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Flood and Political Conflicts in Northeastern India


The seven states of Northeastern India make up a diverse, historic, and (as GeoCurrents has previously noted) unstable region. Recent flooding and landslides have claimed at least 81 lives around the Brahmaputra River (map at left from Wikipedia), forced hundreds of thousands to evacuate, and garnered worldwide attention. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has gone to Assam, perhaps the worst hit state, and promised at least Rs 500 crore (~$90 million) in aid. The floods are a major humanitarian crisis, and they may help to deflect attention from recent escalations in the long-simmering border dispute between Assam and its neighboring state, Meghalaya.

On June 30, over six-hundred Khasi[1], members of a tribal group located primarily in Meghalaya but also in parts of Assam and Bangladesh, began a hunger strike aimed at encouraging the two Indian states to resolve the quarrel over the status of twelve disputed areas that has kindled years of violence. The unresolved issue has also kept rural villages along the Meghalaya-Assam border from receiving the benefits of government electrification programs. Since a January, 21, 2010 GeoCurrents post cautiously observed the “declining violence in Northeast India”, violence has continued to stay at a relatively low level compared to the 2000s. However, most of the underlying issues remain unresolved, and the potential remains for future clashes.

Map of Northeastern India

Entailing much more than the border dispute between Meghalaya and Assam, strife in Northeast India has been a function of ethnic and tribal rivalries playing themselves out against a background of nationalist and antinationalist agitation. For example, the militant Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC), based in Meghalaya, continues to vociferously oppose what it sees as attempts by India’s national government to “Indianise or else to Hindunise the Hynniewtrep race”. The HNLC also sets itself up in opposition to the Garo, a largely Christian group that is the second largest ethnic formation in Meghalaya after the aforementioned Khasi.

The people of Northeast India also face many wrenching challenges as both a globalized economy and outside social norms gain a foothold hold in their land. The Khasi and the Garo remain, for the most part, matrilineal societies where property and clan membership is passed down through female descendants. This certainly adds a measure of stability to womens’ lives, and female defenders of the system are able to point to the plight of women in other nearby groups and remark favorably on the status and safety of women in societies adhering to matrilineal traditions. Men who oppose the system claim that it “breeds a culture of men who feel useless”, feeds social problems like alcoholism, and denies men the inheritance they need to build their lives. The debate has been going on for years, and seems unlikely to end soon.

With flooding now the dominant issue in the Brahmaputra watershed, it remains to be seen whether the chaos and disruption that follows will bring more violence in its wake. Most of the Indian outposts along the border with Bangladesh have flooded as local officials express concerns about national security. Living near some of the rainiest places on earth, as the people who make their homes along the Brahmaputra do, can be a dangerous proposition.

Readers interested in a fantastic satellite image of the Brahmaputra flooding should see this one from the NASA Earth Observatory.

[1] GeoCurrents readers would be interested to note that the Khasi are the northernmost speakers of an Austro-Asiatic language.

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Heightened Unrest in Venezuela’s Zulia State

Northwestern Venezuela, especially the state of Zulia, is an anti-Chavez stronghold, noted for its “oppositional “ culture.  As explored in a previous GeoCurrents post, the northwestern Lake Maracaibo area stands apart from the rest of the Venezuela; even consumer products that sell well in Caracas often fail to find a market in Zulia.

In recent weeks, Zulia has experienced mounting troubles. Several leaders of the indigenous Yukpa and Wayuu communities were murdered, reportedly by wealthy ranchers infuriated at indigenous peoples moving into their prime grazing lands (Zulia is a major beef and dairy—and oil—producer). The indigenous movement has occurred with the blessing of the national government, which in 2009 gave communal land titles to 103,000 acres (41,600 hectares) to a number of Yukpa communities. The state-oriented Venezuelan press lays the blame for the recent violence on the U.S., Colombia, and Zulian intransigence, highlighting “the U.S.-funded Plan Colombia, as well as a large, historic, rightwing in Zulia state.” International organizations, however, have reported that the Venezuelan military itself has attacked the Yukpa and other local indigenous groups within the past three years.

Northwestern Venezuela is a resource-rich area in a geopolitically precarious environment. Besides oil and pasturage, the region contains some of South America’s largest coal reserves. Owing in part to tensions between Venezuela and neighboring Colombia, Zulia has been a focus of rebel activity and smuggling. Survival International notes that the Colombian leftist insurgent groups FARC and ELN “have been settling along the border areas of the Bari and Yukpa indigenous communities, bringing in weapons and drugs, and enticing young people to join them and squat on indigenous lands.” Colombian authorities have accused Venezuela of offering sanctuary to FARC rebels, charges that Venezuela steadfastly denies, officially stating that “any rebel groups found in Venezuela would meet with the “iron fist” of the Venezuelan military.” In early June, four Colombian men claimed that they had been tortured by Venezuela police who falsely accused them of belonging to the FARC.

