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Kenya’s New Superhighway

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

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

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

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

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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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Extremist Political Violence in Germany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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China Courts the Portuguese-Speaking World

Representatives from China and seven Portuguese-speaking countries—Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, Portugal and East Timor—recently met in Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia (in China), to discuss trade and investment opportunities. The meeting took place under the auspices of the so-called Macau Forum (officially designated as the “Forum for Economic and Trade Cooperation between China and Portuguese-speaking Countries”), which has been meeting since 2003. The organization is widely regarded as a Chinese diplomatic success that has paid substantial economic dividends. According to a recent article in East Asia Forum:

In 2003–06, trade between China and the Lusophone countries more than tripled, growing from US$10 billion to US$34 billion, and in 2011, it reached an impressive US$117 billion. In 2009, Brazil, the world’s seventh-largest economy, became China’s largest trading partner in the southern hemisphere, with bilateral trade reaching US$42 billion.

The connection between China and the Portuguese-speaking (Lusophone) world is enhanced by the fact that China is itself, to a very small extent, a Lusophone county. Macau, a Portuguese colony until 1999, is now a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China; although it has its own laws, political system, and currency, it is nonetheless fully under Chinese sovereignty. Although less than one percent of the half-million residents of gambling-focused Macao speak Portuguese at home, the language has official status in the SAR, along with Mandarin Chinese. Portuguese cultural connections, moreover, are carefully maintained. Macau’s Chief Executive, Chui Sai On, recently stated that the territory has “vast potential for cooperation that need[s] to be explored with Portugal,” noting as well that “Portuguese characteristics contributed to Macau’s development of its role as a trade and services platform between China and the Portuguese-speaking countries.”

Chinese investments in Lusophone Africa have mostly targeted oil-rich Angola. One large project is the $1.5 billion Benguela Railway, financed and engineered by a Chinese firm and largely built by Chinese labor. More problematic is Nova Cidade de Kilamba, a massive residential and business development located near the capital city of Luanda. According to a recent Business Insider report, “The $3.5 billion development covers 12,355 acres and was built to house about 500,000 people, and this is one of several satellite cities being constructed by Chinese firms around Angola.” The same story, however, claims that the new city is a virtual ghost town, as few Angolans can afford to live there. Such under-utilized instant cities are relatively common in China, and are often noted by those who think that the Chinese economy is headed for trouble.

Chinese investments in Mozambique are also rapidly rising.  Iron ore and other minerals are the focus of most attention, but infrastructural projects are also entailed. China’s Exim Bank, for example, recently extended a $682-million loan to Mozambique build a suspension bridge in the capital. Portugal had been expected to play this role, but was forced to pull out due to the European debt crisis.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fighting Flares in Bodoland

Eastern Assam in northeastern India has been engulfed in ethnic violence for the past five days, with the indigenous Bodo (pronounced BO-RO) pitted aginst Bengali-speaking Muslims. Fighting flared July 20th after four unidentified men killed four Bodo youths; in retaliation, Bodo gangs attacked local Muslims. Before long, tit-for-tat carnage resulted in some 32 deaths and the burning of approximately 60 villages.  The death tolls will surely mount, as many shooting victim and casualties of knife and sickle attack are currently in critical condition. As many as 70,000 people have fled, but evacuation has been hampered by attacks on trains, severing rail links with the rest of India. A curfew was imposed, with shoot-to-kill orders against those violating it.  Four alleged rioters were subsequently shot down on July 24. Reports say that one of the main towns of eastern Assam, Kokrajhar (population 31,000), “looks deserted.”

Tensions in the region go back many years. The Bodo, a Tibeto-Burman-speaking community of some 1.2 million, have long demanded their own state, seeking separation from Assam, dominated by the Assamese. Bodo insurgent groups have sought full political autonomy if not outright independence. The National Democratic Front of Bodoland, founded in 1986, aims to: “Liberate Bodoland from the Indian expansionism and occupation; Free the Bodo nation from the colonialist exploitation, oppression and domination; Establish a Democratic Socialist Society to promote Liberty, Equality and Fraternity; [and] uphold the integrity and sovereignty of Bodoland.” Since 2005, however, the group has maintained a cease-fire with the governments of both India and the state of Assam.

Although the Bodo struggle against the state has receded in recent years, interethnic strife has intensified. For decades, Muslim immigrants have been moving from densely populated Bangladesh into relatively sparsely settled tracts in northeastern India. In much of eastern Assam, Muslims now constitute almost half of the population. The Bodo are mostly Hindu, having converted in relatively recent times from their indigenous animism. A Christian minority of some 10 percent is reportedly expanding.










