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Linguistic Geography and the Nuba Mountains

The Ethnologue (http://www.ethnologue.com/) is one of the best sites on the web for information about languages and linguistic geography. In the Ethnologue map shown above, a red dot is placed at the geographical center of each of the 6,906 languages listed in the organization’s database. One of the more interesting patterns visible in the map is the cluster of languages in the Nuba Mountains of central Sudan, one of the world’s most linguistically diverse locations. The region is noted in Sudan for its religious diversity as well. Many Nuba people follow traditional animist faiths, but others have converted to either Islam or Christianity

Unfortunately, very little information about the Nuba region reaches the world media. The area has virtually no roads, and access is further limited by the pervasive lack of security. What is known about the Nuba Mountains is not encouraging. During Sudan’s north-south civil war, many Nuba groups sided with the southern rebels; as a result, the region suffered bombing runs and other harsh reprisals by the central government. In the peace accord that ended (temporarily?) the war, no provisions were made for Nuba independence, much less autonomy. As a result, some experts think that the Nuba Mountains could become “the next Darfur.”

In the 1970s, the Nuba people came briefly to the attention of the wider world through Leni Riefenstahl’s bestselling work of photojournalism, The Last of the Nuba (original German title, Die Nuba). Riefenstahl, best known as Hitler’s cinematographer, was fascinated by the beauty of naked Nuba bodies at public ceremonies. According to Susan Sontag, The Last of the Nubawas “certainly the most ravishing book of photographs published anywhere in recent years” (from the Wikipedia article on The Last of the Nuba).

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Ethnic Rioting in Suriname

Suriname, Population Density

In late December 2009, anti-Brazilian rioting broke out in the town of Albina in northeastern Suriname after a Brazilian man allegedly stabbed and killed a local resident. The ethnic violence grew so intensive that the Brazilian Foreign Ministry was forced to send in two aircraft to airlift its citizens from the riot-scarred town.

The recent ethnic violence in Suriname stems in part from the country’s low population density and abundant natural resources, which have attracted numerous migrants from neighboring Brazil.Over the past decade or so, as many as 40,000 Brazilians have moved to Suriname, a country with fewer than half a million citizens. Many if not most Brazilians in Suriname work as small-scale gold miners. Gold mining in the region is typically environmentally destructive and it often results in clashes between miners and indigenous peoples. Mining areas in northern Brazil are also noted for their generally lawless conditions. At the national level, political leaders in both Suriname and neighboring Guyana have long feared that their countries risk becoming economic adjuncts of their vastly larger southern neighbor.

Albina sits near the border of the even more sparsely populated territory of French Guiana, which holds only some 221,000 people in its 32,000 square miles (an area roughly the size of Ireland). French Guiana has also attracted Brazilian immigrants in recent years, but it does not have the same concerns about losing its national identity – largely because it does not have one. French Guiana is not, as its common name might imply, a mere “territory” of France. It is rather a French department, as much a part of France as Hawaii is part of the United States (as such, it is more properly referred to not as “French Guiana” but rather as Guyane, its official name). France is thus, in small part, a South American country, just as the European Union extends well beyond Europe’s boundaries to include this sizable chunk of the Western Hemisphere.France is also a Caribbean country and an Indian Ocean country, but that is a matter for a later posting.

(Wikipedia Map below)

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South Ossetia Gains Recognition

Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia

South Ossetia is a self-declared independent country located in what the United States and most of the international community regards as Georgian territory. It has functioned as an autonomous client state of Russia ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. When Georgia made moves to reclaim South Ossetia in the summer of 2008, Russia invaded and defeated Georgia, and then officially recognized South Ossetia as an independent state. Russia’s diplomatic recognition of the breakaway region was in part done in protest against the recognition of the independence of Kosovo (formerly part of Serbia) by the United States and most European countries.

Russia is now attempting to bolster its diplomatic position by encouraging other countries to recognize South Ossetia. Nicaragua was the first to sign on, followed by Venezuela. In mid-December, 2009, South Ossetia gained another political partner: the tiny Pacific country of Nauru. Informed sources claim that Russia essentially purchased such recognition with a $50 million economic aid package. Nauru, once one of the world’s richest counties on a per capita basis, certainly needs the money, as it has exhausted the phosphate deposits that once gave it wealth, generating an environmental disaster in the process.