The FARC funds its rebellion in part by drug transshipment, which is a major business in the region. Some sources estimate that roughly 200 tons of cocaine pass through the regional annually. Just this week, the Venezuelan police raided a ship bound from Zulia to Mexico carrying 20 tons of liquid cocaine. A recent article in The Economist summarizes the current narcotics situation in the region:

Venezuela has become the main transit point for Colombian cocaine headed for the United States and Europe. Because of Venezuela’s price controls on fuel—a litre of petrol costs two American cents in Venezuela, compared with up to $1.30 in Colombia—smuggling is another lucrative business. Such opportunities have lured the Zetas, a violent Mexican mob, who have teamed up with a Colombian outfit called the Rastrojos. Together they control much of Colombia’s La Guajira department and Venezuela’s Zulia state.

Media outlets in Zulia are also coming under attack. Earlier this month, the offices of Versión Final were racked by gunfire and those of Qué Pasa were hit with a grenade. Two days after the latter assault, the television channel Catatumbo TV was shot-up. Press freedom in Venezuela has recently been severely restricted, and critics charge the government with failing to protect journalists. The recent attacks in Zulia, however, do not seem to be linked to the Chavez regime. As recently reported in InSight: Organized Crime in the Americas:

While critics of President Hugo Chavez accuse his administration of stifling the media by abusing its regulatory powers or by presenting trumped-up criminal charges against media workers, there is little reason to suspect the state is behind this rash of attacks. The government has previously tried to limit media coverage through legal means; what’s more, the Catatumbo TV network is linked to the state. As such, there may be reason to suspect organized crime is behind the attacks.


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Expected and Unexpected Findings in the New Pew Poll of Pakistan

A new public opinion survey of Pakistan by the Pew Global Attitudes Project has been gathering media attention. Most reports focus on the intensification of anti-American attitudes revealed by the poll. Evidently, only 12 percent of Pakistanis now view the U.S. favorably. Of the nations assessed by Pew, only the Jordanian have a lower view of the United States. Three-quarters of the people of Pakistan see the U.S. as an enemy state, whereas only 8 percent view it as a partner. Pakistanis also express deep skepticism about American financial assistance, with only 12 percent viewing economic aid as “mostly positive.”

Significant as these findings may be, they are not exactly surprising. Nor is the poll’s revelation that Pakistanis retain highly negative views of India, with 59 percent of respondents considering it their country’s greatest single threat. Equally expected is the negative reaction from the other side of the border: 59 percent of Indians view Pakistan as a “very serious threat.” Less expected are the Pew findings that people of other countries also tend to have negative views of Pakistan, with high “unfavorability” ratings noted even in Jordan, Egypt, and Tunisia.

The Pew Pakistan survey does reveals some intriguing trends. Pakistanis are evidently less concerned about extremism in their country than they were a few years ago, with support for military assaults against the Taliban plummeting from 53 percent in 2009 to 32 percent in 2012. Yet at the same time, actual advocacy of extremism is declining. In 2008, 27 percent of respondents looked favorably on the Taliban, whereas in 2012 the figure stood at 13 percent. The favorability rating of the Haqqani Network, which has bedeviled NATO in Afghanistan, is lower still, coming in at 5 percent.

The Pew survey has little information on geographical differences in public opinion within Pakistan, but what it does have is significant. In the Punjabi-speaking core, only 49 percent of respondents regard the Taliban as a serious threat, with a mere 38 percent viewing al Qaeda in the same light. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, on the other hand, 75 percent see al Qaeda as a serious threat and 94 percent have the same view of the Taliban. As the Taliban is primarily a Pashtun organization that is often seen as pushing a Pashtun agenda, the antipathy toward it in the Pashtun-dominated province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is striking. But the people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have suffered much more from Taliban attacks than have those of Punjab. It would be interesting to assess the level of support for extremism in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where the Taliban and the Haqqani Network maintain bases, but the region was considered too insecure for Pew pollsters to examine.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the report is its finding that religious devotion correlates negatively with support for violent Islamism in Pakistan. Among those who pray the requisite five times a day, 72 percent are reported to view the Taliban unfavorably, whereas among those who pray less often, the figure is only 62 percent.





