Islands

Cyprus: Between East and West?

(Note: This is the second of two articles by Stanford student Claire Negiar that together contrast the situations of two geopolitically divided islands: Saint Martin and Cyprus)

Cyprus and Saint Martin – two very different islands sharing one key property: both are split by their “mother countries,” Greece and Turkey in the case of Cyprus, France and the Netherlands in the case of Saint Martin. However, these two islands have known very different fates over the past several decades, which are worth exploring in greater depth. What makes Saint Martin successful in its division, while Cyprus has remained in a stalemate since 1974? Why have France and the Netherlands been able to coexist and build an amicable system despite the division, while Greece and Turkey still struggle over finding an agreement for Cyprus, with Nicosia remaining the last divided capita around the globe, the only militarily-divided city of Europe, and a seeming vestige of the past?

The earlier colonization of Saint Martin has given time the chance to blow over some of the initial tension that resulted from this dual presence, enabling the emergence of a stable border and the near-assimilation of the people of Saint Martin into a common identity. In many ways, however, the population of Saint Martin is much more diverse that of Cyprus, where the indigenous population remains starkly split between Greeks and Turks. Yet in such diversity, a degree of unity is also found. The difference in geopolitical tension may also be related to the much greater distance separating the island from its mother countries: if Saint Martin were as close to France and the Netherlands as Cyprus is to Greece and Turkey, would the two have been more inclined to have resisted their gradual relinquishing of control? Or is it that they do not see Saint Martin as enough of an economic asset, while Cyprus has just discovered great gas reserves that both Greece and Turkey desperately want to exploit?

On Saint Martin, over time the majority of the island’s population essentially became European, identifying closely with France and the Netherlands, but on Cyprus the colonial power, Britain, had “nothing to do” with the local population of Greeks and Turks and hence was never able to achieve such results. With the initial annexation of the island by the British Empire, the “Cyprus dispute” corresponded to the conflict between the people of Cyprus and the British Crown regarding the Cypriots’ demand for self-determination. The dispute was however soon shifted from a colonial to an ethnic register between the Turkish and the Greek islanders. The international complications of the dispute stretch far beyond the boundaries of the island of Cyprus itself, also involving the guarantor powers (Turkey, Greece, and the United Kingdom alike), and eventually the United States, the United Nations and the European Union. To what extent has the presence and interference of several international organization complicated the conflict rather than helping smooth it over?

With the 1974 Cypriot coup d’état’s installment of a pro-Enosis (the union of Cyprus and Greece) president and the responding Turkish invasion that same year (formally condemned by UN Security Council Resolution 1974/360), Turkey occupied the northern part of the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus. As the Greek and Turkish Cypriots had been interspersed across much of the island a significant amount of “ethnic cleansing” and relocation  subsequently occurred. Northern Cyprus soon unilaterally declared independence as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), a sovereign entity that lacks international recognition—with the exception of Turkey, with which the TRNC enjoys full diplomatic relations. The United Nations has since created and maintained a buffer zone (the “Green Line”) to avoid any further inter-communal tensions and hostilities. This zone separates the Greek Cypriot-controlled south from the Turkish Cypriot-controlled north, passing directly through Nicosia, the world’s last divided capital since the fall of the Berlin Wall, though many also view Jerusalem as a divided city as well (a poll conducted in June 2013 found that 74% of Israeli Jews reject the idea of a Palestinian capital in any portion of Jerusalem, although 72% of the public regarded it as a divided city).

Ethnographic_distribution_in_Cyprus_1960 (1)

I visited Nicosia and walked by the wall and along the divide in 2003, which was the first year it was open to the public: it seemed to me like an odd vestige of the Cold War, frozen in time, absurd in the twenty-first century with the graffiti, the barbed-wire, and the sand bags at its foot, yet standing there still.

Another crucial factor is the intense cultural difference between the Greek and the Turkish populations. This split looms large in my memory as well. As a ten-year old child, I walked past the checkpoint from the Turkish to the Greek parts of Cyprus, and as soon as I reached Greek territory I was handed a small bottle of traditional Greek liquor, Ouzo. The two sides of the island seemed like a microcosm that revealed patterns of a much larger, global scale. Caught between the Western World and realm of Islam, at a crossroads of civilizations, Cyprus is split between the autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus, and Sunni Islam.

