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GeoCurrentcast Episode #8- Central Africa

GeoCurrents is proud to present our eighth installment in the Geocurrentcasts series, an in depth illustrated lecture profiling the history and geography of current global events.

This week’s episode takes us to Central Africa, providing a comprehensive look at the history, linguistic diversity, and geography of the region, using the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a focal point. This comprehensive lecture captures the terrors and tragedies of King Leopold, Rwanda and the Sudan; polarizing figures like Mobutu and Lumumba; the historical meaning of the Rumble in the Jungle; plus everything you’ve ever wanted to know about Chad.

Click here to watch or download this presentation.

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Militias, Private Armies, and Failed States


Max Weber famously defined the modern state as an entity claiming a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence to enforce order over a specific territory. By this definition, many of the countries that constitute the international geopolitical order fall well short of being genuine states. Consider Lebanon. From 1976 to 2005, a sizable Syrian army was parked on Lebanese soil, making a mockery of any claims that the Lebanese state had a monopoly on force. Although that army subsequently withdrew, Lebanon was not able to establish sovereignty over the full extent of its territory. It is generally agreed today that Hezbollah’s Islamist militia is stronger than the Lebanese national army, exercising power if not monopolizing violence in the country’s Shiite-majority areas, and thereby compromising Lebanon’s territorial integrity if not its very statehood. By strict Weberian criteria, Lebanon must be regarded as a semi-fictive state, one that has the forms but not the full powers of genuine statehood.

One could argue that Hezbollah, for all its strength, is an illegitimate wielder of violence, making Lebanon a legitimate if beleaguered state. Elsewhere in the world, however, plenty of more ambiguous cases can be found. Some states allow the proliferation of private armies, granting paramilitary groups a form of legitimacy—and in so doing undermining their own. If a country takes the further step of relying on such autonomous purveyors of violence to uphold its own order over large stretches of its supposed territory, then it can no longer be classified as a fully modern state, at least by Weber’s definition. Instead, it should be regarded as something more akin to a feudal entity, one in which effective sovereignty is diffuse and parcelized, ceded by a theoretically sovereign power to largely independent, localized forces.

Such quasi-feudal states are more widespread than is commonly realized. Consider the Philippines, the world’s twelfth most populous country. By certain criteria, the Philippines is relatively stable; according to the Failed States Index, more than fifty other countries are at greater risk of systematic collapse. Yet private armies operating with impunity have long been a staple feature of Philippine political life. As MindaNews reported on February 5, 2010, fifty-two private militias operate on the island of Mindanao alone. The power and audacity of Philippine armed retinues came to global attention after the Maguindanao Massacre of November 2009. Fighters associated with the powerful Ampatuan clan attacked a convoy of a rival clan that was heading to register one of its members as a candidate for an up-coming gubernatorial election; fifty-one people were slaughtered, including as many as 32 journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists describes the incident as the largest single attack on news-reporters in world history.

The November massacre was so outrageous that the Philippine government had to react, arresting key members of the Ampatuan clan, conducting raids (one of which netted 330,000 rounds of M-16 ammunition), and declaring martial law in the region – in effect, denying the legitimacy of the private army that had perpetuated the bloodbath. But up to that point, the Ampatuans had been key allies of the government, and had in fact helped engineer the presidential election of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2004 by ensuring her virtually all of the vote in their home district. Elsewhere in the Philippines, private armies continue to operate with impunity, periodically serving state ends by battling Islamists insurgents in the south and the forces of the Maoist New Peoples’ Army through the rest of Philippine archipelago.

States are by definition territorial entities that are supposed to exercise control over the all areas within their internationally sanctified borders. In the Philippines, as in many other countries, such a condition remains more a dream than a reality. As the map above shows, most parts of the archipelago remain vulnerable to insurgent forces, which retain effective control over many remote areas. Philippine territoriality in the south is also complicated by the existence of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, a topic that will be addressed in next Monday’s posting.

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The New State of Coastal California?

In 2009, former California legislator Bill Maze proposed dividing his state, hiving off thirteen counties as Coastal (or Western) California (see map). Maze, a conservative from the agricultural Central Valley, objects to the domination of state politics by the left-leaning Los Angeles and San Francisco metropolitan areas. The initial impetus for his proposal was the passage by state voters in 2008 of Proposition 2, requiring larger pens and cages for farm animals. Agricultural interests denounced the measure, arguing that it would increase their costs and threaten their livelihoods. Meanwhile, the state’s on-going water crisis, which largely pits farmers against environmentalists, widens the divide. Unforgiving invective marks both sides of the debate. A post in Politics Daily characterized secessionist farmers as dolts fighting against “liberal Hollywood types [who] don’t understand the importance of torturing animals.” The Downsize California website, on the other side, fulminates against coastal “radicals” who are “infatuated with nature over mankind and are sympathetic to illegals and criminals.”

The desire to divide unwieldy California may be quixotic but it is nothing new; at least 27 divisional schemes have been proposed since statehood in 1850. Most have sought to split the state along north-south lines. In the mid 1800s, southern California secessionists felt marginalized and ill-served by a state government based in the distant Sacramento. By the mid 1900s, the tables had been turned, as northern Californians came to resent the demographically and economically dominant greater Los Angeles (LA) area. The California State Water Project, with its vast pipes snaking over the Tehachapi Mountains, was a particular irritant. As a child growing up in northern California’s Bay Area in the 1960s, I almost never heard positive statements about LA, which was widely condemned as a vast suburban wasteland inhabited by shallow people scheming to “steal our water.” Such naked regional bigotry was spouted by people who would have been ashamed to say anything remotely smacking of racial or religious prejudice.

