x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Australian mayor offers sinking nation a safe harbour

Pyrenees Shire hit the headlines after the local mayor loosely invited the potential environmental refugees of the Maldives to set up a new nation in his town.

A sign stands on the side of the road in Pyrenees, Australia.
A sign stands on the side of the road in Pyrenees, Australia.

PYRENEES, AUSTRALIA // In the rural belt of Western Victoria, a safe distance from the bush fires that have scarred southern Australia, a quaint little shire is offering a remedy for an entirely different environmental disaster. Pyrenees Shire, richly blanketed in vineyards and wind farms, hit the headlines after the local mayor loosely invited the potential environmental refugees of the Maldives to set up a new nation in his town, once the predicted rising ocean levels have swallowed the island archipelago.

In 2008, President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives announced his country's plan to set aside a portion of its US$1 billion (Dh3.7bn) annual tourism profits for buying a new homeland. His eagerness came after environmental projections highlighted the chance that a good deal of the country's 1,200 islands and atolls would be submerged as early as 2100, leaving its 350,000 citizens nationless. Among the places Mr Nasheed suggested as eligible contenders for a new nation were nearby neighbours India and Sri Lanka, geographically and culturally a pragmatic option, and the wide, brown territory of Australia, thanks to its vast amount of uninhabited land.

Enter Lester Harris, then-mayor of the Pyrenees' capital town, Beaufort. In late 2008, on a national broadcast discussing the plight of the Maldivians' dwindling homeland, the mayor expressed his interest in offering the threatened nation a little slice of Australiana. "Our community's a very welcoming community," he said. "We've got relatively cheap land compared to the major cities or even to regional cities, and I'm sure that we've got the type of climate that would make life very agreeable for these people."

The comment, while brief, has become what Mr Harris himself acknowledged as "a storm in a teacup", sparking numerous online discussions and comments from radio hosts. A resounding question was posed: can this actually happen? Looking around at the parched hills and sleepy towns of Pyrenees Shire, with its Christian-centric and predominately white demographic, it is hard to imagine the bustling markets of Male or the call to prayer echoing across fields of sheep and hay bales.

"It's a big land mass with not a big population," said Craig Wilson, editor of the local Pyrenees Advocate. "Pyrenees has a policy of increasing its population but I think they'd prefer it to be more of a gradual thing." The area, with a current population under 10,000, would not have seen such a significant influx of people since the Australian Gold Rush more than 150 years before, when more than 100,000 rushed to plunder the land of its natural cache.

"It's rural Australia, if you know what I mean," said Matt Thain, from behind the bar of the local Golden Age Hotel. "We don't have all that many foreigners living here. It's not like you'd come off the boat and say, 'Hey, let's go to Beaufort.'" So what would Maldivians have to look forward to in their new home Down Under? The pub, a cornerstone of Australian culture, may be a tad inappropriate for the strictly Islamic nation, and the kangaroo, camel and crocodile pies at the local bakery are not for the fainthearted.

Prospecting is an option. The rivers still yield the occasional gold for the more patient of prospectors. The new arrivals could also add some international competition to the annual steam engine rally. While Maldivians may be keeping a concerned eye on the coastline, the major concern for locals here is water conservation, with periods of drought inevitable in the harsh climate. The three main hubs of economic existence for Maldivians are fishing, factory work and its flagship tourism industry. Because of the high salt level of the soil, the country's inhabitants are not renowned for their agricultural output.

In the Pyrenees, however, agriculture is a must. Thirty per cent of the workforce tends to the abundant fields of cereal and hay crops. Many more work at the local mines and vineyards. "There're always farm labourer jobs available," suggested Mr Wilson from his newspaper's office. "People are always looking for people to come and pick fruit, go cropping or to help shear sheep. "That said, if they're looking at bringing any refugees here, you'd need to update the infrastructure. We'd be in bloody strife if they all just turned up one day," he said.

While the idea of a whole nation of people kicking off their flip-flops and throwing on an Akubra hat seems ridiculous even to the most imaginative, the threat to their homeland seems real enough. Hundreds of millions of people in countries such as China and India, as well as a number of islands in the Pacific, are under threat of becoming a new-age Atlantis in the face of rising sea levels. It is clear from the outset that no country, let alone the little Shire of Pyrenees, is ready for the psychological and geopolitical baggage of rehousing an entire nation.

What is not clear is how the world will react when the first country disappears. * The National