Guest Posts

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

Disputed Ruins and Phoenician Heritage in Beirut

New construction projects in urban areas nearly always require the destruction of whatever buildings stood on the land previously. Although efforts to preserve historic buildings in the U.S. have generated cynicism and at times seem absurd, the same cannot be said of Beirut, Lebanon. Beirut is one of the oldest cities in the world, with a history stretching back some 5,000 years. In early 2011, construction workers in Beirut’s Mina al-Hosn district unearthed what archaeologists suggested was a port used by the city’s Phoenician inhabitants in the 5th Century B.C. The discovery prompted Lebanon’s former Minister of Culture, Salim Wardeh, to designate the area as an archaeological site in order to protect it from development. Although archaeologists now dispute whether the ruins were in fact a port, and whether the site was actually built in the 5th Century B.C., they continue to agree on its importance and antiquity.

Photo of the ruins’ destruction. Photo credit: Scott Barbour, AFP/Getty Images

Nevertheless, Lebanon’s current Minister of Culture, Gaby Layoun, decided to revoke former minister Wardeh’s decree on June 26 of this year on the grounds that the site “does not involve any trace of Phoenician or Roman port infrastructure”. The decision opened the way for construction, and bulldozers moved in almost immediately to remove the archaeological debris. These events prompted a quick riposte from Wardeh and two other former Ministers of Culture who deplored “the destruction of heritage and the violation of Lebanon’s history by one who is responsible for preserving them”. The overseer of archaeological excavation at the site, Hisham Sayegh, resigned from the Ministry of Culture on June 27 during a protest calling for Layoun to step down. Addressing Layoun directly, Sayegh claims: “Never has archaeology in Lebanon since the last centuries and during wars of ancient times, or during the Israeli invasion and bombardment of Beirut, experienced such destruction as it has witnessed since you took office at the Ministry of Culture.” Layoun has responded to his critics vigorously, promising to press charges against those leveling insults in the future.

Location of the site within Beirut

Historical heritage can be a fraught issue in Lebanon, a land where Christians and Muslims of various sects coexist in an uneasy balance. Lebanon’s Phoenician past has the potential to serve as a unifying force, since it is a legacy that neither religious group can theoretically monopolize. Though generalizations should be taken with a grain of salt, Lebanese Christians have in the past used Phoenician identity as a moral weapon. By identifying themselves closely with Phoenicia, some Maronite Christians assert their claims on Lebanon’s past to be more authentic than those of their Muslim neighbors, who usually look more to the Arab and Ottoman heritage. Despite recent genetic tests indicating that both Christian and Muslim Lebanese share equal amounts of “Phoenician blood,” the association of Phoenicia with Christian activism in Lebanon has been slow to fade.

The disputed construction site and former archaeological dig in Beirut may or may not be Phoenician, but the backlash against its destruction shows that Lebanon’s ancient past is a highly valued resource among Lebanese of all faiths. One can only hope that remaining ancient sites in the area can help foster an atmosphere of respect that will allow Beirut to thrive for another 5,000 years.

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Mining in Yukon

Yukon, Canada’s westernmost territory, has few people but generates much mining revenue. Protected forest habitats cover large swaths of Yukon, and many people, like those in Canada’s other two territories, trace at least part of their ancestry to the area’s indigenous peoples. Statistics Canada, the Canadian government’s official website for national demography, reports that 25 percent of the territory’s 30,190 people identified as “Aboriginal.”

Though Yukon has the second smallest population of any first order territorial subdivision in Canada and only 0.1 percent of the Canadian population, it has the third highest GDP per capita in the country. A gold rush attracted many prospectors in the late 19th century and mining has for many decades been one of the territory’s major industries. While the government has succeeded mining as the primary employer in Yukon and tourism has become a cornerstone of the territory’s economy, mineral extraction brings in much income, and exploration for gold, silver, copper, nickel, lead, and zinc, among other minerals, remains highly successful.

“Mining Yukon”, a slickly designed website created by the territorial government, touts the many advantages of mineral extraction . According to the website, Yukon boasts “80 mineral deposits…some of which are world class in stature,” as well as 2,600 different known sites of various minerals. It also provides excellent geological and land use maps, such as the one appearing at left.

Mineral exploration continues to create economic optimism in Yukon. Strategic Metals Ltd., the self-described “pre-eminent explorer and claimholder” in the territory, announced in late May the potential for promising gold mines. Many of the potentially mineral-rich sites that the company is exploring are located in eastern Yukon, which already produces large quantities of gold and copper. Strategic Metals generates revenue from 160 land holdings across the territory and owns substantial shares in other Yukon mining firms.

Another mineral extractor in Yukon, Ethos Gold Corp, has found potentially large gold deposits. The CEO of Ethos recently stated, “We are excited to have made several new and substantial gold discoveries during the first drill test program on the Betty Property which is confirmed to have potential to host large gold deposits.” Ethos owns a very substantial 1,020 square kilometers of land in the territory.

The profitability of Yukon’s minerals, along with its highly lucrative tourism—much of it from adventure-seeking Germans—means that the otherwise largely isolated territory receives substantial traffic from the outside. Mining companies rely on highways linking the territory to its neighbors, including Alaska. Flooding in mid June of this year caused consternation for both truckers hauling tungsten and gold and residents who were used to dining at Tim Hortons and eating imported food items.

