Cultural Geography

How cultural differences, ranging from language and religion to sports and music, influence geographical patterns

South Africa’s Western Cape Exceptionalism and the Coloured Vote

Western Cape is South Africa’s most politically distinctive region by a wide margin. It is the only province that has never given majority support to the African National Congress (ANC). In 2024, it gave less than 20 percent of its vote to the ANC, awarding 53.4 percent to the centrist, non-racialist Democratic Alliance, which has long dominated the province. As the second map posted below shows, every municipality in Western Cape gave majority or plurality support to the DA in the 2024 national election, whereas only three municipalities in other provinces did the same. Western Cape’s political differentiation is so pronounced that it supports an active independence movement that sometimes polls above 50 percent.

Map of the Democratic Alliance vote by province in South Africa 2024
South Africa 2024 DA Vote by Province Map

Map of the 2024 South African Election Vote by Municipality
2024 South Africa Election Vote by Municipality Map

South Africa’s White community heavily supports the Democratic Alliance, favoring its non-racialist stance. Not surprisingly, Western Cape has South Africa’s largest percentage of White population by a significant margin. But at 16.4 percent, it is still relatively low and as such cannot account for the DA’s success in the province. Instead, most DA voters in Western Cape are members of the mixed-race, Afrikaans-speaking Coloured community. At 42 percent, the Coloured community forms a strong plurality of the population of Western Cape. But the figure is identical in neighboring Northern Cape (see the second map posted below), which gave only 20.9 percent of its vote to the Democratic Alliance and awarded plurality support to the ANC. As it turns out, the two provinces are quite distinctive in other regards. Western Cape has a more productive economy and a higher level of social development. Northern Cape also has a much smaller White population percentage than Western Cape (7.3, as opposed to 16.4) and a significantly larger Black population percentage (50, as opposed to 39).

Map of South Africa's White Population by Province
South Africa White Population by Province Map

Map of South Africa's Coloured, or mixed-race, population by province
South Africa Coloured Population map

But racial identity is not the only factor in determining voting patterns, and none of South Africa’s racial communities votes monolithically. In the 2024 election, many Coloured voters swung to Patriotic Alliance, which was formed in 2013 to favor the interests of their community. As can be seen in the map posted below, Patriotic Alliance took a healthy 7.8 percent of the vote in Western Cape and 8.6 percent in Northern Cape. As its support comes mostly from the Coloured community, its vote-count elsewhere in the country ranged from small to negligible. Nationwide, it took 330,425 votes, a huge increase from the 6,660 votes it received in 2019.

Map of the vote share of South Africa's Patriotic Alliance in the 2024 Election by province
South Africa 2024 Election Patriotic Alliance Vote Map

Wikipedia describes Patriotic Alliance (PA) as a rightwing party, as its name might suggest. But the same article notes that PA’s economic stance is generally centrist. Some of its social policies, moreover, including those on housing and healthcare, tilt to the left. It also aims to reduce South Africa’s wide wealth and income disparities, which is generally viewed as a left-leaning position. But Patriotic Alliance is skeptical of immigration, takes a hardline stance on corruption, wants to reinstate the death penalty, and favors more socially conservative policies. It has also expressed solidarity with Israel in its struggle with Hamas, which is not a popular stance in South Africa’s Black community. Critics of Patriotic Alliance accuse the party of “gangsterism,” noting that its two founders are convicted criminals and contending that party leaders have worked with criminal organizations in an effort to reduce violent crime. Patriotic Alliance leaders have also advocated using veterans of the former Cape Corps, which had been a Coloured military organization, to help control gang violence.

Overall, it is difficult to classify the political position of Patriotic Alliance. It is not alone in this regard. Over much of the world, parties that defy the traditional left/right division are gaining support. A good example is Germany’s new political party Bündnis Sahra Wagenknecht (BSW), which emerged from the far-left but now takes an anti-immigration, populist, and nationalist stance. In the 2024 European Parliamentary election in Germany, BSW took 6.2 percent of the vote, whereas Die Linke (The Left), the party from which it emerged, took only 2.7 percent. Political realignment seems to be rapidly gaining strength in many countries.

South Africa’s Western Cape Exceptionalism and the Coloured Vote Read More »

Socio-Economic and Demographic Factors in the 2024 Vote for the African National Congress in South Africa

As noted in the previous GeoCurrents post, South Africa’s leading political party, the African National Congress (ANC), suffered major losses in the 2024 general election, although it still significantly outperformed all other parties. Today’s post briefly examines the geographical patterns of the ANC’s 2024 showing, looking for correlations with socio-economic and demographic variables.

ANC vote share 2024 South Africa Election

As comparing the map posted above with the  first map posted below shows, at the provincial level the ANC won higher-than-average levels of support in regions with lower-than-average per capita GDP. It did best in Limpopo and Eastern Cape, the two provinces with the country’s lowest levels of economic output per person. Intriguingly, this pattern is not found with South Africa’s most leftist major party, the communist-oriented Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). EFF’s vote-share was relatively evenly distributed across the country, although it fared poorly in the country’s two most electorally aberrant provinces, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. Intriguingly, EFF had its highest vote share in North West Province, which has a relatively high level of per capita economic output.

Map of South Africa 'sPer Capita GDP in 2022
South Africa Per Capita GDP 2022 Map

Map showing the vote share of the Economic Freedom Fighters in South Africa's General Election of 2024
Vote of EEF South African General Election 2024 map

Per capita GDP, however, can be a misleading indicator, as it does not necessarily capture differences in basic economic wellbeing. The somewhat elevated GDP figure of South Africa’s North West province, for example, largely reflects its productive mining operations rather than its basic economy. In the more revealing Human Development Index (HDI), North West province falls into South Africa’s lowest category, along with Eastern Cape. In contrast, Western Cape has South Africa’s highest HDI figure – and also had the second lowest level of support for the ANC. At the local level as well, the more prosperous parts of the country tended to vote against the ANC and for its most important rival, the Democratic Alliance. This pattern also has a strong racial component, as we will see in a forthcoming post on the Democratic Alliance party.

Map showing the Human Development Index of South Africa's provinces in  2021
South Africa HDI by Province 2021 Map

The African National Congress is closely associated with South Africa’s majority Black population, and unsurprisingly performed relatively poorly in the two provinces that are not demographically dominated by Blacks, Western Cape and Northern Cape. But the ANC’s performance was middling or poor in several provinces with large Black majorities, as can be seen by comparing the map posted below with the first map posted above. As was noted in the previous GeoCurrents article, ethnic politics help explain the ANC’s low level of support in KwaZulu-Natal.

Map showing the percentage of the Black population in South Africa's provinces
South Africa Black Population by Province Map

By delving down below the province level, we can find an interesting correlation between the ANC’s 2024 vote strength and South Africa’s ethno-linguistic divisions. As the paired maps posted below show, the ANC did very well among two ethnic groups: the Xhosa of the south-central region and the Venda (Tshivenda speakers) of the far northeast. The Xhosa – the country’s second-largest ethnic group, after the Zulu – have long been closely aligned with the ANC. The high level of support among the Venda is linked to the fact that the ANC’s current leader, Cyril Ramaphosa, is of Venda ethnicity, although he has born and reared in Soweto, Johannesburg.

Paired maps showing South Africa's ethnolinguistic geography and the results of its 2024 election
South Africa 2024 Election and Language Maps

Socio-Economic and Demographic Factors in the 2024 Vote for the African National Congress in South Africa Read More »

The Zulu Exception in South Africa’s 2024 General Election

In South Africa’s general election of May 29, 2024, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party received only 40 percent of the vote. This election marked a stunning reversal of the party’s fortune; in 2019 it took 57 percent of the vote, while in 1994, 1999, 2004, 2009, and 2014 it took over 60 percent. Economic problems, persistently high levels of crime, allegations of corruption, and growing opposition to immigration have turned many South Africans against the once-dominant party that brought an end to apartheid and successfully democratized the country.