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Dam-Building in Ethiopia & Water Worries in Egypt

Representatives from Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan recently met in Khartoum to discuss Ethiopia’s controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, currently under construction on the Blue Nile River. The governments of Sudan and especially Egypt are concerned that the dam will reduce the flow of water into their countries. In response, both states have threatened to suspend their activities in the Nile Basin Initiative, a co-operative framework for sustainably managing the flow of the Nile that currently involves Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, and the DR Congo. To avoid such a scenario, future meetings are planned. As outlined in Egypt’s Daily News, “The meeting between technical experts from Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan, all eastern Nile countries, also discussed future development and water sharing challenges in advance of a meeting in July in Kigali, Rwanda with a more complex agenda.”

When completed, perhaps in 2014, the massive dam will be the largest hydroelectricity producer in Africa and the seventh largest in the world. Ethiopia is planning to fund the entire project by itself, although it will receive financing from Chinese banks and has designated the Italian firm Salini Costruttori as the main contractor. Ethiopia is hoping to export much of the power produced by this and other new dams, mostly to Sudan but also potentially to Egypt. Before this can occur, major transmission lines will have to be constructed. In early June, South Korea “approved Ethiopia a soft loan amounting $80 million to support part of the Ethiopia-Sudan electric power transmission line construction and expansion project.”


Egypt’s concerns largely focus on the loss of water from evaporation over the massive reservoir that the dam will create. It is unclear how large the losses will be, but the Blue Nile is clearly vital to Egypt, providing an estimated 59 percent of the country’s total water supply. Egypt is ultimately worried that further dam-building on the Nile and its tributaries could lead to new irrigation projects in the lowlands of Ethiopia and adjacent areas of Sudan that would severely reduce the flow of the Nile—the life-blood of the country. Yet Egypt will also reap some benefits from up-stream dams; by trapping sediment, the new reservoirs will prolong the life of Egypt’s vital Aswan High Dam. Potential electricity imports from Ethiopia could also bolster the Egyptian economy.



The allocation of the Nile’s water has been a heated topic for many decades, as spelled out in John Waterbury’s 1979 book, Hydropolitics of the Nile Valley (Contemporary Issues in the Middle East). Because virtually all of Egypt’s water comes from the river, the country is extremely vulnerable to water diversions or losses in the upstream countries. As a result, Egypt has also been keen to support any projects that would enhance the flow of the Nile. The main proposal here is the Jonglei Canal, a gargantuan engineering project that would shunt water away from the expansive Sudd wetlands of southern Sudan, thereby reducing evaporation and augmenting the river’s flow by five to seven percent. Construction work on the canal began in 1978, but was halted in 1983 due to the insurgency in southern Sudan. In 2008, Egypt and Sudan agreed to resume work, but the subsequent independence of South Sudan changed the political environment. The Southern Sudanese have long been bitterly opposed to the project, which would undermine local subsistence activities and wreak havoc on the Sudd ecosystem. In 2011, however, Sudanese papers, along with The Independent Catholic News, suggested that South Sudan was willing to resume work on the project.


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Another Cartoon Controversy Strikes India

Yet another political cartoon controversy has embroiled India in recent weeks. The cartoon in question dates to 1965, when opposition to the planned imposition of the Hindi language across India generated unrest over much of the country and especially the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Tamil activists feared that the imposition of Hindi would reduce non-Hindi speakers to the status of second-class citizens, and thus agitated for the continuing use of English as the country’s unifying, common language. In the end, the government backed down, allowing the perpetuation of English in official communication and granting each Indian state the right to establish its own official language or languages.

The cartoon is currently generating controversy due to the fact that it has been recently included in a political science textbook. Tamil partisans claim that the drawing unfairly represents the student organization that led the anti-Hindi demonstrations in the 1960s, falsifying history in the process. While the cartoon depicts the students leaders as ignorant of the English language, opponent of the textbook argue that, “As far as English is concerned, few could match Tamils in acquiring the skills of the language.” They also claim that the cartoon hides the fact that the government of Tamil Nadu at the time reacted to the anti-Hindi agitation with harsh repression.

Several other cartoon controversies have agitated India in recent months. Many Indians were outraged at the use in another textbook of 1949 sketch that depicts Jawaharlal Nehru wielding a whip and chasing a snail-riding B. R. Ambedkar in order to speed up work on India’s constitution. Ambedkar, the dalit (“untouchable”) mastermind of the constitution, is a much-idolized figure, especially among lower-caste Indians, and is thus not to be trifled with. Another recent cartoon controversy in the Indian state of West Bengal was analyzed in a separate GeoCurrents post.

