Article-Grid

Renewed Violence in the Niger Delta

Few of Africa’s many insurgent groups receive much notice in the global media. One way they can get attention is to attack the infrastructure of oil production. Thus the Movement for The Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) found itself in headlines on January 30, 2010, after breaking its truce with the Nigerian government and sabotaging an oil pipeline. A day later, crude oil jumped 1.3 percent (95 cents a barrel)—after having declined by 8.3 percent in January.

The truce between MEND and the Nigerian government, dating only to October 2009, never seemed particularly secure. MEND leaders demanded quick action to address the needs of the poor but oil-rich Niger Delta. Rapid response, however, is not a hallmark of the Nigerian government—especially now, as president Umaru Yar’Adua is ill and missing from action. Before breaking the truce, a MEND leader expressed his frustration in clear terms: “General Abbe, the current defence minister and his cohorts, rather than encourage the government of Nigeria to address the core issues as demanded by true agitators for justice in the Niger Delta, are still inaugurating one dubious committee after another in a bid to continue stealing funds supposedly allocated for the development of the Niger Delta” (see “Niger Delta’s Endless Planning,” by Ifeatu Agbu. http://allafrica.com/stories/201001270657.html)

MEND is an amorphous umbrella organization for a number of insurgent groups operating in the Niger Delta. Nimble and decentralized, MEND has adopted “open-source” tactics relying on ad hoc recruitment from criminal gangs and local cults to conduct hit-and-run raids. MEND actions are brutal but its grievances are real. The Niger Delta, the main source of Nigeria’s wealth, is characterized by extreme poverty, political marginalization, and environmental despoliation. Earlier non-violent resistance movements were not successful. In 1995, the then-dictatorial Nigerian government hanged Ken Saro-Wiwa, a nationally noted author and television personality, after he organized a peaceful protest through the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. A peaceful resistance movement would have a better chance against today’s basically democratic government.

Nigerian culture and politics are sometimes portrayed too crudely as bifurcated between the Christian south and the Muslim north. To be sure, religious tensions are a major issue in much of the country, particularly in the central Jos region. But the situation in the Niger Delta is different. The Ijaw, who form the bulk of MEND’s support, are a primarily Christian group some 15 million strong, yet one of their heroes is the imprisoned and devoutly Muslim militant, Alhaji Mujahid Asari-Dokubo. Raised a Christian, Asari-Dokubo converted before founding another local insurgent group, the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force.

In the delta, more important than religious conflict is the region’s intricate ethnic geography. The standard ethno-linguistic map of Nigeria, a portion of which is reproduced above, is highly simplified, concealing staggering ethno-linguistic diversity. According to Ethnologue, some 47 distinct language groups are found in the central delta area. Nigeria’s southeastern corner is more diverse still. (See http://www.ethnologue.com/show_map.asp?name=NG&seq=110). Rivalries here sometimes become violent. In the late 1990s, for example, the Ijaw and the Itsekiri fought a minor war, the “Warri Crisis.” Whether inter-ethnic violence will be reignited in the current crisis remains to be seen.

Renewed Violence in the Niger Delta Read More »

The Geography of the Chilean Election

As last Friday’s post noted, recent elections in Chile and Bolivia produced markedly different results. In Bolivia, socialist president Evo Morales was reelected in a landslide, whereas in Chile the center-left coalition that had run the country for more than two decades lost power to the center-right. Although Chile’s out-going president Michelle Bachelet remained extremely popular, her coalition’s candidate, Eduardo Frei, was widely viewed as uninspiring. The center-right’s candidate, Sebastián Piñera, gained votes by promising to return to the rapid economic growth rates that had characterized Chile in the 1980s and 1990s while retaining the social measures put in place by his immediate predecessors.

As the electoral map shows, Frei did well in the major mining regions of the north (Antofagasta and Atacama) and in the agricultural heartland to the south of Santiago (O’Higgins and Maule). Frei also did well in some urban areas, including Concepcion, Valdivia, and parts of Santiago (although not in Valparaiso). Piñera, however, won the metropolitan areas overall, as well as the entire south. He did particularly well in the extreme north, in the Mapuche Indian heartland of Araucanía, and in Aisén, where governmental hydroelectric plans are unpopular. The center-right’s victory in Araucanía is noteworthy, as conservative political parties rarely do well in heavily indigenous areas. The Mapuche, however, have been struggling with non-Mapuche residents of their region over forestry and land-rights issues, leading to high levels of political polarization.

