Nicholas Baldo

posts by Nicholas Baldo

Puerto Ricans Appear to Endorse Statehood in Referendum

Lost in the extensive coverage of the 2012 U.S. Election is the recurrent and important issue of Puerto Rico’s relationship to the U.S. On Tuesday, the Puerto Rican electorate appeared to endorse statehood in a two-part non-binding referendum. Fifty-four percent of voters prefer changing Puerto Rico’s status from the status quo, and 61 percent of voters supported statehood. “Sovereign free association” garnered 33 percent of the vote, and independence only five percent. Puerto Rico is currently an unincorporated organized territory of the U.S. with “commonwealth” standing, a status that brings with it a complicated set of rights and privileges.

The two-part nature of the referendum question means that the results may not be the ringing endorsement of statehood that backers of the proposal had hoped. Of the 54 percent favoring a change in status, many could have desired either independence or sovereign free association. Likewise, of the 61 percent of voters statehood as opposed to independence or sovereign free association, many might actually want to retain the status quo. . Overall, the results seem to be compatible with previous statehood referendums and likely do not reflect any profound change in public opinion.

The 2012 Puerto Rican status referendum’s wording has come under harsh criticism, even from supporters of statehood. Pedro Rosselló, the former Governor of Puerto Rico and a longtime backer of statehood, feels that the referendum’s wording will cause “an indefinition that, in the end, will bring more of the same: the continuous status quo.” Nevertheless, most pro-statehood politicians appear to accept the results.

The next move belongs to the U.S. government, though it remains unclear when that move will occur and what form it will take. If Tuesday’s referendum is taken as an endorsement of statehood, Congress will need to decide on whether to admit Puerto Rico as a state. President Barack Obama, as well as leaders of both political parties, have promised to support Puerto Rico’s self-determination, though with the results of the two-part referendum open to interpretation, it is not certain what either the President or Congress will do.

Puerto Rican Governor Luis Fortuna, a backer of statehood, supports both the referendum and the pro-statehood interpretation of its results. He has promised to hold a constitutional assembly in 2014 followed by plebiscite, the necessary next-steps for statehood. Unfortunately for statehood-proponents, Fortuna lost his bid for reelection to Alejandro Garcia Padilla, who favors the status quo.

Even if the current referendum goes nowhere, a firmer resolution to the question of Puerto Rico’s status appears likely within the few years. The United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization has asked several times since 2006 for the U.S. to “allow Puerto Ricans to fully exercise their inalienable right to self-determination and independence”. The U.S. government agrees, and has responded with a flurry of reports and investigations over the last few years. The report (pdf) published by the President’s 2011 Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status argued for a two-stage referendum by which voters would first decide whether to remain part of the U.S., either as a state or remaining as a dependency. Then, if the independence option is turned down, a second vote would have the electorate chose between statehood and the status quo. Most likely a clear referendum like this one will be necessary for the U.S. government to act.

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Separatism in French Polynesia

As previously noted on GeoCurrents, the political entities that comprise the French Republic exhibit a multitude of different administrative designations with varying legal responsibilities. One such possession is French Polynesia, which was officially designated an “overseas country” in 2004, though legally its status is indistinguishable from that of France’s other overseas collectivities (see map at left). Overseas collectivities yield control of foreign affairs, monetary policy, and security to Paris while otherwise exercising legal autonomy. In recent years, increasing chaos and animosity have come to define the political landscape of French Polynesia. Elected officials are split over the question of greater autonomy or independence, and legislative coalitions often prove ephemeral.

French Polynesian President Oscar Temaru is at the center of the controversy. Temaru and his pro-independence party, Tavini Huiraatira (People’s Servant), have recently stepped up their separatist rhetoric. On October 8, Temaru reportedly removed the French flag and a portrait of the French President from French Polynesia’s assembly chamber. Pro-independence members of the assembly have also begun using a Tahitian name for the territory, “Maohi Nui”, rather than “French Polynesia”. According to Temaru’s main political opponents, the anti-independence Tahoera’a Huiraatira (Popular Rally), Temaru’s actions are illegal. They further charge that he is becoming more of a dictator than a president.

Opposition to French rule is colored by a history of controversial nuclear testing. Between 1966 and 1996, 193 nuclear tests were conducted in French Polynesia. At first, such tests enjoyed a measure of support, but overtime they became an environmental scandal. France’s final series of tests, conducted in 1995 and 1996 on the French Polynesian atoll of Moruroa, provoked worldwide controversy and condemnation in the South Pacific Forum. After the last 1996 test, France signed and ratified both the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty and the Treaty of Rarotonga, which creates a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Pacific. In 2006, President Temaru renamed a prominent park in Papeete—the Place Chirac—the Place de 2 Juillet 1966. The new name references the date of the first nuclear test to take place in French Polynesia, and the park now hosts a memorial dedicated to all nuclear detonation sites around the Pacific.

French Polynesia’s independence movement faces several political and economic obstacles. Aside from tourism in Tahiti, French Polynesia’s economy has little to stand on, and depends on roughly a billion of dollars in annual subsidy from Metropolitan France to maintain its standard of living. Politically, conservative parties within French Polynesia that oppose independence consistently control about half of the government’s elected positions, including—at times—the presidency. Tahoera’a Huiraatira, founded by Gaston Flosse, is the largest such party and garners the support of most French settlers. The peculiar instability of French Polynesian politics further confounds the situation. The former Tahoera’a Huiraatira President, Gaston Tong Sang, fell to a contentious no-confidence vote in 2006, paving the way for President Temaru’s ascendancy and splitting the anti-independence Tahoera’a Huiraatira into two competing parties. Though independence is certainly one of the largest issues in French Polynesian politics, it would be a mistake to interpret each parliamentary election as something approaching a referendum on the subject.

Temaru and other independence-seekers within Tavini Huiraatira point with hope to recent comments made by French President Francois Hollande during a visit to Senegal. Hollande promised an end to “Françafrique”, a term used to refer to France’s special relationship with its former African colonies. Tavini Huiraatira’s hopes may be somewhat overstated, especially given that the demise of Francafrique is itself a nebulous notion. For the near future, French Polynesia will almost certainly continue on with the status quo, and there are currently no plans for a independence referendum, as is the case in New Caledonia. In the longer term, though, an independent French Polynesia appears to be quite possible, perhaps even likely.