Despite its relatively poor showing, the ANC still did much better than any other party. The centrist Democratic Alliance (DA) came in a distant second place, with only 21.8 percent of the vote. The previously third-ranking party, the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), took less than 10 percent, losing five seats in the National Assembly. Several new parties gained seats, particularly the left-populist uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party, founded by the disgraced former president and previous ANC leader, Jacob Zuma. Zuma’s MK party took a healthy 14.6 percent of the vote, gaining 58 of the 400 seats in the National Assembly.

The strong showing of the new leftwing MK party coupled with the losses experienced by the African National Congress seem to indicate a profound level of dissatisfaction with the relatively moderate economic policies of the ANC’s current leader, Cyril Ramaphosa. But a geographical analysis of the election reveals a more complicated situation. As the map posted below indicates, MK did not emerge as a new party with national appeal, but rather one whose support is largely limited to the Zulu population. It received 45 percent of the vote in the Zulu heartland (KwaZulu-Natal), 16.8 percent in Mpumalanga, which is 24 percent Zulu-speaking, and 9.8 percent in Gauteng (the country’s core province, containing Johannesburg), which is 23 percent Zulu-speaking. Otherwise, MK’s level of support ranged from small to negligible. Its poor showing among the country’s other ethnic groups is not surprising, as its ideology is based – according to Wikipedia – on “Zulu nationalism” and “Zulu interests.”

South Africa 2024 election MK vote map

uMkhonto weSizwe is not the only South African political party that represents Zulu interest. The long-established Zulu-nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) did relatively well in the 2024 election, taking over 18 percent of the vote in KwaZulu-Natal and gaining three additional National Assembly seats, for a total of 17. A socially conservative, anti-communist organization, the Inkatha Freedom Party finds most of its support in the more traditional north-central region of KwaZulu-Natal, as the paired Wikipedia map posted below show. It performed particularly well in the municipality of Ulundi. The town of Ulundi was once the capital of the Zulu kingdom and later became the seat of the Bantustan (apartheid-era pseudo-country) of KwaZulu. In no other province did the Inkatha Freedom Party exceed one percent of the vote; in the western third of the country it received less than one tenth of one percent.

2024 South African Election IFP vote map

2024 South African Election KwaZulu-Natal Vote Map

The 2024 election results show that KwaZulu-Natal stands apart from the rest of South Africa, its voters more inclined to support parties that favor Zulu interest than those who focus on national issues. As the paired maps posted below show, the only municipalities in KwaZulu-Natal that did not give plurality support to one the two Zulu nationalist parties are demographically dominated by Xhosa speakers rather than Zulu speakers.

South Africa 2024 election KwaZulu-Natal vote map

But KwaZulu-Natal is not the only South African province that stands politically apart from the rest of the country. As the first map posted below shows, the African National Congress received a relatively low percentage of the vote in three provinces: KwaZulu-Natal, Western Cape, and Gauteng.  Elsewhere, it took a majority or near-majority of the votes cast. As a result, I have divided South Africa into four electorally distinctive regions (see the final map below). Coming Geo-Currents posts will explore these patterns in greater detail.

South Africa 2024 election ANC vote map

South Africa electoral regions map

The Zulu Exception in South Africa’s 2024 General Election Read More »

Mapping Tobacco Use Now and in 1500

Tobacco use is plummeting over most of the world. This decline is easily seen on a map showing the change in the percentage of the adult population that uses tobacco from 2000 to 2020. If the World Health Organization data used to make this map are accurate, only five reporting countries saw an increase in tobacco users during this period: Croatia, Jordan, Oman, Republic of Congo, and Indonesia. Several countries, most notably China and France, reported small drops. But most saw major declines; in Bolivia, the percentage of adult tobacco users went from 37.1 to 12.7.

Screenshot

The regional patterns found on this map are intriguing. Tobacco use declined sharply over most of Africa, which already had relatively low rates of consumption. The increase in the Republic of Congo is therefore anomalous. Most of Latin America also saw a major decline in tobacco use. The patterns in Europe are more mixed, with sharp drops characterizing the north but with more modest declines elsewhere –  and a surprising increase in Croatia. Substantial drops are also evident in South Asia, particularly India. The same pattern is found in Southeast Asia, with the notable exception of Indonesia. In contrast, most of the Middle East and North Africa reported more modest declines, or, in the case of Jordan and Oman, small increases.

As the second map shows, many countries had high rates of tobacco use in 2000, with quite a few exceeding 50% of the adult population. Because tobacco consumption tends to be gender biased, in some countries substantial majorities of men were users at this time, Burma (Myanmar) most notably. South Asia also reported high rates of tobacco consumption a quarter century ago. Central and Eastern Europe was another area of widespread consumption, focused on the Balkans. Latin America reported more variable patterns, with low rates of use in Guatemala, Colombia, and Ecuador but with much higher rates in Chile and Cuba. In Africa the relatively high figure posted for Sierra Leone seems odd. Madagascar, a country of mixed African and Southeast Asian ancestry, intriguingly groups more with Southeast Asia than it does with Africa in regard to tobacco use.

Screenshot

As the third map shows, the regional patterns of tobacco use found in 2020 are roughly similar to those found on the map of 2000, albeit at lower levels almost across the board. Several countries stand out for their persistently high levels of consumption, including Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Burma, and Greece.

Screenshot

In the year 1500, tobacco use was largely confined to the Western Hemisphere. In the Eastern Hemisphere, it was found only in Australia. Indigenous Australians over a large portion of the continent chewed the leaves of several plants in the Nicotiana genus, as well as those of a related nicotine-containing plant, Duboisia hopwoodii. These leaves, mixed with ash, are called pituri.

Screenshot

In the Western Hemisphere in 1500 tobacco use was ubiquitous, found almost everywhere except the high Arctic. Several species of the genus Nicotiana were widely cultivated and traded and served vital ritual, cultural, social, and even political functions. Some supposedly non-agricultural hunting and gathering societies grew tobacco, and others gathered wild tobacco leaves. The widely consumed species Nicotiana rustica was noted for its potency, with up to nine times more nicotine than N. tabacum as well as hallucinogenic harmala alkaloids. As a result, N. rustica was often used by shamans for religious experiences. Tobacco was also widely employed for medical purposes by indigenous peoples of North and South America. Such practices persist in some communities to this day. Despite its dangers, tobacco does have analgesic properties and several other demonstrable medical uses.

The geography of tobacco will be further explored in several forthcoming GeoCurrents posts.

Mapping Tobacco Use Now and in 1500 Read More »

Coffee World Vs Tea World: Mapping the Consumption of Hot, Caffeinated Drinks

Although both tea and coffee are consumed over most of the world, there is little overlap in the lists of the top tea and coffee consuming countries. This pattern is easily seen on the map posted below, which shows the world’s 16 top tea and coffee consuming countries on a per capita basis. Only the Netherlands makes both lists.

Screenshot

The top tea consuming countries are more geographically dispersed than the top coffee consuming countries. High levels of coffee consumption are found primarily in Europe, particularly in the Nordic countries. Outside of Europe, only Brazil and Canada make the list, and only Canada ranks in the top 10 (coming in at 10th place). The United States occupies the 25th slot, a sharp drop from its position a century ago. In 1900, the U.S. took in roughly half the world’s coffee exports. Its coffee consumption peaked around 1945 and subsequently began a slow but steady decline until about 1995. This drop is usually attributed to the marked increase in soft-drink consumption.

High levels of tea consumption, unlike those of coffee, are geographically dispersed. Countries in the top-sixteen list are in Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Oceania. China – where tea drinking originated – ranks in the 21st position. Intriguingly several countries that were once noted for their coffee culture largely switched to tea, Turkey most prominently. After World War I, the new Turkish Republic encouraged tea growing and drinking, partly to reduce imports. Coffee, unlike tea, cannot be grown in the country.

At the dawn of the early modern era five hundred years ago, tea and coffee were regional drinks. Both beverages subsequently underwent globalization, a process that accelerated in the mid-17th century. The two maps posted below show the approximate areas of tea and coffee origination, as well as the main areas of consumption around the year 1500. As it is difficult to find reliable information for many areas, these maps should be regarded as provisional approximations.