Economic and political evolution, coupled with substantial immigration and emigration, gradually reduced the tensions between the Los Angeles and San Francisco metropolitan areas while accentuating the division between urban coastal and interior agricultural regions. But as the 2004 “voter index map” reproduced above shows, the state’s actual political divide is far more complex than that. Close inspection reveals a Democratic voting zone essentially split between coastal northern California and the Los Angeles area, with a few interior outliers in college towns, urban cores, Hispanic rural areas, and mountainous recreation sites.Contrasting to this area is a spatially larger and more contiguous but demographically smaller Republican-voting block covering the rest of the state.

Maze’s scheme places several relatively conservative counties (Ventura, San Luis Obispo) in liberal Coastal California, doing so largely for reasons of geographical contiguity. Less explicable is his exclusion of the left-voting northern coastal countries of Sonoma, Mendocino, and Humboldt. These may be relatively rural counties, but where the main crops are wine grapes and marijuana one should not expect conservative voting patterns. Note that certainly highly rural and relatively remote regions have solidly left electoral records, an unusual pattern. These include the Big Sur coast in Monterrey County, with its artistic heritage, and the counter-cultural “hippy” centers of Mendocino and southern Humboldt counties, such as Willits and Garberville.

The New State of Coastal California? Read More »

Argentina’s Claims to the Falkland Islands, and Much More


The Falkland Islands, known in Spanish as the Malvinas, are back in the news, as Argentina reasserts its claims while objecting to offshore oil exploration in the vicinity by British firms. In 1982 the Falklands made global headlines when Argentina unsuccessfully attempted to militarily wrest control of the archipelago from the United Kingdom. In the intervening years, Britain beefed up its military presence on the islands, granted full British citizenship to their residents, and endeavored to diversify the economy. The 3,000 or so Falkland Islanders, English-speaking settlers nicknamed “kelpers” after the local seaweed beds, now profit from the massive export of squid, mostly to Spain. If oil exploration pays off, significantly higher revenues could follow.

After losing the Falkland War, Argentina underwent a political transformation as its discredited military government yielded to civilian rule. Although it subsequently reestablished diplomatic recognition with Britain, Buenos Aires never dropped its claim to the islands, which it views as inalienable Argentine territory. War with the U.K. is not a current possibility, but Argentina does want to make continued British political control and economic exploitation as diplomatically uncomfortable as possible. On February 24, 2010, The Wall Street Journal noted that a summit of 32 Latin American and Caribbean countries had expressed “moral support” for the Argentine claim, while calling for high-level talks on the disputed sovereignty. The same summit also laid the foundation for a new regional organization, The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, that could continue to pressure the United Kingdom over its disputed control of the archipelago.

Historically speaking, sovereignty over the Falklands is a complex matter. Since 1762, actual control has shifted between Britain, France, Spain, and Argentina – with a brief U.S. foray into the region in 1831. By 1834, Britain was in firm possession. Argentine nationalists, however, have never wavered in their demands. Often overlooked is the fact that these demands extend well beyond the Falklands/Malvinas themselves. Argentina also claims sovereignty over a number of other British-controlled sub-Antarctic islands, including South Georgia and the South Sandwich islands. While none of these islands is permanently inhabited, they do include non-trivial land areas as well as large swaths of sea-space. The potential resource base of the combined area is substantial, raising the stakes of the current conflict.

Argentina’s Claims to the Falkland Islands, and Much More Read More »

The Andaman Islands: Cultural Extinction, Paleolithic Survival, and Modern Naval Warfare


In February 2010, a number of major media outlets reported the death of Boa Sr, the last speaker of Bo in India’s Andaman Islands. Sadly, there is nothing unusual about the extinction of Bo; a language disappears somewhere in the world roughly once a month. Some 500 languages are spoken by fewer than ten people, and half of the world’s languages are expected to disappear by 2100.

Yet the indigenous peoples and languages of the Andaman Islands deserve special attention. Until pried open by the British in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the Andaman Islands were a world apart, occupied by a group of linguistically diverse societies successfully resisting contact with everyone else. The Andamanese seemed to have retained cultural and genetic characteristics that marked the first migration of modern human beings out of Africa and into coastal Asia some 50,000 years ago. Like the equally isolated Tasmanian Aborigines, they allegedly had no knowledge of making fire, carefully preserving burning embers for future use.

When the British arrived, so did epidemic diseases, ravaging the indigenous population. Some scholars think that British administrators set out to exterminate certain Andamanese groups, which were noted for their extreme hostility toward outsiders—and for their skill with the bow. By 1900, only some 600 people still spoke languages in the Great Andamanese group, the largest linguistic family in the archipelago. With the extinction of Aka-Kora in late 2009 and of Bo in 2010, only one of the ten original Great Andamanese languages remains. Just fifty people speak it, a number too small to ensure survival.

The Ongan language family of the southern Andaman Islands has done better, with roughly 200 people speaking one of its surviving languages and 100 speaking the other. The 250 or so inhabitants of North Sentinel Island may also speak a language that belongs in this family, but that is mere conjecture, as Sentinelese remains an unexamined tongue. To this day, outsiders who venture onto the island are attacked and driven away. North Sentinel may be internationally regarded as Indian territory, but that means nothing to the island’s inhabitants, who remain effectively independent not just of India but of the modern world. In 2006, when helicopters arrived to retrieve the bodies of two fishermen who had trespassed into their waters, Sentinelese archers harassed them with arrows.