Cy-map

According to a Eurobarometer report, Cyprus is one of the most religious states in the European Union, alongside Malta, Romania, Greece, and Poland. What is more, it is linguistically divided between its two official languages, Greek and Turkish, which do not even share the same alphabet. (English is, however, well spread across the island).  This deep cultural divide makes the situation much more difficult for Cyprus than in the case of Saint Martin, where the two sovereign powers, France and the Netherlands, share many cultural similarities and have a long history of mutual understanding, unlike the two countries which ‘share’ the island of Cyprus. Walking between the Dutch and French sides of the island of Saint Martin, the biggest difference is scale: while the Dutch side boasts very large hotels, nightclubs, casinos, and cruise-ship tourist populations, the French side is home to smaller-scale hotels, restaurants, and in true French form, a few topless beaches. As I remember it, walking between the Greek and the Turkish sides of Cyprus was more like changing worlds: while the Greek side boasted a variety of international brands and had the lively feel of a capital city, the side-streets in the Turkish part of Nicosia were dominated by variety of repair shops selling hardware, pipes, and steel. There were more little stores, with a less touristy and more industrious ambiance, and the crux of the energy was concentrated around the very lively Souk. We visited a Turkish hammam, or public bath, located in a converted Catholic church, where the women and the men were sent to different parts of the edifice. We also enjoyed a honey-filled Turkish variation on a crepe in a  lovely courtyard. It was pleasant, but all the time I remember feeling a distinct sense of unease, my ten-year old, pale and blonde self, walking around in these streets, feeling quite out of place. While the Greek side seemed open for leisure and tourism, the Turkish side seemed made for the local inhabitants.

This cultural rift lay at the heart of many debates after Turkey posted its candidacy to the European Union. Indeed, while Greece and Cyprus are members of the European Union, Turkey was and is still seen as a much more controversial candidate, due in part to fear of interethnic and inter-religious conflict between Christian Europeans and immigrant Muslim Turks, as well as concerns that Turkey would not integrate harmoniously into the European political system, as perhaps evidenced by the situation in Cyprus. The lack of resolution of the Cypriot conflict has long burdened Turkey’s candidacy, and if Turkey is serious about its integration of the union, it will most likely need to come to a better settlement with its Greek counterpart on the island. Equally problematic is Greek Cypriot recalcitrance on reunion. A 2004 UN-organized referendum on reunification was rejected overwhelmingly on the Greek half of the island but was supported on the Turkish side.

Any possible settlement of the Cyprus issue seems unlikely given the history of fear and mistrust between the two sides. The unrecognized Turkish Northern Cyprus territory covers only 36% of the island’s overall territory, thus starting Turkey out with weaker hand and giving the conflict an unequal feel. This 36% of land is, however, crucial to Turkey due to its proximity to its own ports. Indeed, Cyprus is only 65 kilometers from Turkey, and the island is close to Turkey’s southern harbors, such as Mersin. As such, all Turkey’s southwestern ports are under the cover of Cyprus and whoever controls the island is able to exert pressure on them. It should be of no surprise, then, that it has been a prime and long-standing Turkish objective that the island does not succumb to any potentially hostile power, especially its traditional enemy, Greece. Common membership of Greece and Turkey in NATO has never diminished Turkish concerns about these geo-strategic issues, nor will Turkey’s possible accession to the EU.

As such, reasons for the different fates of Saint Martin and Cyprus extend from historical to geographic, demographic, geopolitical, and cultural factors. The easy coexistence of two states on the former island and the on-going conflict on the latter, however, result from processes that are as multi-faceted as these islands are diverse, and truly pinpointing what could be learned from one situation to apply to the other is difficult at best. From an island in the Caribbean with significant self-determination and hundreds of years of colonial history, to an island in the Mediterranean split between its two native populations, significant situational differences which may not allow for comparison at all. However, as history tends to repeat itself, with a little bit of imagination and a little bit of creativity, there may be some lessons that each can learn from the other’s situation.

Regardless of such comparisons, the geopolitical situation on Cyprus remains extraordinarily complex. According to the diplomatic establishments of most countries, the Republic of Cyprus has de jure sovereignty across the island, yet in de facto terms Cyprus is of course split, with Northern Cyprus forming a separate state.  But this is just the start of the complexity, as the United Kingdom still controls two military bases on the island over which it exercises sovereign power. These sovereign military bases, moreover, encompass several exclaves of the Republic of Cyprus, while Northern Cyprus has its own exclave on the northwestern coast.