North Ossetia and South Ossetia

Such diplomatic maneuverings are not unique to South Ossetia and Kosovo. Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China, for example, have long dangled out aid packages in exchange for recognition, a game that Beijing is slowly winning. Thus far, Russia has fared poorly in its quest for international support for its client state. While only four internationally legitimate countries recognize South Ossetia, sixty-four currently recognize Kosovo. (South Ossetia is, however, recognized by several other generally unrecognized countries, such as Abkhazia).

How many countries are there in the world today? As the South Ossetia example shows, no precise answer can be given, as it all depends on what one counts as a country.

South Ossetia is plenty interesting in its own right, regardless of such diplomatic games. The Ossetians are the descendents of the ancient Alans, who were themselves an offshoot of the ancient Scythians. According to C. Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor’s fascinating book From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail, most of the Arthurian legends stem directly from the folklore of the Alans, many of whom were among the invaders of the dying Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. For a film interpretation of the Littleton and Malcor thesis, see Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 King Arthur.

Also to note is the fact that South Ossetia is a small part of the larger Ossetian “nation.” Only some 70,000 people reside in South Ossetia, while over 700,000 live in neighboring North Ossetia-Alania, which is an internal republic of the Russian Federation (it is part of Russia, in other words). Roughly two thirds of the people of both North and South Ossetia are ethnically Ossetian.

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Troubled Eritrea

Ethiopia/Eritrea Border Dispute

On December 23, 2009, the United Nations voted to impose sanctions on Eritrea for supporting Islamist militants in Somalia. The next day, Eritrea denied the accusations, labeling the UN actions as “shameful.”

Regardless of whether Eritrea arms Somali rebels, it is clear that the country has one of the most repressive regimes in the world. In fact, Reporters Without Borders ranks Eritrea dead last in the world in regard to freedom of the press. As the organization’s website puts it, “Life may appear sweet in the floral streets of the capital Asmara, but is in fact nightmarish, particularly in the dark corridors of the all-powerful ministry of information” (http://www.rsf.org/en-rapport15-Eritrea.html).

Language map of Ethiopia and Eritrea from Muturzkin, border enhanced

Eritrea’s relations with its neighbors are not friendly. Its border with Sudan is not fully demarcated, it fought with Yemen over the Hanish islands in the Red Sea in the 1990s, and it remains locked in a bitter struggle with its main opponent, Ethiopia. The 1998-2000 border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia may have resulted in as many as 200,000 casualties.

Proponents of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis have a difficult time dealing with the Ethiopian/Eritrean conflict. Religion does not play a role, as both countries are roughly half Christian and half Muslim. As can be seen in the map above, linguistic lines as well cut across the political boundary. If anything, Eritrea and Ethiopia together form a single “civilizational” unit. Animosity instead is rooted largely in the two countries’ divergent political histories. In the colonial era, Eritrea was under the rule of Italy, while Ethiopia remained independent through most of the period. A post-colonial union failed as Eritrea resisted Ethiopian rule. As proved true elsewhere in Africa, colonially imposed political boundaries may have been violently and arbitrarily drawn, but they nonetheless remain firmly inscribed.

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Yemen: A Failing State?

Concerns that Yemen could become a failed state have recently mounted. The country has a weak central government, faces separate rebellions in the north and south, and contains a considerable al Qaeda contingent. The northern rebellion attracts most international attention, as it has spilled across the border into Saudi Arabia, provoking harsh Saudi reprisals. On December 25, 2009, Yemeni lawmaker Yahya al-Houthi claimed that Saudi Arabian warplanes were employing internationally banned weapons in attacks on villages in northern Yemen, resulting in massive civilian casualties.

This conflict, usually called the Houthi rebellion or the Sa’ada Emergency, is related to the distinctive form of Shia (or Shi’ite) Islam, Zaidi (or Zaidiyya), practiced in the region. Zaidis (sometimes called Fiver Shia Muslims) constitute over 40 percent of the population of Yemen, and until 1962 the Zaidi Imams actually held political power in northern Yemen. Sunni Islam, however, now holds political sway in the country at large – to the extent that Yemen functions as a unified state.