What is most striking about the recent Chilean election is not which candidate won in which region, but rather the fact that the vote was so evenly balanced. In the map on the left, I designated darker shades to indicate regions in which one of the candidates received more than 55 and more than 60 percent of the vote. Just three regions fell into the former category, and only one in the latter. In most of Chile, the margin of victory was relatively slight.

Democratic countries in which national unity is challenged by regional or ethnic identity typically show geographically distinctive voting patterns. Bolivia with its southwest-east divide is one such country: Ukraine, divided east to west, is another. We have also seen how the Hungarian-populated districts in Romania overwhelmingly vote for Hungarian political parties. In more firmly united countries, regional voting differences are much less pronounced. By this criterion, Chile shows high levels of national coherence. Such cohesion was also demonstrated in 2006, when Bachelet bested Piñera in every region except Araucanía, but exceeded 6o percent only in Atacama and Antofogasta.

The United States has exhibited larger geographical voting variation than has Chile in recent elections. In 2008, one candidate or the other received more than 60 percent of the vote in fifteen states. In 2004, George Bush received more than 60 percent of the vote in ten states, and more than 70 percent in one (Utah).

The Geography of the Chilean Election Read More »

Geocurrentcast Episode #6- Iraq, January 2010

Geocurrents.info is proud to present the latest installation in our ongoing Geocurrentcast series of video geography lectures.

This lecture provides a thorough review of regional geopolitics in Iraq, the upcoming census, new developments in the US campaign, and a detailed history of Iraq through today. This is a must watch for anyone interested in the intricacies of the country’s delicate ethnic geography.

Click to watch or download Geocurrentcast Episode 6: Iraq in 2010.

Geocurrentcast Episode #6- Iraq, January 2010 Read More »

The Capital Off with Mo Rocca & Claire

Check out former daily show correspondent Mo Rocca going toe to toe in a battle of world capitals with Claire Calzonetti, a former student of Professor Lewis, and producer for the Joy Behar show.
My favorite part of this, aside from Turkmenistan, is watching Mo jump around like a bunny, giddy with the power that comes with recalling world capitals like as easily as letters in the alphabet.
Enjoy.

The Capital Off with Mo Rocca & Claire Read More »

The Geography of the Bolivian Election

Latin American electoral politics have been trending to the left in recent years. Although Chile just confounded that tendency by voting in a center-right president, Bolivia overwhelmingly reelected its socialist president, Evo Morales, in December 2009. Morales, the champion of Bolivia’s indigenous majority, received 64 percent of the national vote, while his main challenger, Manfred Reyes Villa, received only 36 percent.

As the map shows, Morales trounced Reyes Villa in the southwestern highlands, Bolivia’s traditional center of population and political power, and the main seat of its indigenous population. An Aymara Indian, Morales won more than 90 percent of the vote in most of the Aymara speaking region (marked with a yellow “A” on the map), and did almost as well in the Quechua-speaking zone (marked with a green “Q”). The only highland province to vote for Reyes Villa was Oropeza, home to the country’s constitutional capital of Sucre, a largely Spanish-speaking city. Reyes Villa did reasonable well in Tomás Frías province, where the city of Potosí is located, and in his hometown of Cochabama (marked with a white triangle), although he lost in both places (for the voting base maps, see http://www.electoralgeography.com/new/en/; linguistic divisions based on the Ethnologue map of Bolivia).

As expected, Reyes Villa won a much higher percentage of the vote in the lowlands of eastern Bolivia, where most people are of mestizo rather than indigenous background, and where agriculture is oriented toward commerce more than subsistence. Yet as the map shows, here too many provinces went for Morales, if narrowly. Reyes Villa did win a convincing victory in the city of Santa Cruz (outlined in black on the map), the lowland’s commercial center and major metropolis. He did even better along the eastern border, where economic interests look more to Brazil than to the rest on Bolivia. The city of Tarija in the south, center of Bolivia’s recently nationalized natural gas industry, also gave Reyes Villa the majority of its votes.

Bolivia has undergone a major political transformation in recent decades as democracy has become more fully entrenched and as power has shifted from the traditional elite to the indigenous majority. Such a transformation has generated substantial geographical divisions in Bolivian politics. Several years ago, as Morales rose to power, a major movement for autonomy gained strength in the eastern lowlands. But as the 2005 election map shows, the regional division in voting behavior was far more pronounced then than it was four years later in 2009. Calls for eastern separation are less pronounced now, as Morales’s popularity has grown in the east. In the urban highlands outside the Aymara zone, meanwhile, Morales has lost some of his support. As the regional political divide has lessened, the urban-rural divide seems to have grown.

