global warming is uncertain. But, as Aslam says, the effect of even a moderate rise in such a low-lying country as his will be quick and drastic. “If the predictions are right, in less than 50 years we could be in a really bad situation,” he says.

With only a 10-centimetre rise in sea levels Aslam paints a scenario in which coral reefs will begin to permanently lose their breakwater function. Not only will this lead to even more rapid coastal erosion, but the freshwater reserves that islands store in subterranean water tables will become saline and vegetation will die, leading to further soil erosion.

More than 100,000 people now live in Male, making it one of the most densely populated towns on Earth. The neighbouring island of Hulhumale, or New Male, has been designated to accommodate the overflow. A massive land-reclamation project to build an artificial island with an elevation of three metres is nearing completion. This project is cited by some as the way forward for constructing “contingency islands” to which the population could be moved when climate change makes the rest of the lower-lying islands uninhabitable.

The country’s influential environmental group Bluepeace proposes that seven such safe islands be developed in different areas of the archipelago to give Maldivians the chance of continuing to live there as sea levels rise.

“Most wouldn’t choose to leave and live thousands of miles from here,” says one of the group’s founders, Ali Rilwan. “We’re a very old civilisation. We wouldn’t want to be second- or third-class citizens somewhere else.”

Neither Nasheed nor Aslam rules out the construction of such safe islands, yet the president is in no mood for discussing such compromises. “People are either blissfully unaware of what climate change will bring, or are fed up with hearing about doomsday scenarios. So we must have imagination to make positive proposals.”

That is where Nasheed’s plan to establish a sovereign fund comes in. He believes it is essential that his countrymen also eventually have a “dry-land option”, a place where they can move within a bigger landmass. “It has to be there, as an anchor, to give confidence,” he says, as if talking about buying a simple insurance policy.

Of the $45m the government currently earns annually from tourism, Nasheed plans to start putting aside at least $2m a year into a fund, with contributions increasing substantially over time. This seems unlikely to be enough to buy a sizable chunk of land in the near future in such mooted destinations as Australia. But the government’s intention, he says, is that this fund be supplemented by donations from the richer nations that bear the brunt of responsibility for global warming.

Charity organisations are also calling for rich countries, such as the UK, to do more to help the developing world adapt to the effects of climate change, storms, famines and droughts. Oxfam, for instance, has called for at least $50 billion a year to be released from international carbon-trading programmes to help poor countries introduce adaptation schemes, such as upgraded early-warning systems for flooding.

When pressed, however, Nasheed says he only mentioned Australia as a possible destination out of solidarity with other small island states in the South Pacific such as Tuvalu and Kiribati, for which the rising oceans are also a ticking time bomb. Regional think-tanks are already urging the Australian government to draw up plans to relocate the small populations of these atoll states through staged migration as land becomes increasingly uninhabitable. A more realistic destination for Maldivians, says their president, would be a tract of land in one of the southern states in India, such as Kerala, where the relocation of 386,000 in a country with a population of 1.14 billion might be more feasible. “No country has said they will not have us,” says Nasheed. “We are going into unknown territory, so we have to have the vision to believe a new future is possible. If the Maldives is going to be underwater, for instance, who owns it? And if we move to another country, are we still a sovereign nation?”

While some may dismiss Nasheed as a dreamer, the questions he poses about his tiny island state will be multiplied by the vast areas of much more populous countries such as Bangladesh, China, Vietnam and Egypt that will also be inundated by rising sea levels. In Bangladesh alone, 17% of the country’s landmass is expected to be submerged in the next 40 years, making at least 20m homeless.

The spacious concrete-block houses lined up in the sand on the island of Dhuvaafaru in the northern Raa atoll have a very different feel from the traditional cramped dwellings of coral fragments on other remote islands in the Maldives. Little wonder, since these houses have only just been built by the International Red Cross and the Red Crescent to rehouse the entire population of the nearby island of Kandholhudhoo, whose houses were destroyed by the 2004 tsunami.

It is only two weeks since the 4,000 islanders moved into their new homes. For the past four years, most have been living in sweltering tents in scattered refugee camps on other islands. Here, at least, you might imagine that the population would be aware of the dangers future generations face from climate change. But there is little sign of it. “I do not believe that the climate will change and the sea will rise,” says Fauziyya Mahir, a 43-year-old mother of seven, as her fisherman husband sits in silence close by. “No matter what happens, I believe God will take care of us. I don’t think our new president should be talking about such things. We have enough other problems that need solving, like crime and drug addiction.”

Her view is typical, explains Dr Ahmed Razi, one of the community’s leaders. “It has taken scientists decades to accept that climate change is happening, so it is quite understandable that lay people don’t believe it. Fishermen are fatalistic by nature, and as a nation we are a religious people, so many people’s attitude will be to leave whatever will happen to fate.”

But fishermen in the capital, Male, say that they have already noticed significant changes in the local weather patterns. For more than 1,000 years a traditional calendar of sea-and-wind patterns known as the nakaiy existed in the Maldives, its frequent changes so reliable that its patterns were passed from father to son.

Ahmed Waheed shakes his head when talking of the nakaiy now. Resting in the shade of the cabin of his boat with his crew, the 53-year-old says the traditional period of calmer weather between December and April is now much more changeable, with higher winds and rougher seas. “But why should we be afraid of the sea level rising when our life is the sea?” he says, to which the rest of his crew nods.

“One of the biggest problems we face is a lack of understanding of how our islands are changing,” concedes Aslam, the country’s environment minister, who was recently held hostage for several hours by islanders in the south demanding he set a date for providing their community with a new harbour. He refused to bow to such pressure and eventually had to be set free by police.

As we sit talking, Aslam laughs off the incident, but sympathises with the frustration of his countrymen. “We welcome the international scientific community to come to the Maldives and use us as a laboratory for understanding the dynamics of our islands and the global implications of climate change,” he concludes.

When Nasheed joins us for supper, I am reminded of something that the young president said earlier: “The Maldives is the canary in the world’s carbon coal mine.”