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Strife in Ethiopia over an Anti-Radical (or Is It Radical?) Muslim Sect

The Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa has been recently shaken by violent clashes between the police and Muslim protestors. According to Shabelle News, “The protesters, some wearing masks, blocked the entrance of the Anwar Mosque in the west of the capital and hurled stones at riot police who had surrounded the compound after noon prayers.” The protestors were angered by the government’s alleged interference in the practice of their religion, claiming that it has been trying to foist the Al Ahbash sect on the Ethiopian Muslim community. According to the Shabelle News story, the infuriated protestors view Al Ahbash as “an alien branch of Islam.” The Ethiopian government denies promoting the sect while insisting that “is determined to prevent Islamic militancy spilling over from neighbouring Sudan or lawless Somalia.”

Although Al Ahbash grew on Lebanese soil, it was founded by an Ethiopian cleric (Abdullah al-Harari)—as is reflected by its Arabic name, which literally means “the Ethiopians” (although the group officially calls itself the “Association of Islamic Charitable Projects,” or AICP). According to the Wikipedia article, Al Ahbash is noted for blending “Sunni and Shi’a theology with Sufi spiritualism into a doctrinal eclecticism that preached nonviolence and political quietism.”

The organization’s own website stresses its Islamic orthodoxy: “The A.I.C.P has as guides the Qur’an and the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad and the path of the Islamic scholars like Imam Ash-Shafi^iyy, Imam Malik, Imam Ahmad and Imam Abu-Hanifah.” In an interesting twist, it claims that that it is actually the Islamists who are guilty of bid’ah, or of concocting novel, heretical doctrines. In particular, it singles out the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wahhabi movement of Saudi Arabia for censure: “Unlike the followers of Sayyid Qutub [spiritual founder of the Muslim Brotherhood] who deviated from the right path by following an erroneous idea that sprung fifty years ago, and unlike the followers of Muhammad ibn adbil-Wahhab who deviated from the right path by following an erroneous idea that sprung two hundred years ago, unlike them we are following the right path of the prophet, his companions and their followers.”

Al Ahbash stresses charity, which it says must be followed regardless of the religion of those in need. As its website specifies: “The A. I. C. P. urges Muslims to help each other and share responsibilities, such as encouraging the wealthy to console and relieve the poor—whether Muslims or non-Muslims.”

Street fights and other conflicts pitting Al Ahbash against Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood have broken out on several occasions in both Lebanon and Jordan. Mainstream Muslim groups tend to be skeptical of Al Ahbash, which many clerics regard as a cult that seeks to undermine Islamic unity.  In 2011, the Australian National Imams Council tried to shut down the group’s Sydney-based radio station, claiming that it was run by a ”radical cult” that promoted “sectarian fringe views.” A scathing IslamicWeb article on the group, which ranks third in a Google search for “Al Ahbash,” relies on crude anti-Semitic characterizations. In regard to the founder of the sect, it states that, “Some people said he is Jew man, however there is no clear evidence for that, but at least he has a lot of the Jew’s characteristics.”

Although Ethiopia is a Christian-majority country, its eastern half is solidly Muslim, as can be seen from the detail of an M. Izady map posted here. Some 28 million Muslims live in Ethiopia, a figure roughly equal to that of Saudi Arabia.


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Growing Tensions over the Paracel Islands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Nasa (Páez) People Take on the Colombian Military and the Leftist Rebels

A recent article in the Chinese news site CRI notes that the indigenous Nasa people of southwestern Colombia have “lashed out at a Colombian Army outpost in southwestern Cauca province, as the military refused to leave their land as requested.” The report goes on to note that some 1,000 people surrounded a military outpost and literally tried to drag the soldiers away. As reported elsewhere, Colombian riot police soon evicted the Nasa demonstrators, and later shot and killed a member of the movement who allegedly refused to stop at an armed checkpoint.

Other articles on the conflict provide a more nuanced understanding. As the Washington Post reported, the Nasa are simultaneously taking on the Colombian military and the leftist guerillas that form the army’s main target in the region. According to the Post, indigenous leaders have vowed to “put on trial before tribal elders four alleged leftist rebels they accuse of attacks on civilians.” As the article goes on to note, the “Nasa say they are fed up with being in the crossfire of Colombia’s long-running conflict.”