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Local Elections Conclude in Bosnia and Herzegonvina

Preliminary results are in for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s October 7th local elections. The elections went smoothly and without irregularities, but many fear that the results may fan the flames of ethno-nationalism and separatism in the fragile country’s political discourse. The big winner appears to be the Serb Democratic Party (SDS), which won 27 mayoral seats for a gain of 13 from the last such elections in 2008. The SDS’s gains come within Republika Srpska, one of two mostly independent political entities that together comprise Bosnia and Herzegovina (see map at right). Ethnic Serbs dominate Republika Srpska, whereas about three quarters of the inhabitants of its confusingly named counterpart—the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina—are Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Bosnian Croats.

The success of the SDS has understandably raised eyebrows. SDS members played a leading role in the initiation of the 1992-1995 Bosnian War, and have since been found guilty of numerous crimes against humanity in international courts related the indiscriminate killing of Bosniaks during the war. The SDS does not currently espouse violence, but it has positioned itself to the right of the relatively moderate Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD)—the party of Republika Srpska’s president, Milorad Dodik. The SNSD was the main loser in October 7th’s elections, losing 26 mayoral positions.

Local elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina are more closely associated with national politics than in most other countries. According to Bosnian political analysts, local issues like roads and schools were mostly ignored, as candidates tended to emphasize questions of sovereignty, such as whether and how Bosnia should be divided. According to university lecturer Dražen Pehar, the local media share some of the blame, as they “simply followed the election agenda as imposed by the parties and the candidates, rather than trying to steer it towards a proper set of issues.”

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s sharp ethnic and political division means that the country essentially experienced two different elections, one in Republika Srpska and another in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the latter, the political landscape will remain relatively stable, with the dominant Bosniak party, the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), winning 34 mayoral seats. The Croat Democratic Union, which represents the Federation’s Croat minority, won 14 seats.

The final results of the elections remain unclear in some municipalities, most notably Srebrenica. The then-majority Bosniak Srebrenica was the scene of a notorious mass-killing in 1995, where over 8,000 Bosniaks died at the hands of Republika Srpska troops and paramilitary organizations. The killings, along with the expulsion of 25,000-30,000 other Bosniaks, were ruled a genocide by The Hague in 2004. Since the end of the war, about 10,000 Bosniaks have returned to Srebrenica, where they now constitute a one-third minority. In the past, former Bosniak residents of Srebrenica driven from the city in the 1990s have been allowed to vote in local elections, electing Bosniak mayors and councilors. Beginning with the October 7th elections, that privilege no longer applied, prompting fears that Serb politicians will take power.

Serbs see the expiration of special voting rights for Bosniak ex-Srebrenica residents as a natural step towards normalcy. Their reasoning is that local elections require local expertise among voters. According to Srebrenica’s Serb SNSD mayoral candidate, Vesna Kocevic, “the citizens who live here should decide about Srebrenica and about what happens in the community.” SNSD politicians also tend to minimize the hardships of Srebrenica’s Bosniaks; Republika Srpska’s president recently claimed at a Srebrenica campaign event that “there was no genocide.”

Srebrenica’s Bosniak mayoral candidate, Camil Durakovic, sees the new political situation as a fulfillment of exactly what the perpetrators of the 1995 killings wanted. Srebrenica’s Bosniaks have responded by encouraging Bosniaks from around the country to register and vote in Srebrenica. The outcome of their efforts is not yet clear, but it appears that the election will be close. Republika Srpska may challenge the results.

In a more humorous yet perhaps ominous turn, a mayoral candidate in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s fourth-largest city—the majority Bosniak Zenica—was banned from the election in September for uploading pornographic videos to his official campaign website. According to the Boston Globe, mayoral candidate Mirad Hadziahmetovic  “said he uploaded porn clips after realizing that large numbers of people use the Web to peruse sexual content.”

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Hyperinflation Strikes Iran

The world’s next hyperinflation episode appears to be underway in Iran, with potentially far-reaching political consequences. Officially, Iran pegs its currency—the rial—at 12,260 to the dollar. In early 2012, black market exchange rates began to diverge sharply from the 12,260 peg, eventually hovering at nearly double the official rate. Over the last month, the value of the rial has plunged further to about 35,500 rials to the dollar. With a monthly inflation rate now estimated at over sixty-nine percent, Iran has crossed into hyperinflation territory, defined as any monthly inflation rate in excess of fifty percent.

The declining value of the rial makes imported goods of all kinds more expensive, since they must be paid for in foreign currency. As international sanctions severely limit the availability of foreign currency, Iranians face skyrocketing prices. The situation is particularly troublesome since Iran needs to import much of the food and many of the manufactured goods consumed by its populace.

Matters came to a head on Wednesday, when Iranian protesters concerned about the currency collapse clashed with police in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar. Police also took time to shut down several merchants engaging in currency exchange. The protests were notable given that the Grand Bazaar has traditionally been a focus of support for the current regime. On Thursday, the Bazaar remained closed, though it seems a few currency exchanges are once more in operation.

Though the crisis only took off in the last several days, it has been in the making for years. Whereas countries like Saudi Arabia have used oil revenues to amass huge reserves of foreign currency, Iran has spent most of its money on subsidies for individual consumption. Much of the currency it has managed to accumulate is now inaccessible due to sanctions relating to its nuclear program. Maintaining a low exchange rate for years has been possible due to high oil revenues, but falling oil exports have made Iran’s fiscal situation increasingly untenable. Oil exports are down fifty-five percent from last year.

So far the government’s response to the escalating crisis has not inspired hope. Some even blame the regime for allowing hyperinflation, as it reduces the budget deficit. Actions intended to forestall the situation, such as the closing of currency exchanges and capping interest rates, appear to have just led to more panic. Two weeks ago, the government attempted to calm currency traders by opening a “foreign exchange center” that would undercut black market rates. The failure of the exchange convinced many that Iran’s central bank is basically out of options.

