Children of the ocean
Social influencer Afaa, aka The Island Girl, is using her online presence to advocate for the ocean.
A connection to the ocean that runs deep
24 year-old, Afaa is an environmental activist from the Maldives, using her status as a social influencer to speak out for the ocean. Like most Maldivian’s, Afaa describes herself as a ‘Child of the ocean.’ Situated in the Arabian Sea, the Maldives is a large archipelago of 1190 tiny islands, only 185 of which are inhabited. 99% of the Maldives is, in fact, ocean. Given their proximity to the sea, it’s not surprising that Maldivians feel a deep connection to the water that surrounds them. ‘From morning to night, we live with the ocean. Our childhood memories, our livelihoods are all tied to the ocean’, says Afaa.
Growing up on the northern island of Kulhudhuffushi, named after the mangroves for which it’s famous, Afaa’s passion for environmental conservation began at a young age. Throughout her childhood, Afaa witnessed the steady increase of environmental damage occurring on her home island. As she grew, these problems only became more pronounced, compelling her to speak up and take action.
Collecting litter on Kulhudhuffushi. Photograph: Reelmedia Film.
The ugly side of the Maldives
The Maldives has a reputation as a luxury holiday resort, yet there is a darker side that most tourists are unaware of. The impacts of climate change are being acutely felt by locals. Rising sea levels and erosion means that many are at risk of losing their homes as the land is lost to the sea. In an attempt to counter the problem, a system of ‘land reclamation’ has been pursued. Sand is sucked up from the bottom of the ocean and then pumped onto land, creating an artificial landmass. Afaa explains, ‘The environmental impact of ‘reclamation’ is huge. Coral reefs are damaged or completely destroyed.’ Afaa describes how many of the holiday resorts are built on artificial land, ‘It’s so sad tourists don’t know the truth. There is an ugly side to the Maldives.’
Taking action both on and offline
Waste management is also a significant problem. A nation that used mainly organic materials for millennia is now overwhelmed by the influx of single-use plastics. Many islands have no formal waste management systems in place. Plumes of smoke rise as tonnes of rubbish are burned, at considerable cost to the environment. Seeing litter overtake her beautiful island inspired Afaa to start the grassroots organisation, BeLeaf. ‘We started in 2015 with just 6 volunteers. We did weekend clean-ups, going to different areas of the island, cleaning the beaches and public spaces.’
As BeLeaf was getting off the ground, Afaa also started the Instagram account the.islandgirl, using it to spread her message of environmental protection. As her follower-count grew, so did BeLeaf. Soon, Afaa and her team of volunteers were organising events on a much bigger scale. ‘We organised one of the largest lagoon clean-ups, engaging free-divers to collect litter in the ocean while we cleaned the beach.’ In 2019, BeLeaf collaborated with the US-non-profit, Mangrove Action Project to bring marine scientists to Kulhudhuffushi and survey the island’s mangroves.
First image: Afaa documenting the waste on her island. Second image: Giving a talk to young people. Photographs: Reelmedia Film.
It’s the youth and future generations that will be most affected by what’s happening now, so we need them to be engaged and be a voice for change.
Empowering the youth
Today, BeLeaf has 50 volunteers, and Afaa has over 9000 followers. Afaa capitalises on her online presence to engage young people. She works with schools and colleges across the Maldives to host talks about the environmental crises the country is facing. ‘It’s the youth and future generations that will be most affected by what’s happening now, so we need them to be engaged and be a voice for change.’
The other side of the story
Whilst continuing to grow BeLeaf, Afaa has also started working at the Ministry of the Environment. ‘I want to better understand the barriers and challenges to making change happen from the government perspective. It’s important to know the other side of the story.’ Looking ahead, Afaa is committed to advocating for the environment and her final message is one of hope. ‘Believe that change can happen and be persistent – it’s not going to happen overnight. We need to work with each other and build networks because together our voices are harder to ignore.’