Author name: Nicholas Baldo

Tower Proposal Draws Ire in Venice

The picturesque Venetian skyline has remained virtually unchanged since 1514, when St. Mark’s Campanile—the city’s largest structure—reached its current shape. Although past its prime in the early 16th Century, Venice remained a center of trade and manufacturing, even ruling directly over Crete, Cyprus and much of the Dalmatian coast. Though the city’s empire is long gone, its form remains a stunningly beautiful and potent anchor for nostalgic sentiment. Enter the French fashion designer Pierre Cardin, whose proposal to build a new sixty story tower comprised of “three fin-shaped towers connected horizontally by six huge steel discs” (pictured at left) on the mainland near Venice has drawn heavy criticism. The building, dubbed the “Palais Lumière,” would be built in a currently abandoned industrial area in Porto Marghera, which lies about two miles from Venice (see map below), and include residential, commercial, industrial, and public areas. The project appears to be slowly working its way through the Italian bureaucracy, but that hasn’t stopped an outpouring of anger from preservation-minded Venetians.

Cardin’s supporters, like the head of Italy’s Vento region Luca Zaia, have heaped praise on the project, calling Cardin a “21st Century Lorenzo the Magnificent” who’s project will herald the “start of the renaissance of the whole Porto Marghera area”. Cardin’s nephew, Rodrigo Basilicati, is an architect by training and has taken the lead role in working out the technical aspects of his uncle’s vision. Basilicati grew up in a small town about ten miles from Porto Marghera, and sees the tower as a way to revitalize a desolate area. “We chose this apparently ugly and difficult location because we hope that it will convince other people that Porto Marghera can enter a new chapter,” he says. With Italy as a whole facing 10.8 percent unemployment and government bond yields around six percent, depressed areas of the country like Porto Marghera have good reason to welcome the influx of €1.5 billion ($1.85 billion) that the project would provide.

Porto Marghera, the future home of the Palais Lumière, is the large ‘carrot key’-shaped area on the left.

The potentially negative impact of the tower on Venice’s traditional character and allure is the main motivation for its opponents. Rather than trading Eastern European slaves and timber for Asian spices and silk as in the days of yore, Venice’s economy now depends on the 60,000 daily tourists who come to spend large sums of money as they stroll and dine along its canals. The new building would be about twice as tall as St. Mark’s Campanile, and even its position miles from the city does not assuage fears that it will impinge on the beauty of Venice. Italian historian Tomaso Montanari has likened the project to buildings in Dubai that many consider garish, noting that the Palais Lumière looks like it was designed by the “emirs of the Gulf.” Others have called the building “a spaceship dumped into the lagoon”, and derided it as “ugly and useless.” Italian architect Vittorio Gregotti addressed Cardin saying “Dear Pierre, if you want to do something for Venice, think of something else.” According to the LA Times, the Italian cultural group Our Italy fears that construction would jeopardize Venice’s status as a World Heritage Site—though that is certainly baseless hyperbole.

The word “imbroglio” supposedly has roots in the famously confusing and intricate politics of republican Venice, and it fits the current situation quite well. Every year brings new stories about how Venice might soon sink beneath the sea, and among the architecturally minded the city is more often seen as a symbol of “elegant decay” than a living and breathing place for people. Will a new tower on the opposite side of the lagoon re-energize Venice, or will it forever mar the views that make the city beautiful? The most likely answer is ‘neither’, but Venetians will just have to wait and see.

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Egypt’s Storied Wadi Tumilat

The Wadi Tumilat is the easily visible green branch stretching East from the Nile Delta to Lake Timsah and the larger Great Bitter Lake below it.

Most monuments from Egyptian antiquity are grand, conspicuous, stone-made, and thoroughly impractical. The Wadi Tumilat, a defunct Nile distributary branching East from the delta, boasts no such monuments. In ancient times it was a vital part of the Canal of the Pharaohs, a major feat of ancient civil engineering that linked the Red Sea to the Mediterranean via the Nile. Today the waters  of the Wadi Tumilat are mostly used for irrigation, though a trickle does arrive at lake Timsah where it enters the modern Suez Canal. The favored route in ancient times (see map below from Wikipedia) largely coincided with the current route south of Lake Timsah to the Red Sea, but from Lake Timsah it turned West through the Wadi Tumilat to join the Nile near the base of its alluvial fan.[1]

The earliest written evidence of the canal route comes from the so-called “Chalouf Stele” recorded by the Persian Emperor Darius I around 500 BCE and discovered by the Frenchman Charles de Lesseps in 1866. A portion of the stele reads: “I ordered [the Egyptians] to dig this canal from the river that is called Nile and flows in Egypt, to the sea that begins in Persia [the Red Sea]. Therefore, when this

canal had been dug as I had ordered, ships went from Egypt through this canal to Persia, as I had intended.” Greek and Roman authors would later claim that earlier Pharaohs such as Senruset III, who ruled from 1878 BCE to 1839 BCE, had at least begun work on the canal, though their efforts may have been unsuccessful. Both the Ptolemys, who ruled Egypt from 305 BC to 30 CE, and the Roman emperor Trajan, who ruled from 98 CE to 117 CE, are credited with repairing or re-digging the canal. The canal silted up due to neglect during the late Roman and Byzantine periods, but was reopened by Egypt’s Islamic conqueror Amr ibn al Aas by 642. The canal was closed for good in 767, ostensibly to cut off supplies to the rebellious cities of Mecca and Medina.