In a meeting on Wednesday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and members of the Iranian Parliament all seemed rather confused, and wasted no time in pointing fingers at each other. The speaker of the Iranian Parliament, Ali Larijani, blamed Ahmadinejad’s redistribution policies for “eighty percent” of the problem, while acknowledging a role for the sanctions. Ahmadinejad hinted that Parliament should share in the blame, and later ordered the Intelligence Ministry to investigate twenty-two individuals for causing “overwhelming turbulence” in Iran’s foreign currency market.

Outside Iran, and perhaps within, many hope that the current crisis will lead the country to reconsider its nuclear program. The final magnitude and consequences of the crisis have yet to be determined, but it will likely prove the largest challenge the government has faced in years, if not decades. On Wednesday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed, in a somewhat ambiguous context, that Iran “will never surrender to pressure.” At the very least, the crisis promises to be a potentially crippling problem for President Ahmadinejad, who implied in his conversation with Larijani that he might resign sooner rather than later, or in his words, “say goodbye.”

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Indo-Australian Plate Rent Asunder Beneath the Ocean

In April 2012, two massive earthquakes hit northern Sumatra. The earthquakes—one of magnitude 8.2 and the other 8.6—were far in excess of what one would expect to encounter many miles from a tectonic plate boundary. Indeed, “strike-slip earthquakes”, where pieces of crust rub against each other laterally, had been completely unknown in the area before the two quakes. Now, researchers from the École Normale Supérieure in Paris argue that the quakes are a manifestation of a new fault line dividing the erstwhile Indo-Australian Plate (see U.S.G.S. map at left). According to the researchers, the infamous earthquakes that hit nearby Aceh in 2004 and Nias in 2005 played an important role in this development. Although the 2004-2005 events were typical earthquakes near a known subduction zone, they may have aided the “intraplate deformation” process sustained by April’s earthquakes. If born out, the research means that the number of major tectonic plates on the Earth’s surface has risen from twelve to thirteen.

The Indo-Australian Plate separation, even if it is still incomplete in some areas, is usually recognized as a forgone conclusion among geologists. During the 1970s, scientists discovered a six hundred mile zone of broken and disfigured crust along the floor of the Indian Ocean. This breakup zone has been in the making for between eight and ten million years. The “Indian Plate” has continued to move north, colliding with Eurasia as it has done for about 50 million years. The “Australian Plate”, meanwhile, has been moving away from the Indian Plate in the west, while crashing into it in the east and causing the pressure that has yielded the new Sumatran earthquakes. The basic dynamics of the situation have been recognized since a 1995 report by researchers from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University.

The Indo-Australian Plate separation may seem like a mostly academic issue, but it promises to have major consequences for the new fault region, and perhaps the rest of the world as well. Parts of Sumatra and environs once thought to be relatively safe can expect more mega-quakes and tsunamis in the future. As New Scientist ominously puts it, “Things should become clearer as more earthquakes shake the region.” Moreover, according to researchers from the U.S.G.S., April’s earthquakes set off uncommonly large aftershocks all over the world. Before April, only one earthquake greater than magnitude 5.5 had been recorded as an aftershock more than 1,500 kilometers from the epicenter of the “mainshock” that caused it. During the six-day span after April’s magnitude 8.6 earthquake, the world experienced five times as many remote earthquakes greater than magnitude 5.5 as it normally does. In short, the new strike-slip fault dividing the Indian and Australian plates means business.

The breaking of a tectonic plate is a difficult process to fully comprehend. The Indian Plate is one of the thinnest plates on Earth, but still represents roughly 100 vertical kilometers of rock. The plate’s relatively slender profile is likely the result of melting due to the same massive lava plume that broke up Gondwanaland 90 million years ago and more recently created the Kerguelen microcontinent.

The Indian and Australian Plates were not always joined at the hip; researchers think they only fused about 43 million years ago with the cooling and solidification of former spread regions. In light of their independent histories and the rather awkward-looking shape of the Indo-Australian plate, perhaps the longtime union of the Indian and Australian plates—rather than their separation—is what requires more explanation. It is quite rare for changes taking place on a geologic timescale to manifest themselves clearly during a matter of days and months, but it appears that the present is indeed such a time.

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Honduras Moving Ahead with Private Cities

To most development economists, the key to economic success lies in the creation of good institutions, be they schools, corruption-free agencies, or the like. In 2010, the New York University Business School economist Paul Romer made quite a splash in the field by arguing that in countries where good institutions are lacking, new “charter cities” should be built and run by outside entities under their own laws as semi-sovereign entities. Institutions in the charter cities would be designed for success from day one. Romer could point to the historical success stories of Hong Kong, Macao, and Singapore, but most of his peers regarded the idea as, if not horrible in principle, as a curiosity that would never actually see the light of day.

On September 4, Romer’s theory gained a huge vote of confidence by the government of Honduras, which signed a memorandum of understanding with a group of investors led by Michael Strong, a U.S. libertarian educator. Strong and his associates will be allowed to develop one of Honduras’s new “Regiones Especiales de Desarrollo” (REDs), or “special development regions.” REDs will have their own judicial systems, their own police, their own tax structure, and even the ability to negotiate trade internationally.

Romer himself has been heavily involved in the effort to make REDs a reality in Honduras. President Porfirio Lobo’s economic advisers quickly took note of Romer’s charter cities idea, and in 2011 they invited Romer to Honduras to make his case. Romer spoke with Lobo, who was already sold on the idea, and addressed the Honduran Congress on behalf of a constitutional amendment allowing the creation of REDs. The amendment passed soon after, granting President Lobo the power to negotiate the development of three such regions. A specific site for the first RED has not yet been chosen, though the Caribbean coastal area near Puerto Castilla (pictured above) appears to be the front-runner. Romer, along with several others, has also been appointed to a “Transparency Commission” charged with “oversee[ing] the integrity of governance in the REDs.” The commission, however, remains unofficial pending a Supreme Court decision. In an open letter to President Lobo explaining the group’s legal limbo, Romer and his colleagues state that “we, as individuals, continue to believe strongly in the vision behind the Honduran RED initiative, and we stand ready to be of service when the impediments to the full establishment of the institutional framework of the REDs have been resolved.”