Screenshot

Screenshot

The main cultivation zones of both tea and coffee have also experienced profound shifts over the centuries. The final map shows some of the major geographical changes in coffee production. Initially, wild beans were gathered in the southern highlands of Ethiopia. By 1500, coffee growing was well established in the highlands of Yemen across the Red Sea. Problems with supply prompted European imperial powers to establish coffee plantations in their own domains by the early 1700s. Slave-grown coffee from the Caribbean, particularly Haiti, came to dominate the export market. After the successful Haitian rebellion (1791-1804), the main area of coffee production shifted to Asia, particularly to the British-controlled island of Sri Lanka and the Dutch-controlled island of Java. The fungal disease called coffee leaf rust, however, devastated Asian coffee plantations after 1860. Most were abandoned, with plantation owners in in Sri Lanka quickly switching to tea. The main coffee-production zone then shifted to Latin America, which long remained free of rust. By 1900, roughly 75% of the world’s coffee crop was grown in Brazil. But although Brazil remained the global leader, by the 1920s superior coffee was being produced in Colombia and Central America. Meanwhile, extensive coffee cultivation returned to Asia with the introduction of hardier but lower-quality robusta coffee (Coffea canephora). After reunification, Vietnam emphasized coffee cultivation, and by 1999 surpassed Colombia to become the world’s second largest producer. Meanwhile, many other countries became significant growers and exporters. Ethiopia, coffee’s homeland, now ranks in the sixth position, following Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, and Honduras.

Screenshot

Coffee World Vs Tea World: Mapping the Consumption of Hot, Caffeinated Drinks Read More »

Mapping Yerba Mate Consumption and That of Its Cousin, Ilex vomitoria (Yaupon)

Almost all data sources rank Turkey (Türkiye) as the world’s top tea-drinking country, and by a considerable margin. According to Wikipedia’s article on the subject, annual per capita tea consumption in Turley is 3.16 kg (6.96 lb), far overshadowing second-place Ireland’s 2.19 kg (4.83 lb). Yet according to a World Population Review article that lists 2024 tea consumption by country, the people of southern South America drink much more tea than those Turkey. Here the per capita tea consumption of Argentina is mapped as seven times greater than that of Turkey. What gives?

Screenshot

The answer to this seeming mystery is that the writers at World Population Review have confused yerba mate with tea. Although producing a caffeine-rich beverage superficially similar to tea, yerba mate (a species of holly; Ilex paraguariensis), has no relationship with tea (a species of camelia; Camellia sinensis). Evidently, mate is consumed in much greater quantities in mate-drinking cultures than tea in consumed in tea-drinking cultures.

Although yerba mate is now globalizing, consumption is still focused in four South American countries: Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Brazil. Maps of mate-drinking that highlight these countries are somewhat misleading, however, as most of Brazil falls outside the mate zone, as seen in the second map below. Consumption in Brazil is heavily concentrated in the far south, particular in the state of Rio Grande do Sol. This pattern is not surprising, as Rio Grande do Sol was long contested by the Portuguese and Spanish colonial empires, and later by Brazil and its Spanish-speaking neighbors to the south. As a result, its culture has some affinities with those of Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay. In Brazil, the people of the state are often called gaúchos, which would be equivalent to calling Texans “cowboys.” Actual gaúchos tend to drink a lot of yerba mate, just as American cowboys have historically consumed a lot of coffee.

Screenshot

Screenshot

The people Rio Grande do Sol generally embrace their gaúcho designation. As Ruben George Oliven explains in a 2006 Nations and Nationalism article:

From the 1930s, Brazil experienced a growing national centralisation and the construction of Brasilidade (Brazilianness). The military regime (1964–85) deepened centralisation and emphasised national identity, little space being left for regional identities. With the political opening and the redemocratisation of Brazil, starting at the end of the 1970s, the stress was on differences in a period in which Brazil had already achieved a high degree of integration. Identities were re-created, among them that of Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost state of Brazil, where a strong revival of gaúcho culture took place. The 1980s and 1990s were marked by a growing development of activities and disputes linked to the gaúcho tradition. In spite of the fact that Rio Grande do Sul is predominantly urban and industrialised, this process reached out to the state’s rural past and the equestrian figure of the gaúcho.

Intriguingly, the world’s three main hot, caffeinated drinks – coffee, tea, and mate – all have religious roots. Coffee was popularized in Yemen by Sufi mystics who found it useful for keeping awake during all-night chanting sessions. Tea was first popularized in China by Buddhist monks who found it useful for keeping awake during all-night meditation sessions. The story of mate is different, but it too has religious aspects. In pre-colonial times, mate consumption was evidently limited to two relatively small subgroups of the Guaraní people. The Jesuits subsequently united the Guaraní people of Paraguay under a theocratic state. They encouraged mate consumption and effectively domesticated the plant. Mate eventually became the national beverage of Paraguay, and later expanded into Argentina, Uruguay, and southern Brazil.

Yeba mate is closely related to another caffeine plant, Yaupon, which grows in the southeastern lowlands of the United States. Indigenous peoples drank Yaupon tea, sometimes to excess. The plant’s scientific name, Ilex vomitoria, “comes from an observation by early Europeans that the ingestion of the plant was followed by vomiting in certain ceremonies[;]… the vomiting may have resulted from the great quantities in which they drank the beverage, coupled with fasting.”  Such a fasting and (caffeine-) feasting regime also probably had spiritual roots.

Screenshot

Yaupon is now undergoing something of a comeback in the U.S., grown by people who want a “healthy coffee alternative” and who value its beauty and the food that it provides for wildlife. As Lily Anderson Messec writes:

Pollinators flock to its masses of tiny white flowers in spring, and birds eat the berries that follow the flowers. Most importantly, our native insects feed on these plants they have evolved with, providing protein rich meals (in the form of themselves) for birds and other wildlife.

The wildlife, however, are not the only ones eating it. The prime reason I planted my Yaupon was for its caffeine rich leaves. By weight, the leaves contain more caffeine than both coffee beans and green tea —the highest caffeine content of any plant native to North America. Yaupon holly is also high in antioxidants and less bitter than green tea. It is a close cousin of the South American yerba maté (Ilex paraguariensis) and its tea is similar in flavor and quality.

Mapping Yerba Mate Consumption and That of Its Cousin, Ilex vomitoria (Yaupon) Read More »

Alcohol & Religiosity in the United States, and the West Virginia Exception

Maps of alcohol consumption in the United States reveal several regions with very low drinking rates. The most prominent is the LDS (Mormon) cultural region focused on Utah and eastern Idaho. The so-called Bible Belt of the southeastern and south-central states is also clearly visible, although most of its coastal counties are excluded. More surprising are several heavily Native American counties in the northern Great Plains and Southwest. Many tribal governments restrict alcohol sales, but actual consumption rates may be higher than the map indicates. Comparing the maps posted here, several indigenous-dominated counties in South Dakota are shown as having low rates of alcohol drinking but relatively high rates of heaving drinking.

Screenshot

Screenshot

In general, high rates of adherence to religious demoninations that oppose alcohol consumption are associated with low rates of drinking. Lyman Stone, in a fantastic, map-rich post called “Mapping American Churches,” makes this point by juxtaposing a map of “anti-alcohol religious attendance rate” with one showing the prevalence of heavy drinking. As he bluntly notes, “Turns out religious opposition to drinking reduces drinking. Surprise.”

Screenshot

But although this correlation is striking if unsurprising, interesting – and surprising – exceptions can be found. The most prominent is the central Appalachian region, focused on West Virginia. West Virginia reports very low rates of alcohol consumption and abuse – lower than those of any other state except Utah according to some sources. Yet West Virginia has only a middling level of membership in anti-alcohol churches. It also has a very low rate of overall religious adherence (according to data from 2000).

Screenshot

Screenshot

Screenshot

Several explanations have been offered for West Virginia’s official rate of alcohol consumption. One is the state’s high level of opioid abuse, as revealed by a 2015 map of overdose deaths.  Another is the prevalence of illicit and untaxed alcohol (“moonshine”) that escapes tabulation.