The rest of the Andaman archipelago, by contrast, has been integrated with the modern world for some time. The first connection seems to have come in the seventeenth century, when the Marathas of India established a temporary naval base in the area. By the mid 1800s, the British had conquered most of the archipelago. They soon built a notorious penal colony, which was heavily used after the Indian rebellion of 1857. Subsequent migration streams brought people from different parts of South Asia, resulting in a multilingual and relatively cosmopolitan population of some 300,000 today.

The hottest recent developments in the Andaman Islands are related to regional geopolitics. In February 2010, India announced a major expansion of military installations in both the Andaman and the neighboring Nicobar islands. According to a February 7, 2010 article from the Hindustan Times, local airstrips “were being extended from 3,200 feet to 12,000 feet to support all types of aircraft, including fighters. … [while] the army was planning to beef up its brigade-level deployment (around 3,000 soldiers) with three more battalions and support units.” The local command has recently obtained such naval equipment as a large Landing Ship Tank (LST), which can hold more than 200
 armed troops, six trucks, ten main battle tanks, and twelve infantry combat vehicles, according to the Indian news outlet DNA.

India’s military build-up in the Andaman Islands comes in reaction to Chinese naval forays into the area. China has apparently constructed some sort of military intelligence facility in the Coco Islands, a Burmese outlier just to the north of the Andaman Islands (see map). Although both China and Burma (Myanmar) deny the allegation, Indian officials are convinced that it is designed to monitor their naval activities as well as the Indian Space Research Center, located on the Andhra Pradesh coast.

The Andaman Islands: Cultural Extinction, Paleolithic Survival, and Modern Naval Warfare Read More »

Tribal War and Natural Gas in Papua New Guinea

With roughly a thousand languages divided into a surprising number of linguistic families, New Guinea is noted for its extraordinary cultural diversity (see map above). The central highlands of New Guinea also form a diversity center of a different sort: that of warfare. Tribal combat remains ubiquitous, especially in the troubled Southern Highland province of Papua New Guinea (PNG). Most conflicts here are localized, short, and fought with traditional weapons, but the cumulative casualty rates can be substantial.

Few tribal wars from New Guinea reach the global media. Access is difficult when not impossible, and the stakes are regarded as low by the rest of the world. When conflicts are reported it is generally due to unusual circumstances. In February 2010, for example, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation recounted a battle between two clans in the southern highlands that was provoked by a young man sending a pornographic text message to a young woman in a different village. Her male relatives were offended enough to attack the sender’s kin with bows and arrows, knives, and homemade guns. In the ensuing fight, two people were killed, several were injured, and a number of houses were burned.

The armed struggles of New Guinea can provoke serious gender disputes. Women often complain that pervasive warfare makes it difficult for them to feed their children. According to a November 2008 report in the Daily Mail, the women of two villages in the eastern highlands decided to end the local cycle of violence in a drastic manner: over a ten-year period, they killed all male babies. “It’s because of the terrible fights that have brought death and destruction to our villages for the past 20 years that all the womenfolk have agreed to have all new-born male babies killed,” reported one local women. Women were able do so – if the reports are true – because they lead relatively sex-segregated lives; men control men’s houses, while women control their own. According to the Daily Mail article, promising efforts were being made by a local pastor of the Salvation Army to mediate between the warriors and the mothers of their children.

A few tribal wars in New Guinea have global repercussions, prompting occasional reports in the global media. The southern highlands have vast natural gas deposits – according to some reports, the largest underdeveloped fields outside of Qatar. Plans to exploit the gas have been in place for some time, but tribal violence has delayed implementation. In 2006, the PNG government declared a state of emergency in the Southern Highlands, imposing a curfew and sending in soldiers, so that development plans could proceed.

In December 2009, ExxonMobil and several partners determined that conditions were stable enough to proceed with a $15 billion liquefied natural gas project. This would be the largest foreign investment in Papua New Guinea’s history, potentially tripling its exports. On February 11, 2010, however,Radio New Zealand Internationalreported that the project was inciting tribal warfare, even among groups that had previously had peaceful relations. As a result, Exxon had to suspend operations in several areas. As Dame Carol Kidu, Papua New Guinea’s Minister for Community Development stated, “suddenly with this LNG project and all of the tensions and jealousies over the land ownership and all these things, it blew up into a tribal war, a village war; inter-village war.”

Papua New Guinea has had its share of trouble since independence in 1975. Its most serious insurgency had been on the mineral-rich island of Bougainville, physically located in the Solomon Island chain. The Bougainville rebellion was largely defused with an autonomy agreement in 1997. Meanwhile, security deteriorated in the highlands. In December 2004, a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute argued that Papua New Guinea was heading downhill and even risked becoming a failed state. In 2009, widespread anti-Chinese rioting and looting further damaged the country’s economy.

Will the development of its natural gas fields give Papua New Guinea the money that it needs to genuinely develop? Or will it form a “resource curse” that will enrich a few, further impoverish others, and provoke more tribal warfare? Either scenario is possible.

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Free Tours of Guantanamo Bay… in Google Earth

Guantanamo and the United States, and One Cashed Rent Check
Today’s post focuses on Guantanamo Bay, and is illustrated with Google Earth.
Please download a free copy of Google Earth, and then download this KML file, as an interactive accompaniment to this Geocurrents post.