The one legal hurdle remaining to the RED system is the Honduran Supreme Court, which may yet rule the entire enterprise unconstitutional. What the Supreme Court will rule—and when that ruling will come—remain anyone’s guess. In the mean time, many Hondurans have reacted to the RED concept with skepticism and anger. Critics worry that REDs will use their legal status to implement lax environmental and labor regulations, becoming in effect 21st Century banana republics. Concern also arises over the possible loss of Honduran sovereignty. Even indigenous rights’ groups have entered the debate. According to The Guardian, the president of the Fraternal Black Organization of Honduras claims that the Puerto Castilla site proposed for Michael Strong’s RED “would threaten the continuity of the Garifuna people and culture.”

Project backers, government officials, and proponents tend to dismiss “banana republic” concerns, promising higher wages and affordable housing. Even without Supreme Court approval, Strong’s group plans to begin $15 million worth of construction work shortly. According to the government, construction will create 5,000 jobs in the next six months and 200,000 before work is finished. Eventually, Strong imagines the new city as a thriving free trade zone along the lines of Dubai, and believes that it will rank among “the most important transformations in the world.” Regardless of what one thinks of the idea’s merits, the prospect of a new development  theory, a somewhat corrupt central government, libertarian investors from the United States, and thousands of Hondurans people from diverse backgrounds setting out to create a new kind of semi-sovereign entity promises to be a fascinating process to observe.

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Self-Rule and Environmental Crisis in Ogoniland

In recent months, relations between the Ogoni people of Rivers State in southeastern Nigeria and the government have come under intense pressure (map at left from the UN). On August 2nd, a group of Ogoni led by Goodluck Diigbo of the pro-autonomy Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) declared their sovereignty in internal affairs while stopping short of secession. According to, the declaration asserted “political control of Ogoni affairs by Ogoni people, control and use of Ogoni economic resources for Ogoni development, adequate and direct representation as of right for Ogoni people in all Nigerian national institutions, and the right to protect the Ogoni environment and ecology from further degradation.” The governor of Rivers State attacked the declaration as “treasonous”, maintaining that Diigbo and his followers do not represent the wishes of most Ogonis. In the intervening months, confusion has reigned, with the government trying to ignore the issue and keep it from escalating, while different groups of Ogonis make different demands.

Suspicion has plagued the relationship between Nigeria and the Ogoni since the early 1990s, when the MOSOP’s creation of an “Ogoni Bill of Rights”, the outbreak of a protest movement, and several assassination attempts targeting Diigbo helped create a crisis situation. In 1993, MOSOP and the Ogoni took on Shell Oil, demanding billions of dollars and a stop to pollution in the area. After a Shell employee was beaten, the company withdrew from the region, prompting Nigeria to take heavy-handed measures to quell the resistance, resulting in around forty deaths. Ogoni antipathy to the national government intensified in 1995, when the military government of Sani Abacha hanged the noted Ogoni activist, novelist, and television producer Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Environmental damage due to petroleum exploitation has remained a huge stumbling block in negotiationsbetween Ogoni activists and the government. According to a UN report, roughly 1,000 square kilometers of Ogoniland are contaminated by oil, and clean drinking water is nearly impossible to find.  Ogonis can’t help but be exposed to petroleum toxins through a number of channels. The same report outlines cleanup strategies, but emphasizes that any such efforts would take decades and cost billions. The Ogoni obviously bear the brunt of local environmental damage, but they see few of the benefits, most of which accrue to Nigeria’s central government and Shell Oil. As seen in the August declaration of autonomy, the Ogoni want to keep oil royalties for themselves and to force Shell to either extract oil in a more responsible way or leave.  The Nigerian government, however, has a clear economic incentive to maintain the status quo.

The Ogoni do not necessarily agree about what kind of future they want for their region. Some favor complete independence, though most see that as unrealistic and undesirable. Others, such as senator Magnus Abe, would like to see the creation of a new “Bori State”, ahomeland for the Ogoni and several other ethnic groups. According to Abe, “State creation has been a major tool for enhancing a sense of belonging and promoting development by groups that feel marginalized. It is an important means of strengthening federalism, though; economic viability should also be an important criterion.” A pro-unity faction led by an ad-hoc group of politicians, community leaders, and scholars has also emerged, claiming that the “Ogoni remains committed to the unity of the Nigerian state and that we are with Nigeria, which is contrary to recent media report on Ogoni.” The group’s conciliatory stance is aimed at creating a stable situation that would allow environmental cleanup to proceed. Meanwhile, MOSOP seems to be following up on its claims to Ogoni autonomy, ordering a Mexican firm recruited by the River State government to aid banana producers to stay out of Ogoniland. Which of these groups, if any, will emerge as the dominant voice of Ogoniland, and what the government will do about it, remain open questions.

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Exploring Mesoamerican Ruins with Google Street View

Google Maps’ Street View has long been a wonderful tool for exploring urban environments from afar. Now Google, in a partnership with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, has taken Street View to the ruins of thirty ancient Mesoamerican cities, and hopefully up to sixty more within the next year. Viewers can explore a number of Classical Mayan sites, from the massive Temple of Kukulkan in Chichen Itza, to the stunning seaside ruins of Tulum. The project also features sites further north in the Valley of Mexico, including the city of Teotihuacan. Google gathered the footage using a 360-degree camera mounted on a specialized tricycle.

Chichen Itza. (all photos are screenshots of Google Street View)

This is not the first time Google has taken Street View beyond the confines of public road networks. Street View cameras have gone over mountain passes, floated down the Amazon River, explored the inner reaches of art museums, toured the narrow streets of medieval European cities, and much more. Clearly Street View is no substitute for actually visiting ruins, but it can still give users an interesting introduction to ancient Mesoamerican cities and the many differences between them.