The Geography of the Bolivian Election Read More »

ACFTA, or Is It CAFTA?

January 1, 2010, saw the emergence of the world’s largest free trade area in terms of population, linking China with the ten countries belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Disagreements remain as to what to call the new organization. In the English-language press, the favored term is ACFTA, the ASEAN–China Free Trade Area; Chinese newspapers more often call it CAFTA, the China–ASEAN Free Trade Area. “CAFTA” is a potentially misleading term, as the same acronym was used for the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Officially, however, that CAFTA became CAFTA-DR in 2004, when the Dominican Republic joined the club.

Controversies that go deeper than nomenclature riddle the new free trade pact. On January 7, thousands of workers took to the streets of the Indonesian city of Bandung to demand a delay in implementation of the agreement. The protestors, the JakartaPost reported, “expressed fears that once the FTA came into effect it would trigger mass layoffs, as well as Indonesian products’ inability to compete on international markets.” Similar concerns have been expressed in Thailand and in other Southeast Asian countries concerned about competing with the Chinese manufacturing juggernaut. In the Philippines, highland vegetable farmers are worried about cheap Chinese carrots and cabbages. In response to such concerns, China announced on January 22 that it was willing to work with ASEAN countries to make adjustments to the agreement.

Enthusiasm for ACFTA, on the other hand, runs high in the relatively poor regions along the border between southern China and mainland Southeast Asia. The governments of Laos and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region of China have been holding high-level talks to figure out how to take advantage of the free trade area. On January 7, direct flights began between Laos and Guangxi’s capital, Nanning. Officials in China’s Yunnan province are equally excited about the new economic possibilities. As the website GoKunming reports, the region will soon see “a vast network of highways and rail which will provide cities in Yunnan with cheap overland access to markets in Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.” The article goes on to exclaim that, “difficult as it may be to imagine, Yunnan’s days as an economic and political backwater are officially over.”

(http://gokunming.com/en/blog/item/1309/launch_of_asean_china_fta_to_propel_yunnans_rise)

Economic ties between southern China and the rugged lands of northern Southeast Asia have already been surging in recent years. Such developments have both positive and negative consequences, as was briefly explored in an earlier post on Burma’s United Wa State. Environmentally, the biggest issue is the massive dam-building projects undertaken on the Mekong, Salween, and other rivers that flow across the international boundary. But that is a subject for a later post.

ACFTA, or Is It CAFTA? Read More »

Sakha: World Capital of Cold

The attention of the global media usually remains focused on a limited portion of the earth’s surface. Wealthy countries and regions are covered in depth, as are places considered threatening to the developed world, but most parts of the earth are more often ignored.

Consider, for example, Sakha (Yakutia), a vast internal Russian republic spanning three time zones that is roughly the size of India. Sakha has the interesting distinction of being the world’s largest “statoid” (statoids being the highest-order territorial subdivisions of sovereign states [see http://www.statoids.com/]). Sakha is rather lightly populated, but it has more inhabitants than 42 internationally recognized countries. Considering as well its sizable mineral deposits, Sakha is a significant place.

The few news reports from Sakha that reach the global media usually focus on diamond mining. On January 7, 2010, however, the BBC devoted much of a story to simply recounting living conditions in the republic (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8445831.stm). This unusual article was prompted by bitterly cold conditions in Europe, leading reporters to ask what life is like in truly cold places. In Sakha’s capital of Yakutsk, a city of 210,000 people, the average January high temperature is -36 degrees Celsius (-33 F): farther north, much colder conditions are encountered. Compared to Sakha, central Alaska has a balmy winter climate.

Sakha’s population of almost one million is roughly split between Russians and the indigenous Sakha (or Yakut) nationality, although other indigenous ethnic groups are also present. The Sakha are a Turkic people who were largely converted from their original shamanism to Russian Orthodoxy in the 1800s. Their traditional way of life was based was based mostly on raising cattle and horses-–quite a challenge, considering the climate of their homeland. Unlike most of the indigenous peoples of Siberia, the Sakha have relatively high rates of education and have adapted reasonably well to the challenges of modern life. Some authors have suggested that they benefited from an influx of intellectuals when previous Russian regimes exiled political dissidents to their villages. From the dissidents’ point of view, being sentenced to Yakutia was considered especially onerous, due to both the climate and the local dietary staple: “milk tar,” a frozen mash of fish, berries, bones, and the inner bark of pine trees conveniently dissolved in sour milk.