Guantanamo Bay was obtained by the United States following the Spanish American war. The natural harbor made it an important staging point for the 1898 invasion of Cuba.
In 1903, with US Warships still docked in the bay, the newly independent Cuban government signed a deal with the United States granting it a perpetual lease on the land.
At the time, what made Guantanamo such a key strategic site for the United States’ ambition for hegemony in Latin America, was the fact that it was the best harbor laying on the Windward Passage, a key shipping lane through the Caribbean to the Panama Canal.

The US maintained control of the area, through a series of treaties: the Cuban American Treaty of 1930 and the Avery Porko treaty of 1934, with the US paying approximately a 2000 dollar a year lease on the land and shared access to the waters. This treaty provided that only US abandonment of the base or mutual agreement would end the stay. For a more heavily detailed version of the terms and geography of this controversy this report from SEMP, will get you up to speed.
The heart of the territorial controversy about the area between the US and Cuba (aside from acquisition through imperial force & that it’s a staging point for torture) can be pinpointed at in the diction used in the top right hand corner of the map below.


The Phrase ‘Reaffirmed in 1963,’ was really only reaffirmed by one side, the United States.
The US State Department has kept the position that Castro’s revolution government reaffirmed the lease by cashing a US check for the land, shortly after taking power. Castro has played this as an early bureaucratic mistake, and has not cashed any checks since. Castro considers the occupation of Guantanamo Bay illegal.
According to Castro, the US Checks are made out to the ‘Treasurer General of the Republic,” a position that does not exist in his government. He keeps the US Checks in a desk, as a souvenir.
The detainment and torture of US prisoners on Cuban soil, is obviously a touchy issue for the Cuban government, and Obama may have realized this during efforts to re-engage with the Cuban Government, taking steps on closing Guantanamo.
Obama has announced plans to move the current detainees to the Thomson Correctional Center in Thomson, Illinois, a prison with an unused Maximum Security wing. The Prison, once beefed up for the detainees will exceed Supermax status, boasting 15-foot walls, electrified with 7000 volts.
If I may throw a diplomatic idea out here: I suggest that United States return Guantanamo to the Cubans as a bargaining chip to restore benevolent diplomatic relations. This isn’t 1900, we don’t need to scramble to bully the Windward Passage and protect the Panama Canal anymore. The Guantanamo territory was taken in an imperialist war over a century ago, and is an exclave that almost exclusively encompasses US imperialism and torture.


For the Google Earth Portion of this tour, which I linked at the beginning of the article, I suggest you explore not just the topography of the region, but also the inconsistencies in the region.
Much of the Guantanamo Terrain is obscured intentionally in the images, and many of the map overlays I’ve tried with the software are inconsistent. Huge hills jut out of nowhere, showing that there is a geographical cover up, going on with Google Earth in Guantanamo.
The tour will then swing to aerials views of the detainee’s future home, in Thomson, Illinois. No cover-ups there, just corn.
All this has brought me to think that, I could only imagine what would have happened if Khrushchev and Kennedy had Google Earth during the Cold War.

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Southern Thailand: A Kratom-Fueled Insurgency?


“Four Killed in Insurgency-Plagued Thai South,” reads an all-too-typical Reuters headline from February 15, 2010. The war in southern Thailand’s Pattani region is little noted in the U.S. media, but it continues to generate significant casualties – totaling almost 4,000 deaths over the last six years – as well as major human rights abuses. The Malay-speaking, Muslim, and relatively poor inhabitants of Thailand’s southernmost provinces feel marginalized and often oppressed, giving rise to an insurrection that targets not just the Thai state but also Thai-speaking Buddhist civilians. Hundreds of teachers and low-level civil servants have been attacked, many beheaded. Critics claim that the government has responded with almost equal brutality, fanning the flames of the insurrection.

Thailand’s Muslim, Malay-speaking holdings resulted from Siamese imperial expansion aimed at controlling the Strait of Malacca in the 1700s (see 1855 map above). In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Britain stripped Thailand of most of its Malay lands, but not Pattani. Pattani’s residents never fully accepted Thai power. The current rebellion, which began in 2004, remains shadowy. No specific group, let alone leader, has taken responsibility for the acts of violence, and no concrete demands have been made.

Many young men of Pattani have gravitated to an oppositional subculture marked by heavy drug use, and hard-core Islamists reportedly recruit drug-addled youths as terrorists. Although hardly noted for their Muslim piety, these young men usually avoid alcohol in favor of substances that are not explicitly banned by the Quran. Recent reports from southern Thailand highlight an unusual element in the struggle: 4 X 100, a psychoactive cocktail consisting of cough syrup, tranquilizers, carbonated soft drinks, and a tea made from the leaves of the kratom plant (Mitragyna speciosa). As Asia Times recently reported, “one captured low-level insurgent interviewed by a Thai TV reporter said that almost every youth attached to the movement … regularly used 4 X 100.”

Thai authorities think that the indigenous Southeast Asian drug kratom contributes to the problem. Kratom is illegal in Thailand, and raids are regularly carried out. It is far from clear, however, whether kratom itself is particularly dangerous, as 4 X 100 contains other ingredients as well. As one young man from Southern Thailand reported, “I’ve heard of people adding mosquito repellant or a substance from a neon light bulb…” (Media Awareness Project: Kratom Juice Cocktail the Rage with Young Muslims).

