The drastic effects of climate change are felt most strongly by small islands. They are especially vulnerable to changing ocean temperatures and levels, volatile storm patterns and the depletion of freshwater sources, among many others. For island nations, these issues are amplified since their economies – and survival – are dependent on the natural resources and habitats available to their populations (human and wildlife alike).
Mauritius, a small country about 2,000 kms off the coast of the African mainland, is one such country. Known for its beautiful beaches and wide diversity of flora and fauna, it also has among the highest GDPs of any African country and is a flourishing democracy. The steps that the government and public of Mauritius have taken to combat the rising tide of environmental danger should serve as an inspiration to the entire world, and especially to India given that our islands are incredibly susceptible to global warming.
Ameenah Gurib Fakim is a leading biodiversity scientist whose research has focused on the medical and nutritional importance of Mauritius’s indigenous plants and nature. She also served as the sixth President of Mauritius – and the first woman and first Muslim president of the country – from 2015 to 2018. She will be giving a talk this week at the 10th edition of the TEDxGateway Conference in Mumbai.
Homegrown had the pleasure of speaking with her about some of the most imminent problems of our time and how she balances her passion for change with the everyday duties of being such an inspirational political leader.
HG: What excites you about science and drives your passion everyday?
AGF: Science has always fascinated me ever since I was a child. This is mainly because I had motivated teachers who had this amazing talent for demystifying science altogether. Science provided all the answers that a child could be asking. Why is the sky blue? Why are plants green, yellow, red? When one observes nature, one cannot be insensible to its perfection and the science underpinning its functioning! I was lucky precisely to have had these teachers who could explain everything in layman’s’ language and show me that science is all around us.
HG: What inspired you to become a biodiversity scientist – and what was it like to be the first female, Muslim President?
AGF: My passion has always been in the sciences. I studied chemistry and did my PhD in Organic chemistry. When I returned home, I could not do the same type of chemistry as I did during my student days in the UK. I turned to plant science, especially plant chemistry, as we live in a biodiversity hotspot. As an academic, studying those unique plant species with the hope of discovering new molecules and adding to the body of knowledge was a great challenge indeed.
I never chose the world of politics. It chose me precisely because I was a Muslim woman with an apolitical background and some credibility!
HG: What are some of the biggest threats to the world today? What are some daily challenges you have to face as a leader?
AGF: I would say unequivocally that the biggest threat to Small Island States like Mauritius is climate change. Mauritius is already 13th on the World Risk report and with rising ocean temperatures, there will be stronger storms and it is a fact that one large storm can wipe years of development gain for any country. Daily challenges? It is trying to get such message across to people especially when they are blissfully unaware of such dangers.
HG: Climate change impacts populations differently, with some groups specifically vulnerable. What are some local, perhaps youth-focused initiatives in your country that you are excited about?
AGF: The youth, not just in my country, but the wider African continent is getting involved in agriculture-based activities. This is good news in as much as before, agriculture had bad press and a negative image associated to it. Technology is, fortunately, helping to change this. Agriculture with new technology can help create jobs and this is what is desperately needed in Africa and also Asia for the matter.
HG: How can we get people around the globe to care more about these issues and work towards a sustainable future?
AGF: We need a global movement to sensitise people on the challenges of climate change. This is becoming a tough task already as there is a lot of anti-science sentiment these days. We will need to start with the young people and educate them on the necessity to change their habits. We need to keep messaging that there is NO Planet B!
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