Sakha: World Capital of Cold Read More »

The Heterodox Zone

Yesterday’s post included a map of religious communities in northern Iraq, based on a larger map by Mehrdad Izady, generated as part of Columbia University’s Gulf 2000 project (http://gulf2000.columbia.edu/). As Izady’s maps show, northern Iraq is part of a larger region of striking religious diversity, highlighted on the map above. This area has no established name, and appears (to my knowledge) on no other maps, yet its delineation is essential for making sense of Middle Eastern politics, cultural dynamics, and history. In an attempt to bring this area to broader attention, I dub it “the Heterodox Zone,” a term that I picked up years ago in a casual conversation with the Turkish scholar Hakan Altinay.

The most distinctive faiths of the Heterodox Zone are three, grouped together by Mehrdad Izady under the rubric of Yazdanism or “the cults of angels.” These include the Yazidi religion, the faith of the Shabaks (who number some 60,000 in northern Iraq), and the religion of Yarsan (or Ahl-e Haqq), which counts up to one million adherents in Iranian Kurdistan. Izady considers all three to be survivals of the pre-Islamic Kurdish religion.

Less distinctive but far more prevalent is Alevism, a faith concentrated in eastern Turkey. Adherents of Alevism may number as many as 20 million. Although their religion is conventionally considered an offshoot of Shiite Islam, Alevis do not worship in mosques. They interpret the Quran on a strictly allegorical basis, and have no problem with alcohol. Alevism is also associated with the Kurds, but it is followed more extensively by the almost invisible Zaza people (speakers of the Zazaki language), who live to the north of the Kurdish language zone in eastern Turkey.

Distinctive religious communities extend through the highlands of the eastern Mediterranean. As many as three million people are ‘Alawis (or Alawites), a minority group that has the distinction of essentially running Syria. Another Shiite offshoot, the Alawite faith traditionally includes such non-Muslims beliefs as the transmigration of souls. (Some reports, however, claim that Alawite ideas and practices are gradually approaching those of orthodox Islam.) In the Druze religion, which has somewhere between 750,000 and two million followers, ideas and practices have diverged so far from the Islamic faith that the Druze are almost never considered Muslims. What exactly those beliefs are is difficult say, however, as the Druze keep their core beliefs secret not only from outsiders, but even from their own rank-and-file; only a select group is allowed access to the faith’s esoteric teachings.

Such groups by no means account for all of the religious diversity of the Heterodox Zone. Christianity is present as well, represented by many distinctive sects. Lebanon alone counts 10 politically recognized Christian groups. (Lebanese politics are organized on a confessional basis around the following religious communities: Sunni Muslim, Twelver Shiite Muslim, Isma’ili Shiite Muslim, Alawite, Druze, Maronite [Catholic], Armenian Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic, Coptic Christian, Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant Christian, and Jewish). The Heterodox zone also extends into northern Israel, where one finds not only Druze and Christian communities, but also the ancient Jewish offshoot sect of the Samaritans (who today number only 712).

The Heterodox Zone is associated with mountains and rugged terrain. That is to be expected; rough topography has often provided niches for minor languages as well as religions – social phenomena whose survival historically required a degree of shelter from the authority of states and their dominant societies. In the modern world, such zones of refuge are coming under pressure from larger and more intrusive politico-cultural formations. That is certainly true of the Heterodox Zone. In Iraq, Sunni extremists are now targeting the minority faiths, attacking their followers and forcing them to flee. Will autonomous Kurdistan offer adequate refuge? That remains to be seen.

The Heterodox Zone Read More »

Ethnic Issues in Iraq’s New Census

The government of Iraq recently announced that it is preparing to conduct its first census since 1987. Merely holding a census is controversial, especially in the ethnically mixed areas of northern Iraq. The main issue concerns the eventual size — and share of governmental revenues — of the Kurdish Autonomous Region. The Kurds lay claim to the city of Kirkuk, deemed their “Jerusalem,” which lies outside their autonomous region. If the census shows that they form the local majority, Kirkuk could more easily become part of autonomous Kurdistan. Not coincidentally, the contested zone sits over some of Iraq’s largest oil deposits. Local Sunni Arabs and Turkmens contest Kurdish claims, resisting anything that might be used to expand the autonomous region.