Kratom is legal in the United States – an internet search yields many sales offers – although the DEA classifies it as a “drug of concern.” The Wikipedia describes it as a “medicinal leaf” that may help in the treatment of opiate addiction. It further states that kratom is mildly addictive itself, and that it is “paradoxically a stimulant and a depressant, used to aid work and also able to contribute to sleep and rest.” One can only conclude that more research is needed. Meanwhile, kratom merchants are not only developing high-potency cultivars, but are juggling the percentages of the various mind-altering alkaloids. As the PureLand Ethnobotanicals sales catalogue notes, “Genetic differences between varieties, or strains of kratom, give rise to the formation of indole alkaloids (like mitragynine) and oxindole alkaloids in varying proportions, thus making kratom an interesting research study.”

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The Communitarian Nation of Moskitia?


On February 17, 2010, Nicaragua’s La Prensa reported that a local council of elders had asked the people of Nicaragua’s coastal region not to participate in upcoming regional elections. The elders, representing the Miskito Indians, urged noncompliance for a simple reason: they no longer recognize the authority of the government of Nicaragua. In August 2009, community leaders announced the independence of the “Communitarian Nation of Moskitia,” declaring that henceforth they themselves formed “el único Gobierno que debe ser reconocido” (“the only government that should be recognized”). Loose plans for secession had been in place since 2001, when 280 indigenous communities pledged solidarity in seeking peaceful separation from Nicaragua. In 2008 and 2009, disputes with the government, especially over the spiny lobster fishery, intensified, leading to the declaration of independence. Nicaragua has not formally responded – nor has any other country, to my knowledge. The actual “independence” of the region remains largely imaginary.

The word “Miskito” has nothing to do with biting flies, but that hasn’t stopped eastern Nicaragua from being called the Mosquito Coast. The Miskitos, some 150,000 to 200,000 strong, share the region with several other indigenous groups, as well as English-speaking Afro-Nicaraguans and some Spanish-speaking mestizos. In general, the east is culturally opposed to the rest of the country: Creole English and indigenous languages are more widely spoken than Spanish, and Protestantism (with strong indigenous and African elements) is more widespread than Catholicism. Moskitia’s would-be leaders claim that their new country will be ethnically inclusive, but its political structures are to be based on Misktito traditions. Hector Williams, head of the movement, goes by the indigenous title of Wihta Tara, or Great Judge.

The Miskitos formed a kind of state as far back as the 1700s, reportedly ruled by a king in consultation with governors, commanding a well-organized military force. Allied with the British in the Caribbean, they fought the Spanish colonial realm, retaining the autonomy of their homeland. After the independence of the Spanish colonies in the early 1800s, Britain maintained a loose and unofficial protectorate over the region. As shown in the above 1842 map (published by Chapman and Hall, from the David Rumsey collection), the area was often mapped as an independent Indian realm, an unusual cartographic category at that time. The British withdrew in the late 1800s, and in 1894 the so-called Mosquito Coast was annexed by Nicaragua. A remote region, it remained largely left to itself until the late mid-1900s.

The position of Nicaragua’s Atlantic coastal region changed dramatically in 1979, when the country’s new Marxist Sandinista government sought to tap its resources and integrate it with the rest of the country. Sandinista leaders also objected to the use of English along the Mosquito Coast, which they viewed as a legacy of British imperialism. Miskito leaders refused to comply with their demands. They quickly formed militias, which joined forces with the so-called contras (“counter-revolutionaries) struggling against the government.

Stability returned to the Caribbean coast in 1990 when Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega was democratically replaced by his former ally, Violeta Chamorra. In 2007, a reformed Daniel Ortega returned to power through the ballot box. Ortega may now be a culturally conservative Catholic, but economically and geopolitically he remains a leftist, and he has joined Hugo Chavez’s “Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas.” Ortega’s return to power was one of the main reasons Miskito elders declared independence.

The Communitarian Nation of Moskitia? Read More »

DR Congo’s Geographical Challenges


Yesterday’s post outlined the troubled history of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Today I would like to briefly examine a few of the geographical issues that make it a challenge for DR Congo to function as a country.

The first issue is transportation. To say that overland transportation is difficult in DR Congo is a laughable understatement, as is clear if one carefully examines the Wikipedia map included above. Note how the country’s meager road system fails to link many areas; note also how many roads are classified as “earth tracks,” meaning that they become impassible mud-pits after heavy rains, which occur frequently. As brief exercise, try figuring out how to travel from Goma in the east to Mbuji-Mayi in the south-center without using an “earth track.” Eastern DR Congo is much better connected to neighboring countries in east Africa than it is to the western DR Congo. It is noteworthy, however, that China recently (2007) agreed to lend DR Congo US $5 billion to improve its transportation system, in particular by upgrading the linkages between the major mining area around Lubumbashi and the ocean port at Matadi.

The second map overlays the distribution of DR Congo’s four major regional languages on a 1970 interpretation of its population density patterns. (Several hundred languages are spoken in the country, but these four are used as common, “transethnic” tongues.) Here we can clearly see how the country is divided into several distinctive “core” areas. Three of these linguistic groupings, moreover, extend deeply into neighboring countries. Eastern DR Congo thus has profound cultural ties to Kenya and Tanzania, where Swahili is also used as a common language. Voting patterns in the final round of the 2006 election closely followed language lines, with Joseph Kabila taking the Swahili-speaking areas, and Jean-Pierre Bemba, now imprisoned in the Hague for war crimes, winning in the rest of the country.