A new Suez Canal using a revived Wadi Tumilat almost became a reality in the early 19th Century. Napoleon was fascinated by classical authors’ descriptions of an ancient canal linking the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, and felt that control of such a waterway could allow France to supplant the British Empire as the dominant European power in India, with all the lucrative trade that entailed. Between 1798 and 1799, Napoleon’s top engineer Jacques-Marie Le Pére and his team traced the ancient canal from Suez up through the Wadi Tumilat to the Nile. Unfortunately for Napoleon’s aspirations, a mathematical error led Le Pére to conclude that the Red Sea was 8.5 meters higher than the Mediterranean, and that a new canal through the ancient route would be inadvisable.

It is difficult for us to appreciate the difficulty inherent in digging and dredging a canal without modern technology or even tools we would recognize as proper shovels. The Nile River’s famous silt, once the foundation of Egypt’s prosperity and now blocked by the Aswan Dam, would have been of a curse for canal navigation on and beyond the Wadi Tumilat. Workers in the deserts of Suez would likely need to have all of their supplies brought in from quite far away. So the next time you see a lone green line of the Wadi Tumilat branching off the Nile Delta, remember that the ships that once passed through it were as great a monument to Egyptian ingenuity as any obelisk or pyramid.

[1] The best overview of textual and archaeological sources on the ancient Suez Canal is Redmount, Carol A. 1995. “The Wadi Tumilat and the “Canal of the Pharaohs”. Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 54 (2): 127.

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Kenya’s New Superhighway

In recent years, the crippling traffic congestion around Nairobi has prompted calls for higher capacity roadways to knit the region together. Kenya’s first superhighway, which links Nariobi to the city of Thika 42 kilometers to the Northeast, was recently completed to much fanfare. Formerly a four-lane road, the route now boasts eight lanes of state of the art grade-separated highway. The project serves as a highly visible manifestation of China’s growing ties to Africa, as the Chinese firm Wu Yi Co did much of the engineering and construction work. The highway has already thoroughly transformed many of the towns along its route—some for the better, and some for the worse. Kenyans hope that the highway will serve as an anchor for economic development and make navigation in the country’s budding metropolis easier. At the same time, Kenya may lack the money and expertise necessary to maintain the highway in its current condition, and the costs of automobile-oriented development are certain to pose a significant long-term challenge for the region.

For the residents of Juja, a town roughly halfway between Nairobi and Thika, the highway has been a boon. According to Charles Mwangi, a local real estate agent, “Property values in [Juja] have in some instances witnessed 500 per cent increment with land owners capitalizing on the expected demand when the surrounding areas opens up.” Development around the highway is also surging near its endpoints. Actis, a global private equity firm, has invested $150 million (which buys a lot in Kenya) in a residential and commercial real-estate development near the highway’s entrance to Nairobi dubbed “Garden City”. Garden City will include a four-acre park that Actis hopes will be a gathering place for all of Nairobi’s residents.

Elsewhere, the impact of the new highway has been nothing short of catastrophic. Much of the expense involved in the grade-separations that make modern highways work stems from the need to accommodate various smaller roads that must cross above or below the highway or close. One easy way to save on construction costs—and the way apparently chosen by builders—is to close as many such roads as possible. At least 800 workers (that is only how many have come forward publicly) have been put out of work when their employers were forced out of business after the closing of necessary access roads. The affected companies claim to have been ignored by highway bureaucrats and are taking their case directly to President Mwai Kibaki, claiming “our instructions now are to demand from you […] the immediate provision of a reasonable and adequate access lane or entry for our clients to their respective parcels of land as appropriate.”

Perhaps the greatest fear accompanying the highway is that Kenya won’t prove itself up to the task of maintenance. Drivers are reportedly behaving more recklessly than anticipated, with high levels of drunk driving and speeding killing many and damaging infrastructure. Metal guardrails and poles are routinely stolen or vandalized, the cost of which is preventing the Ministry of Roads from attempting any new projects. Kenya’s swift economic rise makes a complete collapse of the highway a la the Chinese-financed Tazara Railway in Tanzania and Zambia extremely unlikely, but poor maintenance will mean a high death toll for years to come. Moreover, the congestion that will be alleviated on the Nairobi-Thika route is likely to move onto the city streets on either end where roads do not have the capacity to absorb an influx in traffic. The final impact of the highway will not be known for some time, but regardless of the effects, it is clear that Kenya’s heartland is changing very fast.