A number of Indian advocates of free expression have been outraged at the outrage expressed over these cartoons. Intriguingly, the noted—and aged—Communist stalwart V S Achuthanandan responded with particular force, arguing that “I am a subject of large number of cartoons. I always enjoy them and try to understand the message sought to be conveyed through them. In a democracy, tolerance and readiness to face criticism are vitally important.” (In contemporary India, “communists” generally seek power through the ballot box, whereas “Maoists” advocate—and engage in—revolutionary violence).

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Japan to Encourage Deer Hunting and Venison Eating?

The sika deer (Cervus nippon), once widespread across eastern Asia, has been eliminated from virtually its entire range. The animal is extinct in Korea and barely hangs on in China and far eastern Russia. In Japan, however, the deer population is exploding, resulting in major agricultural and forestry losses. Authorities in the mountainous Japanese province of Nagano in central Honshu are now encouraging people to hunt deer. Hunting is diminishing as older hunters retire and as rural areas depopulate, leading wildlife officials to use traps and other expensive methods of culling the herds. A new organization called Shinshu Gibier Kenkyukai* (“game study group”) is thus encouraging people not only to hunt but also to eat venison, which it hopes will soon be served in school cafeterias.

Other groups have different ideas for dealing with the problem. The Japan Wolf Association, for example, would like to reintroduce wolves into Nagano to prey on the deer. Wolves were once present in Japan, but the two local subspecies were wiped out in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as documented in Brett Walker’s The Lost Wolves of Japan. If wolves were to be reintroduced—an unlikely event—a different subspecies would have to be selected.

A recent article in the Japan Times proposes a more audacious solution for the deer excess in the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido: tigers. As the author specifies:

 How about solving two problems in one? Help save the tiger by translocating Siberian Tigers to Hokkaido — the habitat is very similar — and help reduce the deer population by introducing a predator. One could even help the flagging tourist trade, by operating tiger-watching tourism in Japan (why should India have all the fun?). Of course, this off-the-wall idea is untenable in a number of ways: Imagine trying to obtain local community consensus for introducing tigers in their forests.

For an excellent overview of the sika deer, see this article in the Large Herbivore Network, which is the source for the map posted here.

*Gibier is a French word meaning “wild game.”

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Utah Seeks to Annex Federal Lands

A recent political maneuver by the state government of Utah is stirring up intense  controversy. “Utah’s Nuttiest Idea of All,” reads a June 2 headline in the Salt Lake Tribune. A more recent opinion piece by geographer Eric C. Ewart in the same newspaper argues that that the move is blatantly unconstitutional and will “derail the largest single part of Utah’s economy: tourism.” Looking into the future, Ewart contends that tomorrow’s youth will be asking their elders, “Grandpa, why did you destroy Utah’s natural landscapes in search of quick profit?”

The maneuver in question is reflected in a series of bills passed by the Utah state legislature and signed by Governor Gary Herbert that demand the “return” of most federal lands in Utah to state control by 2015, totaling some 30 million acres (12.14 million hectares). Although national parks and military lands would be excluded, national forests, national monuments, and wilderness areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management would be slated for transfer. Utah is also, as Ewart notes, “suing the various federal agencies in order to gain access to 12,000 miles of closed and abandoned ‘roads’ … including stream beds, cow paths, wagon trails and footpaths.” Much of the money gained by the proposed transfer, supporters argue, would be earmarked for education. Critics contend that the scheme would amount to a massive give-away to mining, ranching, and property development interests, noting that the Utah’s government does not have the wherewithal to manage the lands, and would thus turn them over to private interests.

 The “defederalization” of public lands is a popular idea in Utah. The federal government currently owns fifty-seven percent of Utah’s land, the third highest figure in the country. Polling data show that 64 percent of Utahans are in favor of the proposed change. Views on the subject break down on party lines, with 84 percent of Republicans and 59 percent of independents supporting the proposal, as opposed to only 15 percent of Democrats. (Utah, it is important to note, is perhaps the most Republican-voting state in the union.)  As a recent Salt Lake Tribute article notes, “Respondents also showed a stark religious gap, with 77 percent of Mormons supporting the land quest and only 34 percent of non-Mormons doing the same.”

Opposition to federal land control is widespread throughout the interior West of the United States. Hostility reached a peak in many areas during the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and 1980s, which focused on resisting federal restrictions on mining and grazing on public lands. It is interesting that the current manifestation of the anti-federal movement is much stronger in Utah than in neighboring states. Utah is more Republican-oriented than its neighbors, but states such as Wyoming and Idaho are almost as conservative. It may be significant that a much larger expanse of Utah’s federal lands are managed as national monuments, which are largely off-limits to development, than those of other western states. Many Utahans were outraged in 1996 when president Bill Clinton designated 1.9 million acres (769,000 HA) in southern Utah as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, forming the largest national monument in the United States. Environmentalists across the country, however, were delighted by the action.