Cyprus_districts_named

And the U.N. Buffer Zone itself makes up yet another unit, as it is not a mere “line” but rather a territory in its own right that cover 346 square kilometers (134 sq mi) and is home to some 10,000 people. Parts of this buffer zone are essentially off-limits to people, and have thus become a haven for wildlife, much like Korea’s so-called demilitarized zone. Another complication of geopolitics on Cyprus is that the island has been as a tax haven for many international investors, especially the Russians, which has a significant effect on the Cyprus-Russia relations. Many Russian investors withdrew their funds when the Cypriot government forced bank depositors to pay their share of an international bailout in the spring of 2013, but now Russian investors are returning. There is also a fairly sizeable Russian community on the island, with its own online forum .

Finally, it is important to note that Cyprus plays an unusual international role in regard to Israel, as Israelis who want to be married in civil rather religious ceremonies generally do so on Cyprus. But recent discoveries of off-shore gas deposits in Israel’s waters may change the hereto peaceful relations between Israel and Greek Cyprus. Both Greek Cyprus and Turkey desperately want to import Israeli off-shore gas. According to one plan, Israeli gas would be exported directly to a facility to be set up in Vassilikos, in southern Greek Cyprus. Alternately, the gas could be delivered via an underground pipeline to the port of Jihan in southern Turkey, but en route the pipeline would have to cross under the territorial waters of Greek Cyprus to avoid crossing Lebanese and Syrian territory. Unsurprisingly, Turkey and Greek Cyprus cannot agree on this issue. All in all, it is difficult to find more geopolitical complexity and ambiguity than on Cyprus.

 

http://www.bbc.com/news/business-21831943

http://www.russiancyprus.info

http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/.premium-1.573555

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cyprus_districts_named.png

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_Buffer_Zone_in_Cyprus

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/cyprus/9949860/Cyprus-an-island-pawn-in-a-game-of-geopolitical-chess.html

http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_225_report_en.pdf

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyprus_dispute

 

 

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Saint Martin/Sint Maarten: An Island Divided

(Note: Today’s post is by Claire Negiar, a Stanford senior, soon to graduate. Claire will be writing a few posts over the coming weeks, many of them focused on France and French dependencies.)

Saint Martin. Sint Maarten. A crossroad between North and South, split between France and the Netherlands, Saint Martin has known a different fate in the aftermath of decolonization than most other Caribbean islands. Although the European colonial powers of Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain, and even some of the Nordic nations usually battled it out for sovereignty over Carribbean islands in long back-and-forths, on the island of Saint Martin, the two main contenders chose a different path: that of peaceful coexistence. But what enabled Saint Martin to be successful in its division, while so many other attempts at dividing territory across the world have failed? And how have France and the Netherlands been able to coexist and build a coherent island community despite this division?

One hypothesis would be that the early colonization of Saint Martin has given time the chance to smooth over the conflicts and the disputes that resulted from this dual presence. Indeed, borders were disputed for some time before matters were settled: between 1648 and 1816, conflicts changed the border sixteen times. In the end, the French came out ahead with 54 km2 to the 41 km2 of the Dutch side. The French and Dutch had both coveted the island: while the French wanted to colonize all the islands between Trinidad and Bermuda, Dutch interest in Saint Martin stemmed from a desire to have a convenient halfway point between their colonies in New Amsterdam (today New York) and Brazil (temporarily taken from Portugal). Because there were few people inhabiting the island, the Dutch easily founded a settlement there in 1631, erecting Fort Amsterdam as protection from invaders. Soon after, the Dutch East India Company began salt mining operations. French and British settlements sprang up on the island as well, which attracted the Spanish conquistadores’ attention: taking note of these successful colonies and wanting to maintain their control of the salt trade, they suddenly found St. Martin much more appealing than it had been. What is more, the Eighty Years’ War, which had been raging between Spain and the Netherlands, provided further incentive to attack. The Spanish forces captured Saint Martin from the Dutch in 1633, seizing control and driving most or all of the colonists off the island. Although the Dutch retaliated in several attempts to win back the island, these were unsuccessful.

Sans titre3However, fifteen years after the Spanish conquered the island, the Eighty Years’ War ended and the Spanish lost their inclination to continue defending the island. They deserted the island in 1648 and, when this happened, both the Dutch and the French jumped at the chance to re-establish their settlements. Dutch colonists came from St. Eustatius, while the French came from St. Kitts.

After some initial conflict, both sides realized that neither would yield easily and, preferring to avoid an all-out war, they signed the Treaty of Concordia in 1648, which divided the island in two. In spite of the treaty, relations between the two sides were not always cordial. We can therefore see that Saint Martin’s history was off to a rocky start as well, and that things were not always as smooth as they are today.