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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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Mapping U.S. Disasters

As recently highlighted on the weblog Per Square Mile, amateur geographer Crystal Dorn has mapped county-level U.S. data on official disasters from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and published it as a webGIS. Taking this map at face value, it seems that 54 years has not been enough time for clear patterns to emerge when each county is shaded according to the most prevalent type of disaster within its borders.

Looking at the data from 1959 through 1992, more or less the entire country is dominated by flooding, drought, or snow-related disasters. Including the period from 1992 to 2003 makes the entire Southwest a fire-dominated zone, while flooding ceases to be a dominant disaster in much of the East. The dataset clearly runs into a crippling problem during 2005, when nearly the entire country—even Eureka County, Nevada—becomes a Hurricane Katrina “evacuation zone”. Perhaps those who faulted FEMA’s response to Katrina in 2005 should reconsider their position in light of the negligible death toll in such “hurricane-stricken” places as Cherry County, Nebraska and Wayne County, Michigan. More seriously, though, the changing face of the pre-Katrina national disaster map underlines the problems inherent in insuring against disasters of wide geographic range and low frequency. If the really severe floods or fires come barely once a generation, how does one manage the risk?

A more tractable graphic (displayed here) from the FEMA website showing disaster frequency by county from 2000 through 2007 and breaking disaster type down by region appears to make much more sense. For the country as a whole, severe storms, hurricanes, floods, ice storms, and fires lead the way in frequency. Florida in particular looks like a dangerous place to live.

For anyone interested in keeping up with current disasters, FEMA maps them in real time on the Census Bureau website.

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Visualizing California’s Soggy Past

A previous GeoNote highlighted a collaborative effort to map historical changes in California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin RiverDelta. In a similar spirit, the fantasy satellite map shown at left, created by Central Valley geographer Mark Clark and noted by Frank Jacobs, imagines what the entire state might have looked like in 1851. Perhaps the map’s most salient feature is massive Tulare Lake, which dominates the Southern San Joaquin valley. Tulare Lake, now completely dry in all but the wettest years, once boasted a surface area of 1,780 square kilometers (690 square miles), making it the largest freshwater lake west of theMississippi River. The rain and melt water that fed the lake in times past now forms a vital input for California’s $36 billion agriculture industry.

Tulare Lake, along with the other extensive river and wetland systems depicted in the map, were drained in the late 19th and early 20th centuries near the end of a wetland-drainage movement that is as old as the country itself. In fact, much of America’s prime agricultural land in the Midwest was once wetland. As shown on the maps below, which were taken from a USGS report, the states of Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, and Ohio—as well as California—have lost over 95 percent of their wetlands since European colonization, primarily to agriculture. Most of the changes in the East occurred during the 19th century.


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“Mapping Stereotypes” Farcical Maps

Yanko Tsvetkov’s farcical Mapping Stereotypes series humorously represents the views that people of various countries, mostly in Europe, hold of other nations. Many of the maps from the Bulgarian graphic designer label Europe’s countries with stereotypes that people of different nations in the region hold about them. Examples of such maps include “Europe According to Italians” and “Europe According to Bulgarians.” Particularly entertaining are the maps that deviate from this pattern, such as “Italy According to Posh Italians,” “The World According to Israel,” and “The World According to Americans.”

The labels in the European maps that make up the bulk of the series offer intriguing geopolitical perspectives. “Europe According to Germany,” for example, evokes Germany’s greater pre-World War II territorial extent, referring to the Baltic states as “old neighbors.” In “Europe According to Russians,” Eastern Ukraine, which has a predominant Russian population and favors Russia in foreign policy, carries the tag “Southern Russia.” In the same map the Russian clientstates of Abkhazia and South Ossetia appear as “brothers” and “sisters,” respectively. The map of France’s view of Europe labels Algeria as “France woz here,” alluding to the country’s former status as a part of France, but neglects to include the erstwhile colonies of Morocco and Tunisia.

“Italy According to Posh Italians” is of particular interest. This map highlights the frustration of many in the wealthier north that their disproportionate tax payments help support the poorer south. Sicily and southern Italy appear with the demeaning labels “Somalia” and “Ethiopia,” respectively. “The World According to Israel,” one of the few non-European maps from Mapping Stereotypes, portrays the country as self-centered, placing it in the middle of a diagram reminiscent of a schematic of the solar system. The map represents Iran as rogue space debris and the United States as a planet orbiting close to Israel, on which the disputed territories of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights appear as “sun spots.”

The collection includes several maps from the perspective of the United States. These echo the themes found in similar farcical maps, sharing the ascription of communism to Russia, mass-produced goods to China, and AIDS to Africa. However, some of the labels seem uncharacteristic of an American perspective. While the maps mock American ignorance of the world, they in certain cases presuppose detailed geographical knowledge in the American public at large. It seems unlikely that the person who would associate the country Turkey with a “Thanksgiving meal” or refer to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan as “Kwpzsfrstan” and “Szwrkstan” would be knowledgeable enough to associate the Tupamaro movement with Uruguay. The same map also labels Indonesia as “Mesoindia,” a term that makes little sense.