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Roads, Gas, and the Uncontacted People of the Peruvian Amazon

The Peruvian Amazon, along with adjacent land in Brazil, is home to some of the most isolated territory in the world. The region’s extreme remoteness poses a daunting challenge for its residents, many of whom are forced to pay high prices for food and fuel arriving by plane. With these concerns in mind, an Italian missionary, Miguel Piovesan, has led a campaign to construct a new, 125-mile road along the Brazilian border from Puerto Esparanza in northern Ucayali region to Iñapari in the Madre de Dios region (see map at left). Largely thanks to Piovesan’s eight years of lobbying, carried out in part on his own radio station, the road has gone from a figment of his imagination to a popular cause endorsed by local mestizos. A decision on the will soon be reached by Peru’s National Congress.

The road has encountered fierce opposition from environmental organizations and indigenous leaders worried that it will foster illegal logging and endanger the several uncontacted tribes. About sixty miles of the road would run through Peru’s Alto Purús National Park, which has long been a safe haven for the Mashco-Piro, Yaminahua, and Chitonahua tribes. Opponents of development in the region often argue that an end to isolation would amount to ethnocide—the destruction of indigenous culture—and can also point to several more prosaic reasons for outsiders to be wary of contact. Nomadic tribes in the western Amazon lack resistance to many diseases like influenza and measles, and would likely face high death rates if illnesses and even death if such infections were to spread among them. Violence can also be a problem in contact zones. Earlier this year, the Mashco-Piro killed a man named Shaco Flores who had acted as an intermediary between the tribe and the outside world. Flores could speak a rudimentary version of the Mashco-Piro language and had helped members of the group acquire goods like pots and machetes before being told to stop by Peruvian authorities. The motive behind his murder is a mystery; some speculate that it was done out of a desire to avoid further contact with the outside, others as retaliation for his compliance with orders to cease trading with the tribe.

Map of the main pipeline used to transport gas extracted by the Camisea Project. (source)

Elsewhere in the region, the Camisea Gas Project, a collaboration between several natural gas extractors, presents another potential conflict between tribes and the outside world. According to the indigenous-rights group Survival International, “the gas projects threaten tribes and wildlife by physically cutting into their land, displacing communities and driving them away from their forest homes”. In regard to the Camisea Project, however, such warnings may be exaggerated. Though the project organizers acknowledges the presence of both contacted and uncontacted tribes near the work area, they claim to respect the property of all indigenous people and stress that contact with otherwise isolated tribes will continue to be avoided. Opponents of Camisea remain unconvinced, wondering how uncontacted tribes could possibly consent to gas extraction activity. Survival International has stepped up its publicity campaign against Camisea by appealing to the one million annual visitors to nearby Manchu Pichu.

Managing the environmentally sensitive areas around traditionally isolated tribes continues to be a difficult dance. While illegal logging, virgin soil epidemics, and violence all argue against an outside presence, perpetual isolation may prove an impossible goal.

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French History and Language in the American Midwest

Most Americans, and probably most French, are only dimly aware of the American Midwest’s French colonial past. From Detroit to St. Louis, French place names figure prominently in a large band stretching from Canada and the Great Lakes down the Mississippi to Louisiana—America’s more prominent bastion of French creole culture. This region, known to its colonial French Inhabitants as Les Pays des Illinois, or “Illinois Country”, was well-populated at the time of French settlement by Amerindian tribes that ultimately formed the economic and military backbone of the colony. In schools throughout the Midwest, Le Pays des Illinois is seldom more (and often less) than a footnote in history courses. Even America’s most comprehensive standardized curriculum for high school U.S. history (from the Advanced Placement program) is no exception. Its nine-page outline of the unit on “Colonial America” includes only one line mentioning French exploration of the Mississippi and a few more about the settlement of Canada.

Despite its relative obscurity, the story of Le Pays des Illinois is fascinating. Many small Francophone enclaves managed to persist in the Midwest well into the 20th century, and at least one remains to this day. Aside from the folk music, festivals, and unusual accents on offer in a few rural towns, the legacy of Le Pays des Illinois lives on in a profound yet silent way—in the location of towns and cities, their names, and the unanswerable question of what might have been if the area had remained French territory.

