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Pulitzer Center Update April 23, 2024

Behind the Story: Land Reclamation in the Maldives



Most visitors come to the Maldives for its resorts and pristine beaches. For Pulitzer Center grantee Jesse Chase-Lubitz, there’s a story behind that sand. 

Chase-Lubitz arrived in the Maldives with a couple of connections to local Maldivians, who had clued her into the debate over land reclamation and its negative effects on the environment. As she spoke with more and more residents, the story grew more complex. 

The Maldives face an existential threat from sea level rise, and rebuilding the coastline with dredged sand has become a popular solution. But a series of activists on the 1,200-island archipelago are questioning the tradeoffs. While snorkeling around the atoll of Addu, for instance, divers found a coral reef now covered in sand from dredging. Chase-Lubitz discovered that was just the tip of the iceberg. 

Through interviews with taxi drivers, hotel owners, politicians, and scientists, Chase-Lubitz found that land reclamation is not a one-size-fits-all policy. Atolls like the Maldives are extremely sensitive to human interference—dredging can damage natural barriers like sand bars and mangroves, and delicate marine ecosystems may be unable to adapt. 

Despite knowing the environmental risks, the government has continued to approve land reclamation projects, emphasizing the economic benefits and job opportunities. Around Malé, the capital city, some reclamation projects have relieved population pressures and improved living conditions for residents. Moderation is key, though, Chase-Lubitz found. 

Chase-Lubitz hopes her reporting will paint a more complicated picture of the Maldives for readers, a perspective that tourists don’t often encounter, she told Pulitzer Center Editorial Intern Alexandra Byrne in this “Behind the Story” interview. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Alexandra Byrne: How did you find this story? Why the Maldives? 

Jesse Chase-Lubitz: I first thought about the Maldives in my master's program. I was doing an environmental policy and regulation master's degree at the London School of Economics and I read a book by Naomi Klein. In that book, she mentioned how during the 2004 tsunami, the government moved all these people from one island to another island, saying the island was unsafe, and then later built a resort on that original island. I was like, “That's weird.” 

I was researching climate adaptation at the time, so I started to look into it. I first found a story about a floating island project there, which I thought was really interesting. I started calling all these sources in the Maldives. Eventually, they were like, “Yeah, we don't know anything about this floating island. We're interested in land reclamation.” 

So I got the story about land reclamation from the Maldivians living there. I didn't really know about it beforehand. Over another year, I started gathering all this information, I got kind of obsessed with it. I found it really interesting and I started pitching and pitching and pitching. This is a hard story to do from afar, and it's not as responsible if you're not there. 

I don't know for sure that the Maldives is the most interesting place to study this, but there are almost 1,200 islands there. And 80% of them are below sea level. It's a vulnerable place. They've been trying to reclaim land for a really long time, so I felt like it would be a place where I could look at how these projects have impacted the environment over time. There was one in particular that I knew had been finished and built on, so I knew I could look at that from a historical perspective and see the reactions to it, rather than just say, “Here's a new thing that's happening. Let's see what happens in the future.” 

AB: Your reporting highlights activists, business owners, and residents in the Maldives—why was that important to you and how does it fill in gaps in previous reporting? 

JCL: This happens with a lot of adaptation projects—we're all in this survival mode and anytime someone brings up a solution we all hop on board quickly. In my degree, that was something I was thinking about a lot: How helpful are these green cities, eco-cities, and green technology? What are they actually doing? Are they doing more harm than good? 

The people who know whether they're doing more harm than good are the people who are living with it, not the people deciding to build them. This was a story they wanted told. I reached out to these people with a whole different story in mind, and they were like, “This is what we actually care about.” 

From a writing and storytelling perspective, I saw a lot of passion and inspiring movements among those people. I thought they'd be interesting and easy to relate to, for an audience that is automatically going to be more Western-leaning, because this is an English-language piece. 

AB: How did you find sources for this piece, especially in the government and dredging companies who would be less willing to talk? 

JCL: Sourcing in a country you're not too familiar with is always difficult. I started by emailing everyone, which I now know is never going to get you anywhere in the Maldives. No one's checking their email—doesn't matter if they're the head of the EPA or a dive instructor, they're not going to email you. 

I found, like, three people at the start, and I was like, “How can you connect me to three more people?” Those three people would connect me to three more people. Now I have like 50 people from the Maldives in my WhatsApp contact list. It feels really casual to us, but it's so much easier, much more direct—you can have a conversation going back and forth. 

