Guest Posts

On this page you will find valuable posts written outside the main GeoCurrents framework, by guest bloggers.

Tower Proposal Draws Ire in Venice

The picturesque Venetian skyline has remained virtually unchanged since 1514, when St. Mark’s Campanile—the city’s largest structure—reached its current shape. Although past its prime in the early 16th Century, Venice remained a center of trade and manufacturing, even ruling directly over Crete, Cyprus and much of the Dalmatian coast. Though the city’s empire is long gone, its form remains a stunningly beautiful and potent anchor for nostalgic sentiment. Enter the French fashion designer Pierre Cardin, whose proposal to build a new sixty story tower comprised of “three fin-shaped towers connected horizontally by six huge steel discs” (pictured at left) on the mainland near Venice has drawn heavy criticism. The building, dubbed the “Palais Lumière,” would be built in a currently abandoned industrial area in Porto Marghera, which lies about two miles from Venice (see map below), and include residential, commercial, industrial, and public areas. The project appears to be slowly working its way through the Italian bureaucracy, but that hasn’t stopped an outpouring of anger from preservation-minded Venetians.

Cardin’s supporters, like the head of Italy’s Vento region Luca Zaia, have heaped praise on the project, calling Cardin a “21st Century Lorenzo the Magnificent” who’s project will herald the “start of the renaissance of the whole Porto Marghera area”. Cardin’s nephew, Rodrigo Basilicati, is an architect by training and has taken the lead role in working out the technical aspects of his uncle’s vision. Basilicati grew up in a small town about ten miles from Porto Marghera, and sees the tower as a way to revitalize a desolate area. “We chose this apparently ugly and difficult location because we hope that it will convince other people that Porto Marghera can enter a new chapter,” he says. With Italy as a whole facing 10.8 percent unemployment and government bond yields around six percent, depressed areas of the country like Porto Marghera have good reason to welcome the influx of €1.5 billion ($1.85 billion) that the project would provide.

Porto Marghera, the future home of the Palais Lumière, is the large ‘carrot key’-shaped area on the left.

The potentially negative impact of the tower on Venice’s traditional character and allure is the main motivation for its opponents. Rather than trading Eastern European slaves and timber for Asian spices and silk as in the days of yore, Venice’s economy now depends on the 60,000 daily tourists who come to spend large sums of money as they stroll and dine along its canals. The new building would be about twice as tall as St. Mark’s Campanile, and even its position miles from the city does not assuage fears that it will impinge on the beauty of Venice. Italian historian Tomaso Montanari has likened the project to buildings in Dubai that many consider garish, noting that the Palais Lumière looks like it was designed by the “emirs of the Gulf.” Others have called the building “a spaceship dumped into the lagoon”, and derided it as “ugly and useless.” Italian architect Vittorio Gregotti addressed Cardin saying “Dear Pierre, if you want to do something for Venice, think of something else.” According to the LA Times, the Italian cultural group Our Italy fears that construction would jeopardize Venice’s status as a World Heritage Site—though that is certainly baseless hyperbole.

The word “imbroglio” supposedly has roots in the famously confusing and intricate politics of republican Venice, and it fits the current situation quite well. Every year brings new stories about how Venice might soon sink beneath the sea, and among the architecturally minded the city is more often seen as a symbol of “elegant decay” than a living and breathing place for people. Will a new tower on the opposite side of the lagoon re-energize Venice, or will it forever mar the views that make the city beautiful? The most likely answer is ‘neither’, but Venetians will just have to wait and see.

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TAPI and Turkmenistan’s Natural Gas

While known mostly for its isolation and repressive government, Turkmenistan has some of the largest natural gas reserves in the world. In hopes of increasing gas exports, the country will start promoting its TAPI pipeline project at international shows in London, Singapore, and New York. The pipeline will deliver gas via Afghanistan to Pakistan and India—the first letters of their names are the project’s initials—and will reduce Turkmenistan’s dependency on exports to Iran and Russia, which currently buy much of its gas. The project, in the works for over a decade, was put on hold when the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, and the potential for greater instability after America’s military exit has cast doubts over construction plans for the pipeline. Nevertheless, Turkmenistan plans to start supplying gas to Pakistan and India by 2016 and 2018, respectively.

Though the former Soviet republic remains diplomatically aloof, it gladly cooperates with foreign governments and companies to export its gas. Besides courting India and Pakistan, which would receive 30 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas from TAPI yearly, it has also attracted interest from Bangladesh. The European Union is considering Turkmen energy imports as well because it hopes to reduce dependency on Russia, which has occasionally withheld gas during disputes with Ukraine over pipeline ownership. The proposed Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline would bypass Ukraine and Russia, bringing Europe gas from Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Turkmenistan already exports gas to China via the Central Asia-China pipeline and may more than double deliveries to 65 bcm to meet its trading partner’s growing energy demands.

For all its economic potential, Turkmenistan continues to have major political problems. The previous president not only aggressively quashed political opposition but also created an extravagant personality cult. Having adopted the title Türkmenbaşy (“leader of all Turkmen”), President Saparmurat Niyazov erected large golden effigies of himself across the country and promoted his autobiography Ruhnama as the nation’s spiritual guide. The current president, who is one of the pipeline’s greatest proponents, may be trying to create a personality cult of his own.

Though the United States has openly objected to the country’s human rights abuses and lack of democratic institutions, it has also shown interest in developing Turkmenistan’s natural resources and supporting the TAPI pipeline project. America’s government is concerned that Pakistan will satisfy its energy needs with natural gas from Iran, which has begun construction on its own pipeline to Pakistan and India, if the TAPI project is further delayed. As the United States has had decades-long diplomatic tensions with Iran, it finds Turkmenistan a preferable alternative energy source for Pakistan.

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Environmental Problems in the Solomon Islands

The mostly rural and relatively poor Solomon Islands faces many environmental problems, which development of the country’s small mining sector may soon exacerbate. The expansion of human settlement, agriculture, and timber harvesting has led to deforestation, while blast fishing and the illegal exportation of exotic birds have frustrated conservation efforts. The country has rampant political corruption, which prevents effective environmental policy, and has been recovering from a violent past. In 1999, civil war broke out between the indigenous people of Guadalcanal and migrants from the island of Malaita, and in 2006, native Melanesian Solomon Islanders rioted against the small but economically influential Chinese community.