Screenshot

A 2019 article in the Exponent Telegram (Clarksburg, WV) expressed some doubt about the state’s reported level of alcohol use. While acknowledging that West Virginia “ranks the lowest in the nation for adult prevalence of both heavy drinking and binge drinking …[and] has been either the lowest or second lowest for many years,” the article went on to note that:

In the period from 2003 to 2012, the most recent data available, 1,092 people died in West Virginia due to crashes involving a driver with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 or higher. That rate, 12.9 per 100,000 population, is well above the national average rate of 6.7 for the same time period.

Although I doubt that West Virginia has one of the lowest alcohol-consumption rates in the United States, it would seem to be lower than one might expect given the state’s history, economic conditions, and relatively low rates of membership in anti-alcohol churches.

Alcohol & Religiosity in the United States, and the West Virginia Exception Read More »

Mapping the Historical Distribution of Alcohol Consumption Circa 1500

I am currently teaching a class for Stanford University’s Continuing Studies Program on the history and geography of natural psychoactive substances. Over the next nine weeks, I will be posting GeoCurrents articles derived from these lectures.

I have mapped the global distribution of each substance under consideration at the beginning of the early modern era (circa 1500). Creating these maps was tricky, and I cannot vouch for their accuracy. In many cases, the only information I was able to find was through ChatGPT. The responses that I received from the chatbot the were often too vague to be of much use. For example, when I asked, “Did the indigenous peoples of the Bismarck Archipelago have alcohol?” ChatGPT told me that “The indigenous peoples of the Bismarck Archipelago, located in the western Pacific Ocean, did not have traditional alcoholic beverages in the same way as some other cultures did. Alcohol consumption in these communities was not widespread before the arrival of European colonial powers.” I also know from experience that ChatGPT sometimes provides nonsensical answers, and a few of its responses to my alcohol-distribution questions are contradicted by other sources. As a result, these maps must be taken with a grain of salt. Note that I have put question marks in areas where the information that I found is conflicting.

Screenshot

The first map in this series, posted above, shows the distribution of alcohol (ethanol) consumption circa 1500 CE. Alcohol was at the time the world’s most widely distributed psychoactive substance used for “recreational” purposes. It was known almost everywhere in Africa and Eurasia. Much of the Eurasian Arctic, however, was an exception owing largely to its lack of fermentable substances. Alcohol was not traditionally consumed over most of the Pacific. Some coastal populations in New Guinea made alcoholic beverages from abundant and easily fermented palm sap, but ethanol was apparently not known in the more densely populated central highlands. In Polynesia and most of Micronesia and Melanesia, alcohol was unknown, but kava (Piper methysticum) served a similar function in many areas.

Alcohol was widely used almost everywhere in South America and Mesoamerica. This “drinking zone” extended into some parts of what is now the southwestern United States, particularly among the so-called Pueblo Indians. Over the rest of North America, however, ethanol consumption was either unknown or very rare. There are reports that indigenous groups in what is now the southeastern United States sometimes made alcohol and some sources claim that Iroquoian peoples in the northeast fermented maple syrup. Overall, however, it is something of a mystery why alcohol was either unknown or little-used over most of North America.

Although alcohol was the most widely used psychoactive substance at the beginning of the early modern era, it was also subjected to the most widespread prohibitions, as the second map shows. In the Islamic world, alcohol was religiously prohibited, although some lax interpretations of the Quran held that only the consumption of wine was banned. And even though wine was forbidden in all interpretations of Islamic law, it was still widely consumed, especially in the Persian-speaking region. In the Hindu communities of India, traditional prohibitions of alcohol were largely based on caste membership. In general, high-caste Brahmins (“priests”) and Vaishyas (“merchants”) were not permitted to drink, although high-caste Kshatriyas (“warriors” and “rulers”) were. Low-ranking Dalits (“untouchables”) could drink. Customs varied among the middling Shudra groups, although the general rule was that a rejection of alcohol enhanced a group’s purity. Alcohol consumption was strongly discouraged by Theravada Buddhism, the dominant sect of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. Ethanol was certainly consumed in these lands in the early modern period, but a degree of stigma surrounded its use.

Screenshot

It is intriguing that the zone of widespread alcohol prohibition is essentially located in the center of the region of historical alcohol consumption. Although Egypt and Iraq today have very low drinking rates, in ancient times alcohol had important religious implications in both lands. In Sumer (southern Iraq), usually regarded as the world’s first civilization, beer was viewed as an essential attribute of civilization. In Gilgamesh, the world’s first epic, the wild man Enkidu was domesticated by, among other things, the consumption of beer.

Screenshot

Screenshot

Sumerian beer was so thick and porridge-like that it had to be consumed through special straws that could filter out the solids, as is seen on many images from the era. Today, curious brewers are reproducing Sumerian beer and drinking it in the same manner.

Screenshot

Mapping the Historical Distribution of Alcohol Consumption Circa 1500 Read More »

Is Confucianism Responsible for South Korea’s Demographic Collapse? Or Could It Be Modernity Itself?

In the United States, fertility rates increasingly correlate with religiosity. Those who regularly attend religious services have more children than those who irregularly attend, who, in turn, have more than nonreligious people (see the graph below). Does this generalization hold for South Korea, a predominantly secular country with substantial Christian and Buddhist minorities? (A 2021 Gallup Korea poll found that 60 percent of South Koreans have no religion, with 16 percent following Mahayana Buddhism, 17 percent Protestant Christianity, 6 percent Roman Catholic Christianity, and 1 percent other religions.) Apparently, it does so only to a slight degree. According to a study published in Demographic Research in 2021, the Total Fertility Rate by faith in South Korea in 2015 was as follows: no religion, 1.13; Buddhist, 1.33;  Catholic, 1.16; Protestant, 1.28; and “other religion,” 1.20.

A number of scholars, however, have linked South Korea’s ultra-low fertility rate to Confucianism, a largely secular philosophical system with religious undertones. In the Joseon period (1393-1894), Confucianism was the dominant belief system of the Korean elite. Confucian ideas and practices still pervade South Korean society, probably to a greater extent than any other country. Intriguingly, other countries of Confucian heritage also have low (North Korea, Vietnam) or ultra-low (Japan, China, Taiwan) fertility levels (although that of Vietnam is just under replacement level and is currently holding steady). Japan and China are also, like South Korea, afflicted with high rates of withdrawal from marriage and the work-force by disaffected young people, a phenomenon known in China as the “lying flat” movement (tang ping).

Scholars who have posited a link between Confucianism and ultra-low fertility in South Korea have generally focused on women, highlighting the increasing numbers of whom are intentionally foregoing marriage and childbearing. Standard Confucianism is decidedly patriarchal, with wives placed in a subservient position to their husbands. Family solidarity is highly valued, with mothers expected to devote themselves to their children. As a result, pursuing a career is often deemed incompatible with childbearing and rearing. Faced with such a dilemma, increasing numbers of young Korean women are choosing career development over marriage and motherhood.

In an interesting article called “Ultralow Fertility in East Asia: Confucianism and Its Discontents,” Yen-hsin Alice Cheng argues that the East Asia has a unique fertility regime characterized by male-skewed sex ratios at birth (due to son preference), low rates of non-marital birth, rising prevalence of bridal pregnancy, and low rates of cohabitation. These attributes, she argues, are “closely linked to a patriarchal structure based on family lineage through sons, strong parental authority, and emphasis on women’s chastity (i.e. sanctions for premarital sex and ‘illegitimate’ births outside of marriage) and the belief that women are obliged to bear sons to continue the patrilineal bloodline” (p. 98-99). Faced with such expectations, she argues, many young women are simply opting out.

Although the connection between low fertility and Confucian patriarchy has been made by many others, Cheng also links it to Confucian-inspired “credentialism.” Here she focuses on the legacy of the highly prestigious imperial civil service examinations that selected elite bureaucrats based on their exam performances. This heritage has resulted, she argues, in a “low regard for vocational education and craftsmanship in Confucian societies,” with “academic success in the educational system considered a life goal that is of paramount importance …, with parents doing their best to make sure their children advance as far as possible academically” (p. 102). Today, academic success translates into coveted positions in South Korea’s world-class corporations and allows entry into prestigious professions. Such jobs, however, are limited, relegating even some of the most diligent students to non-prestigious jobs that are regarded as humiliating. Faced with such pressures, many young people prefer social withdrawal.