Map of Marquette and Joliet’s travels. Accessed Here

The first factor that brought the French to the American Midwest was simple geography.[1] Whereas reaching the Mississippi from the Eastern Seaboard required crossing the Appalachian Mountains, the journey from French Canada could be made almost entirely in a canoe. Taking advantage of such accessibility, the famous explorers Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette became the first known Europeans to travel through the area in 1673. Their route took them from Canada across Lake Michigan to a large bay that the French had called La Baie Verte since 1635, which was later anglicized as “Green Bay.” From there they carried their canoes two miles to the Wisconsin River and descended to the Mississippi River, then known as Missipi or Michissipi to local Indians. The pair then traveled most of the way down the river before turning back, which they did both because they were confident that it led to the Gulf of Mexico (not, alas, to the Pacific) and because they feared a possible encounter with Spanish rivals. Marquette and Joliet’s return journey took a detour through the Illinois River, which bisects the present day state of the same name. The short cut, a well-trod Indian trade route, saved many miles of difficult upstream paddling and served as the first recorded European use of the portage that the French (mangling an Indian word) would call Chicago. The canoe as well as the abundance of navigable rivers had made initial exploration of Le Pays des Illinois possible, but their usefulness did not end there.

Though it did not motivate Marquette and Joliet, the fur trade was the economic enticement that brought Frenchmen (and they were all men at this stage) down the Mississippi. The fur trade remained brisk, but it was no longer the moneymaker it had been in the earlier stages of the 17th Century. Nevertheless, the French crown aggressively subsidized the trade in order to maintain good relations with the Indian tribes that France relied upon to protect its sparsely populated territories. Despite the appearance of a realm prospering economically under the voyageurs (licensed, legal fur traders) and coureurs du bois (unlicensed, illegal fur traders), New France was generally a money-losing proposition dependent on the largess of the king and his plenipotentiaries. That said, the political payoff France could reap by boxing in English settlement and uniting Canada with the Gulf of Mexico was perceived as well worth the cost of a few low-quality furs.

The Jesuits, a Catholic order to which Father Marquette belonged, took a leading role in Le Pays des Illinois from the start. Skeptical of the ruffians that the fur trade attracted, Jesuits sought to establish a more stable and grounded society where the French and Indians could settle down and focus on religion and agriculture rather than trade and warfare. They self-consciously tried to replicate the efforts of their brothers in South America, hoping that the land along the Mississippi could become a “New Paraguay”. While the Jesuits never had the level of political control or autonomy they wanted, the settlements they founded (nearly always within or near Indian villages) would become the key outposts of French culture in the American Midwest.

The French presence in Le Pays des Illinois initially centered around the town of Kaskaskia, some fifty miles southeast of present day St. Louis (itself founded by the French forty-three years later). Already a focus of Illinois Indian population, Kaskaskia attracted Jesuit missionaries who established themselves permanently in 1703. Along with the nearby settlements of Prairie du Rocher and Fort de Chartres, Kaskaskia soon boasted perhaps seven thousand French settlers (including women), who lived relatively peacefully alongside the local indigenes. Seven thousand is of course a tiny population by modern standards, but even half that number would have made it one of the largest European settlements in North America at the time. While the French fought viciously against Indian enemies such as the Fox and the Iroquois, the Illinois Indians they lived among shared their diplomatic objectives, and tranquility remained the norm within French and Indian settlements. Intermarriage was common, and resulting mixed-race children were known as métis, a French cognate of the Spanish mestizo.

The French Midwest boomed in the 18th Century not because of the fur trade, but because it was well positioned to supply another growing city to the South: La Nouvelle-Orléans. New Orleans, as the Americans would later call it, became wealthy through shipping and the production of market crops, creating strong demand for wheat and oats from upriver. This new economic geography led to the reassignment of Le Pays des Illinois from Canada to France’s new colony, La Louisiane. The first African slaves arrived in Kaskaskia in 1718, but price ceilings on grains imposed by French officials made the purchase of slaves for farming uneconomical. Instead, many French settlers brought their slaves west to Missouri, where recently discovered lead mines in the Northeastern Ozarks offered a higher rate of return. Canada had barely been settled before the Mississippi became the new focus of French colonization, and now Missouri seemed destined to eclipse Kaskaskia, Prairie du Rocher, and the like in a similar fashion.

Located mainly in Missouri, the Ozark Plateau includes the highest topographical features in North America between the Appalachian Mountains in the East and the Rocky Mountains in the West. Unbeknownst to most, it is also the site of an unbroken French cultural heritage that stretches back some three hundred years. The etymology of the Ozarks is disputed, but most consider it to be a corruption of the French term aux Arks, or, “of Arkansas”. As previously mentioned, it was lead, or, more precisely, galena ore, that brought the French to the region. Missouri sits on the world’s largest deposit of galena, an ore-body that was close enough to the surface to catch the eye of French explorers. Since galena is often found together with silver, the French naturally imagined they had found their answer to Spain’s Cerro de Potosí, the richest silver deposit ever discovered (located in modern Bolivia). Evidence of this enthusiasm lives on to this day in place names like Potosi, Missouri, currently home to some 2,500 people. The miners’ hopes, however, were misplaced. No silver lay under Missouri’s soil, and settlers were left to mine and farm what they could.