Although extraction from the small Gold Ridge mine dropped precipitously during the civil war, the Australian company Allied Gold has purchased rights to the mine and plans to greatly increase production. The company has hired over 500 local employees and plans to operate for at least the next ten years, predicting that its gold will eventually make up as much as a third of the country’s GDP (current GDP per capita is $3,200). Though additional mines may not open soon, other firms plan to expand into the Solomon Islands to extract gold and copper. Anglogold Ashanti, the Newmont Mining Corporation, Axiom Mining Ltd., and the Sumitomo Corporation have all shown interest in the country.

As opposed to nearby countries such as Papua New Guinea and New Caledonia, the Solomon Islands has historically produced few minerals. Though its mines may not be as lucrative as its neighbors’, the country could receive great economic benefits from attracting international mining firms, as the last decade of unrest has repelled many foreign investors. China’s large appetite for minerals has made the development of new mines especially profitable. However, open pit mines cause deforestation and can release poisonous chemicals into the water supply.

The experiences of nearby countries portend the possible downsides of mineral extraction. In an extreme case, phosphate revenues temporarily gave the Micronesian island state of Nauru the highest GDP per capita in the world—until the trust fund holding the nation’s mining profits declined sharply in value. Today, the country is in a state of severe economic and environmental distress and has become heavily reliant on foreign aid. There are already worrying signs in the Solomon Islands that the Allied Gold has evaded paying taxes by misrepresenting the amount of gold it has extracted. The Malaita Ma’asina Forum suspects that the company may even further avoid paying the government by merging with another Australian mining company.

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The Poor State of Child Services in Nunavut

The far northern Canadian territory Nunavut has recently instituted health and social services reforms in response to high rates of child abuse and mortality. The territorial government has established a new Department of Family Services and will soon begin an ambitious child health monitoring program. Although Canada overall has a high standard of living, sparsely populated and largely Inuit Nunavut is relatively poor and suffers from widespread social problems, especially ones that affect minors. In addition to prevalent alcoholism and a rise in once uncommon diabetes, the territory faces infant mortality rates three times as high as the Canadian average. Nunavut’s troubling child health statistics resemble those of the country’s Inuit areas at large, where child mortality rates are five times higher than average, and youths are 30 times more likely to commit suicide.

Due to limited resources, the territory’s government has had serious difficulties providing adequate childcare. For example, a recent report found that Nunavut’s Health and Social Services Department performed satisfactory criminal background checks on less than half of prospective foster parents. It also revealed that one third of social worker positions are vacant, meaning that some communities have no family councilors at all. Poor childcare has led to high levels of youth crime, an incidence of violent child abuse ten times higher than the rest of Canada, and a high school graduation rate of 40 percent (the national average is 75 percent).

“Our Children,” the territorial government’s new health program, intends to create a youth welfare database useful for future health care policy. Besides tracking health statistics, the program will also collect other related information, such as family income, nutrition, and home life. While other places in Canada have been using such systems for decades, Nunavut’s program will track children for much longer, following them from when they are in the womb until they are school-aged.

However, comments on a news article about the new system cast doubts about the government’s ability to solve Nunavut’s health problems. Some readers, apparently residents of Nunavut, were concerned about privacy, while others worried that the government would be too incompetent to administrate “Our Children” effectively. One reader wrote, “I know that sounds simple but they are talking about Nunavut, it’s like the Bermuda Triangle for information, stuff goes in and gets written down but it never leaves and nobody can ever find it.”

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Egypt’s Storied Wadi Tumilat

The Wadi Tumilat is the easily visible green branch stretching East from the Nile Delta to Lake Timsah and the larger Great Bitter Lake below it.

Most monuments from Egyptian antiquity are grand, conspicuous, stone-made, and thoroughly impractical. The Wadi Tumilat, a defunct Nile distributary branching East from the delta, boasts no such monuments. In ancient times it was a vital part of the Canal of the Pharaohs, a major feat of ancient civil engineering that linked the Red Sea to the Mediterranean via the Nile. Today the waters  of the Wadi Tumilat are mostly used for irrigation, though a trickle does arrive at lake Timsah where it enters the modern Suez Canal. The favored route in ancient times (see map below from Wikipedia) largely coincided with the current route south of Lake Timsah to the Red Sea, but from Lake Timsah it turned West through the Wadi Tumilat to join the Nile near the base of its alluvial fan.[1]

The earliest written evidence of the canal route comes from the so-called “Chalouf Stele” recorded by the Persian Emperor Darius I around 500 BCE and discovered by the Frenchman Charles de Lesseps in 1866. A portion of the stele reads: “I ordered [the Egyptians] to dig this canal from the river that is called Nile and flows in Egypt, to the sea that begins in Persia [the Red Sea]. Therefore, when this

canal had been dug as I had ordered, ships went from Egypt through this canal to Persia, as I had intended.” Greek and Roman authors would later claim that earlier Pharaohs such as Senruset III, who ruled from 1878 BCE to 1839 BCE, had at least begun work on the canal, though their efforts may have been unsuccessful. Both the Ptolemys, who ruled Egypt from 305 BC to 30 CE, and the Roman emperor Trajan, who ruled from 98 CE to 117 CE, are credited with repairing or re-digging the canal. The canal silted up due to neglect during the late Roman and Byzantine periods, but was reopened by Egypt’s Islamic conqueror Amr ibn al Aas by 642. The canal was closed for good in 767, ostensibly to cut off supplies to the rebellious cities of Mecca and Medina.

A new Suez Canal using a revived Wadi Tumilat almost became a reality in the early 19th Century. Napoleon was fascinated by classical authors’ descriptions of an ancient canal linking the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, and felt that control of such a waterway could allow France to supplant the British Empire as the dominant European power in India, with all the lucrative trade that entailed. Between 1798 and 1799, Napoleon’s top engineer Jacques-Marie Le Pére and his team traced the ancient canal from Suez up through the Wadi Tumilat to the Nile. Unfortunately for Napoleon’s aspirations, a mathematical error led Le Pére to conclude that the Red Sea was 8.5 meters higher than the Mediterranean, and that a new canal through the ancient route would be inadvisable.