Does DR Congo make sense as a country? I wonder whether its recent history would have been less dismal if it had been allowed to break into four separate states after independence in 1960s.

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DR Congo: A Potemkin State?

The ongoing war in the Democratic Republic of Congo is reputed to be the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II. Most observers estimate the death toll at around 5.4 million deaths; some figures put the toll as high as 6.9 million. One controversial 2009 report—from the Human Security Report Project of Simon Fraser University—claims that the actual death count was less than a million. Such wild discrepancies suggest how difficult it is to collect accurate information in a place as anarchic as DR Congo.

The Democratic Republic of Congo isn’t much of a democratic republic, but that’s not its major problem. More serious is that it doesn’t really function as a country at all. The government hardly governs even in the portion of its territory that it actually controls. Our reference works mislead us when they classify the DRC is a “developing nation-state,” as they habitually do. It certainly isn’t developing (see the chart above), and its governmental apparatus remains miniscule; the DRC takes in less revenue annually than Haiti ($700 million as opposed to $961 million), a deeply impoverished country a fraction of its size. National identity is weak at best. Those Congolese who went to school learned that they constitute a Congolese nation, a lesson that many have apparently taken to heart, but when push comes to shove regional and ethnic cleavages deeply divide. To put it bluntly, since independence in 1960, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been a de-developing, non-national Potemkin state: a façade of a country with scant substance.

The DRC owes its existence to the wild greed of Leopold II, king of the contrived state of Belgium. Desperate to put his mark on the globe, Leopold unleashed his agents, starting with Henry Stanley, to cut a swath of terror across central Africa. Local people were forced to collect vast amounts of wild rubber; if they failed to meet quotas, hands were chopped, and often heads as well. At the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, Bismarck and the other European leaders simply awarded Leopold the bulk of central Africa as his personal domain, calling it the Congo Free State (ironies run deep here). After word of the carnage in the Congo reached global attention, Leopold lost his African estate to his own government, and in 1908 the Belgium Congo was born. When Belgium abruptly withdrew from Africa in 1960, the Congo almost immediately split in four (see map). It convulsed with violence through the first half of the 1960s, as regional leaders turned to either the Soviet Union or the United States for support. Che Guevara came to mentor Laurent Kabila, founder of the DR Congo, in the arts of revolutionary war.

Relative stability, but little else, came to Congo in 1965 with the dictatorship of Western-backed Joseph Mobutu, who renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko just as he rechristened his country Zaire. Reportedly the third highest grossing kleptocrat (thief-ruler) in world history, Mobuto made off with an estimated $5 billion in his 32 years of rule; only Indonesia’s Suharto and the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos stole more. But when one considers the vastly greater resources of Indonesia and the Philippines, Mobutu must take first place. While Indonesia prospered and the Philippines merely stagnated under kleptocratic rule, Mobutu’s realm steadily declined. When the Cold War ended, its economy collapsed. In the mid-1990s, Zaire collapsed as well. Its demise came in 1997 when Rwanda-backed Joseph Kabila, no longer a Marxist, seized control. A year later, his disappointed Rwandan backers sent another army to replace him. As Rwandan forces were closing in on Kinshasa, Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe (with a little help from Chad and Libya) stepped in to defend the Kabila regime. By the beginning of the millennium, DR Congo had fractured into a complex welter of militia-run territories – the geography of which no map adequately conveys. Increasingly, these militias came to fight, with extreme brutality, over access to resources, particularly coltan (a rare mineral used in the manufacture of electronics).

It is quite telling that Rwanda – a country a fraction the size of DR Congo that had just endured its own genocidal hell – could treat the vast DR Congo as its pawn. This is not something that would have happened to a genuine nation-state. (To be continued.)

DR Congo: A Potemkin State? Read More »

National Parks of DR Congo: Hippos, Rhinos, Gorillas, and Guerillas


Despite its poverty, lack of infrastructure, and interminable wars, the Democratic Republic of Congo has admirably tried to salvage its national park system and preserve its wildlife. It has not been easy. Since 1994, an estimated 120 rangers have died trying to protect Virunga National Park alone. The existence of large wild areas in eastern DR Congo, moreover, generates its own problems. Guerilla leaders now use the parks as refuges for their own fighters, putting wildlife at increased risk and undermining the security of the region.

Virunga National Park in eastern DR Congo, established in 1925, was Africa’s first national park. Slightly smaller than Yellowstone, it is – or was – noted for its forest elephants, okapis, hippos, and especially its gorillas. The seemingly endless war has taken its toll: 95 percent of Virunga’s hippos have supposedly been slaughtered since 2006. Dauntless efforts by rangers kept the park’s gorillas relatively secure until the Hutu militia, called the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), began hiding in the park. In 2007, forces of the Tutsi-oriented, anti-FDLR militia led by Laurent Nkunda invaded the park, seized its headquarters, and expelled its rangers. In 2008, however, Nkunda allowed the rangers to return, and even began talking about protecting Virunga and developing a tourist destination. Rwanda’s arrest of Nkunda in early 2009, part of a complex deal between Rwanda and DR Congo aimed at uprooting the FDLR, put Virunga’s wildlife in renewed jeopardy.

