Adrian Cowell and ‘The Decade of Destruction’: A film can make a difference!

The Amazon burning
The Decade of Destruction A unique chronicle of the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest.

Whatever we might think about Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth, I’m glad it has settled one question: can a single film make a difference in tipping public opinion about a matter of global importance? The answer, where climate change is concerned, is a resounding yes!

But years or decades before Al Gore, other film makers have had their own impact on other environmental issues. One of them is Adrian Cowell, the award-winning British film maker whose quest to tell the story of the destruction of the Amazon forest made politicians listen and the world take note.

According to the Centre for Social Media at the American University, “He catapulted the environmental movement to save the Amazonian rain forests through the television series The Decade of Destruction and Banking on Disaster.”

Adrian Cowell
Adrian Cowell
Adrian, whom I have had the pleasure of meeting and talking on several occasions, is a world acclaimed leader in our field. Born in Tongshan, China in 1934 and educated at Cambridge University, Adrian has been making films longer than I have been alive — and luckily for all of us, he is still at it.

He began filming his path-breaking series called The Decade of Destruction in 1980, when the Amazon was first opened up to settlers and developers. He has documented the systematic destruction of the rainforest there into late 1990 when, for the first time, there was an indication that the fires were being brought under control.

As the synopsis says: “Each episode follows the real life stories of people caught up in the frontier’s web of need and greed, stories of personal tragedy and great courage. The programs relate the individual’s struggle to the wider developments going on around them. Together they illustrate the principal issues of Amazonia during the 1980s – its decade of greatest destruction.”

The Chicago Tribune called it an epic, “a brilliantly told story of greed, death, politics, violence, heroism and environmental holocaust.”

I recently came across this brief account by Adrian Cowell himself, looking back at his long engagement with the Amazon:

“In January 1980 we started 10 years of recording the destruction of the Amazon forest. We began by filming colonists invading the territory of the then unknown, and very vulnerable, tribe, the Uru Eu Wau Wau, in the Brazilian state of Rondonia. Many colonists had received, free of charge from the government, plots of 40-50 hectares in the forest traditionally hunted by the Indians. Tragically, within a decade, this ‘colonisation’ process, called the Polonoroeste Project, would not only leave three-quarters of the Indians dead, but also prove a disaster for the colonists themselves. They had been given such poor soil that, within six years, 60% of the land they had so hopefully deforested would be abandoned.

Amazon: The last frontier?“So we were astounded when the World Bank moved in to lend nearly half a billion dollars to the project, and were even more astonished when we realised that what was being played out in front of our cameras was evidence of one of the most disastrous loans the Bank had ever made. Not unnaturally, I went to Washington to find out what could explain the Bank’s loan. And there I met three environmentalists, Bruce Rich, Barbara Bramble and Brent Blackwelder, respectively from the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Wildlife Federation and the Environmental Policy Institute. They were campaigning on how international economic development affected the environment. But by a remarkable coincidence they had decided to focus, not only on the World Bank, but on – of all its hundreds of loans all over the world – the very Polonoroeste Project that we were filming. They asked me to show our film in Congressional hearings and I telephoned José Lutzenberger – more or less the father of Brazilian environmentalism – to ask him to testify. By yet another happy coincidence, an American researcher, Brent Millikan, had written a report giving academic detail to the facts behind what we had filmed. And an American expert on Amazonia, Dr Philip Fearnside, added his authority to the diagnosis of what was going wrong.

“And so, some months later – after a complex chain of legislative and political developments – we were able to record Senator Robert Kasten, the chairman of the powerful Appropriation Committee’s subcommittee on foreign operations, cutting off 20% of the money the US donated annually to the World Bank. Nothing concentrates a banker’s attention more than the withdrawal of some of his money. Within a few months we were able to conclude our programme, Banking on Disaster, by filming World Bank president Barber Conable admitting, for the first time, that a Bank loan, specifically the Polonoroeste Project, had gone wrong. This was to be the beginning of a very slow and gradual greening of World Bank policies.

“Obviously, our television film had played a part in this political change. But though a film may sometimes be the most dramatic way to present a case, it is an illusion to think that it can be more than just one tool or facet of the very complex process behind international and environmental evolution.”