Zaidi Islam, general area outlined in blue

Saudi hostility stems in part from the fact that the border separating it from Yemen does not correspond with cultural divisions. Up to one million Zaidis reside in the mountainous reaches of the ‘Asir province of southwestern Saudi Arabia, where they face discrimination from the resolutely Sunni government. In ‘Asir, Yemeni Arabic dialects are widely spoken, and farming and other day-to-day practices are much more similar to those found in northern Yemen than to those elsewhere in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government only fully gained control of ‘Asir from the Zaidi Imam in 1934, and some evidence suggests that separatist sentiments remain entrenched.

Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of supporting the Houthi rebels, which may be true, even though the Zaidi version of Shia Islam is markedly different from the Twelver sect of Shia Islam found in Iran. More problematic for Saudi Arabia in the long run is the fact that most of its people living in its Gulf coastal area – the site of its major oil reserves – are Twelver Shias. But that is a topic for another post.

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Giant Killer Mice of Gough Island

Remote oceanic islands often form interesting laboratories for biological process, as well as arresting geopolitical anomalies. Few are as remarkable as Gough Island, a 35 square mile landmass in the temperate reaches of the South Atlantic. Although without a self-sustaining permanent population, Gough is one of the world’s most isolated places with a continuing human presence, which usually consists of six people running a weather station. Gough itself is a dependency of Tristan da Cunha, which is a dependency of Saint Helena, which is a British overseas territory.

In regard to biology, Gough is best known for its “giant killer mice.” Inadvertently introduced house mice have evolved into a new form roughly three times the size of their progenitors. Unfortunately, these super-rodents have learned to prey on seabird nestlings. In 2005, researchers announced that mice predation risked driving several endemic bird species to extinction, including the Tristan albatross and the Atlantic petrel. In response, the British government brought in experts from New Zealand, who have considerable experience dealing with biologically threatened islands. Officials in Britain are currently considering their proposals for eliminating the killer mice.

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Southern Sudan

In its December 19, 2009 issue, The Economist magazine reported a rare bit of “good news” from Sudan: the country’s ruling party and the former rebels of the south had agreed upon provisions for the scheduled 2011 referendum that will supposedly allow the south to secede. According to the agreement, Southern Sudan will indeed become an independent country if a majority of its people so vote, providing that the turnout is at least 60 percent. Although the 2011 independence referendum has been planned ever since a 2005 autonomy accord ended the rebellion of the south, informed observers remain skeptical. Southern Sudan, after all, has huge oil reserves that the Khartoum government covets; independence for the south, moreover, could set a dangerous precedent for other restive Sudanese regions, such as Darfur and potentially even the Nuba Hills and the Red Sea coast.

Oil Concessions

Sure enough, several weeks later the mid-December accord began to fray as the government unilaterally declared that southern Sudanese living in the north (and hence generally assumed to be less supportive of independence) would be able to vote. Southern Sudan has also witnessed a recent surge of ethnic violence that has displaced some 250,000 in 2009 alone, as well as incursions by Uganda’s infamously destructive Lord’s Resistance Army. Some Southern Sudanese think that much of this violence has been instigated by the government in order to undermine the south’s bid for independence.

But regardless of the current troubles, the insistence on a 60 percent turnout in the referendum is problematic by itself, as no one knows how many people, let alone eligible voters, reside in Southern Sudan. A 2008 census pegged the region’s population at 8.26 million, a figure that was rejected as absurdly low by the Southern Sudanese parliament. Some sources place the region’s population as high as 15 million. All that is certain is how little is known about Southern Sudan; in 2007, for example, conservationists were staggered when aerial surveys revealed the existence of vast herds of antelopes and other animals (including some 8,000 elephants) in an area widely thought to be lacking in wildlife.

Regardless of any “good news” coming out of Southern Sudan, the referendum scheduled for 2011 is not likely to be a peaceful affair. Watch for continuing strife in Southern Sudan and elsewhere in the country.