Mapping Stereotypes is an impressive collection of farcical maps that, while sometimes unusual and confusing, offers a great range of insights into how different peoples view the world.

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Public Education and Ethnicity in Connecticut

Connecticut race and ethnicities concentrations

Connecticut Race and Ethnicities ConcentrationsConnecticut has stark contrasts in prosperity and social development, including educational quality. The map showing the percentage of students of color in Connecticut school districts demonstrates that a handful of urban areas have high concentrations of people of color, while many of the school districts in the state have mostly white students. Unfortunately, it was impossible to locate the source of the map about students’ race and ethnicity, but the 2010 United States Census reflects many of its statistics. A comparison between this map and a recent map of the best performing school districts in Connecticut from suggests that lower performing districts tend to have higher percentages of students of color. The issue of segregation in the state’s public schools came to the fore in the Connecticut Supreme Court case Sheff v. O’Neill. The case was decided in 1996 in favor of the plaintiff, who argued that the dfacto inaccessibility of good public education to students of color amounted to a civil rights violation.

Connecticut school districts quality

Note that students of color are concentrated in three heavily populated cities: Bridgeport, New Haven, and Hartford. Likewise, note that the cities of Waterbury, New London, New Britain, and Stamford, which is my hometown, have the next highest numbers of students of color—50% to 70% of enrolled students. Outside of these seven urban areas and the town school districts colored in yellow, orange, and blue, at most only 10% of students in enrolled in Connecticut public schools are non-white. Also, some of Connecticut’s highest performing public schools are in Darien, Weston, New Canaan, and Avon, which are indicated on the race and ethnicities map in grey; meanwhile, some of the state’s lowest performing public schools are in Bridgeport, New Haven, and Hartford. Relative wealth constitutes one large factor in school performance disparities. New Haven, Bridgeport, and Hartford are poorer than towns such as New Canaan, Darien, and Weston, which are located in Fairfield County, the county with the seventh highest per capita income in the United States. That said, in towns such as Union and Canaan, which are more rural and have lower median household incomes, students of color represent at most 10% of the enrolled students and scores on state standardized tests are lower. Since the quality of Connecticut’s school districts reflects to a great extent the property taxes and per capita income of its residents, the two Connecticut maps show a correlation between not only race and education but also between race and income.

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“The World According to Finns” Farcical Map

The World According to Finns

The World According to Finns

Just as the maps entitled “The World According to Americans” and “The American World” poke fun at geographical prejudices in the United States, “The World According to Finns” offers a farcical representation of geographical prejudices in Finland. Like the other two “World According to…” maps, it not only glorifies the country whose perspective it is supposed to represent, but also assigns mostly disparaging labels to other regions and countries of the world.

Note that the creator has directed the message “Please don’t come to Finland,” at Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe, source areas of most of the recent immigrants to Finland. According to the map, Finns tend to view Southwest Asia as an area of “crazy people”; the region spanning India, China, and Southeast Asia as a source of inexpensive workers; and the United States as a “lazy,” “idiotic,” and “evil” country. Likewise, the map depicts Latin America as a wooded wilderness, Sweden as a land of rampant social liberalism, and Norway as an unduly lucky country. The creator starkly labels Western Europe (oddly, including the Balkans) as “good,” while depicting Eastern Europe in an entirely negative manner. The map also suggests that Finns view Russia with suspicion and alarm, as the country is labeled “Ruskies!!” and colored red, no doubt for Russia’s communist past.

Other curious features include the labeling of a greatly exaggerated Canary Island(s) as “Finland’s Disneyland” and Estonia as “Finland’s Disneyworld.” Finally, note that the creator has labeled the entirety of Africa with a single, racially degrading slur.

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Mother Goddess Worship in Vietnam

Wikipedia Religious Freedom Map

Wikipedia Religious Freedom MapAlthough Vietnam is in name a Communist state, the practice of mother goddess worship  endures through much of the country.  Mother Goddesses are thought to represent heaven, earth, water, mountains, and forests.  They are celebrated in rituals as symbols of fertility and creation.  For the first time, the worship of Mother Goddesses is on display at a public museum in Hanoi.  The exhibition, “Worshiping Mother Goddesses: Heart – Beauty – Joy,” opened at the Vietnam Women’s Museum on 5 January 2012.  Its installation comes after two years of research among practitioners by the Vietnam Women’s Union.

Organizers of the exhibition reported approval difficulties with local authorities. According to anthropologist and Mother-Goddess-worship specialist Professor Ngo Duc Thinh, these problems are unsurprising, “since in the past, the worship was seen as superstition.”  However, signs suggest a change, since Mother Goddess worship is at last “being officially acknowledged in modern society.”  The ritual may be proposed as an UNESCO cultural heritage.  This exhibition may be the first step towards greater recognition and appreciation of the ritual, as Vietnamese anthropologists propose to found a private museum focused on the worship of Mother Goddesses.

Overall, Vietnam is generally regarded as having a relatively low level of religious freedom, as indicated in this admittedly highly problematic Wikipedia map. Vietnamese human rights activists have recently accused the government of discriminating against religious minorities, especially among the country’s tribal populations.