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Gujarat to Ban References to Caste in the Classroom?

The Indian state of Gujarat has recently decided to amend its educational curriculum by removing “all the derogatory or implied references to surnames, castes, religion, profession, region.” The reforms go so far as to prohibit the use of students’ surnames—a caste “give away”—in the classroom.

The maneuver comes at the time of a mounting dispute between the chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, and the chief ministers of the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Modi claimed that caste politics have “ruined” Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, two of India’s poorest and least socially developed states, which he contrasts unfavorably with rapidly developing Gujarat. The leaders of the poorer states accused Modi, in turn, of exaggerating Gujarat’s achievements and of unfairly dismissing the progress that has occurred in their own states. Journalists sympathetic to their cause have noted that Modi himself frequently engages in caste politics, especially by working with Brahmin organizations.

Modi is a media-savvy and polarizing politician with national ambitions. Coming from a Hindu-nationalist background, he has been charged with complicity in the anti-Muslim mob violence of 2002 that resulted in hundreds of deaths. Supporters credit the ascetic and hard-working chief minister for the rapid economic growth experienced in Gujarat over the past decade. Modi himself is not shy about trumpeting his achievements, as can be seen in the image posted here, taken from his own website.

Modi is currently downplaying Hindu nationalism, reaching out in the process to Muslim voters. Muslims in Gujarat, he recently announced, are better off than Muslims in other India states due to his developmental policies. Modi is also currently discouraging the practice of holding lavish weddings, which he claims puts undue economic hardships on poor and middle-class Gujaratis. He is instead advocating “mass marriages” that involve numerous couples. As reported in Orissa Diary:

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi today expressed satisfaction at greater acceptance of the concept of mass marriage among affluent as well as in tribal families. However, he said, there is need for scientific management of such events. He blessed 251 couple on the occasion. Participating in a multi-caste mass marriage ceremony organized by Sahara Manav Kalyan Trust Vadi at Jhankhvav in Surat district, he said the government has doubled the incentive to brides from Rs.5,000 to Rs.10,000 to encourage mass marriages.

It takes care of eradicating social evils as well as vulgar display of wealth with families concerned entering into deep debt traps. The Chief Minister was particularly happy at the emancipation of tribal people living in forested areas, their newfound urge for higher studies and joining the mainstream. He said the government has started higher secondary schools in science stream in tribal areas.

On several occasions, the daughters of prostitutes in Gujarat have been forced to marry reluctant men in such mass weddings in order to prevent them from becoming sex workers.


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Gabon to Drop China as Its Mining Partner?

Sparsely populated Gabon (population 1.5 million) stands out on the map of Africa for its relatively high levels of economic output (with a per capita GDP of $14,400* in 2008) and social welfare. Gabon’s development has been underwritten primarily by oil exports, which account for roughly fifty percent of its GDP and eighty percent of its exports, but oil production is down and reserves are diminishing. Gabonese leaders have therefore set their sights on the country’s other mineral resources. Iron ore in particular beckons. The Belinga deposit, most of which is located in Gabon, contains an estimate one billion tons of iron ore, and thus forms one of the largest untapped reserves in the world.

Exploiting the remote Belinga reserves, however, is not an easy proposition. The government of Gabon has determined that it will cost some three billion Euros to put in a railroad, build a deepwater port, and construct a hydroelectric dam for power. Not surprisingly, Gabon turned to China for financing and technical expertise. An initial 2006 deal with a Chinese mining consortium was renegotiated in 2008, and in 2010 the project was handed over to the state-owned China National Machinery Import and Export Corporation. Progress, however, has been slow: Chinese managers complain about obstruction from the government, and public hostility has been mounting.

Unsatisfied with the current arrangement, Gabon is again in the process of renegotiating with its Chinese partner. Rumor has it, however, that it would like to drop China altogether and instead turn the project over to a major international mining firm, most likely the Anglo-Australian leviathan BHP Billiton. Brazil’s Vale and France’s Eramet are also mentioned as possibilities, but it is significant that Gabon’s President Ali Bongo Ondimba visited BHP Billiton iron-ore facilities in Australia this April. A number of obstacles, however, remain. According to the Financial Times, investors are concerned that Gabon’s pending changes to its mining code will “include a supertax on profits, abolish certain fiscal incentives, and demand new environmental guarantees.”