The most deadly and destabilizing division in Iraq is that between Sunni and Shiite Arabs, but their relative numbers will not be addressed in the census; sectarian divisions within Islam are too sensitive. Religious identity at a higher level, however, will be assessed, with the census attempting to determine how many Muslims, Christians, Mandaeans (Sabians), and Yazidis live in Iraq. It would be difficult to argue that these religious distinctions are somehow “less sensitive” than those found within Islam. So many Christians and Mandaeans have been driven out of Iraq, or simply killed, that some authorities regard the situation as almost genocidal. (It is estimated that only some 7,000 Mandaeans, who revere John the Baptist as their main prophet, currently live in Iraq; as recently as 2003, they numbered 70,000).

The relatively secure Kurdish Autonomous Region of northern Iraq is often regarded as a refuge for Iraq’s persecuted minority faiths and ethnic groups. According to a fact sheet posted on the important website Kurdistan: The Other Iraq, “The current [Autonomous Region’s] government consists of several political parties. The coalition reflects the diversity of the Region’s people, who are Chaldeans, Assyrians, Turkmen, Yazidis and Kurds living together in harmony and tolerance” (http://www.theotheriraq.com/).

The relationship between the Kurdish Autonomous government and minority religious groups is actually more complicated. In November 2009, Human Rights Watch released a report accusing the Kurdistan Regional Government of “imposing Kurdish identity” on Shabaks, Yazidis and other non-Muslim groups. Kurdish official denied the allegations (see the January 10, 2010 UPI article “KRG Defends Position on Minorities”), pointing out that most minority groups have consistently supported the “Kurdistan lists.” But minority activists often claim that they are tolerated in Kurdistan to the extant that they ethnically classify themselves as Kurds. By linguistic criteria the Yazidis certainly are, but many in the community feel that their religion differentiates them. Kurdish officials disagree, in part because the larger the number of Kurds counted in the next census, the more money will flow from the central government to the autonomous regional government.

Regardless of the current contretemps, the religious minorities of Iraq are plenty interesting in their own right. Consider the Yazidis, who may number as many as 500,000. Yazidism is an old and profoundly non-dualistic religion that regards God as a remote figure. Yazidis focus on Melek Tawus (the “Peacock Angel”), viewed as chief among the seven holy beings who have dominion over the earth. As Melek Tawus is identified with the fallen angel Shaitan (Satan), Yezidis have often been labeled “devil worshippers.” Yazidis, not surprisingly, deny the charge. According to their beliefs, Melek Tawus is a benign angel who “fell” but later repented and was forgiven by God.

Historically, the Yazidis have suffered occasional persecution, and today their situation is dire. But imagine what their plight would have been had they lived in Europe in the late medieval or early modern periods? Could they have possibly survived? Today, Europe enjoys vastly higher levels of religious freedom than do most parts of the Middle East, but it is important to remember that 500 years ago the situation was reversed.

Ethnic Issues in Iraq’s New Census Read More »

Maps and Stats, Good and Bad

World thematic maps that treat each country as a holistic entity can be highly misleading. Consider, for example, the ubiquitous economic development map based on per capita gross domestic product. Here we see such countries as Brazil, India, and China uniformly colored, as if the goods and services they produced were evenly distributed over their vast expanses. In actuality, per capita GDP varies by roughly an order of magnitude from the wealthier to the poorer regions of each of these countries. More finely subdivided maps are much more revealing, but they can also be hard to find. In the case of the European Union, fortunately, a treasure trove of regionally specific maps is available from the European Commission Eurostat website: http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/statistics_explained/index.php/Category:RegionsEuropean.

On the Eurostat map reproduced above, a number of significant spatial patterns jump to the eye. Notice how Prague stands out from the rest of the Czech Republic, and how Athens is differentiated from the rest of Greece. The north-division in Italy is clearly apparent, as is the gap between the prosperous south of Germany and its poorer northeastern counterpart. This is just one of many detailed maps available at the Eurostat site, which delves into social as well as economic issues. The map of internet usage is especially noteworthy, revealing as it does a substantial cultural divide between what we might call the networked north and the sociable south.

To be sure, maps based on country-level data can also be valuable, especially for those parts of the world divided into relatively small countries. Such maps cease to be useful, however, when dubious data is employed – as happens all too often. The worst single example that I have come across is a NationMaster map of per capita crime rates, reproduced above. A glance at the key reveals that this map identifies Finland and New Zealand as crime-ridden, while Colombia, Yemen, and Papua New Guinea are portrayed as practically crime free. The accompanying table gives Yemen an absurdly low (and surreally precise) rate of 1.16109 crimes per 1,000 people. Finland, we told on the same page, suffers a crime rate roughly two orders of magnitude greater, at 101.526 per 1,000 people

(http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/cri_tot_cri_percap-crime-total-crimes-per-capita). Similar problems are encountered elsewhere on NationMaster, a site that compiles a huge array of official statistics. The figures for rape rates, for instance, listed on the home page as one of the site’s “top stats,” ranks Saudi Arabia as the safest country for women while marking Australia as the third-worst with Canada close behind.