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Protests on the island of Réunion

Wikipedia Map of France and its Overseas Possessions

Wikipedia Map of France and its Overseas PossessionsFrench news outlets are reporting “spontaneous and unorganized” outbursts of violence on the island of Réunion, one of France’s overseas departments.  Protests against the high cost of living and rising prices of fuel exploded several days ago.  In the administrative capital, Saint-Denis, the quarter of Le Chaudron is littered with stone and broken glass after violent clashes Wednesday night.  Protestors also burned cars in Saint-Denis and Le Port, both located in the northern parts of the island.  Saint-Benoît, a commune in the east, also experienced disorder.

The Mayor of Saint-Denis, Gilbert Annette, made an appeal for peace Thursday morning on public radio.  He emphasized the necessity of finding a solution to Réunion’s high youth unemployment and lack of purchasing power among low-income inhabitants.  He urged the state to “take exceptional measures for Réunion.”

Le Chaudron, one of the most heavily populated districts on the island, is known for violent protests.  In 1973, demonstrations led to clashes with France’s riot control police, the Comapgnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS).  The 1991 “Événements du Chaudron” were a series of riots marked by skirmishes between young protestors and the police, the use of Molotov cocktails, and the torching of cars and stores.  This latest outburst of socioeconomic tension continues.

Similar conflicts have occurred in other French overseas departments in recent years, including Mayotte and Martinique.

(By Rebecca Hecht)

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“The American World” Farcical Maps

“The American World” belongs to a genre of maps that make fun of the geographical ignorance and prejudices of people from different countries. These maps are usually made by Internet users and crop up on blogs, forums, and social networking websites. They often have titles like “The World According to India,” or “The World According to Americans.” While some of the prejudices in “The World According to Americans” maps may be familiar to a mainstream U.S. audience, those found in maps that claim to represent the perspectives of other peoples can offer some surprising insights about how others see the world.

On the first map, note that the distorted landmasses are very roughly divided into world regions. According to the creator, Americans tend to see Europe as cultivated and soft, South Asia and East Asia as mostly industrial, Canada as woodsy and provincial, Southwest Asia as oil rich and war-torn, and Africa (which has black and white stripes reminiscent of those of zebras) as lacking any interest. Australia’s labeling as “Big Island (Hawaii ?)” is probably a jab at Americans’ general geographical ignorance. Most unusual is the red strip labeled “Don’t go here.” Could it be North Korea? If so, it is far too south.

“The World According to Americans” map has many similarities with “The American World.” As on the previous map, the American flag is superimposed on the United States and is coupled with a noisily patriotic exclamation, “AMERICA!!!1 WE’RE #1!!!!!” Also similar is the disparaging tag placed on Europe, the reference to Asia as an industrial zone, the view of Southwest Asia as violent and war-torn, and the labeling of Canada as “uninhabited.” Africa, which is floating free of Eurasia, is insultingly depicted as a land of “zoo animals.” Besides the anachronistic labeling of the former lands of the Soviet Union as “communists,” the circular blob representing Southeast Asia is oddly labeled “more evil doers”. While the cartographer may be referring to Muslim fundamentalist organizations such as Jemaah Islamiyya in Indonesia, it is unlikely that the average America—whose view this map supposedly represents— would have any knowledge of such groups.

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The Role of the Caucasus in Russian Cultural and Intellectual History

(by guest blogger Vitaliy L. Rayz, in collaboration with Martin W. Lewis)

The present GeoCurrents series has focused on the peoples of the Caucasus, examining Russia and Russians only insofar as they have impacted the region. But the Caucasus has played a significant role in the politics of Russia, and in its cultural history as well. The most prominent Russian poets and writers, including Alexander Pushkin, Michael Lermontov, and Lev Tolstoy, traveled through the region and described it in their renowned books. The “cultural exchange,” moreover, went both ways: many members of the Russian elite served, worked, or vacationed in the Caucasus, while quite a few Caucasians made it to the top ranks of Russian society.

Several Georgian nobles, for example, gained fame for their service to the Russian Empire. Prince Pyotr Ivanovich Bagration (“Prince Pyotr”), depicted on the left, a descendant of the Georgian royal family, became one of the most successful Russian generals during Napoleonic wars. In 1812 he led one of the Russian armies fighting the invading French troops. Bagration heroically fought in the bloody battle of Borodino, where he commanded the left wing of the Russian position. After repelling more than half a dozen massive attacks led by the most talented French marshals, Bagration was mortally wounded.


As the Russians advanced into the Caucasus in the first half of the 19th century, their armies included a number of nobles. For many, service in the North Caucasus—a land of unrelenting war—was itself a form of punishment, entailing exile from the capital. Some Russian nobles serving in the region were actually de-ranked from the officer class and reclassified as ordinary soldiers. Such a penalty could stem from many kinds of misbehavior, ranging from participation in a duel to the holding of “untrustworthy” political views.

Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s best-loved poet, visited the Caucasus twice and described its snow-covered mountains and proud highlanders in poetry and prose. In his famous poem “The prisoner of the Caucasus,” he describes a Russian captive who falls in love with a Circassian girl. “A Journey to Arzrum,” written during his second visit in 1829, provides a detailed account of his trip. In this remarkable work, the ever sharp-witted and discerning Pushkin describes different peoples, their traditions, and their cuisines. He also had sharp words for the relationship between the Russians and the Circassians:

The Circassians hate us. We have pushed them from free pastures; their villages are devastated, whole tribes are exterminated. With every hour they get higher and higher in the mountains and from there launch their raids. Friendship with the “pacified” Circassians is not reliable: they are always ready to help their violent kinsmen.

In order to safely get to Vladikavkaz in what is now North Ossetia-Alania, Pushkin had to join a regular military convoy, protected by infantry, mounted Cossacks, and a cannon. After crossing the formidable Caucasus range, Pushkin was delighted to see the “fair-looking” Georgia. After arriving Tiflis (Tbilisi), he described the city’s inhabitants:

The Georgians are warriors who had proven their courage under our banners… They are in general of cheerful and sociable spirit… The wines from Kakheti and Karabakh are not inferior to some of the Burgudian ones. … In Tiflis the main part of the population is Armenian: in 1825 there were up to 2500 Armenian families… The Georgian families are no more than 1500. The Russians do not consider themselves to be local inhabitants.

On his way to Armenia, Pushkin ran into a gruesome procession, one carrying the body of another famous Russian poet, Alexander Griboedov.  Griboedov had lived in the Caucasus for many years.  Owing to his knowledge of the region, he was sent as a Russian ambassador to Teheran, where he was murdered by a crowd storming the embassy.

In Michael Lermontov’s book A Hero of Our Time, widely considered one the best examples of Russian prose, a St. Petersburg aristocrat named Pechorin travels to the Caucasus. Pechorin undergoes a variety of adventures, dueling in Pyatigorsk, serving in a small fort at the frontier, and even getting involved with a beautiful Circassian girl. He kidnaps the girl, according to the local custom, only to see her killed by an avenging kinsman.

In the late 19th century, Lev Tolstoy published his own work entitled “The prisoner of the Caucasus,” echoing some of the themes deployed earlier by Pushkin. Again, a Russian military man is captured by local insurgents. They keep the unfortunate officer, in hopes of getting a ransom from his family, but he eventually escapes with help from a young daughter of his captor who had taken pity on him. Interestingly, Tolstoy refers to the Chechens as “Tatars”, a term familiar to his Russian readers, based largely on their Muslim faith. Tolstoy had also served as a soldier in the Caucasus, and the story is said to be based on real events. Tolstoy’s final work, the posthumously published Hadji Murat, also takes place in the Caucasus.

The very same themes of the Russian-Caucasian war, captivity, and love between a Caucasian beauty and a Russian hostage are further explored in yet another “Prisoner of the Caucasus”, a 1996 film directed by Sergei Bodrov and based loosely on Lev Tolstoy’s story. This film is set during the First Chechen War and was shot in the mountains of Dagestan, only a short distance away from the then-ongoing battles of that war, giving it an eerie almost-documentary quality.

Quite a few Caucasians numbered among the revolutionaries fighting in the Russian Civil War and serving in the subsequent Communist regime. These figures include: Anastas Mikoyan, a shrewd politician, who managed to survive in the top echelon of the Soviet government from the time of Lenin to that of Brezhnev; the infamous henchman Lavrentiy Beria, chief of the Soviet secret police apparatus (NKVD); Politburo member Sergo Ordzhonikidze; the terrorist and master-of-disguise “Kamo” (Semeno Aržakovitš Ter-Petrossian); and, of course, comrade Stalin himself (Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili). (As was brilliantly said by one of his Georgian countrymen, Stalin became a murderous tyrant only in Russia; in Georgia he was merely a petty criminal.)

In Soviet times, the Caucasus became the prime attraction for mountain climbers from the western USSR, as the loftier Tian Shan and Pamir were too far away. The Soviet government wanted to train climbers capable of fighting in alpine terrain. In pursuing this goal, it established a number of alpine training camps along the ridge of the Great Caucasus Range. Many intellectuals from Moscow, Leningrad, and other large cities in Russia and Ukraine regularly spent a few weeks a year in such camps. In addition to climbing the challenging mountains, they enjoyed relative freedom from the oppressive grip of the regime: on the steep slopes they could freely talk with friends and make decisions independent of the government and the bureaucracy. As the brilliant poet Vladimir Vysotskiy put it, “You trust only in the strength of your hand, in a hammered piton and the hands of a friend and pray that a rope belay will never betray”.

Professional mountaineering instructors supervised the training of the alpinists, and a rigorous system of ranks and examinations ensured that the abilities and experience of a climber would correspond to the difficulty of the climb. Considering the casual disrespect for human life in the Soviet Union, this strict system kept the number of casualties relatively low. Many songs were dedicated to courageous mountaineers, describing beautiful mountains such as Ushba (see picture on the left) and Shhelda. Quoting again from Vysotskiy: “The one thing that can be better than mountains is mountains that nobody has climbed yet”.

Many Soviet intellectuals and other members of the elite who were not interested in mountaineering would still regularly visit the Caucasus.  Most would head for the warm Black Sea coast of Georgia, where they would enjoy authentic Georgian food, fine Georgian wines, and unparalleled hospitality.