La Vieille Mine, anglicized today as Old Mines, Missouri, is perhaps the most impressive example of French culture in the Ozarks region. Statistics are difficult to come by, but according to residents the region around Old Mines may have been home to over a thousand French speakers (known colloquially as “Paw Paw French”) only a few decades ago. Most were middle aged or elderly at the time, so the area’s distinct Missouri French dialect is likely to go extinct before long. Yet the region remains proud of its linguistic heritage. It stages an annual “Missouri French Festival” replete with dance and merriment. Several buildings remain from colonial French times, including a house still in private use.

Fiddler and longtime Old Mines resident Dennis Stroughmatt, along with his wife, Jennifer have done a great deal raise public awareness of Missouri French in recent years. Performing at a different folk festival in 2010, Jennifer, a speaker of modern French recalled a remark she had made to her Missouri French-speaking husband when they met: “…you have no grammar, and your pronunciation is foul.” She continued, recalling events several years later: “Then I went to the Ozarks…and I had no grammar and my pronunciation was foul”. In an interview, Dennis said that Missouri French is closer to the French spoken in Quebec than the creole French of New Orleans, a likely situation given that Canada was the source of most immigrants in Missouri and Illinois. He described a visit to Quebec where a Québécois told him: “You’re not from Canada. You’re not anywhere near from Canada, but yet your accent is strangely familiar.” Dennis adds, “The only thing I can say on that is that accent is coming through from the Missouri French.” Interested readers can also view a short PBS feature on French creole culture in Old Mines.

Though French language in the Ozarks is on life support, it has managed to outlast the other focal point of French cultural longevity in the Midwest: Ste. Genevieve, Missouri. Ste. Genevieve sprang up in 1735 on the West bank of the Mississippi just across from Kaskaskia. Both Ste. Genevieve and Kaskaskia prospered during the 18th Century, eventually attracting a flood of Anglo-American settlers following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Kaskaskia remained the more important settlement, becoming the state capital of Illinois in 1818. Kaskaskia’s prominence wouldn’t last, however, and the capital moved north to Vandalia in 1819. The rise of Vandalia, the eventual terminus of the National Road, as well as other new towns in the “American Bottom” region, struck the final blow to French cultural influence in the region. Floods destroyed most of Kaskaskia 1881, the consequence of realignment in the course of the Mississippi that today makes the town—along with its fourteen residents—an Illinois enclave on the western side of the Mississippi.

Painting of Ste. Genevieve, Missouri in the Missouri State Capitol Building

Although Ste. Genevieve has dealt with its share of floods, its story has been less dramatic. Once known as the wealthiest city in Louisiana, Ste. Genevieve never grew to the size of Saint Louis or even Kaskaskia. The French language is no longer spoken there, but the town boasts 150 “French Creole colonial” buildings—more than any other settlement in the country. Ste. Genevieve hosted the famous French-American ornithologist and painter John James Audubon for a time, and today the town’s 11,295 residents commemorate Ste. Genevieve’s French heritage in several annual festivals.

Le Pays des Illinois never really had a chance to get off the ground before it was absorbed into the rapidly expanding Anglophone juggernaut to its east. Its quick descent into insignificance allowed it to essentially avoid the gaze of Americans over the last two hundred years, to the detriment of locals’ historical understanding and appreciation. This obscurity, however, lends a certain allure to the parts of its past that do survive, whether in the buildings of Ste. Genevieve or the dialect and festivals of Old Mines. Languages and dialects of all kinds endure in places you wouldn’t expect, but such oddities are relatively rare in linguistic “spread zones” like the Interior U.S. The story of Missouri French and the people who built it, one sentence at a time, can help Midwesterners connect with a past that is far deeper and more nuanced than they might have expected.

[1] Unless otherwise linked, most of the background history for the post comes from Charles Balesi’s excellent study of the French Midwest:

Charles J. Balesi. The Time of the French in the Heart of North America, 1673-1818. Chicago: Alliance Francaise Chicago, 1992.

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A New Panama Canal? Or Two?

During 2010, some 299,803,162 tons of ships and cargo moved between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Panama Canal. This total would have no doubt astounded the canal’s builders, but to the Panama Canal Authority (ACP), which operates the canal today, it is a sign that canal’s current infrastructure is no longer adequate. Many ships are forced to wait up to ten days to cross the canal, costing shippers about $50,000 per day. Bidding wars often arise between ships, with some paying up to $200,000 to move ahead in line. To ensure that congestion in the canal does not drive away traffic, Panamanians in 2006 overwhelmingly passed a referendum proposed by former president Martín Torrijos authorizing a $5.25 billion expansion project. The project is generally considered a good investment by outside groups, and received A2 investment grade status from the credit rating agency Moody’s. It is expected to be complete around 2014.