A lot of the sources I got were out of the generosity of the people I had already found. There were very few people I found just from cold-calling. As dispersed as the country is, it's also quite small and community-oriented. If you're in this space, and you care, everyone knows everyone. 

When it came to the dredging companies, you have to go through the official routes. You have to get their communications people, which was a bit more of a challenge. But especially for the Dutch companies, dredging is a central part of what they do. This isn't a story of this is a terrible thing that's happening and this company is at fault. There's real merit to doing this. If you can appeal to their own mission statement, you're going to have a lot more luck getting more information. 

AB: Were there any surprises or roadblocks in the reporting process? 

JCL: So many things, but no massive upset. There was one woman connecting me to 20 people on the island in the south (Addu). On the plane there, I was like, “What if this woman just falls through?” You have to put so much trust in people. I could have just not found anyone and it could have been hard. But looking back, if I had shown up with no contact, someone else would have helped me because everyone was so nice. 

There was a lot that surprised me. There's a lot about the culture of the country and the politics that I didn't know beforehand. I tried to learn everything I could about land reclamation, but I didn't know, for example, that land is given away for free in the Maldives. That’s a fundamental thing to know in understanding land reclamation and why they do it. That changes your whole approach. Now you have a new justification for why this is happening. I also didn't know how much of the population was migrant workers and how many of these projects were done by migrant workers. It was hard to focus the story when there was just so much stimulus coming all the time. 

Another cultural aspect is that people aren't going to promise you time a week in advance. Every night you have to reach out and try and get them to schedule you in the next day. In the midst of it, there was a lot of stress and pressure, but in the end, we got probably more interviews than I needed. 

AB: You mentioned you wanted to distribute this piece in the Maldives. Why was that an important part of this project and how’s that going? 

JCL: It's not going that well, right now. There were two magazines that were interested. My plan is to finish this, get it out, and then return to them and show them what I have. I can't write the same story, obviously, but I have so much information that I'm sure I can find an offshoot. 

No one cares more about this than Maldivians. They're the ones fighting for it. I interviewed a person who's been trying to sue the government for four years. For one project, people have quit their jobs because they don't agree with it. It's completely changing their livelihood. People who live on Malé have one adjacent island where they can easily go snorkeling or scuba diving. I went snorkeling there and it's covered in sand because there's a reclamation project right across the way. Many of the people that I talked to don't want it, but there are a lot of people there who allegedly do want it, or they've been convinced by the government that it's the best way forward for their particular islands. 

Getting out information about what's going on on a high level will be fulfilling for me, but also for all these people who put so much time and effort into helping me. I think it's important to write for the audience that you write about. They speak English in the Maldives, so that's a unique opportunity—that doesn't happen a lot where you can go somewhere completely different and so far away, and still communicate in such an effective way. 

AB: Your reporting challenges some commonly held beliefs about land reclamation and climate resiliency for islands. What do you hope readers will take away from this project? 

JCL: I want to paint a different image of the Maldives in everyone's head. To me, before I went, it was almost, like, made for tourists. I think we forget people live there. People don't know where it is—most people think it's in the Caribbean, which isn't any fault of their own. It's just not that geopolitically discussed. People aren't thinking about it all the time. They don't know where it is. They don't know that it's a Muslim country. They don't know what the culture is like. They don't know they speak English. There are all these fundamental things that people don't know, yet they go there and enjoy the beautiful geography. 

So, my most fundamental hope is that people have a more complicated idea of what the Maldives actually physically looks like in their head. My more hopeful goal is that it makes people question supporting something called an adaptation right off the bat. Just because we've called it that and just because we need to adapt doesn't mean that every adaptation is going to actually get us there. 

I find these stories where there's a moral conundrum at the end really interesting. I don't leave this knowing what's best. I definitely think wetland reclamation can be beneficial in moderation, and really harmful beyond that. Journalism struggles at times to not leave you with a hard line at the end. For this story, I don't want people to leave knowing exactly what I think. I want them to be able to understand the complexity of climate adaptation. 

Arriving in the Maldives, it's one of the most wild entrances to a country. I've never landed in the middle of the ocean knowing that there's no real landmass around me. You get off the plane and I would say 90% of the people on the plane get onto these luxury boats. They might not even meet a Maldivian—most of the people working in these resorts aren't Maldivian. I took a cab to Malé, which is a dense area. We just arrived in the same country, and we will have two unbelievably different experiences. There are not that many countries where you can just avoid the locals so effectively the whole time. The Maldives is a real place, it’s a real country with real people. It's not just a luxury destination.


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Environment and Climate Change

Environment and Climate Change
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Land Rights

Land Rights