It is difficult for us to appreciate the difficulty inherent in digging and dredging a canal without modern technology or even tools we would recognize as proper shovels. The Nile River’s famous silt, once the foundation of Egypt’s prosperity and now blocked by the Aswan Dam, would have been of a curse for canal navigation on and beyond the Wadi Tumilat. Workers in the deserts of Suez would likely need to have all of their supplies brought in from quite far away. So the next time you see a lone green line of the Wadi Tumilat branching off the Nile Delta, remember that the ships that once passed through it were as great a monument to Egyptian ingenuity as any obelisk or pyramid.

[1] The best overview of textual and archaeological sources on the ancient Suez Canal is Redmount, Carol A. 1995. “The Wadi Tumilat and the “Canal of the Pharaohs”. Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 54 (2): 127.

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Kenya’s New Superhighway

In recent years, the crippling traffic congestion around Nairobi has prompted calls for higher capacity roadways to knit the region together. Kenya’s first superhighway, which links Nariobi to the city of Thika 42 kilometers to the Northeast, was recently completed to much fanfare. Formerly a four-lane road, the route now boasts eight lanes of state of the art grade-separated highway. The project serves as a highly visible manifestation of China’s growing ties to Africa, as the Chinese firm Wu Yi Co did much of the engineering and construction work. The highway has already thoroughly transformed many of the towns along its route—some for the better, and some for the worse. Kenyans hope that the highway will serve as an anchor for economic development and make navigation in the country’s budding metropolis easier. At the same time, Kenya may lack the money and expertise necessary to maintain the highway in its current condition, and the costs of automobile-oriented development are certain to pose a significant long-term challenge for the region.

For the residents of Juja, a town roughly halfway between Nairobi and Thika, the highway has been a boon. According to Charles Mwangi, a local real estate agent, “Property values in [Juja] have in some instances witnessed 500 per cent increment with land owners capitalizing on the expected demand when the surrounding areas opens up.” Development around the highway is also surging near its endpoints. Actis, a global private equity firm, has invested $150 million (which buys a lot in Kenya) in a residential and commercial real-estate development near the highway’s entrance to Nairobi dubbed “Garden City”. Garden City will include a four-acre park that Actis hopes will be a gathering place for all of Nairobi’s residents.

Elsewhere, the impact of the new highway has been nothing short of catastrophic. Much of the expense involved in the grade-separations that make modern highways work stems from the need to accommodate various smaller roads that must cross above or below the highway or close. One easy way to save on construction costs—and the way apparently chosen by builders—is to close as many such roads as possible. At least 800 workers (that is only how many have come forward publicly) have been put out of work when their employers were forced out of business after the closing of necessary access roads. The affected companies claim to have been ignored by highway bureaucrats and are taking their case directly to President Mwai Kibaki, claiming “our instructions now are to demand from you […] the immediate provision of a reasonable and adequate access lane or entry for our clients to their respective parcels of land as appropriate.”

Perhaps the greatest fear accompanying the highway is that Kenya won’t prove itself up to the task of maintenance. Drivers are reportedly behaving more recklessly than anticipated, with high levels of drunk driving and speeding killing many and damaging infrastructure. Metal guardrails and poles are routinely stolen or vandalized, the cost of which is preventing the Ministry of Roads from attempting any new projects. Kenya’s swift economic rise makes a complete collapse of the highway a la the Chinese-financed Tazara Railway in Tanzania and Zambia extremely unlikely, but poor maintenance will mean a high death toll for years to come. Moreover, the congestion that will be alleviated on the Nairobi-Thika route is likely to move onto the city streets on either end where roads do not have the capacity to absorb an influx in traffic. The final impact of the highway will not be known for some time, but regardless of the effects, it is clear that Kenya’s heartland is changing very fast.

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Excellent State and Local Maps from Neighborhood Scout

Neighborhood Scout, mentioned in a previous post, offers a wealth of local real estate-related maps about the United States. Subscriptions to the website are meant for prospective homebuyers looking for detailed neighborhood statistics, but the free version provides general users with quick indicators of social and economic development in the U.S. The website shows that even nearby locales can differ drastically in crime and education, as well as that the locations of otherwise less desirable neighborhoods can greatly raise their property values.

For example, relatively poor East Palo Alto contrasts sharply with the surrounding towns in Silicon Valley. On the public education map, the town stands out in light blue against its more darkly colored neighbors, as its schools apparently score much lower on the website’s education formula. East Palo Alto also has more crime, though the difference is not as sharp. Both factors make the town’s home values much lower than those of others in the area. Compare its median house value of $550,399 with those of Palo Alto ($1,386,451), Atherton ($1,809,723), and Mountain View ($952,899).

Still, the average house in East Palo Alto is worth significantly more than the average in California or the United States, putting the town in one of the highest median house value categories on the map. For example, the numbers for Dorris, in remote Siskiyou County, and Death Valley, both in the lowest category, are $104,246 and $53,623, respectively. Though the map’s coloring belies the great disparity between East Palo Alto and its neighbors, it also shows how much value the town’s Silicon Valley location adds to its houses.

Neighborhood Scout’s maps also reveal striking differences among the towns and cities of Connecticut, which has some of America’s most affluent suburbs, as well as its poorest and most crime-ridden cities. Fairfield, one of the most prosperous counties in the United States, has many wealthy towns with highly rated public schools. Yet, it also includes the relatively poor city of Bridgeport, which several decades ago saw a sharp decline in its once thriving manufacturing. Both the maps of overall house value and education show a great contrast between the city and nearby towns. An examination of its neighborhood maps reveals that even Bridgeport has great internal disparities. The city’s richer areas, on the border of the relatively wealthy towns of Fairfield and Trumbull, appear to have vastly better schools and lower crime rates than its poorest parts.