Georgian poetry was highly respected by Russian literary figures. The works of the best Georgian poets, Shota Rustaveli, Titsian Tabidze, Ilia Chavchavadze and others, were translated into Russian by the finest Russian masters, including the Nobel-prize winner Boris Pasternak. In the second half of the 20th century, Russian culture came to be influenced by prominent intellectuals and artists with Caucasian roots. The list is long, but a few deserve special mention: the poet Bulat Okudzhava, a revered founder of the “singing poetry” genre (see picture on the left); the famous Abkhazian writer and thinker Fazil Iskander; the celebrated theatre directors Georgiy Tovstonogov and Yevgeny Vakhtangov; the beautiful actress Sofiko Chiaureli; and the talented film director, Georgiy Daneliya, who showed authentic Georgian culture in such films as “Mimino”. These names are recognized by most Russian intellectuals, celebrated as cultural leaders who had helped form their views and beliefs. Current Russian public figures of Caucasian background include the novelist Boris Akunin (Grigory Chkhartishvili) and the famed chess champion Garry Kasparov, who is also an important leader of the Russian opposition.

On maps of the both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, the Caucasus appear to be a small and rather insignificant place. In Russian cultural and intellectual history, however, it looms large indeed, having profoundly influencing the development of Russian civilization.

(Translations by Vitaliy Rayz)

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Last Insights into Global Economic Inequality

Calculations of economic development are usually separated from considerations of population and physical geography. The map above, which introduces the concept of GDP Density. This approach shows how much economic value is generated per unit of land. The map clearly displays not only which areas are the most economically productive, but it also shows that areas of extremely low population density produce relatively little, even if they are wealthy in per capita terms. Northern Canada and Alaska as well as the Australian Outback are thus mapped as having extremely low levels of GDP density. Although Africa overall is shown as having a low level of GDP density, several of its more densely populated regions are depicted as fairly productive. Other trends also stand out, such as the coastal focus of economic activity in South America. Finally, even though China and India are still relatively poor ”developing countries,” their huge populations help generate high levels of GDP density.

The map does, however, have a number of drawbacks and limitations. The data on which it is based are themselves problematic. GDP is calculated on a country-by-country basis, which leaves out regional inequalities within sovereign states. In India especially, huge economic disparities are ignored, which makes it appear as if Bihar were more economically productive than western Maharashtra just because it is more densely populated. Also, the level of resolution vastly varies across the map. For example, the United States is mapped largely at the county level, which provides a fairly detailed portrayal, whereas Russia is divided into much larger areas, mostly oblasts. As a result, Russia’s Arctic coastline is depicted as having much higher levels of economic activity than is justified. Finally, low-population areas that have highly productive mineral economies are left off the map. The mining zones of northwestern Australia, for example, produce a significant portion of the country’s wealth, yet one would never know this from the map.

This is my last post for Geocurrents, as my independent study on the geography of economic disparities has come to an end. While examining numerically calculated measurements of inequality, I concluded that although indexes can provide broad comparative insight about unequality among countries, it is very challenging to compare inequality between countries of different levels of economic development. In focusing on global inequality trends, I showed how the increasing prosperity of countries such as China is not evenly distributed; as a result, inequality within countries is becoming just as important as inequality between countries. However, as discussed by the Brookings Institution, although many countries are becoming richer and less egalitarian, failed states remain mired in relatively equally distributed poverty. Finally, I took a closer look at intra-nation inequality, specifically in Japan, South Africa, and the United States. All of these countries are characterized by different types of economic disparity, which interact with each other. In particular, I looked at three specific layers: regional disparities, the rural-urban divide, as well as the intricacies of wealth in urban areas. These layers exist everywhere, demonstrating the complexity and depth of economic inequality.

Although most of my Geocurrents entries delved into issues of economic inequality, I also took up two unrelated issues: the uprisings in the Middle East as foreseen by the Economist’s “Shoe-Thrower’s Index,” and national anthems and what they can tell us about their respective countries.

Finally, before signing off, I want to thank Professor Martin Lewis for his time and for being an enormous knowledge resource.

Andrew Linford, 2011


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Glimpses of Inequality in the United States

Inequality in the United States is a surprisingly complex issue. Although most Americans are aware at some level that major inequalities exist in their country, a substantial gap separates believed comprehension and the actual facts. This entry will explore inequality in the United States primarily through three lenses: regional differences, the rural-urban divide, and inequality within urban areas. Although these lenses are not all-inclusive, they do provide insight into the complexity of inequality in the United States.

Compared to other countries, the United States has relatively high—and growing—levels of inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient. Although surpassed by the notoriously unequal developing countries of Brazil and South Africa (indexes of 56 and 65 respectively), America’s Gini index is significantly higher than that of most other countries at similar levels of economic development. For example, the Nordic countries have very low Gini indexes, with Sweden as low as 23, but the European Union as a whole is more reflective of developing countries with a coefficient of 31. Historically, the US has had high but fluctuating Gini measurements. In 1929 it was estimated to be 45, but it had declined to 38.6 in 1968, during the height of the Great Society. Since the 1980s it has again increased, reaching 46.8 in 2009.