Environmental concerns are significant. In particular, the proposed dam that would supply power to the mine would inundate part of Ivindo National Park, a preserve famous for Kongou Falls, where the Ivindo River drops fifty-six meters in a three-kilometer-wide cataract. Gabonese environmental activist Marc Ona Essangui has gained a certain degree of global fame—as well as the Goldman Prize—for his campaign to protect Ivindo.

Oil and iron ore are by no means the only valuable mineral resources in Gabon. As the Financial Times article cited above notes:

Gabon is already the world’s second-largest producer of manganese dioxide and aims to overtake South Africa as the largest by 2015. It has reserves of gold, uranium, diamonds and the capacity to produce 15 per cent of the world’s niobium, a rare earth used in steel alloys.

In China, meanwhile, iron ore prices have dropped significantly, no doubt decreasing Chinese interest in Gabon’s reserves. As reported in a recent article in SteelGuru:

MOUNTAINS of iron ore at Chinese ports used to be a sign of a booming Australian resources sector, but it has turned into a source of headaches for Chinese commodity traders who are struggling to find buyers for their stockpiles of red dirt.

(For an excellent overview of the China-Belinga connection written last year, see this EchoGeo article, which is the source of the first map posted above.)

* In Purchasing Power Parity

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Food-Cost Protests in Northern Canada

Major protests against the high price of food and economic insecurity more generally were held last weekend in the remote northern Canadian territory of Nunavut, inhabited mostly by Inuit (“Eskimo”) people. Organized on Facebook, the “Feed My Family” campaign has attracted roughly a third of Nunavut’s population.  A recent study found that some “three-quarters of Inuit preschoolers live in food-insecure homes, and that “half of youths 11 to 15 years old sometimes go to bed hungry.” Food is exorbitantly expensive in Nunavut because almost all of it must be brought in over vast distances from southern Canada or elsewhere. As a result, a single head of cabbage can cost as much as twenty dollars.

Nunavut is a vast territory, roughly the size of Mexico, but it contains only about 32,000 people, some 84 percent of whom are Inuit. Traditional hunting, fishing and gathering practices are still carried out and contribute to feeding the population, but most of the people of the region are now dependent on imported food. Hunting, moreover, now demands modern inputs, and hence is itself an expensive proposition. According the article cited above:

Nunavut’s larder of “country food” — caribou, seals, fish and other animals — is there for the taking, but only if people can afford the snowmobiles, gas, rifles, ammunition and gear needed to travel safely. Elliott estimates hunting costs about $150 a day.

Although a poor region by Canadian standards, Nunavut does possess a large array of natural resources, and mining activities in the territory are increasing. Currently the Canadian government is negotiating with territorial leaders to allow Nunavut to have “province-like” powers over local resource development and to collect mining royalties directly. As a recent National Post article emphasizes, “Mining companies spent more than $300 million in 2011 alone on exploration and development in the territory…”  Yet the same article also notes that “years of negotiations are likely to follow.”

Many Inuit leaders support mining in their territory, but most insist that their community should have substantial input in the development process. Most of their efforts in this regard are carried out through Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., a native corporation designed to “ensure that promises made under the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement (NLCA) are carried out. Inuit exchanged Aboriginal title to all their traditional land in the Nunavut Settlement Area for the rights and benefits set out in the NLCA.” In April of this year, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. “received the first royalty payment as a result of mineral production on Inuit Owned Lands. The royalty payment of $2,249,500 was made by Agnico-Eagle Mines Ltd. from its Meadowbank Gold Mine north of Baker Lake.”


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Iceland to Export Electricity to Britain?

Iceland is by far the world’s richest country in terms of per capita renewable energy. 81 percent of Iceland’s total energy needs are derived from renewable sources, mostly geothermal and hydroelectric, as is 100 percent of its electricity. As a result of Iceland’s abundant resources, its electrical power is cheaper than anywhere else in Europe. The possibilities for expansion, moreover, are substantial, especially in the areas of hydroelectric power and wind power.

Economically troubled Iceland has been keen to take advantage of its low-cost, renewable energy resources on the international market. It has long engaged in aluminum smelting on a massive scale, a energy-intensive industry that raises environmental concerns of its own. Roughly 80 percent of Iceland’s electricity is currently used in aluminum plants. More recently, Iceland has turned to developing electricity-intensive server farms, an activity that also benefits from the country’s cool climate (computer servers require extensive cooling in warm areas). In February, a firm called Verne Global opened a large server farm on a decommissioned NATO base near the country’s main airport.