For example, viewers can easily see that Teotihuacan (top picture) was built with a specific urban form in mind. The city is arranged orthogonally around a great central street known as the Calzada de los Muertos, with two major pyramids as well as many smaller buildings fitting into the pattern. Mayan cities, by contrast, clearly lack this kind of spatial orientation. Rather than streets, Mayan cities like Palenque tend to focus in on a central open space surrounded somewhat haphazardly by impressive temples. Unlike Teotihuacan, there is little evidence of stone buildings used for non-ceremonial purposes.


No doubt this new tool should please Michael E. Smith, an Arizona State Archaeologist and expert on Mesoamerican cities. Smith analyzes the evolution of Mesoamerican city planning on his blog, Wide Urban World, and draws a clear distinction between the layout of Teotihuacan and what he calls the “basic Mesoamerican urban plan.” The basic plan focuses on central plazas with a dense concentration of tall ceremonial structures and unplanned satellite residential areas. Teotihuacan “made several major innovations in urban layout”, including not only the grand central avenue but also the planned residential areas that are not readily visible in Street View.

Not all the Latin American cities making recent debuts on Google Street View are ancient. Several Brazilian cities including Fortaleza, Brasilia, Natal, Recife, and Salvador, headline the other additions. As the city that helped to define a generation of planned capitals, Brasilia almost cries out for a comparison to its Mesoamerican counterparts. Plazas and wide roads feature prominently in Brasilia, though instead of being a central focus, they actually seem to constitute most of the city. A viewer clicking through Brasilia could be forgiven for feeling that despite suffering between one and two millennia less decay than its Mesoamerican counterparts and being far larger, the city lacks the kind of immersive views that make the ancient cities so enchanting. In short, though Google Street View is a 21st Century technology, it sometimes works best when operating in decidedly less modern environments.

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Khareef Season Draws Thousands to Southern Oman

Lush, verdant hillsides are not the type of landscape one would expect to find on the Arabian Peninsula. Indeed, most of the region is parched desert where plant life is extremely sparse without human intervention. As explored previously on GeoCurrents, Oman is one of the most culturally exceptional countries in the Middle East, and its physical environment surely fits that description as well. During the summer monsoon season, parts of Oman and Yemen find themselves soaked in rain and wreathed by fog. Known as the khareef in Southern Oman, the annual rainy season creates an occasion for local celebration, draws large numbers of tourists from across the Arab world, and allows for a temporary flowering of greenery. The city of Salalah—Oman’s second largest city and the capital of the Dhofar Governate—sits at the center of the excitement.

Khareef season officially lasts from June 21 through September 21, with the most pleasant weather and largest tourist throngs usually coming in August. Most years see around 300,000 people visit Salalah and its environs during the khareef. A large majority of visitors come from other parts of Oman, yet tens of thousands also make their way from other parts of the Middle East elsewhere in Asia. Europe, the Americas, Africa, and Oceania typically send a few thousand visitors in total. This year, the timing of Ramadan delayed the tourist season, causing especially large numbers to descend on Salalah during late August. Statistics are not available, but all residential accommodations for tourists appear to be booked solid for weeks. Attractions are reportedly overcrowded, with some tourists picnicking on roadsides.

The Arabian Leopard. (Both photos from the Oman Bureau of Tourism)

Such enthusiasm for Salalah might seem baffling at first, but the area is home to a fascinating array of flora and fauna. Arguably the most impressive is the critically endangered Arabian Leopard, which struggles to compete with pastoralists and frankincense gatherers for habitat. The region also hosts a population of Striped Hyenas, which have a much larger range outside of Oman. Bedouin tribesmen of the Arabian interior traditionally use hyena meat as ritual medicine, though it is also occasionally eaten as food. Southern Oman’s African flavor is not limited to mammals; at high elevations in the Dhofar Mountains one can find clusters of Baobab trees. The trees, with their definitive fat trunks, large size, and longevity, appear most closely related to similar trees in East Africa. It is unclear whether the groves of Dhofar represent the remnants of a formerly much larger Baobab range, or if seeds were brought to the region from Africa through trade at some point during antiquity. Either way, when the trees are paired with the lush hills of the khareef season, the uplands around Salalah look more like some strange mix of Africa and the British Isles than the Middle East.

Outside of khareef season, the coastal parts of Dhofar are relatively dry, but they still receive some moisture through the condensation of mists wafting in from the ocean. Known officially as the Arabian Peninsula coastal fog desert ecoregion, this narrow band of watered land along the coast of Saudi Arabia and Oman allows trees to flourish even where monsoon rains do not play a major role.

As alluded to above, the Salalah area provides ideal conditions for Frankincense-yielding trees, the resin of which has been an important export item since ancient times. Even in China, chroniclers knew that the inhabitants Southern Arabia’s rich mountains were the main suppliers of the pleasant-smelling resin, and trade within and between Arabia and East Africa dates back at least 5,000 years. Observers today question the future of the Frankincense trade, warning that stresses due to overharvesting could cause the number of trees to fall up to fifty percent by 2026.

As long as the monsoon rains continue to fall in the mountains of Oman, the summer will remain an exciting time for residents and visitors alike. As the Middle East continues to grow both in population and economic sophistication, tourist season in Salalah promises to get even more hectic. For those who will only know the region through their computers, Khareef season can still provide a vivid illustration of the diversity and beauty of Middle Eastern physical geography.

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A New Capital City for South Sudan

Though South Sudan remains a predominantly rural country, its urban areas—particularly Juba—are growing rapidly. Juba, the country’s largest city and its current capital, is estimated to house nearly 400,000 people, twice as many as in 2005. Years of civil war devastated the city’s infrastructure and drove many of its residents to seek safety in neighboring Uganda, but with the return of stability people are returning in droves. As the southern terminus of Nile River water traffic and home to South Sudan’s best international airport, Juba appears ready to serve as the focal point for future economic growth in the region. Nevertheless, South Sudan’s government plans to go through with a proposal put forward last year to move the country’s capital 125 miles north to what is now the rural location of Ramciel.