On the map of GDP per capita by U.S. state, several overarching regional trends are noticeable. The greater Northeast, extending from New Hampshire to Virginia, makes up the wealthiest part of the country. In contrast, the Southeast tends to be much worse off, especially Arkansas and Mississippi. Most states in the Midwest rank near the middle, while the interior West tends to be slightly poorer. The Pacific coastal region, like the northeast, is economically above average. Such generalizations are, of course, very broad, and thus need to be qualified. A close examination of inequality in the United States reveals that the phenomenon is too complex to be considered merely on a state-by-state basis.

More specific patterns are visible in the map of household income by county, at the top of the page. Here Appalachia stands out clearly. The region from West Virginia through the eastern half of Kentucky into Tennessee is one of the poorest areas in the United States. And as can be clearly differentiated in the map to the right, eastern Kentucky clearly stands out as the poorest section of Appalachia.

The county-based map reveals other patterns hidden by the state-level map. Although the Northeast corridor stands out for its prosperity, not all of its counties share equally in the wealth. Marked differences within states are clearly visible, especially the distinction between eastern and western Pennsylvania and upstate versus downstate New York. Also notable is the fact that many areas in the generally poor South, such as Atlanta, do quite well.

Several additional patterns are evident in the map indicating counties of “persistent poverty” (defined as having over 20% of the population under the poverty line for the last four censuses). In particular, as can be explored with these interactive New York Times maps, all of these regions have clear racial correlations. Eastern Kentucky is noteworthy for being the main zone of persistent poverty with a White majority. More striking is the Southern “Black Belt,” which stretches from the Mississippi River to South Carolina. Not only is it the largest area of entrenched poverty, but it is also the only large area in the United States with an African-American majority. Similarly, Latinos heavily populate the persistent poverty areas of southern Texas. Finally, most of the other counties of persistent poverty contain Native American reservations. The largest of these areas is the Four Corners region, especially northwest New Mexico, but scattered reservations in North and South Dakota as well as Alaska also stand out.

The rural-urban divide is also clearly seen on the county-by-county map. Metropolitan regions such as Chicago, Houston, and Denver are substantially richer than their rural peripheries. In general, cities and their suburbs have many more economic opportunities than rural areas. Although not all cities are equally prosperous, and not all stand out clearly from their environs, the rural-urban divide in the United States is plainly evident.

Even though metropolitan areas tend to be more affluent than surrounding areas, cities themselves contain high levels of inequality. Such complexities can be appreciated by examining more localized household income maps of metropolitan Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland:

In all three cities, significant income differences are found at the neighborhood level. Downtown areas generally have significantly lower income levels than peripheral neighborhoods, which is the general pattern in American cities. These maps also undermine several stereotypes, such as the notion that San Francisco is wealthy and Oakland poor. Although the average San Franciscan is indeed better off than the average resident of Oakland, tremendous spatial variation is found in both cities. San Francisco contains a number of poor areas, including much of the central business district. The so-called Tenderloin in particular is infamous for its poverty and homelessness. In contrast,  the eastern Oakland hills are roughly as affluent as the wealthiest neighborhoods of San Francisco. As all three maps demonstrate, geographic economic disparities are most extreme within cities. The broader and more generalized maps are, the more they tend to oversimplify.

The Theil index calculates how much various counties add to or subtract from the overall level of inequality in the United States. As can be seen on the map, the Theil index shows that urban areas tend to add the most inequality, whereas poor rural areas, especially those discussed previously, lower overall inequality. The general similarities between this map and the one at the top of the post are notable, especially as more prosperous counties tend to contribute much more to higher level of inequality than poorer countries.  Taken together, these maps indicate some of the challenges of measuring inequality.

In general, the three geographic lenses discussed – regional differences, the rural-urban divide, and inequality within urban areas –provide insight into the complexity of inequality in the United States, but they do not give the full picture. For example, issues of immigration and race, only briefly touched upon, also play an important role in determining levels of inequality.

Americans are generally aware of inequality in their country, but they tend to vastly underestimate it, as shown in the chart to the right. As the recent study of attitudes about inequalities demonstrates, most Americans significantly under-estimate the actual level of inequality found in their country.  Moreover, they would prefer to see levels of equality even greater than their generous over-estimate. Indeed, many pundits discuss the effects of an economically uneven society, but with looming budget deficits, there is little serious consideration of reversing the tide of increasing inequality.

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Inequality Trends in South Africa

GDP by province

GDP per capita by province, South Africa

According to the Gini coefficient, as well as other inequality measurements, South Africa ranks as one of the most unequal countries in the world. Of course, measuring inequality is multidimensional, which particularly applies to South Africa. In discussions of South Africa, severe economic disparities are often highlighted. Much of the country’s inequality stems from apartheid’s effect on different races, but other factors also play important roles.

Three basic forms of geographic inequalities outlined in a previous post also exist in South Africa, namely: regional disparities, a rural-urban divide, and an urban underclass. As can be seen from the map at the top, significant differences mark off South Africa’s regions. The poorer provinces tend to be along the southeastern coast and in the north, whereas the Johannesburg region and the southwest tend to be wealthier (this is also reflected in the map below). The most striking regional disparity is that between the relatively prosperous Western Cape province (which includes Cape Town) and the impoverished Eastern Cape province. This contrast encourages substantial internal migration towards the economic opportunity in Cape Town and away from the poverty of the Eastern Cape.