Just like East Palo Alto’s location in Silicon Valley, southern Connecticut’s proximity to New York City greatly increases its property values. For example, the median house values in Stamford and Monroe, both in the highest categories, are $639,560 and $471,397, respectively. Compare Stamford and Monroe’s numbers with those of Darien and Weston, which both have house values well over $1,000,000 and are also in the highest category. The short commute to New York makes otherwise less desirable locales highly attractive.

Unfortunately, the free version of Neighborhood Scout restricts access to much of its data and does not allow for side-by-side comparisons of towns at the neighborhood level. Nevertheless, the website offers convenient and highly geographically detailed information about education, crime, and property values.

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Extremist Political Violence in Germany

Although Germany is far more politically stable than it has been over much of the past century, it has recently experienced a rise in crimes linked to radical politics. According to a government investigation , the number of reported criminal extremist activities increased from last year by 3.8 percent to 21,610. Though domestic Islamic extremism poses the greatest threat and receives ample media coverage, neo-Nazi and revolutionary communist violence, which gets much less press attention, has become a growing problem. Neo-Nazis direct the majority of their attacks against immigrants, and communists direct most of theirs against police officers. Both groups also target each other.

Germany’s far right owes much of its ideology to the Third Reich, but it has thrived and evolved because of current economic dissatisfaction and popular resentment of immigration. The most prominent neo-Nazi party, the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), holds seats in thirteen local parliaments and attracts at least a small following in most states. The NPD opposes immigration, capitalism, European economic and political integration, and military involvement in Afghanistan. Though it stems from the German Reich Party, which formed in the aftermath of the Second World War and was based in West Germany, the NPD has since reunification received the most votes in the states of former East Germany. Residents of eastern Germany tend to have a significantly lower standard of living than their counterparts in the west. Because of widespread economic frustrations and a hatred of foreigners, the eastern states of Saxony, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Thuringia, and Brandenburg lead the country in their support of the extremist right-wing party.

Though the NPD is the most visible far-right group in Germany, it by no means has a monopoly over neo-Nazism. A significant neo-Nazi subculture has formed around distinctive black attire and shaven heads, heavy metal concerts with white supremacist bands, and marches for extremist causes. Though at times peaceful, the activities of the far right can often become violent and are closely monitored by the government. The number of potentially criminal neo-Nazis rose in 2011, their violent offenses increasing by about 1.5 percent to 16,142. Again, per capita neo-Nazi violence is concentrated in eastern Germany. The region’s recent rise in violence coincided with the uncovering of the National Socialist Underground, a cell of rightists who had committed multiple murders over the course of the past decade.

Germany’s far right may be better known to the outside world, but the country’s greatest surge in political violence has been on the far left. In 2011, violent crimes by leftists increased from the previous year by 20 percent. Like their neo-Nazi counterparts, Germany’s revolutionary communists have had a relatively long history, but have altered their ambitions somewhat with the times. Today’s far left activists share the radical egalitarianism and anti-capitalism of late 20th century militant groups such as the Red Army Faction. However, their organization is less sophisticated and, instead of focusing on high-profile targets in government and industry, they mainly direct their attacks on the police and members of the far right.

The rise of leftist extremism is associated not only with the economic problems that plague the states of former East Germany, but also with gentrification and other social frustrations in urban areas. The highest concentration of violent crimes committed by communists was in major cities—Bremen, Berlin, and Hamburg—and more broadly in eastern Saxony and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

Unlike the neo-Nazis, the revolutionary communists do not have a party of their own. Though there are several far left parties, the more powerful ones include more moderate factions. All said, most communist organizations lack any substantial support. As one political commentator notes, the revolutionary communists of Germany receive much less scholarly and media attention than neo-Nazis, and so their organizations are less well understood. One reason for this, he suggests, is that certain left-leaning politicians and academics either side with the radicals or worry that highlighting the dangers of revolutionary communists might damage the image of mainstream left-wing causes.

The troubling increase in neo-Nazi and communist violence points to lingering popular anger. German politics is nowhere near as volatile as it was in the past. However, growing economic problems in Germany and the European Union will most likely only exacerbate such frustrations.

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Roads, Gas, and the Uncontacted People of the Peruvian Amazon

The Peruvian Amazon, along with adjacent land in Brazil, is home to some of the most isolated territory in the world. The region’s extreme remoteness poses a daunting challenge for its residents, many of whom are forced to pay high prices for food and fuel arriving by plane. With these concerns in mind, an Italian missionary, Miguel Piovesan, has led a campaign to construct a new, 125-mile road along the Brazilian border from Puerto Esparanza in northern Ucayali region to Iñapari in the Madre de Dios region (see map at left). Largely thanks to Piovesan’s eight years of lobbying, carried out in part on his own radio station, the road has gone from a figment of his imagination to a popular cause endorsed by local mestizos. A decision on the will soon be reached by Peru’s National Congress.

The road has encountered fierce opposition from environmental organizations and indigenous leaders worried that it will foster illegal logging and endanger the several uncontacted tribes. About sixty miles of the road would run through Peru’s Alto Purús National Park, which has long been a safe haven for the Mashco-Piro, Yaminahua, and Chitonahua tribes. Opponents of development in the region often argue that an end to isolation would amount to ethnocide—the destruction of indigenous culture—and can also point to several more prosaic reasons for outsiders to be wary of contact. Nomadic tribes in the western Amazon lack resistance to many diseases like influenza and measles, and would likely face high death rates if illnesses and even death if such infections were to spread among them. Violence can also be a problem in contact zones. Earlier this year, the Mashco-Piro killed a man named Shaco Flores who had acted as an intermediary between the tribe and the outside world. Flores could speak a rudimentary version of the Mashco-Piro language and had helped members of the group acquire goods like pots and machetes before being told to stop by Peruvian authorities. The motive behind his murder is a mystery; some speculate that it was done out of a desire to avoid further contact with the outside, others as retaliation for his compliance with orders to cease trading with the tribe.