Meanwhile, two of Panama’s neighbors—Nicaragua and Costa Rica—are themselves eyeing the inter-oceanic canal game after 98 years on the sidelines. On Monday, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega signed a bill passed by the National Assembly that set up a legal framework for construction of the Nicaragua Inter-oceanic Canal, with the explicit goal of competing for Panama Canal traffic. The proposed Nicaraguan canal would stretch some 200 kilometers and could cost upwards of $30 billion, the equivalent of nearly four years worth of Nicaraguan GDP. So far support for the project among western governments and private industry is thin, but both Russia and the United Arab Emirates have expressed interested in financing the canal.

There are several potential routes for a Nicaraguan canal. The most cost-effective of these would run from the mouth of the San Juan River on the Caribbean coast upriver to Lake Nicaragua—the nineteenth largest lake in the world by area. A channel would then be dug across the isthmus of Rivas to allow ships to access the Pacific Ocean. This is not a new idea; in fact the basic outline of the route is over a hundred and fifty years old. During the California Gold Rush of the 1850s, the American shipping and railroad mogul Cornelius Vanderbilt operated a stagecoach line across the isthmus of Rivas, called the Accessory Transit Company, for gold-seekers traveling west. Vanderbilt was soon granted rights to build a canal to the Pacific, though his plans were never carried out. Nevertheless, the notion of a Nicaraguan canal remained potent, as shown in the 1906 map at left (source). A more humble (and realistic) version of the waterway proposed recently, known as the “Ecocanal”, would forgo the costly connection to the Pacific and instead focus on allowing shipping to access the various inland waterways of North America through Lake Nicaragua.

The San Juan River, the linchpin of any practical route to Lake Nicaragua, conveniently lies entirely in Nicaraguan territory, though it does directly border Costa Rica. Tensions along the border have been especially high since 2010, when Nicaragua’s dredging of the San Juan River damaged the environment of the Costa Rican parts of Isla Calero, which sits within the river. The resulting backlash helped to precipitate a small Nicaraguan invasion that became known as the Isla Calero dispute, infamous among Central Americans and geographers as the first armed incursion caused in part by a mistake in Google Maps favoring Nicaragua. Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla responded by ordering the construction of a new road along the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border, known as the San Juan River border road project. Since the road was part of an emergency decree, it was able to bypass environmental review and avoid a great deal of scrutiny that is only now catching up with it.

Construction of the San Juan River border road project is now mired in scandal. Millions of dollars of construction contracts have been awarded to companies and individuals that possess no construction machinery or expertise. Allegedly, any National Roadway Council employees who spoke up about the corruption were fired. On top of these domestic indignities, Nicaraguans now argue that Costa Rica is building a “dry canal” that would allow high-speed movement of container traffic from one port to another. Dry Canals have in the past been proposed in both Colombia and Nicaragua. Though a Costa Rican conspiracy seems rather farfetched, a dry canal there might, if constructed, be a bargain compared to Nicaragua’s $30 billion vision.

One can easily lose track of the multiplicity of canals proposed in Central America over the years. Both Nicaragua’s Inter-oceanic Canal and Costa Rica’s San Juan River border road will likely join them as historical footnotes and topics of regional bickering while the Panama Canal continues to grease the wheels of the world economy. Then again, construction of the Panama Canal doubtless seemed similarly daunting when Ferdinand de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal, left the region with nothing to show for his efforts but the bodies of 22,000 dead French construction workers strewn about the jungle.

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Potential Fishery Collapse in Lake Tanganyika

Lake Tanganyika, which falls under the administration of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Zambia, and Burundi, is the world’s second largest freshwater lake by volume and a haven for aquatic wildlife. The lake (map at left taken from here) is home to about 2,000 species of fish, most of which are found nowhere else in the world. Such diversity is possible both because of the lake’s size and antiquity; geologists believe Lake Tanganyika to be between 9 and 12 million years old. Eons of isolation have allowed a very distinctive ecosystem to form, similar to other large inland bodies of water like Lake Victoria and Lake Baikal. Lake Tanganyika also forms a vital pillar of human life in the area. The lake is a key protein source for millions of locals, and its fisheries directly employ hundreds of thousands of workers.

Overfishing in Lake Tanganyika is an old problem that seems to be worsening, with significant consequences for both fishermen and their quarry. The Lake Tanganyika Authority (LTA), a collaborative organization of the four countries that border the lake, warned recently that “use of destructive fishing gear and overfishing” threatens the very existence of the lake’s ecosystem. According to the LTA, current regulations limiting the size of the industry as well as the types of gear that can be used are widely ignored and ineffective. Would-be fishermen on the lake are legally required to buy licenses and submit to equipment inspections, but the resource constraints facing managers are severe. The Zambian fisheries office, for example, has only ten positions—four of which are vacant. The agency also relies on a single boat with an engine described as “unreliable.” Juvenile fish are reportedly a common sight in markets, a situation that is both a sign and a cause of fishery depletion. Activists in search of a relevant cautionary tale need look no further than Lake Victoria to the north, where hundreds of species have gone extinct due to overfishing and ecological invasion, especially of the voracious Nile perch.