In South Africa and its main cities
Darker green indicates higher levels of poverty

The maps to the left show the “headcount index,” which measures the proportion of the population living below the poverty line; darker shades of green signify higher levels of impoverishment. As can be clearly seen in the maps, urban centers have relatively few people below the welfare line, especially as compared with rural areas. The rural-urban divide is also detectable on the provincial map at the top, as the two most economically important cities, Johannesburg and Cape Town, are in the two wealthiest regions.

South Africa exemplifies economic differences within urban areas, as it contains some of the most unequal cities in the world. For example, in Cape Town, most migrants from the Eastern Cape live in segregated neighborhoods, separate from the professional areas in central Cape Town. All of these areas, however, are part of one city.

Levels of Inequality in South Africa and its cities
Darker red indicates higher levels of inequality

As can be seen in the maps of “generalized entropy” of inequality (where darker red indicates more unequal conditions), many neighborhoods in the centers of the cities are relatively equal. However, the neighborhoods are very segregated and tend to be equally wealthy or impoverished, but the map does not reflect average income levels

Inequality in South Africa is highly correlated with race. The system of apartheid, instituted from 1948-1994, determined economic possibilities and expectations based on race, contributing deeply to the unequal society that exists today. However, as the book Race, Class, and Inequality in South Africa* shows, apartheid did not have only the effect of increasing general inequality. For example, during early apartheid, the government was able to successfully decrease intra-race disparities. Furthermore, the overall levels of inequality remained fairly consistent, even through apartheid.

The National Party instituted apartheid in South Africa starting in 1948. It codified laws mandating racial categorization and exclusion. In particular, all non-whites were excluded not only from the political system, but also from most respectable jobs and good education. Specifically, apartheid aimed to physically separate the races, which was difficult to carry out in practice. Furthermore, the apartheid government concerned itself greatly with the welfare of the white population, hoping to improve the standing of poor whites As a result, poor people of European background greatly benefited from apartheid, as they were able to move into higher classes, bypassing well-educated non-whites.

Gini coefficients for the distribution of incomeAs can be seen in the table to the left (taken from Race, Class, and Inequality in South Africa), the Gini coefficient for the white population in 1975 stood at a relatively low .36, signifying the success of the apartheid government in bolstering the position of the poorer members of the white community. An essential component of this program was the reservation of well-paying jobs for the white population. Furthermore, when taking into account welfare expenditures and educational opportunities, the white population actually had greater equality than the Gini index shows.

Of course, this leveling of the economic differences within the white population was dependent on the widening gap between white South Africans and everyone else, especially the black Africans. Because the apartheid government restricted the professions that blacks could choose, blacks were basically limited to lower-level jobs.  In fact, this upper limit also facilitated an increase in equality within the black population, as even the well-educated blacks could not find well-paying jobs.

Intra-race inequality vs. inter-race inequalityAfter 1975, the tendency toward increasing intra-racial equality reversed. As can been seen in the table to the right (also from Race, Class, and Inequality in South Africa), recent decades have seen a dramatic increase in inequality within racial groups. In the mid 1970s, the apartheid regime began to loosen its restrictions, allowing some educated non-whites to take higher-level jobs. Also important was the shifting labor market. Jobs requiring little education, particularly in mining, began to diminish after 1975. Without jobs or a solid education to use in the evolving labor force, many non-whites were left without work. These factors, among others, allowed for the increase of inequality within races, even as overall disparities in South Africa remained similar to what they had been.

With the end of apartheid in 1994, the chances for mobility increased. As a result, levels of inequality within all racial groups are slowly beginning to reflect the national average. Indeed, the end of apartheid has given many educated non-whites the opportunity (through dismantling apartheid laws) and assistance (through affirmative action) to obtain professional jobs. However, the vast majority of the black population still suffers severely from lack of marketable skills. Such discrepancies will continue to be felt in the next generation, as levels of education vary tremendously among social classes.

Change of sources of income post-apatheidOne of the main post-apartheid changes to income distribution has come about through governmental redistribution of income through a progressive tax system, along with the creation of social programs to aid the poor.  As the graphs demonstrate, the South African government is continuing to expand its role as a primary income source for much of the country’s impoverished population. Indeed, when government transfers are taken into account, the Gini index of South Africa is significantly reduced. As Race, Class, and Inequality in South Africa states, the Gini coefficient drops to about 0.50 when taxes and cash transfers are taken into account, and are reduced even further, to about 0.44 (a figure similar to that of the United States), when public social spending is added.

As much as the current South African government has been active in promoting income redistribution, the success of the earlier apartheid regime in promoting prosperity and equality among whites has intertwined socioeconomic status and race. In particular, the apartheid government successfully provided an excellent education for the white population, which enabled many whites to retain professional jobs even after the end of mandated segregation. The white population, as well as the newly wealthy non-white population, utilized their economic position to send their children to high-quality schools. As a result, highly unequal levels of education will continue to be reflected by an extremely varied pattern of income distribution.

* Race, Class, and Inequality in South Africa, 2005, Yale University Press, by Jeremy Seekings and Nicoli Nattrass


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