The Contingent Movements Archive is an online archival arena speculating on the future of the Maldives, which due to sea level rise is predicted to be submerged by the ocean within the next one hundred years.
Landmasses have disappeared before. Over thousands of years geological shifts and fluctuating sea levels have shaped migratory patterns and cultural evolution. But the complete disappearance of a nation state beneath the ocean is unprecedented in modern times, and the questions that arise in the face of this situation throw current international laws and issues of cultural continuity into disarray.
The Contingent Movements Archive seeks to unpack the problematics and possibilities of the anticipated submersion and dissolution of the Maldives, and to explore these contingencies within a global context. The project draws together a wide range of perspectives to map out potential migration scenarios for the permanently displaced population and its culture. The archive will be built up over the period of the 55th Venice Biennale, with critical input from the Contingent Movements Symposium, to be held at the Maldives Pavilion.
The Maldives rests upon twelve plateaus of underwater mountains that rise steeply from the sea floor 4,000 meters below. One hundred meters before reaching the surface their rise comes to an end. This casts the Maldivian atolls. Most of the plateaus are submerged, but occasionally colonies of coral shape sugar cone-like peaks that rise a meter or two above the sea to form an island. All in all at least 1,192 islands have emerged, only 192 of which are inhabited.
Presently in the Maldives, as a consequence of rising sea levels, island coasts are being eroded, and the intrusion of saltwater makes the soil inappropriate for agriculture. The nation's coral reefs are threatened as sea temperatures rise, and in 1998 a single El Niño phenomenon warmed the sea enough to kill two-thirds of the reefs. The dissolving of the coral accelerates land loss and further endangers the future of one of the nation's most important sources of income, tourism. Previously stable and reliable seasonal cycles have in recent years also been unbalanced, affecting fishing, another of the nation's main industries.
As the situation intensifies, living conditions on small and distant islands will become untenable. Populations have become more dependent on national infrastructure, and internal migration has occurred to some extent, as after the tsunami of 2004 when some 12 communities consisting of 15,000 people were relocated. Recently the artificial island Hulhumalé has become an escape from the overcrowded capital Malé, the fourth most densely populated island in the world, where one third of the country's population lives. However, building artificial islands in the Indian Ocean is expensive, and without the help of international investment aimed at securing territory, it might not be a feasible solution for a population under siege by the sea.
Maldivians have long been aware of the vulnerability of their islands. In November 1989 an initial conference on global warming and sea level rise was organized in Malé. Unfortunately the 1989 Malé Declaration was overshadowed by political changes taking place in the Eastern Bloc, and although the rise of the sea was declared inevitable, and the conclusion reached that action was needed, little was done to mitigate the situation.
Twenty years later, and shortly prior to the Copenhagen Summit, Maldivian flags decorated a shallow atoll lagoon in the underwater cabinet meeting held by president Mohamed Nasheed's government. The cabinet gathered to sign a document calling for global cuts to carbon emissions. Through this intervention, and by drawing attention to the threats facing small island states, Nasheed managed to place the Maldives in the international spotlight. He also established the Global Warming Relocation Fund, a national fund for buying land in other countries, in the hope of establishing settlements that would prevent Maldivians from becoming climate refugees. The former president stated that his government was considering Australia, India, and Sri Lanka as possible countries for relocation if the Maldives were to disappear into the sea.
This international adaptation strategy may seem far-fetched. But as the nation is suffering the consequences of global warming induced by international industrialisation, should developed countries take responsibility for the effects of their carbon output? Or will other possibilities remain as land disappears?
The politics of climate change induced displacement are complex. Under current international law there is no such thing as a ‘climate refugee’. No refugee status is afforded to individuals displaced by the disappearance of territory. The Convention relating to the Status of Refugees spells out that a refugee is someone who ‘owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted... is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country’. The acceptance of individuals displaced from low-lying islands into other nations as refugees is thus at present problematic.
The establishment of sovereign territory in another state could be an option for island nations facing erasure by the sea. The maintenance of territory is one of the key constituting elements of statehood, and the complete loss of territory could mean the extinction of a state. In this scenario citizens would have to acquire other nationalities, and should this not be possible they could be left stateless. Could the assets of the disappearing territory of the Maldives be used to pay for relocation to prevent this? Should the nation maintain an artificial island in order to ensure statehood, while the rest of the islands are evacuated?
The Contingent Movements Archive sets out to explore the contingencies of these unprecedented scenarios within a global context, paying particular attention to queries surrounding potential resettlements in the countries nominated by Nasheed. It also seeks to inquire into the future perseverance of Maldivian culture. The recent destruction of the last remaining evidence of the nation's pre-Islamic past at the Maldives Museum, during a period of political upheaval, highlights the fragility of original material artefacts. The Maldives was a Buddhist nation before converting to Islam in the 12th Century, and the museum held a collection of Buddhist statues made of coral, sandstone and limestone, which were reduced to dust in the attack. Only a few photographs of the sculptures remain.
The safety of a national archive or museum is linked to the stability of a nation, and as the Maldives undergoes political turmoil, and the coral ground on which the museum sits is eroded by rising seas, one wonders what the fate of its current and future artefacts might be. Might the museum become a cultural marker, by which history is measured not only by its content, but also by its migration? Might the digital images of the Buddhist sculptures that circulate and endure online indicate that cultural security in the 21st century can be found in the distributed multiple rather than the singular original? Or does this induce cultural synthesis and hybridity?
The dispersion of the cohesive state of these sculptures could be made into an uneasy metaphor for a foreseeable fate for the Maldives. If no sovereign territory is established in another state, as islands are swallowed up and sovereign seas are lost to international waters, the citizens who constitute the state of Maldives will be dispersed. The Contingent Movements Archive speculates on this potential diaspora and the world it would dissolve into, and enquires into possibilities for the island state to persist.
Curated by Hanna Husberg and Laura McLean, and developed with Kalliopi Tsipni-Kolaza.
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Website developed by Edward McLean and Janne Husberg.
This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body, and by Frame Visual Art Finland.
This project is supported by Arts NSW's NSW Artists' Grant Scheme, a devolved funding program administered by the National Association for the Visual Arts on behalf of the NSW Government.
It is partnered with Maldives Research, an independant public policy think-tank based in the UK and the Maldives.