Scholarly attitudes toward Confucianism in the West have oscillated from condemnation to commendation, depending in part on economic and political conditions in East Asia. In the eighteenth century, when Qing China was the world’s most powerful country, Enlightenment philosophers celebrated the rationalism, secularism, and meritocracy of Confucianism, marveling at a society in which elite status was determined more by exam performance than by aristocratic birth and in which the military was subservient to civil society. Some writers even claim that Confucius was the “patron saint of the Enlightenment.” But as China declined in the nineteenth century while the West advanced, attitudes changed. It eventually came to be argued that the inherent conservatism of Confucianism, marked by undue submission to authority and rigidly hierarchical lines of power, prevented innovation, adaptation, and modernization in East Asia. But the mindset shifted again in the second half of the twentieth century as Confucian societies underwent extraordinarily rapid economic growth and modernization. It then came to be argued that Confucianism’s profound respect for education propelled economic development while its emphasis on family cohesion ensured social stability. But now the tables are again turning, with Confucian patriarchy and credentialism blamed for South Korea’s demographic collapse and the concomitant crisis of disaffected young people abandoning social expectations and dropping out.

None of these interpretations are either “correct” or “incorrect,” and all probably contain an element of truth. A belief system as comprehensive as Confucianism has many different aspects and pulls in different directions. It influences social structures but does not determine them, and thus provides partial explanations at best. A significant amount of evidence, moreover, suggests that today’s supposedly Confucian-generated social pathologies are not limited to East Asia. Ultra-low fertility, for example, is found elsewhere, including much of Europe. But here too historically patriarchal social structures seem to play a role, as Europe’s more gender equalitarian societies now have higher fertility levels than those with traditionally stronger gender roles; compare, for example, the TFR charts of Sweden and Italy posted below.

The most important issue is probably the extent to which the social withdrawal phenomenon is unique to South Korea and other countries of Confucian heritage. Similar although less extreme developments do seem to be occurring in the United States and Europe, as is noted in the Wikipedia article on South Korea’s Sampo (“Giving Up”) Generation. Rates of depression, anxiety, and social isolation among young people in the U.S., moreover, are also surging. Although many explanations have been offered and debated, this phenomenon is complex and pervasive, leading some to suspect that modernity itself is the ultimate culprit. By this interpretation, modern societies are much better at generating goods and technologies than meaning and real social connections, yet meaning and real social connections remain essential for psychological health. Jon Haidt has been arguing for some time that social media, particularly Instagram and TikTok, are responsible for much of the mental-health crisis among American girls; he now argues that the much more gradual psychological decline found among boys began decades earlier with the arrival of computerized gaming, which pulled them out of real-world encounters and into simulated environments. In some regards, South Korea is the most technophilic and modernistic country in the world, and, by this reasoning, it would be expected to be at the leading edge of a modernity-generated social crisis.

Is Confucianism Responsible for South Korea’s Demographic Collapse? Or Could It Be Modernity Itself? Read More »

The Dutch Bible Belt: Religion and Voting in the Netherlands (& Northwestern Iowa)

The Netherlands is one of the most secular countries in the world. In a 2022 survey, 57 percent of its people reported “no religion,” 18 percent Catholicism, thirteen percent Protestant Christianity, and 5.6 percent Islam. Many of those who profess Christianity, moreover, are not very religious. In 2015, 82 percent of the Dutch population indicated that they “never or almost never” set foot in a church. But despite such widespread secularism, religion plays a significant role in Dutch politics. Three of the 15 parties in the country’s parliament officially signal their Christianity and another has roots in Christian democracy. Such a seeming discrepancy calls for further analysis.

Historically, the Dutch people were often noted for their religiosity. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, they formed the core group of the influential Devotio Moderna movement that sought to revitalize Christianity through devotion to piety, humility, and simplicity of life. Learning was important as well, as exemplified by Erasmus of Rotterdam. In the mid-sixteenth century, conversion to Calvinism, or Reformed Christianity, was widespread, especially in Holland and Zeeland. This religious change helped spark rebellion against Spanish rule and the creation of the Dutch Republic in 1579. Although the Dutch Republic was noted for its religious toleration, it was closely associated with Calvinism, which continued to spread across its seven constituent provinces (Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Friesland, Groningen, Overijssel, and Gelderland). Territorial gains made with the Peace of Westphalia (1648) brought substantial Catholic territories into the republic, most notably in North Brabant, which were long ruled on a semi-colonial basis. As the intensity of Dutch Protestantism declined in the nineteenth century, religion conflict intensified, pitting Catholics, Calvinists, and post-Calvinists against each other. The main response was the “pillarization” of Dutch society, defined as the “the vertical separation of citizens into groups by religion and associated political beliefs.” By the beginning of the twentieth century, four main pillars had crystalized: Catholic, Protestant, Liberal, and Socialist. As Wikipedia notes:

Each pillar [had] its own social institutions and social organizations. These [included] its own newspapers, broadcasting organisations, political parties, trade unions, farmers’ associations, banks, stores, schools, hospitals, universities, scouting organisations and sports clubs. Such segregation [meant] that many people [had] little or no personal contact with members of other pillars. [Note: quotation edited to put it in the past tense.]

Depillarization began after World War II, but remnants persist, especially in education. The Netherland’s several Christian political parties might also be seen a holdover of the pillarization era, although some of their sectarian lines have blurred over time. The Christian Union party is rooted in the Reformed Church and thus takes a conservative stance on social matters, but it now leans to the left on economic and environmental issues, based on the Biblical precepts of charity and stewardship. The somewhat more conservative Christian Democratic Appeal originated in 1977 through the confederation of three religious-political groups, two Protestant and one Catholic. The third explicitly religious party, the Reformed Party (SGP), represents unreconstructed Calvinism and is decidedly rightwing. It is sometimes even regarded as advocating theocracy, although that allegation is controversial. SGP is the Netherland’s oldest political party, having been established in 1918. One of its founders envisioned a Netherlands “without cinema, sports, vaccination, and social security.” While the antipathy to sports has dissipated, opposition to playing games on Sundays has not.

Although religious affiliation has declined more sharply in the traditionally Protestant parts of the Netherlands than in the traditionally Catholic ones (see the first map below), intense religiosity is more common in the former region. The Old Reformed (strictly Calvinist) congregations have a membership of roughly 400,000, although some sources claim that over a million Dutch people remain affiliated with their version of the Reformed faith. Staunch believers are concentrated in a discontinuous “Bible Belt” that stretches from Zeeland in the southwest to the Netherlands’ center-north. It is often mapped based on support for the Christian Union and Reformed parties (see the map below). Intriguingly, the Dutch Bible Belt is located just north of the historical divide between the Protestant and Catholic parts of the country. This distribution pattern has been used as evidence that the Netherlands’ Bible Belt originated from Protestant stalwarts fleeing Catholic domination before the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, but this interpretation remains uncertain.

In the 2023 general election, the (Calvinist) Reformed Party had its best showing by a wide margin in Zeeland, where it took almost 10 percent of the vote. But it came in first place in only one of the Zeeland’s municipalities. Nationwide, it did so in eight of the 342 municipalities into which the Netherlands is divided. Rather than forming a contiguous belt, these municipalities are widely scattered. One lies in the country’s demographic core (Woudenberg in Utrecht Province) and another, Urk, is found in Flevoland, a land that did not even exist until it was diked and drained in the 1950s and ‘60s. As a new province, it might seem surprising the Flavoland would be home to such a traditional community. But Urk is an old fishing town that sat on an island before the massive drainage projects of the mid twentieth century. It is often regarded as the country’s most conservative municipality. Its politics have long been dominated by Christian parties, particularly the SGP and local offshoots, although in recent years the right-populist PVV and FvD have gained considerable support. The 21,000 residents of Urk have also maintained their own distinct dialect, usually called Urkers As noted in Wikipedia article on Urk:

One of the oldest and most distinctive dialects of Dutch is the language spoken in Urk. Nearly everyone in the village speaks this dialect and uses it in daily life. The dialect deviates considerably from contemporary standard Dutch and has preserved many old characteristics that disappeared from standard Dutch a long time ago. The Urkish dialect also includes elements that are older than standard Dutch  and were never part of the standard language.  … The dialect developed this way because until World War II, Urk was an island and could only be reached by boat. Radio was unknown, and the poor population did not have much money for newspapers and books. Until the modern era primary education for the children typically lasted only two years; afterwards children had to help maintain the family and formal schooling ended.