The move is projected to cost $10 billion and take twenty years. Water, sewage, and electrical systems will all need to be built from scratch, transportation connections to the region are severely limited, and the construction of governmental buildings has yet to begin. Critics both within South Sudan and in foreign governments have blasted the relocation plan for its costs, which they see as overly extravagant given the country’s current state of poverty. Government officials defend the plan on the grounds that jurisdictional disputes with Juba’s state government, the general chaos of the city, and limited availability of space for expansion all make eventual relocation a necessity.

Should the plan be brought to fruition, South Sudan will become the latest addition to the ranks of countries with purpose-built capital cities. Most such cities are based on sterile designs full of wide-open spaces and monumental architecture that might look good from a bird’s eye view, but which tend to be forbidding on the ground, as is the case with Myanmar’s Naypyidaw and Brazil’s Brasilia. Detailed plans for the new city are difficult to find, but if photos taken of model versions of the city are any indication, Ramciel promises to be another aspirational addition to this genre of architecture and city planning. Pictures tend to emphasize wide streets, grassy fields, geometric patterns, and modernist buildings. Such a city would be the antithesis of Juba, whose years of weak governance have resulted in a very spontaneous kind of urban form. Though such spontaneity can be beneficial in measured doses, the scale of Juba’s growth has fueled dangerous chaos in the past. Last March, several people died in a land dispute between tribal groups in the city during violence that forced President Salva Kiir to call up security forces to deal with the fighting.

Though most of South Sudan’s people are small-scale farmers, government revenue—and by extension the country’s ability to provide education and infrastructure—is almost entirely dependent on oil revenues. Since South Sudan needs to export most of its oil through its longtime enemy (North) Sudan, oil income is highly unreliable. Oil production in South Sudan has been almost entirely shut down since January due to political disagreements with the North over how to divide revenue, and as a consequence the country is almost bankrupt.

Despite South Sudan’s dire fiscal situation, proponents of the move to Ramciel in the government remain undaunted. In an interview with Reuters, Minister for Housing and Physical Infrastructure Jema Nunu Kumba said that “the only option was to go to a complete new place where the government can be able to design the city as it wants, and also to avoid confrontation with local people and the stakeholders.” Avoiding confrontation with local stakeholders is always a tempting prospect for bureaucrats, especially those attempting to build an iconic new city for a new country. But whether $10 billion—almost a year of South Sudan’s GDP and about $1,250 per South Sudanese citizen—is a fair price for avoiding such confrontation remains to be seen.

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Geographical Illiteracy in Civilization V

Since 1991, the Civilization series of computer games has been the best product on offer for the historically or geographically inclined gamer. The latest incarnation of the game, Civilization V, features dozens of unique playable “civilizations” that include broad linguistic or ethnic groups like the Celts and Polynesians, long-gone empires like Babylonia and Carthage, and modern states like the Netherlands. Each civilization has unique elements such as a leader (e.g., Boudicca or Nebuchadnezzar II) and a distinct play style that help it to achieve one of several victory conditions. The game also features innumerable scenarios, both official and fan-made, that allow players to immerse themselves in—and attempt to alter—historical events like the fall of the Western Roman Empire or the Japanese invasion of Korea. While the game is generally excellent, there are a number of historical and geographic mistakes in its ubiquitous loading-screen maps that are shown to well over one million unwitting pairs of eyes, and are thus worthy of correction.

When loading a game, players are presented with a map of their chosen civilization’s territory at the time the leader chosen for the game held power. Sometimes the game’s artists simply get carried away, showing Attila’s Hunnic Empire (if one can call it that) controlling all of Denmark. Most likely Attila—a horse-riding nomad who never even went further north than modern Cologne—didn’t even know such a place existed. A similar problem concerns the map of the Maya, which implies that Pacal the Great ruled all of the Mayan city-states in the 7th Century C.E. rather than just Palenque and its immediate hinterland. In contrast, the realm of Harold Bluetooth, a 10th Century Danish King and the namesake of the eponymous wireless technology, actually appears to be understated. Denmark at the time controlled much of Scandinavia, a fact not represented by the map.

A rather humorous error concerns the distinction between the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes and the ancient Greek city of Thebes. In the map of Ramses II’s Egypt in the 13th Century B.C.E, Thebes, Egypt is not included. Rather, Thebes appears in Greece, a place that would not see an actual city named Thebes for several hundred years. On the map of Greece during the time of Alexander the Great, the artists have another chance to get the Thebes question right, but alas they fail once again. This time, Thebes, Egypt is shown while Thebes, Greece—arguably the most important Greek city at that time—disappears.

One of the most elegant features of Civilization V is the experience of negotiating with other leaders who speak in their native languages. For example, the game’s Hiawatha simulation speaks to the player in Mowhak, and the Theodora simulation speaks to the player in Medieval Greek. Designers even gave long-dead languages a shot, having Nebuchadnezzar II speak Akkadian. Nevertheless, it is somewhat disappointing to see Ramses II speaking modern Arabic when Middle and Late Egyptian are relatively well known. Languages also help highlight the incongruous nature of some “civilizations,” such as that of the Celts. The game’s Celtic leader, Boudicca, ruled an ancient tribe known as the Iceni in what is now Norfolk in Eastern England. The game’s Boudicca speaks modern Welsh, and then goes ahead and builds a capital city named Edinburgh.

Despite its many small mistakes and a one-size-fits-all definition of “civilization” that forces pretty much every kind of human grouping into the nation-state framework, Civilization remains a fantastic diversion with this author’s highest recommendation. Here’s hoping that the artists for Civilization VI spend a few more minutes on Google before drawing their maps.




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Mongolia’s Three Manly Skills, the Olympics, and Genghis Khan

In anticipation of future posts exploring the geography of Olympic medals, this post will focus on the sporting fortunes of one country in particular—Mongolia. Mongolia tends to perform very well in on the basis of medals won weighed by population or GDP. In 2012, Mongolia earned two silver and two bronze medals, placing it third in total medals per dollar of GDP and tenth in total medals per capita. Since Mongolia’s first summer Olympics in 1964, all of the country’s medals have come from just four sports: wrestling, boxing, judo, and shooting.