The situation in Garamba National Park in northeastern DR Congo is more dire still. Garamba, established in 1938, was best known as the last remaining holdout of the northern white rhino. In January 2009, the park headquarters were attacked by the brutal Ugandan rebel force known as the Lord’s Resistance Army. The LRA bizarrely combines Acholi nationalism (focused on an ethnic group in northern Uganda) with a religious hybrid of indigenous beliefs and Christianity. The LRA, as infamous for its use of child soldiers as for having displaced some 1.6 million persons, uses the park as a sanctuary, from which it terrorizes a broad swath of land extending across several countries. Uganda, Sudan, and DR Congo tried to dislodge the LRA from the park later in 2009. The resulting “Operation Lightning Thunder” was not successful; rebel reader Joseph Kony eluded capture, and the LRA retaliated by mutilating and killing over a thousand local civilians.

Optimistic reports have recently been coming out of eastern DRC, claiming that mediation is working and violence is on the wane. “Normalcy Returns to Eastern DR Congo: Mediators,” reads a January 25, 2010 headline in China’s People’s Daily Online. One week later, the UN News Centre reported that the LRA had just slaughtered 100 civilians in the Congolese village of Magamba. Optimism may be comforting, but in the DR Congo it is generally misplaced.

National Parks of DR Congo: Hippos, Rhinos, Gorillas, and Guerillas Read More »

54-40 or Fight, Canadian Bacon, and Vancouver: Land of the Olympics and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh

We’re going to run with the Olympic torch here at Geocurrents, and fill you in on the history and geography of Vancouver, beefed up with 3D Google Earth imagery.

Vancouver is North America’s fourth largest seaport, by tonnage. This owes largely to the geography of the region. The port is nestled away the pacific, by Vancouver Island, and the straits of Georgia, making it the most suitable harbor in the region.

Vancouver was originally home to the Squamish (alternately spelled Sḵwx̱wú7mesh), Tsleil-Waututh, and Xwméthkwyiem peoples of the Coast Salish Language Family. In the late 18th century, Englishman George Vancouver, and Spaniard José Maria Naravez, begun the first wave of European exploration, smallpox, slaughter and indigenous displacement.

The Fraser Canyon Gold Rush and Klondike Gold Rush brought large waves of immigrants and prospectors into the city in the 19th century. Opportunities in mining, timber and furs, and manufacturing and attracted a constant flow of immigrants. By virtue of these factor endowments, Vancouver to displaced British Columbia’s provincial capital, Victoria, as the economic powerhouse of the region.

Vancouver’s proximity to the United States also bolstered its Olympic candidacy. Historically, Vancouver began the 19th century as a geographical grey area, administered as the Oregon Country by both the United States and Great Britain up to the border with Russia at the 54th Parallel. US president James Polk, appealed to expansionists with the campaign 1844 slogan 54’ 40 or Fight, but instead settled on the 49th parallel, and brought the fight to Mexico.

Vancouver was part of the extreme US claim for the Northwest, but the US lost its chance at Vancouver with the Oregon Treaty of 1846, which set today’s border at the 49th parallel. Still, expansionists were not pleased, and territorial grey area remained between the US and Canada until the resolution of history’s funniest bloodless, ‘The Pig War.

The Pig War begun in 1859 on the island of San Juan, which with the Canadian city of Victoria to the West, and the American city of Bellingham, to the East, the Strait of Georgia to the North, and the Strait of Juan de Faca to the South. The boar of a Canadian farmer wandered on to the potato patch of an American farmer, so the American farmer shot the pig. The situation escalated to the point where over 2000 British troops, and 500 American troops squared off, but hurled nothing more than insults.

Peace was resolved under President Buchanan, but the territorial disputes between the US and Canada were not finalized until 1871 and, with the Treaty of Washington, and 1872, when an international arbiter under the guidance of Kaiser Wilhelm set the US-Canadian Marine Boundaries near Vancouver Island.

With the most active harbor in the Pacific Northwest, a few gold rushes worth of immigration, and British and American technological innovation, Vancouver had the pieces in place to blossom in to a Olympic host city, nearly a century ago.

Here’s where the fun comes in. For those of you who cannot afford a private blimp ride over the games, I’ve put together a floating satellite image tour of Vancouver in Google Earth.

Start on the tour by downloading Google Earth.

Now download this file.

Happy flying!

The mountain that you’ll see in the tour is Whistler Mountain, 70 miles north of Vancouver. It is a part of the Coastal Mountain Range, which runs up from California to Alaska. The kind folks at Google Earth went so far as to do a 3D panoramic street view for the mountain’s trails, inan update earlier this week.

(Note: Geocurrents is not responsible for any injury incurred during virtual Bobsledding tours)

This Geocurrents tour was largely built around the groundwork done here andherein the Google earth blog and forums, respectively.

54-40 or Fight, Canadian Bacon, and Vancouver: Land of the Olympics and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Read More »

The Republic of Hau Pakumoto?


The globe-spanning European empires of the 1800s were essentially dismantled in the decades following World War II, with one important exception. In the maritime realm, empire lingers in the form of continuing colonial control over small oceanic islands, some inhabited, others not. If one includes the 200 nautical-mile exclusive economic zones that sovereign states control around their island holdings, such oceanic “empires” cover a substantial portion of the earth’s surface. As the map reproduced above shows, France’s maritime sphere is vast and far-flung, giving France a truly global reach.