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Some elements of the initial partition of the island may, however, help explain why it has largely been successful. Indeed, the French and the Dutch realized it was in their interest to sign a treaty giving each of them roughly half the territory. In a game of prisoner’s dilemma, the French and the Dutch would therefore both have chosen the option of “lying low,” resulting in the most beneficial split for both, instead of choosing the “equilibrium” strategy of attacking behind the other’s back, resulting in a sub-optimal resolution where there is also an intense mistrust.  All of the provisions of the 1648 Treaty of Concordia are still in force on Saint Martin today, thus showing that it has at least passed the test of time.

Another interesting point is the fact that the native population of Saint Martin was minimal, and that the population of the island has grown from both colonial settlements. That is to say, the indigenous peoples were overpowered and vastly outnumbered by the colonial powers, and that today the population is roughly split at 50% between the French and the Dutch sides, with 35,518 in Saint Martin and 37,459 in St. Maarten. Overall, the island’s population is highly mixed, with people from over 120 countries, speaking English, French, Haitian/Guadeloupe/Martinique Creole, Papiamento (a Portuguese-based Creole from the Netherland’s islands of the southern Caribbean), Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, and even Italian. It seems that this intense melting pot helps defray cultural tension, as the island is not just a split between forty thousand Frenchmen and forty thousand Dutch. On Saint Martin/St. Maarten, languages, cultures, religions, and ethnicities mix and mingle, and as a result the fact that the island is split between the Netherlands and France has taken a secondary place.

Though initially a part of the French region of Guadeloupe, French Saint Martin more recently experienced a major geopolitical change. The constitutional reform of March 28th 2003 on the decentralization of the French Republic brought about transformation in the status of the overseas territories. The new law laid down a framework for developments in the status and administration of overseas “Collectivités”. In December of 2003, at the request of the municipal council, a referendum was held on Saint Martin on the island’s constitutional status under the framework of Article 74 of the Constitution (which allows the creation of a “collectivité” with a special status); a clear majority (76.17%) of the Saint Martiners voted in favor of this change. Since December 2007, Saint Martin has been a leader of the French decentralization process under this new article of the constitution.

A somewhat similar change occurred on the Dutch half of the island.  In 1957 the Netherlands excluded the Netherlands Antilles from European Territory at the signing of the Treaty of Rome, which created the European Economic Council, forerunner of the EU, cementing its status as a colonial possession. On October 10th, however, 2010, Sint Maarten however became a constituent (i.e., non-sovereign) country within the Dutch Kingdom, giving it an equal status to Aruba, Curacao and, theoretically, the Netherlands itself. Today, the government of the “Country of St Maarten” is a parliamentary democracy.

As such developments show, the two mother countries on the island have been willing to loosen their grasp on the island and offer a certain degree of self-rule to the local population. Such accommodation is rooted in part in the island’s demographic diversity, but mere distance probably plays a role as well. If Saint Martin were closer to France and the Netherlands, would these two countries be more inclined to resist this slow relinquishing of control?  The island’s small size, and its lack of resources, has probably played a role as well.

The fact that Saint Martin has gained substantial autonomy is also synonymous with a loosened fiscal policy, which is advantageous to many wealthy French citizens. The same situation is found in other French dependencies, although the French government claims that it wants to crack down on the resulting financial irregularities. Because of their special status, Saint-Martin, Saint-Barthélémy, Tahiti, and Wallis-et-Futuna all function, to a certain extent, as tax havens and money-laundering hubs. These « Collectivités d’Outre Mer » all benefit from complete autonomy in terms of fiscal and customs policies. The political division of the island of Saint Martin complicates this situation, although sovereignty is divided, no formal border separates the two parts of the island;  one can weave in and out of the two countries without even knowing it.

Walking between the Dutch and French sides of the island of Saint Martin, the biggest difference is that of scale: while the Dutch side boasts very large hotels, nightclubs, casinos, and cruise-ship tourist populations, while the French side is home to smaller-scale hotels, restaurants, and, in true French form, a few topless beaches. What is more, financial institutions on the Dutch and the French sides have a policy of cooperation, thus making money-laundering relatively easy. Indeed, according to UN and European Commission consultant Michel Koutouzis:

“You arrive with black-market money in a Casino on the Dutch side. You are told to sit at a given table for an hour. The casino makes you win a pre-arranged sum, which is a common practice in tax-havens. Once you collect your winnings, you can go invest them on the French side in real-estate or marina projects.”