Map of the main pipeline used to transport gas extracted by the Camisea Project. (source)

Elsewhere in the region, the Camisea Gas Project, a collaboration between several natural gas extractors, presents another potential conflict between tribes and the outside world. According to the indigenous-rights group Survival International, “the gas projects threaten tribes and wildlife by physically cutting into their land, displacing communities and driving them away from their forest homes”. In regard to the Camisea Project, however, such warnings may be exaggerated. Though the project organizers acknowledges the presence of both contacted and uncontacted tribes near the work area, they claim to respect the property of all indigenous people and stress that contact with otherwise isolated tribes will continue to be avoided. Opponents of Camisea remain unconvinced, wondering how uncontacted tribes could possibly consent to gas extraction activity. Survival International has stepped up its publicity campaign against Camisea by appealing to the one million annual visitors to nearby Manchu Pichu.

Managing the environmentally sensitive areas around traditionally isolated tribes continues to be a difficult dance. While illegal logging, virgin soil epidemics, and violence all argue against an outside presence, perpetual isolation may prove an impossible goal.

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Growing Tensions over the Paracel Islands

Mounting tension in the South China Sea has been amply documented in the mainstream media. However, reporting often does not adequately cover the situation’s geographical complexity, as the geopolitical tussles work out differently for the Sea’s various archipelagos, isolated islands, and reefs. Whereas all or parts of the Spratly Island are claimed by seven different countries, the Paracels are claimed by only China, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

The Paracel dispute, like those elsewhere in the South China Sea, has recently intensified. In late June, Vietnam restated its claim to sovereignty over the islands. China soon responded with the establishment of a prefectural level city that is meant to govern the Paracels along with the Spratlys and Macclesfield Bank.

The Paracel Islands have few natural resources, but sovereignty brings a large Exclusive Economic Zone with fisheries and potential oil and natural gas reserves. Vietnam and China both stake their claims on historical grounds. But as the archipelago has always had few or no inhabitants, determining past control is difficult. French Indochina took possession of the islands in 1932, and ownership passed onto South Vietnam after decolonization. As the Saigon regime approached collapse in 1974, China seized the islands, ousting Vietnam’s military garrison and establishing its own.

Competition over potential hydrocarbon deposits heightens diplomatic tensions. The state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation recently announced that it would take bids to explore contested waters near Vietnam. In turn, Vietnam soon extended contracts to India to look for submarine gas in areas claimed by China. Though Indian efforts so far have been unsuccessful, Vietnam probably sees a lengthened contract as a diplomatic tool against China.

The two country’s recent actions in the South China Sea are most likely aimed at gaining domestic support for their respective governments. Beijing seeks to enhance government popularity during the transition process between President Hu Jintao and his successor. The growing ruckus over the Paracel Islands also reflects recent trends in the South China Sea as a whole. Since April, China and the Philippines have wrangled over Scarborough Shoal, without any sign of resolution.

Disputes over the islands of the South China Sea have historically fluctuated between violent confrontation, as seen in China’s seizure of the Paracel Islands, and glimmers of reconciliation, as seen in the Bali East Asia Summit last year. As suggested by one recent report, such fluctuations owe in part to China’s lack of a regular policy toward the South China Sea across all levels of government. Though China’s civilian authorities are sometimes conciliatory, its military leaders are often more bellicose. The growing presence of U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific region may help prevent China from militarily asserting its South China Sea claims, but tensions between China, Vietnam, and the other disputing countries may increase in the short term.

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French History and Language in the American Midwest

Most Americans, and probably most French, are only dimly aware of the American Midwest’s French colonial past. From Detroit to St. Louis, French place names figure prominently in a large band stretching from Canada and the Great Lakes down the Mississippi to Louisiana—America’s more prominent bastion of French creole culture. This region, known to its colonial French Inhabitants as Les Pays des Illinois, or “Illinois Country”, was well-populated at the time of French settlement by Amerindian tribes that ultimately formed the economic and military backbone of the colony. In schools throughout the Midwest, Le Pays des Illinois is seldom more (and often less) than a footnote in history courses. Even America’s most comprehensive standardized curriculum for high school U.S. history (from the Advanced Placement program) is no exception. Its nine-page outline of the unit on “Colonial America” includes only one line mentioning French exploration of the Mississippi and a few more about the settlement of Canada.

Despite its relative obscurity, the story of Le Pays des Illinois is fascinating. Many small Francophone enclaves managed to persist in the Midwest well into the 20th century, and at least one remains to this day. Aside from the folk music, festivals, and unusual accents on offer in a few rural towns, the legacy of Le Pays des Illinois lives on in a profound yet silent way—in the location of towns and cities, their names, and the unanswerable question of what might have been if the area had remained French territory.

Map of Marquette and Joliet’s travels. Accessed Here

The first factor that brought the French to the American Midwest was simple geography.[1] Whereas reaching the Mississippi from the Eastern Seaboard required crossing the Appalachian Mountains, the journey from French Canada could be made almost entirely in a canoe. Taking advantage of such accessibility, the famous explorers Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette became the first known Europeans to travel through the area in 1673. Their route took them from Canada across Lake Michigan to a large bay that the French had called La Baie Verte since 1635, which was later anglicized as “Green Bay.” From there they carried their canoes two miles to the Wisconsin River and descended to the Mississippi River, then known as Missipi or Michissipi to local Indians. The pair then traveled most of the way down the river before turning back, which they did both because they were confident that it led to the Gulf of Mexico (not, alas, to the Pacific) and because they feared a possible encounter with Spanish rivals. Marquette and Joliet’s return journey took a detour through the Illinois River, which bisects the present day state of the same name. The short cut, a well-trod Indian trade route, saved many miles of difficult upstream paddling and served as the first recorded European use of the portage that the French (mangling an Indian word) would call Chicago. The canoe as well as the abundance of navigable rivers had made initial exploration of Le Pays des Illinois possible, but their usefulness did not end there.

Though it did not motivate Marquette and Joliet, the fur trade was the economic enticement that brought Frenchmen (and they were all men at this stage) down the Mississippi. The fur trade remained brisk, but it was no longer the moneymaker it had been in the earlier stages of the 17th Century. Nevertheless, the French crown aggressively subsidized the trade in order to maintain good relations with the Indian tribes that France relied upon to protect its sparsely populated territories. Despite the appearance of a realm prospering economically under the voyageurs (licensed, legal fur traders) and coureurs du bois (unlicensed, illegal fur traders), New France was generally a money-losing proposition dependent on the largess of the king and his plenipotentiaries. That said, the political payoff France could reap by boxing in English settlement and uniting Canada with the Gulf of Mexico was perceived as well worth the cost of a few low-quality furs.