Could anyone serious believe that a woman is 250 times more likely to be raped in Australia than in Saudi Arabia? — or that Finland’s overall crime rate is 100 times that of Yemen? Finland is famous for its relatively crime-free environment; Yemen is a land of anarchic clan-based violence and rampant kidnapping. In Finland, however, most infractions are reported and recorded, whereas in Yemen few crimes reach official attention. If NationMaster labeled its map and chart “rate of reported and recorded crimes,” it would be an accurate and useful index of police efficiency, if not of criminal activity. But it does not. Does anyone at NationMaster scrutinize the data that is displayed on its site? Does anyone care?

Underlying the promulgation of such misleading maps is our tendency to take the sovereign state for granted: to treat all recognized countries as if they were equivalent entities with comparable governmental capacities, including the gathering and compiling of accurate statistics. This is not the case. And as far as statistics themselves are concerned, we should recall Mark Twain’s warning: many stats are lies, some damned, other worse.

Maps and Stats, Good and Bad Read More »

Declining Violence In Northeastern India

On January 19, 2010, a grenade attack near the Manipur Police Chief’s residence in northeastern India critically injured three people. No one has yet claimed responsibility, and it would be risky to venture a guess, since for sheer diversity of insurgent groups it is hard to beat northeastern India. This remote and little-known area is divided into seven states. According to the website South Asian Terrorism Portal, the state of Manipur has 15 active or proscribed “terrorist/insurgent groups” (as well as 25 inactive organizations), while nearby Assam has 11, Meghalaya four, Nagaland and Tripura three each, and Mizoram two. No such groups are listed for Arunachal Pradesh, but it too has seen insurgent violence in recent years – and it is claimed in its entirety by China, greatly complicating Indo-Chinese relations. Insurgent groups in northeastern India have a strong tendency to divide and proliferate. The Kuki people of Manipur, for example, are “represented” by the Kuki Liberation Army, the Kuki National Army, the Kuki Liberation Front, and the United Kuki Liberation Front – with another nine Kuki insurgent groups currently listed as inactive.

Historically speaking, the uplands of northeastern India have closer cultural affiliations with Southeast Asia than with South Asia. They belong to India only because British imperial agents were determined to secure the vulnerable borderlands of their Indian empire. Local peoples tend to resent Indian authority, as well as the authority of the larger local ethnic groups that dominate the region’s seven states.

In most parts of the region violence has receded in recent years. Whereas Nagaland saw 154 insurgency-related deaths in 2007, the 2009 total was only 17; in Meghalaya, the death count dropped from 79 in 2003 to just 4 in 2009. Only in Manipur and Assam have body counts remained high (369 and 371, respectively, last year). Due to the lessened violence, India has recently opened parts of the northeast to tourism. For those interested in visiting the area, Northeast India Diary (http://www.northeastindiadiary.com/meghalaya-travel/wildlife-in-meghalaya.html) provides information on local attractions. On a trip to Meghalaya’s Balpakram National Park, it claims, one might see “elephants, wild buffaloes, gaur (Indian bison), sambar, barking deer, wild boar, slow loris, capped langur as well as predators such as tigers, leopards, clouded leopards and the rare golden cat.”

In Nagaland and Mizoram, some observers attribute the recent decline in fighting to peacemaking efforts by local church organizations. Owing to successful missionary activities during the colonial period, both states are now strongly Christian: more than 75 percent of the population of Nagaland is Baptist, whereas Mizoram is more than 90 percent Christian (mostly Presbyterian). Missionary schooling has led to high levels of education. Mizoram boasts India’s second highest literacy rate (91%), trailing only Kerala. Education, however, has not led to economic prosperity. Lack of infrastructure and insecurity are the major problems, but so too are the famines that occur every few decades after the synchronous flowering and then death of the state’s massive bamboo groves. When the bamboo flowers and seeds, rodent and insect populations explode; when the plants subsequently perish, rats and bugs invade fields and granaries. The most recent such famines occurred in 2006-2007.

The decline in violence in northeastern India is quite in contrast to the situation in east-central India, where a Maoist insurgency is gaining in strength. But that is a topic for a later post.