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Geo-Trivia: Enclaves, counter-enclaves, and (the world’s only) counter-counter-enclave

 Sovereign states (or countries) generally appear on the map as solid, contiguous blocks of territory, and they are certainly conceptualized as such. But exceptions abound. Many countries, for example, have separates “annexes” located at some distance, technically known as exclaves (think of Alaska). Bits of territory within the boundaries of one state that belong to another are defined as enclaves. Entire countries can be enclaved within another sovereign state, such as Lesotho in South Africa or San Marino in Italy.

Enclaves and exclaves are generally fairly straightforward, but they can become quite intricate. A counter-enclave, for example, is an enclave within an enclave. Thus the village of Nawha is part of the United Arab Emirates, yet is wholly surrounded by a part of Oman called Madha, yet Madha itself is wholly surrounded by territory belonging to the United Arab Emirates (see map). As Evgeny Vinokurov shows in his A Theory of Enclaves (2007, Lexington Books), this pattern can be taken one more step. Thus Dahala-Khagrabari is a sliver of Indian territory (a jute field, more or less) that is surrounded by Bangladeshi territory that is surrounded by Indian territory that is surrounded by Bangladeshi territory: a counter-counter-enclave, in other words. Must make immigration control rather interesting.

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Telangana: A New State in India?

Telangana

Not long after gaining independence, India remapped its internal political geography so that its main divisions would roughly correspond with linguistic groups. With each major language community being granted its own state, local demands for autonomy would, theoretically, be much reduced. Although this policy has generally resulted in stable “statoids” (see http://www.statoids.com/), agitation for the creation of new states has continued as smaller ethnic groups increasingly demand their own political spaces. But in the most recent hubbub over state division, issues of language and ethnicity have been outweighed by those based on economics and political history.
On December 9, 2009, the Indian government announced that it would carve a new state, Telangana, out of the large southern state of Andhra Pradesh. Andhra Pradesh had been created in 1956 by merging Andhra State with the core area of the former princely state of Hyderabad to create a Telugu-speaking polity, now some 76 million strong. But sharply contrasting colonial legacies—dating from the era when Andhra was largely under direct British authority while Hyderabad was ruled by the Nizam (a local potentate)—had created distinctive political cultures and economic conditions. As a result, despite the bonds of a common language and culture, the merger was always contested.

Andhra Pradesh

Under the rule of the inordinately wealthy Nizams, the city of Hyderabad received lavish expenditures while the rest of the princely state remained impoverished. Such was the wealth of Hyderabad that when newly formed India forcibly annexed the domain in 1948, it dubbed the military venture “Operation Polo” after the Nizam’s 17 polo grounds. The Telangana movement actually began somewhat earlier as part of a leftist struggle against the autocratic rule of the Nizam. The movement’s leaders contend that merger with Andhra merely substituted one exploitative elite class with another. And indeed, stark economic divisions still characterize Telangana. Hyderabad is now such a high tech center that locals deem it “Cyberabad,” while as India’s second largest film center it is sometimes called “Tollywood” for its Telugu-language movies. Telangana’s impoverished peripheries, however, are located within India’s “Red Belt,” a zone of rampant agrarian agitation and Maoist rebellion.

The Indian government decided to create Telangana in part to end a “fast to the death” by a local political figure, K. Chandrasekhar Rao. Such a move hardly put an end to the controversy, however. Protests against the proposed redistricting quickly erupted. Anger was pronounced elsewhere in Andhra Pradesh due to the impending loss of the state’s capital and business hub, while in Hyderabad itself high tech magnates expressed fear that a Telangana state administration would be hostile to business interests. Conflicts emerged in other parts of India as well. Opposition leaders pressed loudly for the creation of new states to satisfy their own constituencies, while established interests in the existing states rejected such demands, fearing that a precedent for continuing state division could be set by the creation of Telangana. As a result, the proposed reengineering of Indian state boundaries remains in doubt. What seems clear is that India’s internal political geography will remain a controversial and contested matter, putting strains on the country’s generally robust system of federal, democratic governance.

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