Today, two main issues have been plaguing the island, French and Dutch sides alike: drugs and disease. The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about the dispersion of the chikungunya mosquito-borne virus across the Caribbean, fearing its spread to the United States and throughout the Americas.

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The virus, originally from Africa and southern Asia, causes fever and intense muscle and joint pain for weeks and, in some cases, years. There is currently no vaccine or cure. On December 10, 2013, the WHO confirmed the first two cases of chikungunya that were acquired locally rather than imported, on the French part of the island of St. Martin. As of Feb. 21, the Pan American Health Organization, a regional WHO entity, had confirmed 2,238 cases of the disease in the Caribbean—from Martinique to the British Virgin Islands.

Drug consumption and ease of access has been another concern for the island: both cannabis and heroin are relatively cheap on the island, and are thus prevalent and heavily consumed. Reducing the drug consumption and creating an environment in which people feel comfortable to seek out help remain top priorities for the local government.

Although the island of Saint Martin is divided, it benefits from surprising synergies between its two sides, with a shared but diverse cultural background, and a reputation for delicious food and beautiful beaches. However, the two sides of the islands also share the common challenges of disease, drugs, and regulating financial institutions to avoid money-laundering and tax evasion. Today, although politically divided, Saint Martin largely functions as a unified country, with the minor anomaly of having two separate official languages in different areas. Although not necessarily an example of perfect governance or exemplary policy, Saint Martin provides lessons for other regions of the world about successful coexistence. But is this model reproducible anywhere else in the world, perhaps in such a conflict-ridden and divided country as Cyprus, or is it too idiosyncratic of a situation to be generalizable to any other parts of the world?

 

http://www.stmartinisland.org/destination-st-martin/saint-martin-island-life.html

http://rue89.nouvelobs.com/2008/10/17/ces-petits-paradis-fiscaux-francais-quon-laisse-prosperer

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304071004579409532322280294

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/24/one-island-two-countries/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Martin

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Separatism in French Polynesia

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

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

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

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

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

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Diagramming the Area of French Sovereignty

In diagramming the area of French sovereignty, I was not sure what to call the region constituted by the regular departments of France (both those in “Metropolitan France” and those located overseas); in the end I opted for “France Proper,” but it seems that there must be a better term. Some sources, including Wikipedia, place Corsica within “l’Hexagone,” but such a classification seems geometrically incorrect to me.  

I am fond of the term “sui generis collectivity” for New Caledonia, which is scheduled to hold a referendum on independence between 2014 and 2018. New Caledonia now has a system of dual national symbols, with one set representing its position within the French Republic, and the other looking toward independence. As a result, I have placed it in the outermost layer of French sovereignty. I do not, however, expect independence to come easily to New Caledonia

Comments and criticisms are again welcome.

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The Australian Asylum Controversy Extends to Indonesia

The on-going Australian asylum-seeking controversy has recently spread to the Indonesian island of Java. On August 20, the Jakarta Post announced the arrest of “28 illegal immigrants hiding in a forested coastal area of South Cianjur, West Java. The immigrants were part of a large group of asylum seekers from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran who were heading to Christmas Island.” The report went on to note that a total 61 asylum seekers have been detained, and that a number of others are still being sought. The Australian government had previously reached an agreement with Indonesia that would allow its navy to turn boats with asylum seekers back to Indonesian waters, but it has announced that it will not pursue that option.

Christmas Island is a small (135 km2; 52 sq mi) Australian territory located much closer to Java than to the Australian mainland.  Asylum seekers bound for Australia are held in detention centers on the island for processing. Because many detainees are eventually given visas and allowed into the country, boats carrying refugees often head for the island. Detainees on the island now number almost 1,700, as opposed to 1,400 permanent residents. Overcrowding is resulting in serious shortages of milk, fuel, and other goods on the island.

To cope with the record number of new arrivals, the Australian government has ordered the reopening of the detention centers on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea that had been employed by the previous, much more conservative, government. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard of the Labor Party is now taking a hard line herself, threatening “indefinite detention for boat arrivals”—a maneuver much opposed by the Green Party. According to a recent report, the Australian intelligence service has discovered that “people smugglers have been overheard telling clients that even if they are sent to Nauru or Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, they will eventually get to Australia if they are patient enough,” informing their customers that that “Nauru is ‘just another Christmas Island.’”

Australian law courts, meanwhile, are handling dozens of suits brought forth by former detainees on Nauru, many of who claim to have been suffered physical abuse along with “forced solitary confinement for 23 hours a day for as many as four weeks.” Over the past year, the government awarded former detainees with several million dollars in compensation funds.