The hardline Calvinist communities in the Bible Belt have been subjected to harsh criticism in mainstream Dutch society. Opposition to vaccination has long generated opposition. Recent censure often focuses on their steadfast hostility to gay rights and gender ideology.

The deep conservatism of old-school Dutch Calvinism is politically reflected in places far from the Netherlands, most notably among the Afrikaners of South Africa. It can also be seen in the United States, particularly in a few counties in southwestern Michigan and northwestern Iowa that were heavily settled by Dutch immigrants. This correlation can be seen in the paired maps posted below, one showing the prevalence of the (Dutch) Reformed Church in Iowa and the other showing the results of the 2020 presidential election in the same state. Donald Trump is anything but a reflection of Calvinist values, but the overwhelming support that he received in northwestern Iowa does indicate an abiding hostility to liberalism and leftism in this region that has deep roots in the Dutch Reformed Church.

As a final note, it is intriguing that the centrist Christian Union party had by far its best showing in the 2023 general election in Bonaire and the two other special Dutch municipalities located in the Caribbean.

The Dutch Bible Belt: Religion and Voting in the Netherlands (& Northwestern Iowa) Read More »

Melbourne Vs. Sydney Revisited

Australia is an unusual country in having two metropolitan areas of roughly equal population that overshadow all others. As the tables posted below show, Melbourne and Sydney each have around five million inhabitants, roughly twice as many as third-ranking Brisbane. It is also not entirely clear which metropolis is larger. Although Sydney has generally received the honor, Melbourne is growing more rapidity and has reportedly “snatched back its crown as Australia’s largest city, knocking Sydney off the top spot.” (Different population figures are derived from different way of spatially delimiting the metro area.)

Few other countries have such dual top cities. The only one that come readily to my mind is Vietnam; Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) both have around eight million inhabitants, with the next largest, Haiphong, coming in at only two million. Such urban duality can lead to sharp cultural rivalry, which is indeed the case in both Australia and Vietnam.

Given their shared top position, Melbourne and Sydney’s differences are worth exploring. As a recent GeoCurrents post noted, Melbourne leans much more to the political left. But how else do they differ? Internet queries deliver mostly tourist-oriented information, focused on climate, sights and scenery, and dining and nightlife. Cultural, social, and economic comparisons are more difficult to find. Several sources, however, note that Melbourne is less expensive, which might be one reason why it is growing more quickly:

The rental prices in Melbourne are a lot more affordable than those in Sydney, which is probably the best thing about Melbourne  when compared to Sydney. It is estimated that the rent for a one-bedroom apartment located in the central business district of Sydney will be approximately AUD $2,689 (US $2127) per month. The same thing in the Australian city of Melbourne will set you back approximately $1,725 (or $1,364 in US currency).

Elevated housing costs in Sydney reflect the fact that it is wealthier than Melbourne, as can be seen on the paired maps posted below. Note that the top three categories on the Sydney median-family-income map are missing from Melbourne, while the lowest one is missing from Sydney (in Melbourne it is limited to the far peripheral division of Indi). I also included Perth, Western Australia’s only metropolis, in this map set for broader comparative purposes; its income profile is much more like that of Melbourne than that of Sydney. I was surprised to see these lower income figures for Perth, as Western Australia is the country’s richest state on a per capita basis, with a much higher level of GDP per person than either New South Wales or Victoria (see below). Non-metropolitan regions of New South Wales, however, do generally have lower average incomes than non-metropolitan parts of Western Australia (compare, for example, WA’s sparsely settled but mineral-rich Pilbara and NSW’s agrarian New England on the map below).

 

 

The more important distinction in income between Sydney and Melbourne, however, is that of differentiation. Although Sydney’s wealthiest division are richer than those of Melbourne, Sydney’s poorest division are slightly poorer than those of Melbourne. The areas of greater Melbourne with median weekly household income below 1,600 Australian dollars are all located in the exurban fringe, whereas those of Sydney form one the city’s main suburban cores. One might expect such income differentiation to lead to a more leftwing voting pattern in Sydney, but the opposite situation holds.

The remaining set of maps show some relatively muted but still significant differences between Australia’s two largest cities. Regarding educational attainment, central Melbourne and central Sydney look quite similar, but Melbourne’s suburbs have a slightly larger percentage of college graduates. Suburban Sydney is somewhat more religious than suburban Melbourne, which reflects the fact that it has a higher percentage of people born outside Australia (see the first to maps below). Both central Melbourne and central Sydney, however, have large immigrant populations and low levels of religious belief. In both metro areas – and presumable across the country – peripheral divisions have mostly Australia-born populations. Regarding marital states, it is notable that Sydney’s wealthy northern suburbs report higher rates of marriage than any electoral divisions of Melbourne.

Melbourne Vs. Sydney Revisited Read More »

Insurgency in Paraguay – and Genocidal Agitation Against Brazilians in the Country

Wikipedia’s “list of on-going armed conflicts” (see the previous post) had some surprises for me, as it includes a few insurgencies that I had thought were over. One example is that of the Paraguayan People’s Army, or EEP Rebellion (from the Spanish label, Ejército del Pueblo Paraguayo). Wikipedia gives a 2023 death toll of seven for this conflict, and a cumulative count of 145+ since its beginning in 2005. These figures do not seem to be reliable, however, as the listed source for the 2023 figure is from 2022. I was not able to find any information on deaths this year in an admittedly cursory internet search. The Wikipedia article on the EEP, however, emphasizes its continuing activity, claiming that it can field up to 1,000 militants. As the article notes:

[T]he EPP has millions of dollars collected in kidnappings, extortion, expropriations and even contributions from neighbors and supporters. To this day, they continue to gain followers in the area, given the void left by the Paraguayan State.

The EEP is in many respects a typical Latin American Marxist-Leninist insurgency. It aims its attacks on wealthy landowners and security official, both private and public. Its operations have been focused in the central-eastern part of the country not far from the boundary with Brazil (see the map below), a restive region that has seen the development of large, mechanized farms over the past few decades. A few years ago, the EEP gained some global notoriety for kidnapping Mennonite farmers, one of whom was killed when his family was unable to come up with the $500,000 demanded for his release.

Conflict over land use and ownership in eastern Paraguay is an issue of the political far-right as well as the far-left. In Paraguay’s April 2023 general election, the populist and self-described nationalist-anarchist candidate of the National Crusade Party, Paraguayo “Payo” Cubas, surprised many observers by coming in third place, taking almost a quarter of the votes cast. In 2019, then-senator Cubas was impeached after he called for the genocide of Brazilians living in his country. As reported by Folha de São Paulo:

Brazilian bandits, bandits! Invaders! Now deforesting the country,” he shouts. “At least 100,000 Brazilians must be killed here,” he continued, mentioning that 2 million Brazilians are living in the country. The Brazilian government estimates that there are 350 thousand.

Following his failed bid for the presidency, Cubas was arrested for “disturbing the peace” after he refused to accept the election results and led anti-governmental protests. This was not the first time that he found himself in legal trouble. In 2016, Cubas was arrested “after hitting a judge with a belt and defecating in the office of the judge’s secretary.”

The large Brazilian presence in eastern Paraguay dates to the 1960s. These so-called “Brasiguayos” (“Brasiguaios” in Portuguese), many of whom were born in Paraguay, are now thought to number around half a million, a little less than 10 percent of the country’s population. They form the dominant group in several border towns, which are now mostly Portuguese speaking. This fact is almost never noted on language maps of Paraguay, although I did find one somewhat dated example (posted below). This map, not surprisingly, comes from the extensive archives of Reddit’s “Map Porn” community.