The Jesuits, a Catholic order to which Father Marquette belonged, took a leading role in Le Pays des Illinois from the start. Skeptical of the ruffians that the fur trade attracted, Jesuits sought to establish a more stable and grounded society where the French and Indians could settle down and focus on religion and agriculture rather than trade and warfare. They self-consciously tried to replicate the efforts of their brothers in South America, hoping that the land along the Mississippi could become a “New Paraguay”. While the Jesuits never had the level of political control or autonomy they wanted, the settlements they founded (nearly always within or near Indian villages) would become the key outposts of French culture in the American Midwest.

The French presence in Le Pays des Illinois initially centered around the town of Kaskaskia, some fifty miles southeast of present day St. Louis (itself founded by the French forty-three years later). Already a focus of Illinois Indian population, Kaskaskia attracted Jesuit missionaries who established themselves permanently in 1703. Along with the nearby settlements of Prairie du Rocher and Fort de Chartres, Kaskaskia soon boasted perhaps seven thousand French settlers (including women), who lived relatively peacefully alongside the local indigenes. Seven thousand is of course a tiny population by modern standards, but even half that number would have made it one of the largest European settlements in North America at the time. While the French fought viciously against Indian enemies such as the Fox and the Iroquois, the Illinois Indians they lived among shared their diplomatic objectives, and tranquility remained the norm within French and Indian settlements. Intermarriage was common, and resulting mixed-race children were known as métis, a French cognate of the Spanish mestizo.

The French Midwest boomed in the 18th Century not because of the fur trade, but because it was well positioned to supply another growing city to the South: La Nouvelle-Orléans. New Orleans, as the Americans would later call it, became wealthy through shipping and the production of market crops, creating strong demand for wheat and oats from upriver. This new economic geography led to the reassignment of Le Pays des Illinois from Canada to France’s new colony, La Louisiane. The first African slaves arrived in Kaskaskia in 1718, but price ceilings on grains imposed by French officials made the purchase of slaves for farming uneconomical. Instead, many French settlers brought their slaves west to Missouri, where recently discovered lead mines in the Northeastern Ozarks offered a higher rate of return. Canada had barely been settled before the Mississippi became the new focus of French colonization, and now Missouri seemed destined to eclipse Kaskaskia, Prairie du Rocher, and the like in a similar fashion.

Located mainly in Missouri, the Ozark Plateau includes the highest topographical features in North America between the Appalachian Mountains in the East and the Rocky Mountains in the West. Unbeknownst to most, it is also the site of an unbroken French cultural heritage that stretches back some three hundred years. The etymology of the Ozarks is disputed, but most consider it to be a corruption of the French term aux Arks, or, “of Arkansas”. As previously mentioned, it was lead, or, more precisely, galena ore, that brought the French to the region. Missouri sits on the world’s largest deposit of galena, an ore-body that was close enough to the surface to catch the eye of French explorers. Since galena is often found together with silver, the French naturally imagined they had found their answer to Spain’s Cerro de Potosí, the richest silver deposit ever discovered (located in modern Bolivia). Evidence of this enthusiasm lives on to this day in place names like Potosi, Missouri, currently home to some 2,500 people. The miners’ hopes, however, were misplaced. No silver lay under Missouri’s soil, and settlers were left to mine and farm what they could.

La Vieille Mine, anglicized today as Old Mines, Missouri, is perhaps the most impressive example of French culture in the Ozarks region. Statistics are difficult to come by, but according to residents the region around Old Mines may have been home to over a thousand French speakers (known colloquially as “Paw Paw French”) only a few decades ago. Most were middle aged or elderly at the time, so the area’s distinct Missouri French dialect is likely to go extinct before long. Yet the region remains proud of its linguistic heritage. It stages an annual “Missouri French Festival” replete with dance and merriment. Several buildings remain from colonial French times, including a house still in private use.

Fiddler and longtime Old Mines resident Dennis Stroughmatt, along with his wife, Jennifer have done a great deal raise public awareness of Missouri French in recent years. Performing at a different folk festival in 2010, Jennifer, a speaker of modern French recalled a remark she had made to her Missouri French-speaking husband when they met: “…you have no grammar, and your pronunciation is foul.” She continued, recalling events several years later: “Then I went to the Ozarks…and I had no grammar and my pronunciation was foul”. In an interview, Dennis said that Missouri French is closer to the French spoken in Quebec than the creole French of New Orleans, a likely situation given that Canada was the source of most immigrants in Missouri and Illinois. He described a visit to Quebec where a Québécois told him: “You’re not from Canada. You’re not anywhere near from Canada, but yet your accent is strangely familiar.” Dennis adds, “The only thing I can say on that is that accent is coming through from the Missouri French.” Interested readers can also view a short PBS feature on French creole culture in Old Mines.

Though French language in the Ozarks is on life support, it has managed to outlast the other focal point of French cultural longevity in the Midwest: Ste. Genevieve, Missouri. Ste. Genevieve sprang up in 1735 on the West bank of the Mississippi just across from Kaskaskia. Both Ste. Genevieve and Kaskaskia prospered during the 18th Century, eventually attracting a flood of Anglo-American settlers following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Kaskaskia remained the more important settlement, becoming the state capital of Illinois in 1818. Kaskaskia’s prominence wouldn’t last, however, and the capital moved north to Vandalia in 1819. The rise of Vandalia, the eventual terminus of the National Road, as well as other new towns in the “American Bottom” region, struck the final blow to French cultural influence in the region. Floods destroyed most of Kaskaskia 1881, the consequence of realignment in the course of the Mississippi that today makes the town—along with its fourteen residents—an Illinois enclave on the western side of the Mississippi.

Painting of Ste. Genevieve, Missouri in the Missouri State Capitol Building

Although Ste. Genevieve has dealt with its share of floods, its story has been less dramatic. Once known as the wealthiest city in Louisiana, Ste. Genevieve never grew to the size of Saint Louis or even Kaskaskia. The French language is no longer spoken there, but the town boasts 150 “French Creole colonial” buildings—more than any other settlement in the country. Ste. Genevieve hosted the famous French-American ornithologist and painter John James Audubon for a time, and today the town’s 11,295 residents commemorate Ste. Genevieve’s French heritage in several annual festivals.