* * * * *

Here’s more biographical background about Adrian:

The Decade of Destruction - book cover
Book of the TV series
Adrian Cowell has been making documentary films for five decades. In 1955-56, he joined the Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition, an experience which launched his film career and his interest in Burma. The following year, he made his first foray into the rain forest of Brazil, part of a joint Oxford-Cambridge expedition of young filmmakers. These early trips became the seeds of Cowell’s award-winning epic projects. His series Opium was filmed over an eight-year period (including nine months when he was trapped behind the lines in Burma). His ten-year chronicle of the destruction of the Brazilian rain forests during the 1980’s—broadcast as the television series The Decade of Destruction —stirred the world and contributed to the international debate on how the Amazon should be developed. In 1990, The Decade of Destruction was broadcast on Channel Four in Britain and on PBS FRONTLINE in the U.S. Adrian Cowell’s more recent British TV series include The Heroin Wars. It is a follow-up to The Opium Trail (1966), The Opium Warlords (1974) and Opium (1978).

Cowell is an environmental activist, co-founder of the Television Trust for the Environment and the author of two books on Brazilian Indians, The Heart of the Forest (Knopf) and The Tribe that Hides from Man (Stein and Day). He also wrote a companion book to the TV series The Decade of Destruction (Henry Holt and Company).

Read PBS interview with Adrian Cowell on another of his film series, on opium trade in Southeast Asia

Linking ‘weather’ to ‘climate’: Journalists’ big challenge then…and now!

L to R - Nalaka Gunawardene, Jesper Zolk and Bahar Dutt
At IFEJ 2009 Congress on 28 Oct 2009: From L to R: Nalaka Gunawardene, Jesper Zolk and Bahar Dutt

I used to describe my job as one where I try to make sense of our topsy-turvy world. But I’d happily settle for the simpler description ‘connecting the dots’. This is what we as journalists covering development issues must do everyday in our work:
• link the macro with the micro; and
• find inter-relationships and inter-dependencies that aren’t always very self-evident.

This reminds of me a piece of advice given by the late Tarzie Vittachi (1921-1993), the Sri Lankan-born journalist and editor who was a pioneer in development journalism in the 1960s and 1970s. Long before climate change became an issue, he was speaking metaphorically to fellow journalists when he said: “Ordinary people live and work in the day-to -day weather. Most can’t relate to long-term climate. It’s our job, as journalists, to make those links clear.”

When Tarzie made this remark, some three decades ago, he was speaking metaphorically. Times have changed and now we are literally dealing with weather and climate issues.

Making those links is not always easy, especially if we want to avoid sensationalism, scare-mongering and other excesses that often characterize media coverage on climate change.

I made these observations when chairing a session on the North-South differences in the electronic media (television) coverage of climate change in New Delhi, India, this week. It was part of the latest international congress of the International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ), held at India Habitat Centre from 28 to 30 October 2009. Its theme was “Bridging North-South Differences in Reporting Climate Change: Journalists’ role in Reaching an Ambitious Agreement at COP15 in Copenhagen”.

Participants – over 100 journalists covering science and environmental issues, from all over the world – recognised how climate concerns have extended beyond strict environmental (or ‘green’) issues to mainstream political, business and even security coverage in the media.

Joining me on the TV panel were two experienced journalists from news and current affairs channels — Jesper Zolk, Climate Editor of TV2 News, Denmark, and Bahar Dutt, Environment Editor of CNN/IBN, India.

As it turned out, they were a great panel – they knew a lot, and being TV journalists, also knew how to say it well and concisely. This was the second time that Bahar – one of the best known faces on Indian television today – and I have been on a panel together: almost four years ago, at IFEJ Congress 2005, also in New Delhi, she joined me to discuss ‘Does TV do a better job on environmental reporting?’

I opened my panel by showing this cartoon, one of my favourite when it comes to climate coverage in the media:

Can we blame him for the confusion?
Can we blame him for the confusion?

We cannot assume much more knowledge and understanding in our average TV viewer than the confused guy in this cartoon, I said. So just how do we reach out and engage millions like him (and also the better informed viewers like his fellow viewer)? How do we tell this complex, still unfolding story within the time limits of 24/7 news television, I asked.

We didn’t find all the answers in 75 minutes of our session, but at least we clarified and agreed on a few points. Bahar Dutt’s observations were particularly relevant, especially since India now has over 500 news and current affairs TV channels broadcasting to a billion plus audience in over a dozen languages.

At a time when mainstream media elsewhere in the world are struggling to stay on in business, the Indian broadcast media remain ‘chaotic but robust’, she said. “But editorial filtering is not always very strong in some of our channels, which sees climate coverage ranging from no coverage at all to hysteria,” she added.