More recently, plans have been developed to directly export electricity from Iceland to the U.K. through undersea “interconnector cables.” Transmitting energy by way of High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC), interconnector cables are highly energy efficient, losing only two to three percent of power over 1,000 kilometers. Laying the cables, however, would be a very expensive proposition, owing both to engineering challenges and to the fact that each kilometer will contain roughly 800 metric tons of copper. In late May, however, Iceland and the U.K. agreed to begin working on the project and to cooperate more generally on energy initiatives. The U.K. has limited renewable energy resources of its own, and hence is eager to tap those of other countries. As the Guardian map of existing and proposed interconnector cables posted here indicates, Britain is also interested in Norway’s abundant hydroelectric resources.

Although the electricity-export scheme would have major environmental benefits when analyzed at the regional and global scales, in regard to Iceland it would come at a certain cost. As a result, Icelandic environmental groups remain skeptical. According to a recent article in Utility Products, environmental activists in Iceland argue that “The proposed cables would put pressure on building more power plants, both hydro and geothermal, for exporting energy. These are often located in sensitive wilderness areas which we want to protect. In addition, the Icelandic power transmission system would need much bigger transmission lines with associated visual and other environmental impacts to connect to the undersea cables…”


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Religious and Racial Strife in Western Burma

Although Burma (Myanmar) has seen substantial reform over the past few months, several deeply entrenched conflicts create major obstacles for the country’s transition. According to The Irrawaddy, tensions in the western Arakan region recently exploded into violence when “300 people stopped a bus carrying Muslims from a religious gathering, dragged out the 10 occupants, beat them to death and burned the vehicle in Taunggup…” The attack occurred in retaliation for the alleged rape and murder of a Buddhist girl by three Muslim youths.

Burmese Muslim leaders were incensed not only by the actions of the mob, but also by the descriptions of the incident carried by the state-run media. In several report, the victims of the bus attack were referred to as “Kalars,” a pejorative Burmese term used for foreigners, especially those of South Asian extraction. Democracy advocates in Burma are also upset by the use of the term, which was quickly denounced by leaders of the 88 Generation Students group.

Most of the Muslims of Arakan are Rohingyas, a people of South Asian origin who speak a language closely related to Bengali. The Rohingyas of Burma have been victims of discrimination and worse for some time; a recent Times of India article describes them as “among the world’s most persecuted people,” noting that in the early 1970s they were stripped of their nationality and more than 200,000 were forced out of the country. Most of those displaced from Burma have been languishing in dismal camps in Bangladesh ever since, although many have sought refuge, often unsuccessfully, elsewhere. In 2011, however, the Burmese government agreed to begin repatriating Rohingya refugees.

Prejudice against the Rohingyas in Burma is both religions and racial in nature. Racial animosity, as well as opposition to it, can easily be gleaned from the comments posted on articles about the issue. One commentator on The Irrawaddy website, for example, opined, “Asians look like Burmese, Chinese, Thai, Japanese. These people look like middle eastern and indians. They don’t Belong in Myanmar, so GET OUT. We should have Nation wide Votes to kick them out before they convert everyone of us to Musilims” – to which the next commentator responded, “If you do not like Indian face, how would you love holy lord Buddha!!!”


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Debt Issues and Russian Investments in Guyana

Stabroek News recently reported that Russia would write-off $50 million in debt to the government of Guyana. Debt write-offs for the impoverished South American country are nothing new.  In 1999 alone, Guyana successfully negotiated $256 million in debt forgiveness. Almost all of the money owed by the country to the U.S. has been forgiven. Yet repayment burdens remain high. As the Wikipedia reports, “Guyana’s extremely high debt burden to foreign creditors has meant limited availability of foreign exchange and reduced capacity to import necessary raw materials, spare parts, and equipment, thereby further reducing production.”

Although ostensibly aimed at countering the narcotics trade, Russia’s recent debt write-off may be related to its investment activities in the Guyanese bauxite (aluminum ore) industry.  The Russian company UC Rusal, the world’s largest aluminum producer, recently announced plans for a $21 million expansion of its main facility in Guyana. UC Rusal is a highly global firm, operating in nineteen countries. Although based in Moscow, UC Rusal is incorporated on the island of Jersey, where it also maintains its main financial center. A British Crown Dependency, Jersey maintains its own financial laws, which are very favorable for international business operations.