Le Pays des Illinois never really had a chance to get off the ground before it was absorbed into the rapidly expanding Anglophone juggernaut to its east. Its quick descent into insignificance allowed it to essentially avoid the gaze of Americans over the last two hundred years, to the detriment of locals’ historical understanding and appreciation. This obscurity, however, lends a certain allure to the parts of its past that do survive, whether in the buildings of Ste. Genevieve or the dialect and festivals of Old Mines. Languages and dialects of all kinds endure in places you wouldn’t expect, but such oddities are relatively rare in linguistic “spread zones” like the Interior U.S. The story of Missouri French and the people who built it, one sentence at a time, can help Midwesterners connect with a past that is far deeper and more nuanced than they might have expected.

[1] Unless otherwise linked, most of the background history for the post comes from Charles Balesi’s excellent study of the French Midwest:

Charles J. Balesi. The Time of the French in the Heart of North America, 1673-1818. Chicago: Alliance Francaise Chicago, 1992.

French History and Language in the American Midwest Read More »

The World According to Canada and Texas

The portrayal of other countries in the humorous map “How Typical (Central) Canadians See the Rest of the World” contrasts sharply with the global vision found in its counterpart about Texans. Though it lacks geographical precision, the map about Central Canadians’ attitudes, found on the Canadian creator’s blog, effusively praises different countries for their natural beauty, the friendliness of their people, and their historical significance. Meanwhile, the map from the perspective of Texans, originally from a British website but also found elsewhere, has vastly greater geographical distortions and angrily and ignorantly belittles most of the places that it includes.

The first map attempts to show the common worldview of the residents of Ontario and Quebec in Central Canada. These two provinces account for much of the Canadian population and tend to be more politically left-leaning than other parts of the country. The map’s creator makes a clear effort to distinguish the views of Central Canadians from those of Americans, labeling Cuba with “where Americans hate, but we love,” and labeling Europe with “It’s so nice we’ve got peace-keepers here – I bet the average American doesn’t even know half of you guys!” However, like farcical maps from the American perspective, this map crudely lumps together certain countries that have little in common. For example, Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and insular Southeast Asia are grouped together as a single region, as are India, Southwest Asia, and the Caucasus.

The map from the perspective of Texas presents a much more insular and cranky view of the world. Texas occupies the center of a large, flat landmass apparently floating in outer space. The creator has labeled Mexico with an insulting slur and derisively named a mass that resembles Oklahoma as “Tarnation.” “The North” erroneously includes London as part of the “Feds,” and England has been misplaced below the Gulf of Mexico, labeled in the map as “The Sea.” These features, along with the note over the water, “Used to be called the meditrainian in olden times,” suggests that Texans hold geographical assumptions that are so ignorant and backward that they resemble those of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who had only a rough understanding of the world beyond the Mediterranean.

Canadians and Texans are commonly thought of as standing on opposite ends of the spectrum of global visions in North America.


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Indonesia’s New Defense Deals

Indonesia, a relatively poor, highly populated country that is diplomatically independent and active, has recently agreed to several new joint military efforts with the United States, Australia, and China. On a visit to Darwin, Australia, the Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono concluded a defense agreement with Australia and stated his desire for military cooperation between his country and the United States, among other powers.Not long before that conference, Indonesia had performed joint anti-terror military exercises with China, whose greatly expanding armed forces and growing international clout have caused tensions with the United States.

While Indonesia has historically been wary of foreign powers, it has also had difficulty coping alone with natural disasters and ethnic and religious insurgencies. At the same time, securing the favor and strategic cooperation of Southeast Asian countries has become an important American foreign policy goal in the increasingly influential Asia-Pacific region. Indonesia criticized the creation of new American military bases in Darwin as risking greater tension between the United States and China. However, the country also participated in the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) joint military exercises this summer, as it has in previous years, and is proposing to cooperate with America and other countries to carry out disaster relief military exercises.

Indonesia will also soon conclude new defense agreements with Australia, including the heavily subsidized sale of several military planes and a commitment to cooperate on disaster relief and other peacetime military endeavors. Australia regards stable relations with Indonesia as a chief security priority but has had difficulty obtaining them. Over the past several decades, Australian militaryrelations forces have intervened in nearby countries, including in East Timor, where they fought against pro-Indonesian militias. In recent years, Australia has sought better relations, increasing aid to its Southeast Asian neighbor and creating new student exchange programs. According to the Australian government, “The relationship between Australia and Indonesia has never been stronger.”

Although Indonesia has cooperated with the United States and Australia, it has also recently performed military exercises with China, which has chafed at America’s new strategic interests in East and Southeast Asia. China has both criticized American-led multilateral war game events such as RIMPAC and accused the United States of attempting to prevent its rise. However, China has engaged in similar joint military activities. Special Forces of China’s People’s Liberation Army, for example, recently undertook anti-terror exercises with their counterparts from the Indonesian National Armed Forces.

Indonesia’s New Defense Deals Read More »

A New Panama Canal? Or Two?

During 2010, some 299,803,162 tons of ships and cargo moved between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Panama Canal. This total would have no doubt astounded the canal’s builders, but to the Panama Canal Authority (ACP), which operates the canal today, it is a sign that canal’s current infrastructure is no longer adequate. Many ships are forced to wait up to ten days to cross the canal, costing shippers about $50,000 per day. Bidding wars often arise between ships, with some paying up to $200,000 to move ahead in line. To ensure that congestion in the canal does not drive away traffic, Panamanians in 2006 overwhelmingly passed a referendum proposed by former president Martín Torrijos authorizing a $5.25 billion expansion project. The project is generally considered a good investment by outside groups, and received A2 investment grade status from the credit rating agency Moody’s. It is expected to be complete around 2014.