According to Bahar, much of the climate coverage in the Indian media overlooks the links with broader development issues. “Focus is often on climate treaty negotiations, or what individual experts or politicians say. These elements are only part of the bigger picture, and we need to look further and dig deeper.”

Bahar Dutt
Bahar Dutt at IFEJ 2009
“Environmental journalists are not green activists, and our role is to be watchdogs – keeping a sharp eye on government, industry and even civil society,” Bahar said. “But sometimes I find this watchdog role lacking in our media.”

Her advice to fellow journalists: stop seeing environment as simply a green and ‘cuddly’ sector, and move it into the political arena.

Jesper Zolk, Climate Editor of Denmark’s TV2 News, said his biggest challenge was how to get the pampered western viewers to change their lifestyles to be more climate friendly.

He urged journalists to focus not just on problems, but also on viable solutions. He expressed a concern that some journalists covering environmental issues sound more like green activists — a point that Bahar Dutt also agreed on.

She made another perceptive observation: people who have the least carbon footprint are the most keen to take action to mitigate climate change. That’s because they realise they are often the first to be impacted.

Our genial and erudite host Darryl D’Monte, chair of the Forum of Environmental Journalists of India (FEJI), had earlier asked participants to reflect on whether the media is part of the problem or the solution in the current crisis.

On the road to Copenhagen and beyond, we have our work cut out for us. As the Danish Ambassador to India, Ole Lønsmann Poulsen, quoted John F Kennedy in his opening remarks as saying: “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.”

Orissa Cyclone + 10: Revisiting Nature’s greenbelt protection…

Satabhaya sand dune
Life saving sand...
This week marks the 10th anniversary of the deadly cyclone that hit India’s eastern state of Orissa.

The 1999 Orissa cyclone, also known as Cyclone 05B, and Paradip cyclone, was the deadliest Indian Ocean tropical cyclone since the 1991 Bangladesh cyclone, and deadliest Indian storm since 1971. The storm made landfall just weeks after a Category 4 storm hit the same general area.

A tropical depression formed over the Malay Peninsula on October 25. It moved to the northwest and became a tropical storm on October 26. It continued to strengthen into a cyclone on the 27th. On October 28, it became a severe cyclone with a peak of 160 mph (260 km/h) winds. It hit India the next day as a 155 mph (250 km/h) cyclone. It caused the deaths of over 10,000 people, and heavy to extreme damage in its path of destruction.

In 2006, during the production of TVE Asia Pacific‘s TV series The Greenbelt Reports, we visited the coastal village of Satabhaya, located on the edges of the Bhitara-kanika National Park in Orissa. A giant sand dune separates the village from the Indian Ocean.

The dune is the source of regular sand storms that force people to stay indoors for hours. Each storm can cover their houses with several inches of sand. Yet, they are not complaining. They remember the super cyclone of October 1999 – it was the natural sand dune that reduced the impact of that super-cyclone. The Satabhaya people know that it’s their only protection.

After the cyclone, they have devised traditional methods to trap the sand and create dunes to protect their village.

The Greenbelt Reports series It looks at how communities, researchers or environmental activists are trying to find a balance between conserving coastal greenbelts – coral reefs, mangroves and sand dunes – and deriving economic benefits for local people.

Watch The Greenbelt Reports: Surround Sand on YouTube:

Pierre Fitter from NEWS-X wins TVEAP Environment Journalist Award 2009

Vatavaran 2009 banner
All shades of green and brown...

Pierre Fitter from Indian news channel NEWSX was given the TVEAP Environment Journalist Award (Electronic) at the inauguration of the CMS VATAVARAN, India’s premier Environment and Wildlife Film festival, which started on 27 October 2009.

This award is sponsored by TVE Asia Pacific (TVEAP) and is given to “an individual for excellence in environmental reporting that contributes to public awareness and understanding of environmental issues”.

Pierre was selected “for his insightful, analytical and fact finding stories focusing on diverse issues related to environment and climate change”.

I literally dashed from the Indira Gandhi International Airport to the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi to be part of the inaugural ceremony. Despite the best efforts by Delhi’s notorious traffic, I made it just in time to join Dr Farooq Abdullah, Union Minister of New and Renewable Energy, to present the TVEAP award to Pierre Fitter.

Pierre Fitter
Pierre Fitter: TVEAP Environmental Journalist of the Year
Aarti Dhar of The Hindu newspaper was adjudged as the Best Environment Journalist Award (Print), while my good friend Krishnendu Bose received the prestigious CMS-UNEP Prithvi Ratna Award “for his sustained and concerted efforts towards enhancing people’s understanding and spreading awareness on diverse environmental issues through films and documentaries”. This is the highest honour for wildlife and environmental film making in India.