The initial Brazilian immigrants in Paraguay were mostly landless peasants who cleared the land for agriculture. They were later followed by well-off farmers who developed mechanized, commercial agriculture, usually focusing on soybeans. As commercial farmers moved in, many of the earlier migrants were forced back to Brazil, where they often found themselves unwelcome. Settling mostly in the new agricultural areas of Matto Grosso do Sul, their plight gained the attention of Amnesty International, which claimed in a 1992 report that were the victims of “illegal detentions, allegations of excessive use of force by the police, intimidation and a possible extra judicial execution.” The irony inherent in the situation has been noted. As one author put it, “Brazilians living in Paraguay wound up being expelled by their own countrymen.”

Anti-Brazilian agitation in Paraguay over the past few decades has generally focused on landownership issues. It seems to have reached a peak between 2008 and 2012, when Paraguay was under a leftwing government, an unusual condition in that country. As noted in a 2012 article in Gazeta do Povo:

The epicenter of the most recent agrarian conflict in Paraguay is located 75 kilometers from Foz do Iguaçu, in the department of Alto Paraná. A group of 6,000 landless Paraguayans, called “carperos”, have been camped for almost a year in the municipality of Ñacunday, on the border between two rural properties owned by producers of Brazilian descent. They threaten to take by force an area of 167,000 hectares spread across the departments of Alto Paraná, Canindeyú and Itapúa on the border with Brazil and Argentina. Armed and willing to radicalize the movement, they claim that the lands occupied by Brazilians belong to the Paraguayan government and should serve the agrarian reform project undertaken by President Fernando Lugo.

Cultural and even racial issue are also at play. As reported in a 2001 New York Times article:

They complain that the only television available locally is Brazilian and that their children grow up rooting for Brazil’s national soccer team instead of their own and speaking Portuguese as their second language instead of the Indian language Guaraní [Note: Paraguay is almost completely bilingual in Spanish and Guaraní].

Radio broadcasts in Guaraní urging landless peasants to rise against the Brazilians continue to be heard here. About 80 percent of San Alberto’s 23,000 residents are of Brazilian descent, and by voting as a bloc they have succeeded in electing one of their number, Romildo Maia de Souza, as mayor. …

One source of friction, all sides agree, is racial. Many of the Brazilians are blue-eyed, fair-skinned descendants of the German, Italian and Polish immigrants who flocked to Brazil’s three southernmost states a century ago. Many of the native-born Paraguayans most resentful of the Brazilian presence are of [indigenous] Indian stock.

Finally, geopolitical implications further complicate the situation. A 2019 scholarly paper by Andrew Nickson warns that Paraguay might be a Brazilian “protectorate in the making,” which seem a bit exaggerated. A big up-coming issue in this regard is the renegotiation of the Itaipú Treaty, which covers the shared Itaipú dam, the third largest hydroelectric facility in the world.

Insurgency in Paraguay – and Genocidal Agitation Against Brazilians in the Country Read More »

Successful Resistance Against the Regime of Burma (Myanmar) by the Karenni People

The civil war raging in Burma (Myanmar) is one of the world’s longest running conflicts, stretching back to 1948, the year of Burma’s independence from Britain. But as hostilities ebb and flow in both time and place, the current war is dated by some as only having begun in 2021, the year of the country’s most recent military coup and crackdown on civil society. But no matter how one measures it, this struggle is bloody and grim. According to the Wikipedia article on “ongoing armed conflicts,” the Burmese Civil War currently has the third highest death toll of 2023, following only the war in Ukraine and the insurgency in western Africa that stretches across more than a dozen countries. Almost 11,000 people have lost their lives this year alone, with a casualty count of perhaps more than 20,000* in 2022. But despite the ongoing and persistent carnage, this conflict rarely makes the news in the United States.

To follow the Burmese civil war, one can consult Burmese sources, available online in both Burmese and English. I especially recommend The Irrawaddy, produced by Burmese journalists in exile in Thailand. One of its most interesting recent articles highlights the importance of the country’s smallest state, Kayah (formerly Karenni), in successfully taking on the Tatmadaw, the brutal Burmese military. The article claims that resistance fighters in Kayah have killed 2,065 junta soldiers while losing only 153 of their own in the past two years. Leading the charge is the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force (KNDF), which was formed shortly after the February 2021 coup. Some of its fighters had previously been affiliated with the Burmese military as border guards but switched sides after the military take-over. As The Irrawaddy notes, the “KNDF supports federalism, or power-sharing between the Union and state governments with self-determination and self-administration for ethnic states.” According to one recent report, the Burmese government currently controls only some ten percent of Kayah state (including its capital, Loikaw), with the rest of it either contested (20 percent) or under the control of insurgents (65 percent). If this report and others like it are true, the Wikipedia map posted below is highly inaccurate, or at least out of date, as it significantly exaggerates the extent of governmental control.

Despite the success of their military resistance, the people of Kayah (Karenni) State have experienced intense suffering over the past two and a half years. (For those interested, the assaults on their state are regularly tabulated and mapped in detail by the Karenni Civil Society Network; see the map below). According to one recent report from a different agency:

At least 180,000 Karenni people have been forcibly displaced, which is more than 40 percent of the estimated total Karenni population. …. Some families have been displaced multiple times, as IDP sites come under attack by junta forces. Based on legal analysis of the data collected, the report finds that members of the Burmese military have committed the war crimes of attacking civilians, attacking protected objects, pillaging, murder, torture, cruel treatment, and displacing civilians in Karenni State.

As is often tragically the case in Burma, extremist Buddhist monks have been encouraging military assaults and worse. According to a recent United States Institute of Peace report:

Under the hot sun, a Pa-O monk spoke to the rally and characterized the Karenni people as a lower race, describing the KNDF and the Peoples’ Defense Forces broadly as worse than the Islamic State. Another Pa-O monk called for the burning of Karenni villages if the KNDF did not stop the alleged violence, declaring: “They say it is not a religious war. But our three monks have died.” … These alarming speeches carried themes of ethnic hierarchy, Buddhist nationalism and zealous hatred.

Surprisingly, the “ethnic hierarchy” and “Buddhist nationalism” evident in this monk’s speech do not come in their usual form, which is associated with the majority Burman (Burmese-speaking) population and directed against Muslims and members of the so-called hill tribes. In this case, both the Karenni and their Po-O antagonists are historically regarded as “tribal peoples,” both belonging to the larger Karen ethno-linguistic group, at least as it is sometimes reckoned. But the Pa-O people are almost entirely Buddhist and have aligned closely with the Burmese military, which has pursued a “divide and rule” strategy among the country’s minority populations. The strategy had been largely successful before 2021 but is currently failing. The Karenni, in contrast, are religiously divided, with some following Buddhism, others Christianity (of several sects), and others traditional animism/shamanism. They are also, needless to say, firm opponent of the Burmese military.

The success of little Kayah State in resisting the Burmese military probably has roots in colonial history. Kayah was never integrated in British Burma and largely escaped British rule. In the 1870s, the Kingdom of Burma, having been reduced to a rump state after losing two wars against the British, was trying to expand into upland regions. Threatened by this policy, the tiny principalities of the Karenni people sought help from Britain, leading to an 1875 treaty between the United Kingdom and Burma that recognized their independence. In 1892, however, Karenni leaders agreed to accept a stipend from the British government in return for allowing it some local oversight. But domestic policies remained under the control of local leaders. As a result, the Karenni lands were usually mapped as not falling under direct British rule, the only part of Burma generally given that distinction (see the map below). A fascinating 1931 map, however, classified Karenni State as one of four regions in Burma that were “loosely” administered by the British Raj, with two others depicted as “unadministered” (see below). (Intriguingly, Karenni state was reportedly the world’s largest producer of tungsten in the 1930s; geologists affiliated with the Oxford Burma Project currently hope that political stabilization will eventually allow the reestablishment of extensive commercial mining there and elsewhere in mineral-rich Burma.)

As Burma was preparing for independence after World-War II, it sought to incorporate the Karenni states into its coming union. Its 1947 constitution insisted on the amalgamation of these small indigenous realms into one Burmese state, but also allowed the possibility of secession after a ten-year period. But with independence the following year, as tersely noted by the Wikipedia article on the state, “the Karenni leader U Bee Htu Re was assassinated by central government militia for his opposition to the inclusion of the Karenni in the Union of Burma. An armed uprising swept the state that has continued to the present day.”