Meanwhile, two of Panama’s neighbors—Nicaragua and Costa Rica—are themselves eyeing the inter-oceanic canal game after 98 years on the sidelines. On Monday, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega signed a bill passed by the National Assembly that set up a legal framework for construction of the Nicaragua Inter-oceanic Canal, with the explicit goal of competing for Panama Canal traffic. The proposed Nicaraguan canal would stretch some 200 kilometers and could cost upwards of $30 billion, the equivalent of nearly four years worth of Nicaraguan GDP. So far support for the project among western governments and private industry is thin, but both Russia and the United Arab Emirates have expressed interested in financing the canal.

There are several potential routes for a Nicaraguan canal. The most cost-effective of these would run from the mouth of the San Juan River on the Caribbean coast upriver to Lake Nicaragua—the nineteenth largest lake in the world by area. A channel would then be dug across the isthmus of Rivas to allow ships to access the Pacific Ocean. This is not a new idea; in fact the basic outline of the route is over a hundred and fifty years old. During the California Gold Rush of the 1850s, the American shipping and railroad mogul Cornelius Vanderbilt operated a stagecoach line across the isthmus of Rivas, called the Accessory Transit Company, for gold-seekers traveling west. Vanderbilt was soon granted rights to build a canal to the Pacific, though his plans were never carried out. Nevertheless, the notion of a Nicaraguan canal remained potent, as shown in the 1906 map at left (source). A more humble (and realistic) version of the waterway proposed recently, known as the “Ecocanal”, would forgo the costly connection to the Pacific and instead focus on allowing shipping to access the various inland waterways of North America through Lake Nicaragua.

The San Juan River, the linchpin of any practical route to Lake Nicaragua, conveniently lies entirely in Nicaraguan territory, though it does directly border Costa Rica. Tensions along the border have been especially high since 2010, when Nicaragua’s dredging of the San Juan River damaged the environment of the Costa Rican parts of Isla Calero, which sits within the river. The resulting backlash helped to precipitate a small Nicaraguan invasion that became known as the Isla Calero dispute, infamous among Central Americans and geographers as the first armed incursion caused in part by a mistake in Google Maps favoring Nicaragua. Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla responded by ordering the construction of a new road along the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border, known as the San Juan River border road project. Since the road was part of an emergency decree, it was able to bypass environmental review and avoid a great deal of scrutiny that is only now catching up with it.

Construction of the San Juan River border road project is now mired in scandal. Millions of dollars of construction contracts have been awarded to companies and individuals that possess no construction machinery or expertise. Allegedly, any National Roadway Council employees who spoke up about the corruption were fired. On top of these domestic indignities, Nicaraguans now argue that Costa Rica is building a “dry canal” that would allow high-speed movement of container traffic from one port to another. Dry Canals have in the past been proposed in both Colombia and Nicaragua. Though a Costa Rican conspiracy seems rather farfetched, a dry canal there might, if constructed, be a bargain compared to Nicaragua’s $30 billion vision.

One can easily lose track of the multiplicity of canals proposed in Central America over the years. Both Nicaragua’s Inter-oceanic Canal and Costa Rica’s San Juan River border road will likely join them as historical footnotes and topics of regional bickering while the Panama Canal continues to grease the wheels of the world economy. Then again, construction of the Panama Canal doubtless seemed similarly daunting when Ferdinand de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal, left the region with nothing to show for his efforts but the bodies of 22,000 dead French construction workers strewn about the jungle.

A New Panama Canal? Or Two? Read More »

Potential Fishery Collapse in Lake Tanganyika

Lake Tanganyika, which falls under the administration of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Zambia, and Burundi, is the world’s second largest freshwater lake by volume and a haven for aquatic wildlife. The lake (map at left taken from here) is home to about 2,000 species of fish, most of which are found nowhere else in the world. Such diversity is possible both because of the lake’s size and antiquity; geologists believe Lake Tanganyika to be between 9 and 12 million years old. Eons of isolation have allowed a very distinctive ecosystem to form, similar to other large inland bodies of water like Lake Victoria and Lake Baikal. Lake Tanganyika also forms a vital pillar of human life in the area. The lake is a key protein source for millions of locals, and its fisheries directly employ hundreds of thousands of workers.

Overfishing in Lake Tanganyika is an old problem that seems to be worsening, with significant consequences for both fishermen and their quarry. The Lake Tanganyika Authority (LTA), a collaborative organization of the four countries that border the lake, warned recently that “use of destructive fishing gear and overfishing” threatens the very existence of the lake’s ecosystem. According to the LTA, current regulations limiting the size of the industry as well as the types of gear that can be used are widely ignored and ineffective. Would-be fishermen on the lake are legally required to buy licenses and submit to equipment inspections, but the resource constraints facing managers are severe. The Zambian fisheries office, for example, has only ten positions—four of which are vacant. The agency also relies on a single boat with an engine described as “unreliable.” Juvenile fish are reportedly a common sight in markets, a situation that is both a sign and a cause of fishery depletion. Activists in search of a relevant cautionary tale need look no further than Lake Victoria to the north, where hundreds of species have gone extinct due to overfishing and ecological invasion, especially of the voracious Nile perch.

The current depressed-state of Lake Tanganyika fisheries has exacted a human price. Many who once made a good living from the lake have abandoned fishing for farming, aided at times by outside organizations like the United Nations Development Program. However, those helped by these programs tend to be small-scale fishermen.  Industrial fishermen have responded to fish shortages as they have elsewhere: by working more intensively. Such intensification, in turn, this means even fewer fish will be available in future years, further diminishing the profits and lengthening work hours for everyone involved. To counter such tendencies, the LTA recommends “developing and implementing the fishing license process, improving the involvement of local communities in fisheries management, and promoting sustainable fisheries alternative livelihoods.” Although the LTA certainly does not need to be reminded, the main hurdle to sustainable fishing in Lake Tanganyika is a lack of money for enforcement, not a lack of economic or ecological know-how.

Overfishing is not the only crisis facing Lake Tanganyika, its fish, and the humans who depend on them. The lake is currently warmer than it has been at any time in the last 1,500 years (the entire period that water temperature estimates have been made), and some point to that as the main factor behind the decline of local fisheries. Sedimentation is also a problem, although efforts by local governments have begun to reduce the sedimentation rate in several localized areas.

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