France governs its various insular and oceanic territories in different ways. Some of its islands (Reunion, Guadeloupe, and Martinique) are integral units of the country, as much parts of France as Hawaii is part of the United States. Most others are organized as “overseas collectivities,” ruled in a more colonial manner. The sizable and resource-rich island of New Caledonia, however, is classified as a “sui generis collectivity”; its ties to France are structured in a unique and particularly complex manner.

While France undoubtedly exploited its colonial domains, today its vestiges of empire are more consistently subsidized. Such revenue flows, however, do not prevent chafing against the existing regime. Independence movements and other organized forms of resistance are found in most of the inhabited islands ruled by France, even Corsica. In February 2009, protests in Guadeloupe and Martinique turned deadly, forcing Paris to send in police reinforcements. Focused mostly at the high cost of living, the protests also targeted the domination of local economies by metropolitan elements.

French Polynesia, a vast oceanic expanse containing some 264,000 inhabitants, has also given France major headaches in recent years. Since 2004, this “overseas collectivity” has experienced nine changes in government, prompting Nicholas Sarkozy to describe the situation as “comical.” Pro-independence and pro-France local politicians struggle against each other, but then often join forces to direct subsidies to their own islands. Denunciations of Chinese merchants, followed by denunciations of such denunciations, are another stable feature of French Polynesian politics. As instability has increased, Paris has looked for possible reforms. In January 2010, Sarkozy proposed revamping the colony’s electoral system, but received little local support.

As is true in the French Caribbean, much of the popular discontent in French Polynesia stems from the high cost of living. Such tensions reached a climax on January 19, 2010, when opposition leaders on the island of Moorea – a favored tourist destination – publically seceded from France and French Polynesia, declaring that henceforth Moorea should be regarded as the independent republic of Hau Pakumoto. Although the announcement appears to have been largely a publicity stunt, French officials took it seriously, seizing funds and illegally issued identity cards. According to the Vancouver Sun, the minister of international affairs of the new “republic” claimed that more then 50,000 people support independence, a suspiciously high number considering the fact that Moorea’s population is only about 16,000.

 

The Republic of Hau Pakumoto? Read More »

Peace Between Sudan and Chad?

On February 9, 2010, the leaders of Sudan and Chad agreed to quit supporting rebel movements in the other’s territory, thus promising to end one of Africa’s proxy wars. They also pledged to discuss mutual development projects along the war-ravaged border. Such initiatives could diminish tensions in western Sudan (Darfur) and adjacent areas in eastern Chad. Caution is warranted, however; earlier thaws have not lasted. Chad broke diplomatic relations with Sudan in 2006, then restored ties with fanfare later that year. But in 2007, after defeating a raid by Sudan-based rebels, Chad reportedly sent eight tanks and 100 other military vehicles into Sudanese territory. In 2008, Chadian president Idriss Déby again lashed out against “mercenaries directed by Sudan” who had advanced across the country to the capital city of N’Djamena before being routed. Skeptical observers suspect that the new agreement is based more on the two governments’ desire to firm up local support before scheduled elections than on any deep-seated desire for peaceful relations.

The tensions between Chad and Sudan are linked to their ethnic geographies. Of critical importance are the Zaghawa, an historically powerful linguistic group whose territory spans the border. In Sudan, the Zaghawa — like other non-Arabic-speaking peoples of Darfur — have been victimized by the Sudanese government and its allied Arab militias, the infamous Janjaweed. The Sudanese Zaghawa generally support the insurgent Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), a moderately Islamist organization, supplying most of its leadership. In Chad, the Zaghawa politically dominate the entire country, even though they are a relatively small minority living far from the core area of the south- and center-west. Chadian President Déby and most of the country’s other top officials are Zaghawa. It is thus not surprising that they would support Zaghawa rebels on the other side of the border.

Overall, Sudan and Chad are structured along similar ethno-geographical lines. Both have Muslim majorities living in the arid northern and the semi-arid central regions, and substantial Christian and animist minorities inhabiting the humid southern areas. Likewise, their Muslim populations are divided between Arabic speakers and peoples speaking a variety of African languages, mostly in the Nilo-Saharan family. As is apparent in the map above, local Arabs are often classified as “White,” in contrast to the “Black Africans” who speak indigenous languages. In actuality, a long history of intermarriage has reduced color differences, especially among the Shuwa (or Baggara) cattle-herding Arabs, often to the vanishing point.

While the overall ethnic structures of Chad and Sudan are similar, the demographic specifics are markedly different. In Sudan, Arabs constitute a plurality of some 40 percent; living in the core regions of the country, they have long dominated its political and economic structures. The Arabs of Chad, by contrast, form only about 15 percent of the population, and live mostly as migratory pastoralists with little power. They have suffered some persecution in recent years, largely because local villagers and troops often unfairly associate them with the brutal Janjaweed militias of Sudan (see “Arabs Face Discrimination in Chad,” Stephanie Hancock).

Chad has been so rent by ethnic divisions, poverty, and inadequate infrastructure that its government has barely managed to survive. Déby maintains power in the face of numerous insurgencies in good part by relying on the force of the 1,000 or so French troops currently stationed in the country. But oil revenues have been pouring into Chad since 2003, giving the government increasing scope for action. Most of the funds from the oil industry were supposed to be set aside for educational and other human development projects, but in 2006 Chad’s government backed out of the U.N.-brokered agreement. In 2009, Transparency International rated Chad as the word’s sixth most corrupt country. Sudan was ranked even lower, just three slots above last-place Somalia. Under such conditions, a durable peace seems unlikely.

Peace Between Sudan and Chad? Read More »