Declining Violence In Northeastern India Read More »

Geocurrentcast Episode #5- Afghanistan

I am proud to present to all of you the fifth installment in our ongoing series of Geocurrentcasts Video Lectures, which focuses on the history and geography of Afghanistan and the ongoing US Campaign.

Please post questions, feedback, and other relevant discussion on the lecture in the comments section of this post.

Geocurrentcast Episode #5- Afghanistan Read More »

What’s In A (Place) Name? The Gulf Controversy

In mid-January 2010, the Islamic Solidarity Games—scheduled to take place in Tehran in April—were cancelled over a toponymic dispute. The Iranian organizers of the athletic competition insisted on labeling the body of water located between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula the “Persian Gulf” in their promotional materials. The event’s organizing committee, based in Saudi Arabia, refused to tolerate such effrontery, and called off the competition. Officials in Saudi Arabia, like those in many other Arabic-speaking countries, regard the term “Persian Gulf” as a form of Iranian cartographic imperialism. They prefer Arabian Gulf, and if that name cannot be used, they insist on a neutral term such as The “Arabo-Persian Gulf” or simply “The Gulf.”

This controversy reveals the deep cultural cleavage between Iran and the Arabic speaking realm. Most other bodies of water named for particular places do not inspire much animosity. The United States lodges no protests over the Gulf of Mexico; India does not object to the Arabian Sea; Malaysia has no problem with the South China Sea; Taiwan and Japan do not worry about the Philippine Sea; Madagascar and Australia are fine with the Indian Ocean. The only other water body to generate a similar quarrel is the one marked on our maps as the Sea of Japan, which the Koreans insist on labeling the East Sea. Like the Arabs and the Persians, Japanese and Koreans have a long history of conflict, which lends vehemence to seemingly arcane debates over geographical nomenclature.

The term Persian Gulf has been widely used by European geographers since the time of the ancient Greeks. Substituting the term “Arabian Gulf” would generate its own problems, not least by infuriating the Iranian people. It could also lead to confusion with the adjacent body of water known as the Arabian Sea, or even with the nearby Red Sea (which Europeans sometimes historically called the Arabian Gulf). Partly for these reasons, the International Hydrographic Organizations maintains that the Persian Gulf is the Gulf’s only proper name. The United States government, however, is no longer sure. Although the State Department’s Board of Geographical Names settled on Persian Gulf in 1917, the U.S. military now asks its personnel to avoid the term, preferring either “The Arabian Gulf” or simply “The Gulf.” U.S.-based universities operating branch campuses on the Arabic-speaking side of the gulf do likewise. In the United Arab Emirates, the term Persian Gulf is simply banned.

What’s in a name? In a politically charged context, evidently quite a lot.

What’s In A (Place) Name? The Gulf Controversy Read More »

Haiti’s Quake History and Why the Dominican Republic Should Worry

Haiti sits between two massive seismic plates, the Gonave Plate, part of the larger North American Plate, and the Caribbean Plate to the south. The capital, Port Au Prince lies less than 20 km from the Enriquillio-Plaintain Garden Fault (EPGFZ), the a convergence point between the two plates.

This fault is a ‘strike slip fault,’ where there is a deep vertical fracture between the two paltes, and friction is accrued horizontally. The Haiti quake, was caused by the pressures from the eastward motion of the Caribbean plate, which moves as shown in the model below from Purdue University Seismologist Eric Calais.
This model, from Caltech’s Anthony Sladen’s source model, dramatically represents the what happened when these plates unstuck, by showing how the surface of the earth was displaced by the event.

The area has built up seismic tension, since the EPGFZ’s last series of quakes in the mid 18th century. There were three major seismic events in a twenty year span, as the seismic tensions was relieved through a series of quakes. Here is the recent seismic history of the region, via the University of Texas Jackson School of Geosciences.
Strangely enough, there quakes were predicted a year ago, yet there was little action taken. In 2008 Paper, presentation to the Caribbean Conference, Professor Calais predicted that Haiti was due for a magnitude 7 or earthquake, owing to the seismic pressure the Enriquillo Plantain Garden Fault had accrued a from ‘slip debt’ of over two meters. Take a look at this prediction from Professor Calais, who is earning a reputation as a seismological prophet:

We confirm that the oblique convergence between Caribbean and North America in Hispaniola is partitioned between plate boundary parallel motion on the Septentrional and Enriquillo faults in the overriding plate and plate- boundary normal motion at the plate interface on the Northern Hispaniola Fault. To the east, the Caribbean/North America plate motion is accommodated by oblique slip on the faults bounding the Puerto Rico block to the north (Puerto Rico subduction) and to the south (Muertos thrust), with no evidence for partitioning. The spatial correlation between interplate coupling, strain partitioning and the subduction of buoyant oceanic asperities suggests that the latter enhance the transfer of interplate shear stresses to the overriding plate, facilitating strike-slip faulting in the overriding plate. The model slip rate deficit, together with the dates of large historical earthquakes, indicates the potential for a large (Mw7.5 or greater) earthquake on the Septentrional fault in the Dominican Republic. Similarly, the Enriquillo fault in Haiti is currently capable of a Mw7.2 earthquake if the entire elastic strain accumulated since the last major earthquake was released in a single event today. (Source)


It is important that the world takes Calais’ warning about the Septentrional Fault, with a great deal of Urgency. The fault, which runs through the Northern Dominican Republic is due for a quake even larger than that which occurred in Haiti.
The Dominican Republic should learn all that it can from Haiti’s experience, as they are proverbially walking down a geological hallway with a large kick me sign affixed to their back.
Today’s 6.0 aftershocks, combined with the historical patterns of quakes appearing waves have raised suspicions that this only the beginning of a larger regional alleviation of seismic pressure. The aftershocks are shown below from the USGS’s nifty google earth quake tracker.

Haiti’s Quake History and Why the Dominican Republic Should Worry Read More »

Transnistria–Stranger than Paradise

Ukrainian Foriegn Minister Pyotor Poroshenko and Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat and Vice Prime Minister Iurie Leanca have agreed to an official border demarcation process, for the beginning of the 2010 calendar year.

To nobody’s surprise, the border negotiations were held without a representative from Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, the de-facto rogue state that holds the east bank of the Dniester River, and some parts of the Western bank. In essence, the majority of the Ukranian-Moldovan border, as pictured here:

The state of Transnistria is recognized by only Abhkhazia and South Ossetia. Russian troops been stationed have occupied Transnistria since the end of the Transnistrian war of 1992. Transnistria has been effectively blockaded by both of its neighbors since, but it still holds vital territorial control over the Dniester River, Moldova’s corridor to the Black Sea.

Ukranian President Victor Yushenko, however, had to cancel his trip to ‘peg driving ceremony,’ to official demark the border, as PMR made it clear that he and his entourage were not welcome to mark a border, agreed on without their consent. Yushenko’s visit was subsequently cancelled by the PMR, who then threatened to interfere with the ceremony.

There is no love lost between Yushenko and the PMR, who are backed by Russian troops. After all, Russophiles have already given Yushenko a treatment of Dioxin poisoning.

While the border confirmation talks have been pushed in their respective nations domestic press as a way to ensure for better protection for Ukranian Minorities in Moldova, and vice versa, the negotiations are trivial without any process on the Transnistiran issue. A breakthrough is unlikely, given the icy diplomatic relations between both Moldova and the Ukraine towards Russia.

The Transnistrian issue is complicated by a near even ethnic split between Moldovans, Ukranians, and Russians in the region, if you’re willing to believe the Transnistrian government.

The near 30-30-30 ethnic split on this chart, is decent evidence that we won’t see a clean resolution of this issue any time soon. Note that the elimination of Jews from the ethnic map, owes to the fact that Transnistria was a concentration camp during the holocaust.

Even with EU pressure to resolve this regional border dispute, it seems 2010 will be another year of political limbo for Transnistria. NATO resolutions in the past on the area, have not budged the conflict, and the Russian Military is unlikely to withdraw.

It’s hard believe that these recent discussions between the Moldovan and Ukranian parties could be anything more than a mutual acknowledgment of the political stalemate, or discussions on how to approach Russia, who “guarantees the protection of its citizens.” As shown here, this is a polarizing issue in the region.

But, if we take a step back, Transnistria has always been a source of geographical comic relief.Take a look at their government’s ten facts to boast about. If they only had more than ten.

Unfortunately for us, the West’s best window in to the Transnistrian calamity has recently closed. The Tiraspol Times, a Pravda styled, English language newspaper focused on Transnistria has ceased publishing. However, you can revisit the glory days of Soviet styled journalism, at through the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

The now defunct press, and the coat of arms make Transnistria appear as if it is, in fact the last vestige of the Soviet Union.

Scenic, Tiraspol, where the statue of Lenin still proudly stands in front of the capital. Looks like this going to be there for a while. At the very least, we can hope that the peace holds in Transnistria for another year.

 

Transnistria–Stranger than Paradise Read More »