Russian investments in Guyana have often been controversial. In 2011, opposition politicians in the country threatened to expel both Russian and Chinese firms from the bauxite industry due to labor-law violations. As reported by TerraDaily, “Russian aluminium giant UC Rusal has been at loggerheads with the Guyana Bauxite and General Workers Union for more than two years over the controversial layoff of 120 workers who had demanded better pay.”

(Photograph from Guyana Then and Now.)


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Rioting Threatens Zanzibar’s Tourist Economy

Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous island in the country of Tanzania, is still reeling from widespread rioting in late May. At that time, members of an Islamist separatist movement allegedly set fire to two churches and clashed with the police. The Zanzibar government accuses the leadership of Uamsho, or the Islamic Revival Forum, of ordering its followers into the streets to cause havoc. Uamsho leader Sheikh Farid Hadi Ahmed denies the charges and has condemned the rioting, but also insists that he will not rest until Zanzibar is liberated from Tanzanian rule. Ahmed claim to be following a peaceful path to separation, stating that “We need a referendum about the union between Tanganyika and Zanzibar. Let the people decide whether or not they need this union.”

Zanzibar’s secular government is concerned that the unrest will damage its tourism industry. Tourism is currently responsible for roughly a quarter of Zanzibar’s gross domestic product (GDP) and generates almost three quarters of its foreign currency. Some 200,000 foreign tourists visit the island each year, about 70,000 of whom are British. Officials in Zanzibar’s government were thus distressed when the “British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) issued an advisory statement, cautioning British tourists visiting Zanzibar to be cautious in the places hit by violence, telling them to keep away.” In response, the island’s President Ali Mohamed Shein intensified security and then “banned public gatherings that are bent on discussing the future of the Union, advising the people to wait for the Constitutional Review Commission which is entrusted with the task.”

Zanzibar was long linked to Oman but became a British protectorate in 1890. It was briefly an independent state in 1963 and early 1964 before joining Tanganyika to form the new republic of Tanzania. Relations between the mainland and the semi-autonomous island have long been strained. Zanzibar’s leaders stress the island’s autonomy and its status as a state, irritating Tanzania’s leadership. The resulting terminological debates can be intricate. As the Wikipedia reports, “In 2008, Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete tried to silence the matter when he addressed the nation in a live conference by saying that Zanzibar is a state internal but semi-state international.”

Religious tensions exacerbate Zanzibar’s problems. The island’s population is reportedly 95 Muslim and five percent Christian, and Islamist organizations are increasingly influential. Christian leaders claim that their followers are under pressure to leave the island, and they allege that plots have been established to destroy all Zanzibari churches. Islamists youths have on occasion have attacked bars, further jeopardizing the tourism economy. Under Islamist pressure, Zanzibar’s government outlawed homosexual relations in 2004. Two years later, a major controversy erupted when the Islamist group Uamsho threatened to hold massive demonstrations after rumors began to circulate that the island’s government would officially commemorate the birthday of the late Freddy Mercury, the gay leader of the British glam band Queen. Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara to Parsi (Zoroastrian) parents in Zanzibar in 1946.

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Thai Transsexual Wins Election

Yonlada Suanyos, a transsexual woman, recently gained fame by becoming Thailand’s first katoey (or openly transgender person) to be elected to public office. Ms. Suanyos, a PhD candidate who also runs a television station and a jewelry business, will soon become a councilor in Nan province in northern Thailand. She was formerly a member of a transgender music group called Venus Flytrap, performing under the name of Posh Venus.

Thailand is noted for both the size and the public acceptance of its transgender community. According to a Global Post article, roughly one biological man in 2,500 live as women in the United States, whereas in Thailand the figure could be as high as one in 165. Not surprisingly, Thailand is a major center of sexual reassignment surgery. Thai transsexuals often suffer abuse, but less so than in most other countries. They are periodically celebrated in beauty contests, and last year, according to Reuters, “A new Thai airline [began] hiring transsexual ladyboys as flight attendants, aiming at a unique identity to set itself apart from competitors as it sets out for the skies.”

Military service can be a difficult matter for transsexuals in Thailand, a country that practices conscription. As the Global Post article recounts:

 In practice, long-haired, perfumed draftees with hormone-induced breasts are very rarely drafted. Instead, they are dismissed as unfit for service, often for having “malformed chests.” The most common reason for dismissal, however, is also the more damning: “mental disorder.” Worse yet is “permanent insanity,” a ruling written into the permanent record of kathoey Samart Meecharoen in 2006.

The Thai Buddhist establishment is also concerned about the prevalence of transsexuals in the country. Some monasteries even provide “masculinity training,” a difficult and highly controversial practice. Reportedly, half of the young men trained in one program have gone on to live as women.


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