Pierre Fitter lives in Delhi where he reports on the environment and foreign affairs. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Socio-Legal Sciences and is studying for a Masters in Political Sciences. Pierre spent a year and a half in China and Russia, where he worked for AIESEC, an international youth leadership development organisation. While with AIESEC, he developed a deep interest in sustainable development and international relations and continues to report on these issues to this day. He has a special interest in Environment and climate change in particular.

Watch Pierre Fitter interviewing Shyam Saran, the Indian Prime Minister’s special envoy on climate change on the current state of climate change in India in early October 2009:

Selection of award winners was based on regular monitoring of Indian news and current affairs TV channels and newspapers by the CMS MediaLab.

CMS VATAVARAN is India’s premier biennial competitive and traveling Environment and Wildlife Film Festival. It was initiated in 2002 towards raising awareness about environmental issues. The CMS Environment Forum and CMS VATAVARAN have ushered in a fresh green global consciousness on an extraordinary scale using environment forums and films. CMS VATAVARAN is an initiative of Centre for Media Studies.

New-and-improved Tinker Bell: UN’s latest Honorary Ambassador of Green

Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure
Now she's green inside and out!

I always thought Tinker Bell was a bit green — with envy, that is. Peter Pan’s faithful fairy sidekick was far too possessive of him: every time another female appeared to get close, Tink would try to chase her away. She typifies the Jealous Female.

And now, Tinker Bell is very officially green, too: The United Nations has just named the Disney animated character Tinker Bell an “Honorary Ambassador of Green” to help promote environmental awareness among children.

The announcement came just prior to a screening at UN Headquarters in New York of the world premiere of the Walt Disney animated film, “Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure.”

In the new movie, being released on DVD and BluRay on 27 October 2009, the feisty fairy first seen in 1953’s Peter Pan classic animation movie finally gets a makeover for her journey away from the magical land of Pixie Hollow.

The new and improved Tink looks more tomboyish: more of her body is covered in clothes, yet she still retains her curvy figure. “We wanted to make Tink as real as possible in Lost Treasure,” says director Klay Hall. “It made sense she was going to put on a jacket, leggings and boots. This is sort of a new phase for Tink, and the look brings her up to the current feeling we are trying to convey,” such as the belt she uses to carry items she needs.

Tomboyish yet curvy...“We’re delighted Tinker Bell has agreed to be our Honorary Ambassador of Green,” said Kiyo Akasaka, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information. “This beloved animated character can help us inspire kids and their parents to nurture nature and do what they can to take care of the environment.”

The UN event was intended to promote environmental awareness in the lead-up to the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen in December, where countries will aim to ‘seal the deal’ on a new global agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Protecting the environment is an underlying theme of the Tinker Bell movies, according to the UN Department of Public Information (DPI), which finds that the Walt Disney Company uses its storytelling to inspire a love of nature and spirit of conservation in its audience.

In the latest film, Tinker Bell’s greatest adventure takes place in autumn, as the fairies in Pixie Hollow are busy changing the colours of the leaves, tending to pumpkin patches and helping geese fly south for the winter. When Tinker Bell accidentally puts all of Pixie Hollow in jeopardy, she must venture out on a secret quest to set things right.

Tinker Bell Director Klay Hall, Producer Sean Lurie and cast members Mae Whitman (Tinker Bell) and Raven Symoné (Iridessa) were among those attending the premiere, hosted by DPI as part of the Secretary-General’s Creative Community Outreach Initiative.

The Initiative links the UN and producers, directors, writers and new media professionals seeking a working relationship with the world body with the goal of raising awareness of critical global issues.

Well, I can think of one Big Challenge for the creative community worldwide: find some way, any way, to ‘animate’ (i.e. bring to life!) the chronically dull and dour Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General of the UN, who in his own admission is often invisible!

But hey, some feats are beyond even the most creative people! So just enjoy these two online videos…

Tinker Bell and The Lost Treasure: First 6 Minutes


Vatavaran 2009: Every shade of green under the Sun, converging in New Delhi this week

CMS Vatavaran 2009 - a feast for the eyes and mind
Vatavaran 2009 - a feast for the eyes and mind

TVE Asia Pacific (TVEAP) is once again proud to be associated with CMS VATAVARAN, India’s premier Environment and Wildlife Film festival, as a co-sponsor.