The sporting scene in Mongolia has remained remarkably stable for hundreds of years. The traditional Three Manly Skills of Mongolia—horseback riding, archery, and wrestling—remain the country’s most popular sports to this day. The cultural niche filled in the U.S. by the Super Bowl in in Europe by the UEFA Champions League is in Mongolia filled by the three-day Naadam festival (picture at left from Wikipedia). Most Mongolian communities have their own Naadam festival, but the national festival in Ulaanbaatar always takes center stage. At the festival, contestants gather to showcase their horsemanship, test their skill with a bow, and grapple in the traditional Mongolian wrestling style known as Bökh. The aim of Bökh is quite simple: to knock one’s opponent to the ground (picture at left from). Though wrestling is always the most anticipated event, the trick horsemanship on offer at the festival is extremely popular and immensely impressive.

Champions, or “Titans”, as Bökh winners are known in Mongolia, tend to transition fairly easily to foreign wrestling venues. Many have gone on to have successful careers in Japanese Sumo-Wrestling while others become the Olympic medalists that catapult Mongolia to its lofty position in the per capita medal rankings. Mongolia’s high position thus isn’t much of a mystery when one considers that a country’s per capita success in a sport will depend heavily on the share of its youth who are exposed to that sport. What is rather strange, then, is Mongolia’s inability to compete internationally in horse-based events.

The warriors of Genghis Khan practically lived on their horses. They could ride for days, gaining sustenance by cutting the veins of their cold-numbed horses and drinking as much blood as they could without physically compromising their mounts. In battle, they shot arrows with deadly accuracy no matter which way their horses happened to be running. The Mongols of today may not drink much horse blood, but many are still excellent riders, and riding maintains its place as a central experience in Mongolian life, especially outside of Ulaanbaatar. Horses in Mongolia outnumber people, and the winners of wrestling competitions often receive horses as a prize. According to Wikipedia, a well-known Mongolian military figure picked up coins from the ground while riding a horse at full speed. It seems that Mongolia’s relative failure in equestrian Olympic sports as well as non-Olympic thoroughbred racing is not due to a lack of horsemanship, but rather to huge differences between its style of horse competitions and those of the rest of the world.

Unlike skill in Bökh, which carries over well to more international forms of wrestling, Mongolian horsemanship spurns the kind of courses that define dressage and similar Olympic events. Mongolians have little use for horses that excel at jumping or sprinting, though those events are practiced to some degree. Instead, Mongolians today seek the same quality in horses as their ancestors did: endurance. To Genghis Khan’s rivals in China and Europe, Mongolian horses looked weak, slow and haggard compared to their well-fed counterparts. Mongolian horses usually triumphed in the end, however, as their supreme endurance allowed armies to move quickly and fight in the most favorable locations. During battle, Mongolian horses could run back and forth constantly without tiring, allowing fresh troops to fire wave after wave of arrows at confused enemies who usually mistook this maneuvering for a full retreat.

Mongolia’s most popular distances for horse racing are 25 kilometers or more, distances that utterly dwarf those of the rest of the world. Mongolians also do not coddle their horses, which live outside in temperatures as cold as -40°C. Though often mistaken for ponies due to their diminutive size, Mongolian horses are arguably the toughest in the world. Currently, Olympic equestrian sports are set up to represent a Western, upper-class conception of horsemanship that features fancy costumes and multi-million-dollar animals jumping over short fences. Perhaps a more balanced formulation of equestrian sports that included endurance events would allow Mongolia supplement its medal haul from wrestling and judo.


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Extreme Salt Lakes Around the World

The world has many famous salt lakes. Central Asia’s Caspian and Aral Seas, alongside the Dead Sea between Jordan and Israel, are perhaps the best known. Utah’s Great Salt Lake and California’s Mono Lake and Salton Sea are also by no means obscure. These bodies of water are all fascinating in their own right, but by the standards of the world’s “hypersaline lakes”, they are amateurs. In fact, the world’s most extreme salt lakes are to be found not in a hot Afro-Eurasian desert, but in some of the coldest places of the Earth.

With about 98 percent of its surface buried by around a mile of ice and almost no precipitation of any kind away from its coast, Antarctica is just about the last place one would expect to find bodies of liquid water. Nevertheless, tiny Don Juan Pond (see image at left from Ross Sea Info) in the Antarctic region of Victoria Land manages to remain free of ice year-round through by means of its staggering salinity. Widely considered the saltiest lake in the world, Don Juan Pond boasts salinity twelve times that of ocean water, allowing it to stay liquid at temperatures well below -50°C. Don Juan Pond may be the most extreme Antarctic salt lake, but it is not alone. Much larger Lake Vanda maintains roughly ten times the salinity of seawater. Lake Vanda is the final destination of Antarctica’s largest river, the Onyx, which flows only for brief periods during the summer, and looks more like a small creek than a continent’s mightiest river. Unlike Don Juan Pond, Lake Vanda’s surface remains covered in ice year-round, though during the summer liquid water tends to collect around the edges of the lake.

Compared to the miles of ice that define most Antarctic terrain, Antarctica’s salt-lakes support a veritable cornucopia of life. The algal blooms that occasionally grow in Lake Vanda may not seem like much, but by the standards of inland Antarctica they are quite significant. Salt lakes outside of Antarctica are much more hospitable to life, but their high salinity tends to result in a lack of biological activity relative to freshwater counterparts.

Djibouti’s Lake Assal (source)

The saltiest lake outside of Antarctica is Djibouti’s Lake Assal. Lake Assal is about as salty as Lake Vanda, and its relatively large size makes it the world’s largest reserve of commercially exploitable sea salt. Positioned at the bottom of a volcanic crater, Lake Assal finds itself in an awkward position as both a key pillar of Djibouti’s economy and one of the country’s most prized environmental assets. Only bacteria can survive inside the lake, but there are a few shrubs that manage to grow nearby. Most of the lake’s inflow comes from the Red Sea through subterranean waterways, which makes sense given that the shores of Lake Assal are the lowest land in Africa at 155 meters below sea level.