 

 

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Melting and Mining in Greenland

Reports of recent massive surface melting on Greenland’s central ice cap have circulated widely in the global media. According to NASA, the area exhibiting a surface thaw expanded from 40 percent of the ice sheet to 97 percent in a mere four-day period this July. As reported by Canada’s CBC News, “You literally had this wave of warm air wash over the Greenland ice sheet and melt it,” NASA ice scientist Tom Wagner said Tuesday. “Cooler air soon returned, however, refreezing much of the area that had previously melted.

Although the temporary melting was undeniable, controversy nonetheless erupted. As discussed by Andrew Revkin in the New York Time’s Dot Earth features, the NASA press office made a major error in calling the event “unprecedented,” as similar surface melts have evidently occurred, on average, once every 150 years. Despite such previous episodes, the recent thaw is generating much concern, as Greenland’s ice cap has been retreating in recent year, a phenomenon that most climatologists link to global warming.

Reporting on the event by mainstream news outlets also leaves much to be desired. In a video accompanying the CBC article, for example, the reporter claimed that, “This month nearly all of the ice on Greenland melted.” Had “nearly all” of Greenland’s ice actually melted, global sea levels would have risen by some 6 meters, as the ice cap is on average 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) thick.  Although the melting was extensive, it did not penetrate very deep into the massive glacier.

Although the current retreat of Greenland’s ice cap worries climatologists and environmentalists, it is also exciting the imaginations of mining firms. According to a recent article in the Guardian:

Europe is looking to open a new frontier in the ever more urgent quest for new natural resources – the pristine icy wastes of Greenland. Oil and gas have been the focus of exploitation so far – but the EU sees just as much potential in a massive opening up of mining operations across the world’s biggest island, according to Antonio Tajani, the European commission’s vice-president and one of the most powerful politicians in the union. He called the move “raw material diplomacy”.

The article goes on to mention that while only one gold mine is currently in operation on Greenland, five are in the advanced planning stage and more than 120 potential sites are being investigated. The author also notes that Greenpeace is working to forestall potential mining operations on the island.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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…”

 

Iceland to Export Electricity to Britain? Read More »

Somali Migrants Land on Linosa in Italy’s Pelagie Islands

The Italian island of Lampedusa is well known as a place of entry into the European Union for would-be immigrants from Africa. Less commonly noted is the fact that Lampedusa’s neighbors in the Pelagie Archipelago are in the same situation. Earlier this week, for example, 78 Somalis (15 women and 63 men) landed on the island of Linosa (5.45 km²; population 450), where they were immediately detained by the Carabinieri, Italy’s national police force. Migrants are often in dire conditions when they arrive. Earlier this month, 48 people on a rubber dinghy were rescued near Lampedusa; over the previous several days, 10 had reportedly died, their bodies dumped into the sea.

The Pelagie Islands are not only a common entry point into Europe, but the archipelago also serve as a place of detention for illegal immigrants. The main holding site is the euphemistically named Lampedusa Immigrants Reception Center. As the Wikipedia describes the facility: “The unit, which was originally built for a maximum capacity of 850 people, was reported to be housing nearly 2,000 boat people. A significant number of people were sleeping outdoors under plastic sheeting.”

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U.S. Marine Contingent to Leave Okinawa

Japanese newspapers are reporting that the United States will be moving roughly 8,000 marines off of the island of Okinawa, reassigning them to Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Hawaii, and Northern Australia.  The massive U.S. military presence on Okinawa—with fourteen bases covering eighteen percent of the island—has long been a highly controversial matter. Relocating the marines will be an expensive proposition, but much of the bill will be paid by Japan. According to a recent report in the Daily Yomiuri, Japan may contribute as much as $3.1 billion. Some of the funds will “cover part of the costs for the development of a U.S. base and related facilities in Tinian, part of the Northern Mariana Islands and a self-governing territory of the United States.” The report also added “the two countries are considering conducting joint training between U.S. troops and the [Japanese] Self-Defense Forces on the island [of Tinian].”

In related news, the Daily Yomiuri is also reporting that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government is negotiating to buy three of the Senkaku Islands, hotly disputed among Japan, China, and Taiwan, from a private Japanese citizen. In announcing the plan, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara harshly criticized the government of Japan:

The central government is too scared to do anything. …. The Tokyo metropolitan government will protect the Senkaku Islands. How can anyone complain about the Japanese buying the islands to protect the nation’s territory, regardless of which country opposes such a move?