Despite its formidable power, the Burmese military (Tatmadaw) does not seem to be doing well in the current conflict. A recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations claims that it has lost half or more of its troops since the 2021 coup, due to death, desertion, or defection, and that it has retreated on several fronts. The Tatmadaw is also evidently having difficulty filling the classes at its military academy. According to one report, the government now has stable control over only around twenty percent of the country’s townships. Due to recent military reversals, the Tatmadaw is now engaging in extensive air attacks, often directed against civilian targets. Such a strategy is of little military significance and greatly intensifies animosity against the regime.

The Council on Foreign Relations report mentioned above also contends that the Burmese government is facing growing international problems:

Even China, which has backed the junta and sees Myanmar as a strategically critical investment destination, is playing both sides of the fence. Beijing has continued to plow money into the country and supplied the military with weapons, despite its pariah status, and it has provided the junta with diplomatic cover at international forums. Yet it has also maintained links with the ethnic militias and their political wings, and its backing of Naypyidaw has grown more tepid as the army continues to lose ground. As for Russia, though it too has supplied the junta with arms, Moscow is facing its own obvious problems right now and may not be able to ship weapons abroad for long.

Due to these reversals, Burma’s military government may be reconsidering its strategy. Or perhaps not. Another article from the United States Institute of Peace nicely summarizes the current situation:

Are conciliatory winds stirring among the leaders of Myanmar’s coup regime, or is the junta engaging in deception and distraction as it struggles on the battlefield against a broad range of resistance forces? The answer is almost certainly the latter. It would not be the first time the ruling generals have sought to stimulate international interest in promoting dialogue solely to enhance their legitimacy abroad.

Successful Resistance Against the Regime of Burma (Myanmar) by the Karenni People Read More »

The Geography Indian Chess Grandmasters

The prolific blogger, economist, and public intellectual Tyler Cowen recently reposted a map on the geography of Indian chess grandmasters (reproduced below). The map was originally posted on X [Twitter] by “The_Equationist” under the heading “This chart speaks for itself.” I am not sure that it does, nor do several of Cowen’s commenters. But for those who understand the basic spatial contours of socio-economic development in India, the map does show a familiar pattern. Almost all Indian grandmasters come from the more economically vibrant and educationally developed states of southern and south-central India. Conversely, few come from the densely populated and economically lagging Ganges Valley, India’s historical core, or indeed from any other northern part of the country. Based on socioeconomic development alone, one might expect a few more grandmasters from Punjab, Haryana, and Delhi, but the pattern remains unexceptional.

What is especially striking is that three states in particular stand out for producing grandmasters: West Bengal (labeled here simply as “Bengal”), Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu. But again, for those familiar with the geography of Indian intellectual life, this pattern is not particularly surprising. West Bengal has long been famed as India’s intellectual center, particularly in fields in the humanities. This feature of Indian geography has occasionally hit home. I few years ago, I was peripherally involved in a search at Stanford University for a new faculty member specializing in the history of modern South Asia. Well into the process, a South Asian member of the search committee asked whether the rest of us had noticed that all the top candidates were Bengali, hailing from West Bengal. I had not noticed.

Tamil Nadu, which really stands out on the map, is also famous for the intellectual achievements of its inhabitants, which veer in a more scientific and technical direction. Such intellectuality is particularly notable among the Tamil Brahmins (or “Tam Brahms”), who have been subjected to some reverse discrimination in their homeland and are thus well represented abroad. Maharashtra does not have the same intellectual reputation as the other two states, but it is, in many regards, India’s economic standout and its center of popular-culture production.

One of Cowen’s commenters, Sathish, mentions that almost all of Tamil Nadu’s grandmasters come from its largest city, Chennai (formerly Madras), noting as well that 15 of the 29 studied at the same school. Another commenter, sxb, provides the necessary background information:

It started in the 50s with the first Indian international Master, Manuel Aaron. He started the Tal chess club in Chennai, brought in Soviet chess books and even a Soviet Grandmaster for a month with more visiting and Anand, the Indian prodigy, was his pupil. Basically all the local players worthy of note went through that chess club. It blossomed from there.  Anand was born and lives in Chennai and has been a great role model for chess in India and got many youngsters interested in the game.

 

As geographers have long noted, place matters. So does personality, as this story so well demonstrates.

The Geography Indian Chess Grandmasters Read More »

The Taliban’s Renewed Assaults on Afghanistan’s Hazara Shia Community

I was surprised to recently read that the Taliban are trying to marginalize the Persian language in Afghanistan, given its near majority status, stature, and role in inter-ethnic communication (see the previous GeoCurrents post). On resuming power in 2021, moreover, the Taliban had promised to pursue less brutal and divisive policies. In their first stint (1996-2001), they had viciously attacked the country’s minority Shia population, mostly found among the Hazara people in central Afghanistan. Some observers viewed these campaigns as almost genocidal (see this earlier GeoCurrents post). But as Radio Free Europe framed the Taliban’s new attitude:

After regaining power, the Sunni militant group tried to assuage Hazaras’ fears of discrimination and persecution. The Taliban visited Shi’a mosques in the Afghan capital and deployed its fighters to protect ceremonies marking the Shi’ite month of Muharram.

Given the Taliban’s previous animosity toward Shia Islam, I had expected that that any reversal of its newly formulated toleration program would be directed against the Hazaras, and perhaps also the smaller non-Hazara Shia communities in western Afghanistan. Yet I had encountered nothing of the sort. It turns out, however, that my reading on this subject had been far too limited. The July 17, 2023 Radio Free Europe article cited above went on to note that:

Last week, the Taliban prevented Shi’a from celebrating an important religious festival. The militants have also restricted the teaching of Shi’a jurisprudence in universities in Afghanistan. In February, the Taliban reportedly banned marriages between Shi’a and Sunnis in northeastern Badakhshan Province.

The Shi’ite community has accused the Taliban of failing to prevent deadly attacks on Hazaras by the rival Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) extremist group. Meanwhile, rights groups have documented the forced evictions of Hazaras by the Taliban, a predominately Pashtun group, in several provinces.

Other reports are even more worrisome. As noted by Jurist, “The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) issued a statement on Friday calling for an end to the systemic killing of Shia Hazaras in Afghanistan in order to prevent a possible genocide under Taliban rule.” According to Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, “These violent deaths are further shocking proof that the Taliban continue to persecute, torture and extra judicially execute Hazara people.”

Also shocking is the lack of reporting on this situation in the American media. Afghanistan’s Shia population is massive, constituting something between 9 and 29.5 percent of the country’s population of 40 million (see the two highly divergent pie charts below). Continuing attacks on these people could quickly generate a humanitarian crisis of the first order.

Although most Shia Muslims in Afghanistan follow the Imami, or Twelver, majority sect of the faith, a significant minority adhere instead to the minority Ismaili sect. Most Afghan Ismailis are also ethnic Hazaras, but a few are ethnic Tajiks (both of which are Persian-speaking peoples). One might expect that the Taliban would be especially hostile to the Ismailis, given their heterodox, esoteric, and cosmopolitan orientation. Scant information, however, is readily available on this group. But according to one prominent 2001 report:

Ismailis in Afghanistan are generally regarded with suspicion by other ethnic groups and for the most part their economic status is very poor. Although Ismaili in other areas such as the northern areas of Pakistan operate well-organized social welfare programs including schools, hospitals and cooperatives, little has been done among Afghan Ismaili communities. Considered less zealous than other Afghan Muslims, Ismaili are seen to follow their leaders uncritically.

The news searches that I conducted for information on Ismailis in Afghanistan mostly returned articles about a recent deadly knife attack by an Afghan refugee on women in an Ismaili center in Lisbon, Portugal. A Shia Wave article, however, notes that the Taliban are trying to convert Afghan Ismailis to Sunni Islam, and evidently with some success. I was disappointed to find no information on Afghan Ismailis on the website of the Aga Khan Foundation, the well-funded and highly effective humanitarian wing of the global (Nizari) Ismaili community. The Foundation does highlight its extensive humanitarian work in Afghanistan, but sidesteps the country’s sectarian divisions.

The Taliban’s Renewed Assaults on Afghanistan’s Hazara Shia Community Read More »