The festival runs at India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, from 27 to 31 October 2009. It will showcase the best of Indian and international films on environment and wildlife. The theme of the 2009 festival is ‘Climate Change and Sustainable Technologies’ and focus area is ‘Natural Heritage Conservation’.

I’m looking forward to a week of film watching and meeting film-makers and film lovers.

Read more: TVE Asia Pacific co-sponsors 5th CMS VATAVARAN 2009

Small Islands, Big Impact: Film from the frontlines of climate change impact…

A short film, 20 years in the making...
A short film, 20 years in the making...

Some films, like certain books, are in the making for years or decades. My latest film, Small Islands, Big Impact, just released online by TVE Asia Pacific, is quite short: slightly under 6 minutes long. But it has been forming in my mind for the past 20 years.

As a science journalist, I have been covering its story since 1989: how the Indian Ocean archipelago of the Maldives – Asia’s smallest country by area and population – is on the ‘frontline’ of climate change impact.

The Maldives packs 325,000 people into a combined land area just under 300 square kilometres spread over 1,192 islands and islets. With an average ground level of 1.5 metres (5 feet) above sea level, it is also the lowest country on the planet. When I first visited the Maldives in late 1988, they were still recovering from a massive storm surge in 1987. Although the damage was limited, the experience showed how vulnerable the Maldives can be to even a small rise in sea levels – this prompted the then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom to take up the issue internationally. (It was President Gayoom who took up climate crusading at statesman level, well before Al Gore turned up on the scene.)

Interestingly, my first encounter with President Gayoom had nothing to do with climate – it concerned a celestial phenomenon: the Maldives was witnessing an annual solar eclipse and the President wanted to observe it in the company of amateur astronomers from their nearest neighbour, Sri Lanka. So he invited a couple of us over (I was active in the Young Astronomers’ Association of Sri Lanka at the time.)

Small states conference on sea level rise logoI returned to the Maldives in November 1989, that time as a member of the international media covering the first ever small states conference on sea level rise. Held at the Kurumba island resort, it was one of the earliest international gatherings on climate impacts on low lying states, a topic that was to gain public interest and momentum in the years to come. Among the participants were delegates from practically all the small states in different parts of the world (defined as those with less than 1 million population), and scientists from disciplines such as oceanography, climatology, meteorology and geology.

This was one of the first international scientific events that I covered as an eager young science journalist. I was a foreign correspondent for Asia Technology, a monthly magazine on Asian science and technology published from Hong Kong (now defunct), and freelancing for The Island daily newspaper in Sri Lanka. (There’s nothing online from that coverage as it was in the pre-web era!)

The conference had technical sessions where experts debated scenarios and implications, and a political segment where delegations made their official statements. In the end, they issued the Malé Declaration on Global Warming and Sea Level Rise, which urged for inter-governmental action on the issue.

Our Maldivian hosts knew that scientists and officials alone couldn’t send out a powerful message to the world on what climate change meant for low lying islands of the world – many of them mere specks on the world map, barely registering in media’s radar. So on the last day of the conference, we were taken to the Maldivian capital of Malé, where a demonstration and public rally were held by school children and ordinary people.

That turned out to be the most striking moment of the whole week. I had been listening to experts and officials talk about impacts, scenarios and mitigation measures for several days, on which I’d filed several stories. But unless I go back to my personal archives, I can no longer remember those details. My lingering memories of this event are in a few photos I took, showing school children telling delegates – and the world – what it means to be living on the front lines of climate change impact.

This was the most striking photo – three more are found in an earlier blog post:


After 1989, I visited the Maldives on a couple of occasions for professional purposes during the 1990s. After I started working with TVE Asia Pacific in 1996, I was keen to return to the story of the Maldives and climate change – this time, in moving images – but I never had the chance until this year.

But I was covering the bigger story of climate change and its impact on the Asia Pacific from other locations. For example, in 2002, I commissioned and executive produced Voices from the Waves, the first-ever documentary on climate change in the South Pacific made by a native Pacific islander. Directed by Fijian film-maker Bernadette Masianini, the story revolved around two teenagers growing up on Fiji and Kiribati, each facing an uncertain future because of climate change.

In November 2007, the Maldives once again hosted representatives from small island states to discuss climate change. Eighteen years after the original meeting, the subject was no longer a fringe concern; it was now on everybody’s agenda. The meeting urged the the human dimension of global climate change to be included in the agenda of UN Climate Change Summit in Bali (December 2007), and sought the international community’s commitment “to protect people, planet and prosperity by taking urgent action to stabilize the global climate change”.