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Complex Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea

The headline of an April 15 article in the Washington Post might strike many readers as slightly absurd: “Philippine president says his country won’t start war with China over disputed shoal.” Although the Philippines is hardly in a position to challenge China militarily, the remarks of President Benigno Aquino III did help the country save face as it pulled a warship out of the disputed waters and allowed several Chinese fishing vessels to return home with their catch. On April 16, the United States and the Philippines began joint military exercises, a move that officials insist has no connection with the China-Philippine dispute.

The disputed territory in question is Scarborough Shoal (called Huangyan Island in China and Panatag Shoal in the Philippines.) It is situated well to the northeast of the better-known Spratly Islands, which are often considered to entail the world’s most complex territorial contest, with multiple overlapping claims. Despite the fact that Scarborough is labeled as a mere shoal or reef, it actually contains a significant amount of dry land, estimated at 50 square kilometers (58 sq mi). It is, however, highly rocky and of little use. The local seas, however, are rich marine resources, and a successful territorial bid would give the controlling country power over an expansive maritime domain.

The dispute in the Spratly Islands is intensified by the possibility of substantial oil and natural gas deposits in the area. The most interesting recent maneuver in this contest occurred in March 2012, when Vietnam sent six Buddhist monks to re-establish an abandoned temple that the country had briefly maintained in the 1970s on one of the islands. The presence of the monks will supposedly help Vietnam establish its territorial claims in the region. One of the monks claimed that he would “pray for ‘anyone of the Vietnamese race’ lost at sea in defence of Vietnam’s claim to the archipelago.’”

Complex Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea Read More »

Joshua Calder’s World Islands Website

For those interested in all manner of geographical information about islands, I highly recommend Joshua Calder’s WorldIslandInfo. The information on this site is detailed and comprehensive.  The section on “island misinformation” is very useful. Josh used to blog on islands as well, and many of his fascinating posts are still available.

 

 

 

 

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U.S. Drone Base on Australia’s Cocos Islands?

Cocos (Keeling) Islands

Australia recently announced that it might allow the United States to establish an airbase on its remote Indian-Ocean Territory of Cocos (Keeling) Islands. Such a base would be used primarily for a fleet of surveillance drones, but it has been suggested that it could potentially serve as a partial replacement for the massive U.S. military complex on the island of Diego Garcia in the Chagos Archipelago, which is leased from the United Kingdom. Australia and the United States have recently heightened their military cooperation. The U.S. is establishing a contingent of Marines in the northern Australian city of Darwin, and negotiations are underway to station U.S. aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines in the Western Australian capital of Perth. Most observers link the enhancement of military ties between Australia and the U.S. to the rapid growth of the Chinese military.

The plans for the drone base have generated opposition in Australia. Shortly after the announcement was made, Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith insisted that the proposal was merely a ”long-term prospect.” Australian opposition leaders, however, stated that they have a ”very positive” attitude about the proposed base. Australian military experts caution that major investments would be necessary before the Cocos Islands could be transformed into a drone base: “The harbour is really a lagoon while the island lacks significant infrastructure such as a shopping centre and the limited supply of freshwater significantly affects the numbers of people the islands can sustain.”

The Indonesian government has formally objected to the proposal, stating that it “threatens Indonesian sovereignty and security.”

U.S. Drone Base on Australia’s Cocos Islands? Read More »

Lakes on Islands in Lakes: Toba and Taal in Indonesia and the Philippines

For those interested in geographical superlatives pertaining to islands and lakes, Elburz.org has an interesting list, beginning with the world largest island (Greenland) and largest lake (Caspian Sea). It continues with the largest lake on an island (Nettilling Lake on Baffin Island in Canada), the largest island in a lake (Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron in Canada), the largest island in a lake on an island (Samosir in Lake Toba on Sumatra in Indonesia), the largest lake on an island in a lake (Lake Manitou on Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron in Canada), the largest lake on an island in a lake on an island (Crater Lake on Volcano Island in Taal Lake on Luzon in the Philippines), the largest island in a lake on an island in a lake (unnamed island in Mindemoya Lake on Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron in Canada), and the largest island in a lake on an island in a lake on an island (Vulcan point in Crater Lake on Volcano Island in Taal Lake on Luzon in the Philippines).