The current depressed-state of Lake Tanganyika fisheries has exacted a human price. Many who once made a good living from the lake have abandoned fishing for farming, aided at times by outside organizations like the United Nations Development Program. However, those helped by these programs tend to be small-scale fishermen.  Industrial fishermen have responded to fish shortages as they have elsewhere: by working more intensively. Such intensification, in turn, this means even fewer fish will be available in future years, further diminishing the profits and lengthening work hours for everyone involved. To counter such tendencies, the LTA recommends “developing and implementing the fishing license process, improving the involvement of local communities in fisheries management, and promoting sustainable fisheries alternative livelihoods.” Although the LTA certainly does not need to be reminded, the main hurdle to sustainable fishing in Lake Tanganyika is a lack of money for enforcement, not a lack of economic or ecological know-how.

Overfishing is not the only crisis facing Lake Tanganyika, its fish, and the humans who depend on them. The lake is currently warmer than it has been at any time in the last 1,500 years (the entire period that water temperature estimates have been made), and some point to that as the main factor behind the decline of local fisheries. Sedimentation is also a problem, although efforts by local governments have begun to reduce the sedimentation rate in several localized areas.

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Disputed Ruins and Phoenician Heritage in Beirut

New construction projects in urban areas nearly always require the destruction of whatever buildings stood on the land previously. Although efforts to preserve historic buildings in the U.S. have generated cynicism and at times seem absurd, the same cannot be said of Beirut, Lebanon. Beirut is one of the oldest cities in the world, with a history stretching back some 5,000 years. In early 2011, construction workers in Beirut’s Mina al-Hosn district unearthed what archaeologists suggested was a port used by the city’s Phoenician inhabitants in the 5th Century B.C. The discovery prompted Lebanon’s former Minister of Culture, Salim Wardeh, to designate the area as an archaeological site in order to protect it from development. Although archaeologists now dispute whether the ruins were in fact a port, and whether the site was actually built in the 5th Century B.C., they continue to agree on its importance and antiquity.

Photo of the ruins’ destruction. Photo credit: Scott Barbour, AFP/Getty Images

Nevertheless, Lebanon’s current Minister of Culture, Gaby Layoun, decided to revoke former minister Wardeh’s decree on June 26 of this year on the grounds that the site “does not involve any trace of Phoenician or Roman port infrastructure”. The decision opened the way for construction, and bulldozers moved in almost immediately to remove the archaeological debris. These events prompted a quick riposte from Wardeh and two other former Ministers of Culture who deplored “the destruction of heritage and the violation of Lebanon’s history by one who is responsible for preserving them”. The overseer of archaeological excavation at the site, Hisham Sayegh, resigned from the Ministry of Culture on June 27 during a protest calling for Layoun to step down. Addressing Layoun directly, Sayegh claims: “Never has archaeology in Lebanon since the last centuries and during wars of ancient times, or during the Israeli invasion and bombardment of Beirut, experienced such destruction as it has witnessed since you took office at the Ministry of Culture.” Layoun has responded to his critics vigorously, promising to press charges against those leveling insults in the future.

Location of the site within Beirut

Historical heritage can be a fraught issue in Lebanon, a land where Christians and Muslims of various sects coexist in an uneasy balance. Lebanon’s Phoenician past has the potential to serve as a unifying force, since it is a legacy that neither religious group can theoretically monopolize. Though generalizations should be taken with a grain of salt, Lebanese Christians have in the past used Phoenician identity as a moral weapon. By identifying themselves closely with Phoenicia, some Maronite Christians assert their claims on Lebanon’s past to be more authentic than those of their Muslim neighbors, who usually look more to the Arab and Ottoman heritage. Despite recent genetic tests indicating that both Christian and Muslim Lebanese share equal amounts of “Phoenician blood,” the association of Phoenicia with Christian activism in Lebanon has been slow to fade.

The disputed construction site and former archaeological dig in Beirut may or may not be Phoenician, but the backlash against its destruction shows that Lebanon’s ancient past is a highly valued resource among Lebanese of all faiths. One can only hope that remaining ancient sites in the area can help foster an atmosphere of respect that will allow Beirut to thrive for another 5,000 years.

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Flood and Political Conflicts in Northeastern India


The seven states of Northeastern India make up a diverse, historic, and (as GeoCurrents has previously noted) unstable region. Recent flooding and landslides have claimed at least 81 lives around the Brahmaputra River (map at left from Wikipedia), forced hundreds of thousands to evacuate, and garnered worldwide attention. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has gone to Assam, perhaps the worst hit state, and promised at least Rs 500 crore (~$90 million) in aid. The floods are a major humanitarian crisis, and they may help to deflect attention from recent escalations in the long-simmering border dispute between Assam and its neighboring state, Meghalaya.