This time, the Male’ Declaration on the Human Dimension of Global Climate Change called for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to assess the human rights implications of climate change and “to conduct a study into the effects of climate change on the full enjoyment of human rights”. It also requested the UN Human Rights Council to convene a debate on human rights and climate change.

I wasn’t present at the 2007 meeting, but followed the process online. While climate change emerged as a major global concern, political change and reforms were underway in the Maldives. The country moved to a multi-party democracy, and in November 2008, the Maldivian Democratic Party‘s candidate Mohamed Nasheed won the presidential election.

Science News cover - 28 Feb 2009
Science News cover - 28 Feb 2009
President Nasheed continues the climate advocacy that President Gayoom had sustained for nearly a quarter of a century. President Nasheed has emerged as an outspoken and pragmatic voice speaking on behalf of his and other small island states, grouped under the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS).

In early 2009, President Nasheed announced that the Maldives would become the world’s first fully carbon-neutral nation within a decade. To accomplish this, they would vigorously pursue renewable energies and green energy sources to replace current dependence on fossil fuels.

The final inspiration for Small Islands, Big Impact came in February 2009, when Science News magazine in the United States carried a cover feature on the challenges faced by Kiribati and the Maldives because of climate change. Written by senior science writer Cristine Russell, the article noted: “The Maldives and Kiribati highlight a hidden challenge for coping with climate change. It’s not just about slowing the emissions of greenhouse gases. It’s also about figuring out what to do for localities threatened with the possibility of extinction from rising ocean waters.”

My original plan was to film interviews with President Anote Tong of Kiribati, and President Nasheed. While sharing the same overall concerns, the two leaders (and their governments) have adopted somewhat different responses to the challenges posed by climate change. Unfortunately, the interview with President Tong did not come through in time, even though I had a Kiribati TV crew standing by to film it. So I decided to go ahead with the film focusing solely on the Maldives.

Location filming in Male - Hussein Makzoom (left) and Ibrahim Yasir
Location filming in Male - Hussein Makzoom (left) and Ibrahim Yasir

As with all TVEAP films, I was keen to make it with a local crew. Mariam Niuma, an engaging young Maldivian woman who had worked for nearly two years with us as an intern, helped me find a very capable crew in Ibrahim Yasir and his colleague Hussein Makzoom.

Niuma had been urging us to make a film about her country and was delighted that we were finally able to take it up. She helped us in numerous ways with local knowledge, introductions and advice. She also took time off her work with a local charity to show me around the Male’ island – which I was returning after a dozen years, in which time it had changed almost beyond recognition. (Male’ is one of the most crowded places on Earth – every one in four Maldivians lives on the tiny capital island.)

Small Islands, Big Impact was filmed on location over a few days in late August in Male’ and the nearby island of Vilingili. Our tiny production budget didn’t allow us to spend longer or venture further into the more remote islands and atolls (coral island formations, 26 of which make up the Maldives).

Overcrowded Malé, capital of the Maldives
Overcrowded Malé, capital of the Maldives
The timing wasn’t ideal either – the Monsoon was still active, and rain often interrupted our filming. There was some irony that a climate film was being shot in inclement weather. Sometimes we filmed in spite of the rain – one ferry ride we took from Male’ to Vilingili island had to cross very choppy seas that made me (a land lubber!) quite nervous. For our Maldivian crew, however, it was all in a day’s work…

President Nasheed’s media team had been quick and supportive in accommodating our interview request, but when actually filming it, we faced an unexpected challenge which I’ve described in an earlier blog post. (Clue: In addition to inclement weather, we had to deal with a nasty influenza virus). With the month-long Ramadan fast period about to begin, which would significantly affect the pace of work in the 100% islamic Maldives, we had no choice but to persist with our filming, improvising as we went along.

I returned to Colombo with five camera tapes rich in footage, one of which contained a 15-minute interview with the amiable and technocratic President Nasheed. Over the next few weeks, I worked with our editor Umesha Fernando in distilling this material into a short, compact film less than six minutes. It took a good deal of time and effort — especially since I chose not to have any narration and to let President Nasheed tell the story in his own voice, interspersed with text-supported transitions.

Because of this style, soundtrack mattered a great deal, and we agonised over custom-composing the music. As I put everything this together, I kept recalling the wise words of senior Australian film-maker Bruce Moir: “Film is a lousy medium to communicate information. It works best at the emotional level.”