Though Turkmenistan’s Garabogazköl Aylagy is not technically a lake—it is a lagoon connected to the Caspain Sea by a narrow inlet—it maintains a salt concentration even higher than that of Lake Assal. The hypersalinity of the lagoon is quite remarkable considering that the Caspian Sea itself is only about half as salty as ocean water. Virtually no water enters the lagoon from other sources, which, when combined high rates of evaporation, results in a staggering fast inflow of water from the Caspian (see this picture from Wikipedia). The lagoon was cut off from the Caspian and completely dried out in the 1980s in an effort to maintain the volume of the then-shrinking lake, but the effort backfired when salts from the dried seabed wafted over the surrounding landscape causing health and environmental damage similar to what was experienced around the Aral Sea. The lagoon was restored to its former extent in 1992, when concerns about the Caspian Sea began to fade.

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In Unrecognized Somaliland, Berbera Comes to Life

Today Berbera is a city of about 100,000 located on the coast of Somaliland, an unrecognized state occupying the northern portion of Somalia. As the only sheltered seaport on the South shore of the Gulf of Aden, Berbera’s economic fate is thoroughly entwined with that of Somaliland. Currently, Berbera’s main export is livestock, earning it the name “Aden’s butcher shop”. The port exported 2.5 million cattle in 2010, most of which found their way to Saudi Arabian, Yemeni, or Egyptian dinner tables. The export of livestock provides over half of Somaliland’s GDP and almost all of the currency that allows its internal economy to function. Recently, the money-transfer firm Dahabshiil Group, Somalia and Somaliland’s largest company— and its closest thing to a bank—donated hundreds of livestock to hospitals around the region to encourage philanthropy during the Muslim holy moth of Ramadan.

Berbera has been an important port since at least the first century CE, when a Greek merchant described its wares: “There are imported into this place … drinking-cups, sheets of soft copper in small quantity, iron, and gold and silver coin… There are exported from these places myrrh, a little frankincense, … the harder cinnamon, duaca, Indian copal and macir, which are imported into Arabia; and slaves.” The city’s history is rather hazy, but it eventually succumbed to the Ottoman Empire and later to the British, who described it as “the true key of the Red Sea”. During the Cold War, Berbera’s perceived strategic value led the Soviet Union to build the city’s current port as well as a runway for limited air traffic.

They city’s current port infrastructure is sufficient to ship goats and cattle across the Gulf of Aden, but upgrades will be needed if the port—and the country—is to encourage the development of higher value-added industries. No private investors have stepped up yet, but Somaliland remains optimistic. Coca-Cola recently opened a $17 million bottling plant 54 miles from Berbera, where an underground river affords easy access to freshwater. The Coca-Cola plant is Somaliland’s largest private investment ever, and according to the Guardian relied on half-century old Chinese surveys and the advice of local elders in order to locate the underground water supply.

Pirates remain a problem for Berbera, which has lost two fully laden ships during the last year. The risk of losing everything to a pirate attack constitutes an intolerable amount of uncertainty for many merchants, though there has been a marked decrease in pirate activity since the mid 2000’s. Somaliland takes the problem very seriously, and the Somaliland Counter-Piracy Co-ordination Office is currently working with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to educate citizens about the evils of piracy. The full brunt of its campaign is expected to begin in September. Berbera’s efforts to make its port safer and more attractive to shippers put it in direct competition with nearby Djibouti, which has traditionally hosted a significant share of Somaliland-bound shipping.

The outcome of Somaliland’s quest for diplomatic recognition will likely hinge on the extent to which it can show it has developed the institutions necessary to support a peaceful and prosperous society. Though the political action will be taking place in the capital of Hargeisa, Berbera promises to be vital part of the country’s future.

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New Government in East Timor Sparks Gender Debate

Over the last half-century, peace and stability have remained elusive goals in East Timor, officially known the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste. Invaded by Indonesia shortly after it achieved independence from Portugal in 1975, East Timor has only been a formal country with de facto control of its borders only since 2002. On July 7, the country held its third parliamentary election that was won handily by the ruling party, the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction. Outside observers have praised the election as relatively uncorrupt, with people walking hours in order to cast their votes. Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao announced the formation of a new cabinet on August 7th, completing the new government.

The choice of Maria Domingas Alves, previously the Minister of Social Security, for the more prestigious position as Minister of Defense and Security (the military’s top civilian overseer) proved to be the most controversial cabinet pick. President Taur Matan Ruak, who was elected as an independent candidate in April, seems to have balked at the selection of a woman, and forced the nomination of Cirilo Jose Christopher instead. Christopher’s nomination is now secure, but women’s rights groups in East Timor are furious. The Rado Feto womens’ network claims that the snubbing of Alves is a decision to “reduce the dignity of East Timorese women, and ignore women’s capacity that was well demonstrated [by Mikato] in her over five years contributing strong successes in the administration of the first coalition government.” The women of East Timor’s parliament have also expressed their anger, claiming that the President’s decision “kills the spirit of participation among women.”

President Ruak’s real name is José Maria Vasconcelos. Taur Matan Ruak is rather a nom de guerre meaning “two sharp eyes” in Tetum, an Austronesian language straddling the Indonesia/East Timor border. Having fought the Indonesian occupation of East Timor for its entire 29-year duration, Ruak remains a very popular political figure. He played a controversial role in the 2006 East Timor Crisis, a period of infighting among the military, where he distributed weapons to civilians to help back his faction, but this seems not to have damaged his political career. After a generation at the helm of East Timor’s armed forces, Ruak sees Alves as an outsider who lacks the necessary experience and pedigree, a charge deemed ridiculous by Alves’s supporters.

Adding to these tensions is East Timor’s persistent (and historically justified) fear of conflict with Indonesia. Recently a small fight broke out between Indonesian and East Timorese civilians inside the “Free Zone” that separates the two countries. Apparently, the East Timorese attempted to build a customs facility in the zone, which Indonesians attacked with rocks. An East Timorese security post suffered damage, but otherwise no one was harmed.

Allegations of presidential sexism notwithstanding, the last month has generally been regarded as a success for East Timor. With its history of war and a GDP per capita of only $1,588 in 2011 (156th in the World according to the World Bank), carrying out successful elections remains a significant accomplishment for the country.

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