Nasa leaders frame their actions in non-violent terms. As stated on a website run by the indigenous peoples of the region:

No vamos a agredir a nadie, pero utilizaremos la fuerza de nuestra comunidad reunida, de nuestra palabra y de nuestros derechos para recuperar nuestros territorios.  (We will not attack anyone, but we will use the strength of our united community, our speech and our rights to reclaim our territories.)

The Wikipedia article on the Nasa (found under the older term for the group, the  Páez), highlights as well their non-violent orientation. It also notes, however, that “they have about 7000 men and women who stand guard in their territory armed with nothing but ceremonial three-foot batons. They persuade the fighting forces of both sides to leave their land” (in light of the recent reports, however, the more accurate wording would be “try to persuade…”). The article also notes that while the Nasa generally avoid fighting, they do apply harsh corporeal punishments to those who break their tribal rules.

Nasa culture seems to be strongly rooted in the highlands of south-central-western Colombia. Out of a sizable ethnic population of some 140,000, an estimated 80,000 speak Páez, or Nasa Yuwe (“Nasa language”), roughly half of whom are reported to be monolingual. The language is evidently an isolate, although it may be related to several extinct tongues of the southern Colombian and northern Ecuadoran highlands. Most language maps, such as that of the Ethnologue, show the Páez speakers occupying a doughnut-shaped block of territory, in the center of which lies the lands of the Guambiano Indians.

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Russian Military Bases and Other Geopolitical Maneuverings in Tajikistan

After much wrangling, Tajikistan and Russia recently agreed to a 49-year extension of Russia’s military base in the strategically situated Central Asian country. The roughly 6,000 Russian troops stationed in the country, constituting Moscow’s largest foreign deployment, will thus remain in place. As Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin framed the issue, “The forces of NATO in Afghanistan are not eternal but Russia will be an eternal partner of these countries and if, God forbid, the situation deteriorates for security and the people of the countries, they will remember Russia.” Tajikistan recently rebuffed efforts by the United States to negotiate for military bases of its own; the U.S. is scheduled to withdraw from its Manas Transit Center in neighboring Kyrgyzstan in 2014, and is keen to maintain military logistical facilities near embattled Afghanistan.

Although the U.S. was turned down, India has been allowed to upgrade its own military facility in Tajikistan, Farkhor Air Base, located adjacent to the Afghan border. India’s strategic relations with Tajikistan are apparently deepening; in early July, as noted in eurasiareview, “Indian External Affairs Minister Somanahalli Mallaiah Krishna flew … to Tajikistan for a two days visit planned to discuss bilateral issues such as trade, energy and counter-terrorism.” Although most analysts frame India’s efforts in Tajikistan in the context of Afghanistan, others claim that New Delhi is actually seeking to “encircle China.” Not surprisingly, China is also courting Tajikistan. According to a recent Daily Times (of Pakistan) article:

Beijing [is] to extend $1 billion to Dushanbe in grants and credits. Some $600 million dollars alone would go towards building a cement factory in the south of Tajikistan. “Relations with China have the position of priority in Tajikistan’s foreign policy,” [Tajik President Emomali] Rakhmon told Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Tajikistan is also reaching out to other nearby countries on issues of economic and strategic cooperation. Azerbaijan recently announced that it would invest in oil-refining facilities in the country, and the Tajik government is currently negotiating with Kyrgyzstan to build a “rail link connecting Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and China.”

Tajikistan is the poorest of the former Soviet countries, and it relies heavily on remittances from migrant workers in Russia. It is also known for its harsh and often repressive internal policies. Amnesty International recently condemned the “routine use of torture and beatings at detention facilities in the Central Asian nation of Tajikistan,” which are said to entail “electric shocks, boiling water, suffocation, beatings, burning with cigarettes, rape and threats of rape.” Tajikistan has also stepped up its restrictions on information access, seeking to create “a volunteer-run body to monitor Internet usage and reprimand those who openly criticize President Emomali Rakhmon.” On the other hand, the Dushanbe government does claim that it will loosen its strict anti-libel laws, which have been widely used to repress journalism.

On the lighter side, the international athletic community was recently surprised by Tajikistan’s announcement that it would be sending a female boxer to compete at the London Olympics. Reportedly, Mavzuna Choriyeva, age 19, is “on a mission not only to win but to smash gender stereotypes in the religiously conservative ex-Soviet state.”


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Indonesia’s New Defense Deals

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

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

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

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

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A New Panama Canal? Or Two?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Potential Fishery Collapse in Lake Tanganyika

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

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

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

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

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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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