In the end, we barely met our self-imposed deadline: the film was released online just in time for the International Day of Climate Action. At the same time, I released the full interview (in text) on TVEAP website and the Groundviews citizen journalism website.

I can’t judge my own film, but I have tried hard to strike a balance between its intellectual and emotional appeal. My team and I set out to tell a compelling story about a country on the frontlines of climate impact. No less a person than its dynamic head of state stars in our modest effort, made on an incredibly tiny budget.

So here it is, a film that has been 20 years in the making – Small Islands, Big Impact!

Note: Small Islands, Big Impact was produced on an editorially independent basis by TVE Asia Pacific in collaboration with COM+ Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development. As with all other TVEAP productions, this series comes without license fees, where only copying and dispatch costs are payable. To order broadcast master tapes, please contact:

It may also be ordered in high resolution on DVD (without regional coding) from TVEAP’s e-shop.

Imelda Abano: Asia’s Development Journalist of the Year 2009

Imelda Abano receives her award in Tokyo, Oct 23
Imelda Abano receives her award in Tokyo, Oct 23

I was delighted to hear the news that Filipino science and environmental journalist Imelda Abano has just won the Developing Asia Journalism Awards (DAJA) for 2009.

“We are all winners,” said Imelda at the Awards ceremony organized by the Asian Development Bank Institute (ADBI) at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. “We should continue writing compelling stories to make a difference.”

Imelda Abano, whom I have known and admired for several years, won one of two special awards for her story titled “Scorched Earth”, published on 19 May 2009, in the Business Mirror newspaper in the Philippines.

“Among all the articles, the judges were very impressed with the way Abaño’s article presented the
complex issues on climate change. It was a comprehensive and extra-ordinary piece that was made simple for the readers to understand,” said Monzurul Huq, one of the four judges and the president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.

“We judges were each very impressed by the overall high quality of entries for this year. The awards were meant to recognize the efforts made by Asian and Pacific journalists who provide high-quality coverage of issues affecting growth and development in developing countries,” said Anthony Rowley, presiding judge of the 2009 ADBI awards.

Imelda Abano was honored last year by the United Nations as the Gold Prize Winner for excellence in reporting on humanitarian and development affairs. She was also this year’s recipient of the 10 Young Leaders Award in the Philippines given out by the Philippines Graphic magazine for her reporting on development and environmental issues. In 2002, she won the Asian category of the Global Awards on Environmental Reporting organized by Reuters and IUCN.

The Developing Asia Journalism Awards (DAJA) scheme was launched in 2004 by the Asian Development Bank Institute in Tokyo, for journalists covering development issues in the Asia Pacific. It received around 200 entries this year, of which 22 journalists from 17 ADB developing nations were selected as finalists.

Supriya Khandekar from India won Young Development Journalist of the Year Award. Other winners are Sithav An from Cambodia for the Poverty Impact of the Global Financial Crisis category, Raknish Wijewardene from Sri Lanka for the Government Responses to the Global Financial Crisis category, Zhu Yan from China for the Infrastructure Development category and Moffat Ghala Mamu from the Solomon Islands for the Climate Change Adaptation category. Full list of winners

DAJA 2009 winners
DAJA 2009 winners

President Mohamed Nasheed: Encounter with a genial climate crusader…

President Mohamed Nasheed: Stop pointing fingers!
President Mohamed Nasheed: Stop pointing fingers!

It had taken many days to set up the interview, but in the end we got only 15 minutes of the promised 30. President Mohamed Nasheed turned up more than an hour late, lagging behind in his day’s schedule. While waiting, his staff had repeatedly asked me to cut down the interview as the President was already late for a state function. I had nodded half-heartedly.

President Nasheed (known among his people as ‘Anni’) walked in, beaming and apologising for keeping us waiting for over a day. We had set up our lights and video camera the previous day, only to find that the President had cancelled all his appointments that day to be with his young daughter hospitalised with the ‘flu. As a father myself, I could fully understand – even if it affected our filming plans.

I introduced myself and crew, and asked how his sick daughter was doing. She is not in any danger, he said, and should be home soon. That was a relief.

I ushered President Nasheed to the simple chair we’d chosen for him to occupy during our interview, being filmed in the stately room where the President normally receives high level state guests. As the crew pinned up the mic and adjusted the lights, I quickly explained who we were, and what the interview was for – a short film that would be globally distributed highlighting the vulnerability of his island nation to climate change impact.