Two of the lakes in question were formed in volcanic craters, Taal in the Philippines and Toba in Indonesia. Massive volcanic explosions in the past produced the depressions that eventually formed these lakes, while subsequent volcanism built up the islands within them. The Toba Event—the supervolcanic eruption of the Toba volcano that occurred some 69,000-77,000 years ago—is believed by some scientists to have plunged much of the world into a decade-long volcanic winter that reduced the global human population to a mere 1,000-10,000 breeding pairs.

Past eruptions of Taal Volcano were never as devastating as the Toba Event, but Taal is still counted as one of the world’s sixteen most potentially deadly volcanoes. Taal Lake is of note mostly for its biological oddities. Taal was once a salt-water bay; after it was separated from the sea, it turned fresh gradually, allowing a number of oceanic species time to adjust to freshwater conditions. Taal thus supports freshwater sardines as well as a freshwater sea snake. It once had bull sharks as well, but they were exterminated by local fishermen in the 1930s. Bull sharks live in freshwater environments elsewhere in the world, including Lake Nicaragua.

Lakes on Islands in Lakes: Toba and Taal in Indonesia and the Philippines Read More »

New Evidence on the Settlement of Madagascar

A new study of the genetic background of the people of Madagascar sheds light on the settlement of the island. It has long been known that the initial movement of people to Madagascar was relatively recent (1,000 to 1,500 years ago), and that it originated not from the African mainland but rather from the islands of what is now Indonesia. The new study, carried out by a team led by Murray Cox of New Zealand’s Massey University, examined mitrochondrial DNA, providing firm data on maternal lineages. The findings suggest that the first settlement of the island occurred around 830 CE, and involved a small group of women, numbering around thirty individuals. The researchers found no indication of women continuing to move from Insular Southeast Asia to Madagascar after the initial settlement event. Subsequently, however, another migration stream brought women (and men) from Africa to the island.

Many mysteries still surround the peopling of Madagascar. Cox’s dating suggests that the initial settlement occurred during the heyday of the powerful Srivijaya Empire, which controlled the Strait of Malacca and maintained a powerful fleet. But cultural evidence of Srivijaya’s role in the settlement process is lacking. The Empire was Buddhist, with Hindu elements, but religious practices of Indian origin were not established on Madagascar. The indigenous Malagasy language of Madagascar, moreover, is most closely related to the Barito languages of Borneo, not the Malay language spoken in Srivijaya.

Some have suggested that the first settlers could have been members of a tribal population from Borneo sent by Srivijaya, or perhaps by a Malay mercantile network, to establish a local base for food production that could aid their trading activities in the area. Others think that the settlement could have been entirely accidently, resulting from a ship or small fleet blown off-course. It is unlikely that mercantile activities would have directly led to the settlement of the Madagascar. Certainly traders from what is now Indonesia were active at the time in the waters of the western Indian Ocean, but it is thought that few women were involved in the process.

 

 

 

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René-Levasseur: The World’s Second Largest Island in a Lake?

The Wikipedia’s list of the world’s largest islands in lake has some intriguing features. Four of the top seven positions are occupied by islands in North America’s Great Lakes: Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron (or Lake Michigan-Huron, which is actually a single lake), Isle Royale in Lake Superior, St. Joseph Island in Lake Huron, and Drummond Island, also in Lake Huron.

While Manitoulin is clearly the world’s largest lake island, the second position entails some ambiguity. Until the turn of the millennium, Vozrozhdeniya Island in the Aral Sea was the second largest island in a lake, but the shrinkage of the Aral subsequently turned it into a peninsula then caused to disappear completely as a geographical feature. Currently René-Levasseur Island in Quebec’s Lake Manicouagan occupies the second slot. Lake Manicouagan, however, is an artificial reservoir, created by the damming of the Manicouagan River in the 1960s. Unique among large lake islands, René-Levasseur is larger than the lake that surrounds it; the island covers 2,020 km2 (780 sq mi), whereas the area of the lake is 1,942 km2 (750 sq mi).  

         Together, René-Levasseur Island and Lake Manicouagan make an interesting geographical feature, easily discernable from space. Due to the near circularity of both the lake and the island, they are sometimes called the “eye of Quebec.” Such circularity derives from the feature’s origin as an asteroid impact crater some 214 million years ago. The crater was originally around 100 kilometers wide, but erosion and sedimentation gradually reduced the depression to a width of around 72 kilometers. Until the damming of the Manicouagan River, two crescent-shaped lakes occupied the periphery of the depression. Once the dam was completed, the two lakes merged together to form what is now Manicouagan reservoir.

René-Levasseur: The World’s Second Largest Island in a Lake? Read More »