On June 30, over six-hundred Khasi[1], members of a tribal group located primarily in Meghalaya but also in parts of Assam and Bangladesh, began a hunger strike aimed at encouraging the two Indian states to resolve the quarrel over the status of twelve disputed areas that has kindled years of violence. The unresolved issue has also kept rural villages along the Meghalaya-Assam border from receiving the benefits of government electrification programs. Since a January, 21, 2010 GeoCurrents post cautiously observed the “declining violence in Northeast India”, violence has continued to stay at a relatively low level compared to the 2000s. However, most of the underlying issues remain unresolved, and the potential remains for future clashes.

Map of Northeastern India

Entailing much more than the border dispute between Meghalaya and Assam, strife in Northeast India has been a function of ethnic and tribal rivalries playing themselves out against a background of nationalist and antinationalist agitation. For example, the militant Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC), based in Meghalaya, continues to vociferously oppose what it sees as attempts by India’s national government to “Indianise or else to Hindunise the Hynniewtrep race”. The HNLC also sets itself up in opposition to the Garo, a largely Christian group that is the second largest ethnic formation in Meghalaya after the aforementioned Khasi.

The people of Northeast India also face many wrenching challenges as both a globalized economy and outside social norms gain a foothold hold in their land. The Khasi and the Garo remain, for the most part, matrilineal societies where property and clan membership is passed down through female descendants. This certainly adds a measure of stability to womens’ lives, and female defenders of the system are able to point to the plight of women in other nearby groups and remark favorably on the status and safety of women in societies adhering to matrilineal traditions. Men who oppose the system claim that it “breeds a culture of men who feel useless”, feeds social problems like alcoholism, and denies men the inheritance they need to build their lives. The debate has been going on for years, and seems unlikely to end soon.

With flooding now the dominant issue in the Brahmaputra watershed, it remains to be seen whether the chaos and disruption that follows will bring more violence in its wake. Most of the Indian outposts along the border with Bangladesh have flooded as local officials express concerns about national security. Living near some of the rainiest places on earth, as the people who make their homes along the Brahmaputra do, can be a dangerous proposition.

Readers interested in a fantastic satellite image of the Brahmaputra flooding should see this one from the NASA Earth Observatory.

[1] GeoCurrents readers would be interested to note that the Khasi are the northernmost speakers of an Austro-Asiatic language.

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Mapping U.S. Disasters

As recently highlighted on the weblog Per Square Mile, amateur geographer Crystal Dorn has mapped county-level U.S. data on official disasters from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and published it as a webGIS. Taking this map at face value, it seems that 54 years has not been enough time for clear patterns to emerge when each county is shaded according to the most prevalent type of disaster within its borders.

Looking at the data from 1959 through 1992, more or less the entire country is dominated by flooding, drought, or snow-related disasters. Including the period from 1992 to 2003 makes the entire Southwest a fire-dominated zone, while flooding ceases to be a dominant disaster in much of the East. The dataset clearly runs into a crippling problem during 2005, when nearly the entire country—even Eureka County, Nevada—becomes a Hurricane Katrina “evacuation zone”. Perhaps those who faulted FEMA’s response to Katrina in 2005 should reconsider their position in light of the negligible death toll in such “hurricane-stricken” places as Cherry County, Nebraska and Wayne County, Michigan. More seriously, though, the changing face of the pre-Katrina national disaster map underlines the problems inherent in insuring against disasters of wide geographic range and low frequency. If the really severe floods or fires come barely once a generation, how does one manage the risk?

A more tractable graphic (displayed here) from the FEMA website showing disaster frequency by county from 2000 through 2007 and breaking disaster type down by region appears to make much more sense. For the country as a whole, severe storms, hurricanes, floods, ice storms, and fires lead the way in frequency. Florida in particular looks like a dangerous place to live.

For anyone interested in keeping up with current disasters, FEMA maps them in real time on the Census Bureau website.

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Visualizing California’s Soggy Past

A previous GeoNote highlighted a collaborative effort to map historical changes in California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin RiverDelta. In a similar spirit, the fantasy satellite map shown at left, created by Central Valley geographer Mark Clark and noted by Frank Jacobs, imagines what the entire state might have looked like in 1851. Perhaps the map’s most salient feature is massive Tulare Lake, which dominates the Southern San Joaquin valley. Tulare Lake, now completely dry in all but the wettest years, once boasted a surface area of 1,780 square kilometers (690 square miles), making it the largest freshwater lake west of theMississippi River. The rain and melt water that fed the lake in times past now forms a vital input for California’s $36 billion agriculture industry.

Tulare Lake, along with the other extensive river and wetland systems depicted in the map, were drained in the late 19th and early 20th centuries near the end of a wetland-drainage movement that is as old as the country itself. In fact, much of America’s prime agricultural land in the Midwest was once wetland. As shown on the maps below, which were taken from a USGS report, the states of Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, and Ohio—as well as California—have lost over 95 percent of their wetlands since European colonization, primarily to agriculture. Most of the changes in the East occurred during the 19th century.


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