There was not an air of pomposity around him. He exchanged a few words in Divehi with my Maldivian film crew – Ibrahim Yasir and Hussein Makzoom. As I would soon find out in the interview, he was also very well informed, articulate and passionate. (I remembered interviewing former President Maomoon Abdul Gayoom nearly 20 years ago when I covered the Small States Conference on Sea Level Rise he convened in Nov 1989. Gayoom was expressive in his own way but had an air of scholarly superiority about him.)

In the 15 minutes that we had, I asked a total of 10 questions. I had sent in advance a baker’s dozen questions to his media staff. I don’t know if they briefed him, but clearly President Nasheed was in his element. He didn’t have any notes, and yet answered my questions perceptively, genuinely and always eagerly. The one-time journalist and human rights activist was very media savvy.

Read my full interview on TVE Asia Pacific website and on Groundviews citizen journalism website (where a discussion is unfolding)

He must have been asked some or most of these questions many times before. Yet with each answer, he found his comfort levels with me and by about the fifth minute, we were nicely chatting along. I had to keep reminding myself that I was really talking to one of Asia’s youngest heads of state. At that moment, he sounded every bit a chatty technocrat.

Nalaka Gunawardene (left) with President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives
Nalaka Gunawardene (left) with President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives

President Nasheed had lot to say, and knew just how to say it. I had prepared for days, reading his recent speeches and op ed essays. I had figured out what to ask to elicit the kind of answers I was hoping for. He didn’t disappoint me. If his staff had not interrupted our interview, we could have easily gone on for half an hour or longer.

But I knew he had already given good ‘soundbites’ that we could excerpt in a short film. For example, how many heads of state would engage in plain talk like this when asked for his core message to the upcoming climate summit in Copenhagen: “In a nutshell, I’d like to say what has already been said: ‘Don’t be stupid!’. Going on and on about who did it is not going to save us. This is the time to realise that the deed is done. So let’s see how we may be able to proceed from here…

Earlier in the interview, he sounded grave when he outlined the prospects for his nation, the lowest-lying country on the planet, now on the frontline of climate change impact. “We will die if this goes on, and therefore, we have a fundamental right for life. If that is challenged, we have to link it be a human rights issue, and not just an environmental issue.”

The next minute, his tone became more resolute when talking on coping with massive changes already unfolding as a result of global warming. He stressed the value of democracy, good governance and people’s right to information as vital elements in adaptation – the difficult task of living with climate change.

Responding to my questions, President Nasheed talked about plans to make the Maldives carbon-neutral within a decade, and said the ‘sovereign wealth fund’ he announced soon after his election was already saving money “so that we will have something when the going gets very bad….”.

Sinking slowly in the East?
Sinking slowly in the East?
We also wanted to film President Nasheed at work, to establish him as an engaged political leader – the first democratically elected President of the Indian Ocean archipelago of 325,000 people. But there was no time. We then hoped to film his daily walk home after work. But the rain and delayed schedule meant he went home by car – and after dark. So we had to rely on stock footage instead.

The mix of democrat and technocrat in President Nasheed makes him an extraordinary personality and the world is taking note. The New York Times Magazine did a full length profile in May 2009 with the title ‘Wanted: A New Home for My Country’. A Hollywood film company is currently tracking the President as he travels the world, calling for urgent climate action that goes beyond mere words. (In fact, with my consent, they filmed me filming the President.)

A month after my interview, TIME Magazine named him an Environmental Hero of 2009 – the only serving head of state so honoured this year. I was delighted to see this, but TIME’s chosen photograph made me very jealous. I had dearly wanted to shoot our interview outdoors, but a combination of bad weather and presidential schedule ruled that out. Evidently, TIME photographer Chiara Goia had better luck: President in full business suit standing about a foot deep in the calm, azure waters of the Maldives.

The same waters that he and his team are trying desperately hard to keep at bay, for as long as possible.

Read my full interview with President Mohamed Nasheed on TVEAP website and on Groundviews

Watch the short film, Small Islands, Big Impact:

Blog post January 2008: Little voices from the waves: Maldives too young to die!

350 – A new rallying call for a world under climate seige

The new number for the future: 350...
The new number for the future: 350...

Nearly 4,000 events are planned in more than 160 countries for the International Day of Climate Action on 24 October 2009 — the most widespread day of political action in history.

It’s a call to action by the campaign: “On 24 October, we will stand together as one planet and call for a fair global climate treaty. United by a common call to action, we’ll make it clear: the world needs an international plan that meets the latest science and gets us back to safety.”

This is their viral video. More at: