Latin America

Mapping Yerba Mate Consumption and That of Its Cousin, Ilex vomitoria (Yaupon)

Almost all data sources rank Turkey (Türkiye) as the world’s top tea-drinking country, and by a considerable margin. According to Wikipedia’s article on the subject, annual per capita tea consumption in Turley is 3.16 kg (6.96 lb), far overshadowing second-place Ireland’s 2.19 kg (4.83 lb). Yet according to a World Population Review article that lists 2024 tea consumption by country, the people of southern South America drink much more tea than those Turkey. Here the per capita tea consumption of Argentina is mapped as seven times greater than that of Turkey. What gives?

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The answer to this seeming mystery is that the writers at World Population Review have confused yerba mate with tea. Although producing a caffeine-rich beverage superficially similar to tea, yerba mate (a species of holly; Ilex paraguariensis), has no relationship with tea (a species of camelia; Camellia sinensis). Evidently, mate is consumed in much greater quantities in mate-drinking cultures than tea in consumed in tea-drinking cultures.

Although yerba mate is now globalizing, consumption is still focused in four South American countries: Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Brazil. Maps of mate-drinking that highlight these countries are somewhat misleading, however, as most of Brazil falls outside the mate zone, as seen in the second map below. Consumption in Brazil is heavily concentrated in the far south, particular in the state of Rio Grande do Sol. This pattern is not surprising, as Rio Grande do Sol was long contested by the Portuguese and Spanish colonial empires, and later by Brazil and its Spanish-speaking neighbors to the south. As a result, its culture has some affinities with those of Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay. In Brazil, the people of the state are often called gaúchos, which would be equivalent to calling Texans “cowboys.” Actual gaúchos tend to drink a lot of yerba mate, just as American cowboys have historically consumed a lot of coffee.

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The people Rio Grande do Sol generally embrace their gaúcho designation. As Ruben George Oliven explains in a 2006 Nations and Nationalism article:

From the 1930s, Brazil experienced a growing national centralisation and the construction of Brasilidade (Brazilianness). The military regime (1964–85) deepened centralisation and emphasised national identity, little space being left for regional identities. With the political opening and the redemocratisation of Brazil, starting at the end of the 1970s, the stress was on differences in a period in which Brazil had already achieved a high degree of integration. Identities were re-created, among them that of Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost state of Brazil, where a strong revival of gaúcho culture took place. The 1980s and 1990s were marked by a growing development of activities and disputes linked to the gaúcho tradition. In spite of the fact that Rio Grande do Sul is predominantly urban and industrialised, this process reached out to the state’s rural past and the equestrian figure of the gaúcho.

Intriguingly, the world’s three main hot, caffeinated drinks – coffee, tea, and mate – all have religious roots. Coffee was popularized in Yemen by Sufi mystics who found it useful for keeping awake during all-night chanting sessions. Tea was first popularized in China by Buddhist monks who found it useful for keeping awake during all-night meditation sessions. The story of mate is different, but it too has religious aspects. In pre-colonial times, mate consumption was evidently limited to two relatively small subgroups of the Guaraní people. The Jesuits subsequently united the Guaraní people of Paraguay under a theocratic state. They encouraged mate consumption and effectively domesticated the plant. Mate eventually became the national beverage of Paraguay, and later expanded into Argentina, Uruguay, and southern Brazil.

Yeba mate is closely related to another caffeine plant, Yaupon, which grows in the southeastern lowlands of the United States. Indigenous peoples drank Yaupon tea, sometimes to excess. The plant’s scientific name, Ilex vomitoria, “comes from an observation by early Europeans that the ingestion of the plant was followed by vomiting in certain ceremonies[;]… the vomiting may have resulted from the great quantities in which they drank the beverage, coupled with fasting.”  Such a fasting and (caffeine-) feasting regime also probably had spiritual roots.

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Yaupon is now undergoing something of a comeback in the U.S., grown by people who want a “healthy coffee alternative” and who value its beauty and the food that it provides for wildlife. As Lily Anderson Messec writes:

Pollinators flock to its masses of tiny white flowers in spring, and birds eat the berries that follow the flowers. Most importantly, our native insects feed on these plants they have evolved with, providing protein rich meals (in the form of themselves) for birds and other wildlife.

The wildlife, however, are not the only ones eating it. The prime reason I planted my Yaupon was for its caffeine rich leaves. By weight, the leaves contain more caffeine than both coffee beans and green tea —the highest caffeine content of any plant native to North America. Yaupon holly is also high in antioxidants and less bitter than green tea. It is a close cousin of the South American yerba maté (Ilex paraguariensis) and its tea is similar in flavor and quality.

Mapping Yerba Mate Consumption and That of Its Cousin, Ilex vomitoria (Yaupon) Read More »

The Paradoxical Position of Bahia in the Brazilian National Imagination

Northeast Brazil has the highest percentage of people with African ancestry in the country. But due to the way that race is classified in Brazil (see the previous post), most of the region’s inhabitants are classified as Pardo, “brown,” or of mixed race. According to official statistics, the northeast’s Black population is relatively small and is significantly outnumbered by its white population (see the second map below). Of Brazil’s northeastern states, Bahia has the highest percentage of Blacks and the lowest percentage whites. Most enslaved Africans brought to Brazil arrived in Bahia, and as a result the state has long had a disproportionately African population. But even in Bahia, whites outnumber Blacks, at least according to official statistics. On the detailed map of racial distribution posted below, only one municipality in Bahia is depicted as having a Black plurality.

Bahia occupies a distinctive and in many ways paradoxical position in the Brazilian national consciousness. It has long been celebrated as Brazil’s site of origin, with its main city, Salvador, having served as the capital of colonial Brazil until 1763. Salvador is famed today for its colonial architecture and is an important tourist destination. But Bahia has also long been disparaged by Euro-Brazilians for its African cultural practices and its large Black population. On a map of Brazilian regional stereotypes (below), Bahia is marked as a land of “Black Witchcraft.” The Urban Dictionary defines the word “Baiano” first as “a person from the state of Bahia” and second as “a derogatory term for a poor, colored, or poorly educated Brazilian (used analogous to the English word n****r*).” According to my Brazilian friends, the second definition is most often used in São Paulo, where many poor Baianos work in construction and in other difficult and dirty jobs.

But the position of Bahia in Brazil’s national imagination is more complicated still. The state is also celebrated for many of its cultural practices that have spread to the rest of the country, centered on music, dance, religion, and cuisine. Such Afro-Brazilian cultural features as samba, candomblé, and capoeira are associated with Bahia but are now often viewed as essential aspects of Brazil itself. On the map of Brazilian regional stereotypes, Bahia is also noted as the land of samba. Many writers have remarked on Bahia’s paradoxical position. According to Anadelia Romo, Bahia is “alternately romanticized and denigrated, it has served both as a cradle of Brazilian national identity and as an embarrassing symbol of Brazilian backwardness.” Similarly, Livio Sansone writes:

[T]his is just part of the paradox: the counterpole of [Bahia’s] political weakness is the prestige and vivacity of Afro-Bahian culture. This is a culture that at times enjoys plenty of official recognition – mostly as regard to the religious dimension (the Afro-Catholic candomblé religious system) cuisine, and music – but which has a major role in the public image of Brazil and Brazilianess at home and abroad…”

Such contrasting images of Bahia have evidently obscured several important characteristics of the state. Annadelia Romo further argues that Bahia has often been misleadingly depicted as a “living museum.” As she writes, “to see Bahia as inherently, essentially rooted in Africa ignores a creative and important process of cultural grafting that has been at work over the course of the 20th century. To see Bahia as a cultural preserve is to see it as static whereas Bahian culture has been anything but.” Scott Ickes focuses instead on the socio-economic aspects the Bahian paradox. As he argues, “Newfound acceptance of these [Bahian Afro-Brazilian] customs was a democratic move forward, but it also perpetuated the political and economic marginalization of the black majority.”

The common stereotypes of Bahia, both positive and negative, pertain most closely to the state’s more densely populated eastern coastal region. Bahia’s deep interior is distinctive in many ways. Far western Bahia, for example, is part of the Brazilian boom zone of highly mechanized agriculture. The city of Barreiras, at the heart of this farming frontier, is rarely discussed either in or outside of Brazil. But as the Wikipedia article on the municipality notes:

In recent years [Barreiras] has experienced an economic boom and is one of the fastest-growing cities in the state of Bahia if not in Brazil. … From the decade of the 1970s to the present, the municipality has gone from 20,864 inhabitants to 120,000 and undergone important transformations. It has received public and private investments that have modified the social and economic profile. After 1990, the intense agricultural activity has caused changes in practically all the economic and social sectors. … Irrigation, the level terrain, and the dry climate with well-defined dry and rainy seasons have made Barreiras a leader in agriculture. … Going along with the development of agriculture, traditional cattle raising gave way in the 1990s to the use of high technology …

Needless to say, this depiction has little connection with the ways in which Bahia is commonly imagined in Brazil. But Bahia is a huge state, significantly larger than California. And as is the case in Bahia, most parts of California also fail to match the stereotypical vision of the state.

*Astoundingly, this slur word is spelled out in the Urban Dictionary.

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Racial and Regional Voting Patterns in Brazil’s 2022 Election

Some clear racial voting patterns are evident in the 2022 Brazilian election. A map of Brazil’s relatively densely populated eastern strip, for example, shows a clear north/south divide. Its northern half is mostly non-white and voted heavily for Lula da Silva, whereas its southern half supported Bolsonaro and has a population of mostly European descent. To be sure, a few exceptions are found, such as the mostly white, Lula-voting area in the extreme southeast. When one looks at maps of Brazil as a whole, however, the situation is revealed to be much more complicated, as it does in maps of individual Brazilian states and regions. The second map posted below indicates the Brazilian states in which Bolsonaro found his highest level of support in 2022. As can be seen, four of these states have mostly non-white populations. All four of them are located in Brazil’s western zone of deforestation and agricultural expansion.

Before digging further into the details, it is important to note that race has been conceptualized differently in Brazil and the United States. In the U.S., a person with any ancestry from sub-Saharan Africa has been conventionally regarded as Black, whereas in Brazil a person with any European ancestry has conventionally been regarded as non-Black – not as “white,” to be sure, but as pardo, or brown. Historically, Brazil encouraged interracial marriage, partly due to the racist hope that it would result in a gradual “whitening” of the population. As a result of these attitudes and practices, Brazil’s Black community is estimated as constituting only around seven percent of the country’s total population. On the detailed map of racial distribution used in this post, hardly any Brazilian municipalities are shown as having a Black plurality, let alone majority. But by the U.S. system of racial classification, the Brazilian population would be reckoned as roughly half Black, with the northeast having a clear Black majority. Brazil also lacks the heritage of overt racial discrimination that characterizes the United States. Still, people with substantial African ancestry tend to be markedly poorer and less educated than people of primarily European ancestry, and they do suffer from stigmatization. But class status can partly override race; as noted in a 2007 scholarly article, “The idea that ‘money whitens’” is a classic topic in the sociological literature on race in Brazil.”

In northeastern Brazil, the poorest part of the country, voting patterns and racial patterns show little correlation. Although the population of northeastern Brazil is mostly non-white, the region does have pockets of mainly Euro-Brazilian settlement. One prominent example is the south-central part of the state of Rio Grande do Norte. Income maps show that this region is more prosperous and has less dire poverty than the rest of the state, but is still relatively poor by southeastern Brazilian standards. It is not, however, distinguishable on the 2022 electoral map, as it voted, like neighboring non-white areas, heavily for Lula. Almost all of the districts in northeastern Brazil that supported Bolsonaro in 2022 are in the coastal area of Alagoas, a mostly pardo (or mixed race) area. Deeply entrenched patron-client relationships, in which local elites influence the voting patterns of non-elites, might explain this seemingly anomalous pattern.

The largest number of people classified as “Black” in Brazil are found in Bahia, a large state that covers the southern half of the northeastern region. Bahia as many distinctive cultural features, which have been both celebrated and disparaged in the rest of Brazil. The final post in this GeoCurrents series on the 2022 Brazilian election will look more closely at Bahia.

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Voting Patterns in the 2022 Election in Brazil’s Cerrado Region

As noted in a previous post, the deforested areas of Brazil’s Amazon Basin supported the extreme rightwing candidate Jair Bolsonaro in the 2022 election, whereas the non-deforested areas supported the leftwing candidate Lula da Silva. Somewhat similar patterns are found in the vast Cerrado zone to the south of the Amazonian region.

The seasonally wet and dry Cerrado was mostly covered by savannah vegetation in its original state. It was long considered almost worthless for agriculture, due to its acidic soils and low levels of plant nutrients. Brazilian agricultural scientists at Embrapa, however, learned how to make the Cerrado productive, mostly by adding large quantities of lime and phosphorus to the soil. They also bred new strains of originally temperate crops that would grow well in this tropical environment. Subsequently, clearance of the highly diverse Cerrado vegetation intensified, with much of the region converted to mechanized farmland. As this occurred, Brazil surpassed the United States to become the world’s largest soybean producer. This process has resulted in major economic gains but also in social tensions, heightened economic inequality, and extensive environmental degradation. As little land in the Cerrado has been preserved for nature, it has been called Brazil’s “ugly duckling of conservation.”

As can be seen on one of the maps posted below, much more of the southern and western Cerrado has been transformed into modernized farmland than the northern and eastern part of the region. As might be expected, the main agricultural centers in the western Cerrado voted heavily for Bolsonaro in the 2022 election. The less transformed northeastern Cerrado, contrastingly, voted heavily for Lula in the same election. This environmental/economic/electoral pattern is similar to the one seen in the Amazon.

Economic class is a major factor here. The northeastern part of the Cerrado extends into the poorest part of Brazil (the eastern part of the greater northeast). As Lula was very effective in alleviating poverty and enhancing social development in his earlier terms as president, he retains great popularity in the more impoverished parts of the country. Although some areas in the northeastern Cerrado have become major centers of soybean farming, relatively few people are employed on the mechanized farms and low levels of income remain widespread, as can be seen on the first set of maps posted below. As a result, there is relatively little correlation between voting patterns and agricultural production zones in this part of Brazil, as can be seen on the second set of maps below (the areas outlined in white on the electoral map have Brazil’s highest soybean yields).

The patterns that I am describing here are quite simple and are meant to be taken only in a suggestive sense. Much more detailed work would have to be conducted to make any conclusive statements. I do find it interesting however, that a major area of mechanized soybean agriculture in far western Bahia state in northwestern Brazil voted heavily for Lula de Silva, quite in contrast to the soybean centers in Mato Grosso and other western states. States matter a great deal in Brazil, and Bahia is highly distinctive, noted for having the largest African cultural and demographic imprint in the country. I will explore correlations between racial patterns and voting patterns in the next GeoCurrents post.

(Many thanks to André Goldman for sharing his knowledge of Brazilian political geography and thus helping me write these posts. I will add André’s insightful comments to my earlier Brazilian election posts later this week.)

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Amazonian Deforestation, Support for Bolsonaro, and the Roraima Mystery

In the 2022 Brazilian presidential election, the Amazonian region was strikingly divided, as is clearly visible on the Globo map posted below. (I have added an oval and two terms on the map to mark Roraima and the Amazonian region.) Most municipalities (similar to U.S. counties) here strongly supported one candidate or the other. Bolsonaro’s zone of support lies to the south of the Amazon River, but has a distinct northern outlier in the state of Roraima. In contrast, in the large state of Amazonas in the northwest, Lula da Silva received more than 60 percent of the vote in almost every municipality. The main exception was the capital city of Manaus (population 2.2 million), where Bolsonaro took 61 percent of the vote.

The electoral divide in the Amazonian region is easily explained by economic and demographic factors. As noted in a recent Mongabay headline, “Bolsonaro loses election but finds big support in Amazon Arc of Deforestation.” The Amazonian areas won by Bolsonaro have seen extensive forest clearance and now have economies based on agriculture, grazing, and artisanal (and often illegal) mining. As people stream into these areas from other parts of Brazil, pressure for further deforestation grows. As Bolsonaro, unlike Lula, is a champion of forest clearance and mining, his high level of support in these areas is not surprising. As noted by Mongabay writer André Schröder:

Experts don’t see the result as surprising since a large part of the population in this part of the territory doesn’t consider deforestation to be illegal. “Land invaders, loggers, ranchers and gold miners want a full license to occupy the Amazon territory. And Bolsonaro is not against that,” Beto Veríssimo, researcher and co-founder of the Brazilian conservation nonprofit Imazon, told Mongabay by phone. Voters from those municipalities benefit from politicians who promise not to fight illegal activities, according to Veríssimo.

 

 

The partially deforested, Bolsonaro-voting zone of the southern Amazon is also characterized by high rates of violent crime, as can be seen on the homicide map posted below. Force is often used here to seize land and settle disputes. In such an environment, many voters support Bolsonaro’s policies that allowed widespread gun ownership. In Brazil as a whole, however, roughly two-thirds of the people oppose these measures.

In the Amazonian heartland state of Amazonas, in contrast, relatively little deforestation has occurred. Here most rural people derive their livelihoods primarily from the natural environment and small-scale horticulture. Such areas strongly supported Lula, who significantly reduced the pace of deforestation when he was president in the early 2000s. As noted in a Guardian article, Amazonian municipalities with large number of indigenous people also voted heavily for Lula, as would be expected.

The Brazilian state that gave the highest percentage of its votes to Bolsonaro (76 percent) is Roraima, located in the northern Amazonian region on the border with Venezuela and Guyana. The natural vegetation of Roraima is a mixture of savannah and rainforest, both of which have seen extensive agricultural conversion. Illegal mining is also widespread – and environmentally destructive. Roraima, the least populated Brazilian state, has seen explosive growth in recent decades, its population rising from 79,000 in 1980 to 631,000 in 2020. As can be seen on the paired maps below, only one municipality in Roraima supported Lula in 2022; not coincidentally, it has an overwhelmingly indigenous population. But the state’s other northern municipalities also have indigenous majorities or pluralities, yet they voted for Bolsonaro.

 

 

The electoral victory of Bolsonaro in the indigenous-majority municipalities of northern Roraima is not easily explained. An interesting graphic in The Guardian notes this oddity (posted above) but offers no explanation. A recent Al Jazeera article reports, unsurprisingly, that indigenous leaders in the state see Bolsonaro as a threat and have strongly supported Lula. The article also claims that the indigenous residents of Roraima have not received any benefits from the mining boom. As the author, writing before the election, notes:

If re-elected with enough support in Congress, Bolsonaro could try to push through his long-planned bill to allow mining and other industrial activities on Indigenous lands. As is the case with many Indigenous territories, official requests from companies to mine in Raposa Serra do Sol, including proposals for both gold and diamond mines, have increased since Bolsonaro took office, according to data compiled by the monitoring group Amazonia Minada and seen by Al Jazeera.

“If Bolsonaro is re-elected, we will see a continuation of anti-Indigenous policies,” Antenor Vaz, a former coordinator with Brazil’s Indigenous agency Funai who now works as an independent consultant, told Al Jazeera. “Raposa Serra do Sol would face even more pressure from illegal gold miners, as well as large landowners from outside the reserve.”

 We thus encounter a mystery: why did most voters in heavily indigenous northern Roraima opt for Bolsonaro? Several possibilities come to mind. In Lula’s stronghold of northeastern Brazil, the 2022 election was marked by voter intimidation and suppression. Even the Federal Highway Police, allied with Bolsonaro, tried to delay or prevent people from reaching the polls. Could similar tactics explain the anomalous voting patterns of northern Roraima? I have seen no evidence of this, but my research has been limited. It is also possible that many indigenous people simply did not participate in the election, although Brazil does have compulsory voting.

It does seem that this apparent mystery deserves investigation by someone who knows more about Brazil, and Roraima, than I do.

Amazonian Deforestation, Support for Bolsonaro, and the Roraima Mystery Read More »

Brazil’s Stark Electoral Divide

In recent elections, Brazil has exhibited a distinct north/south electoral divide, with the north supporting leftwing candidates and the south supporting rightwing candidates. Strictly speaking, this is a more a northeast vs. south & west-center split, as the sparsely populated northwest is itself electorally divided, as is the large center-east state of Minas Gerais (“MG” on the map below). This political division correlates closely with income and human development. As a general rule, the poorer states of Brazil’s northeast support candidates on the left while the richer states of the south support candidates on the right. This pattern can be seen on maps comparing the 2022 election results with those showing per capita GDP by state and the Human Development Index (HDI) by state. Some exceptions exist, such as the relatively poor but right-voting states of Acre (“AC”) and Amapá (“AP”), and relatively wealthy but left-voting Minas Gerais, but the general pattern is clear.

This correlation might seem predictable, but it no longer holds in the United States or over much or Europe, where wealthier regions now tend to vote for the left. Brazil’s north/south divide, moreover, has emerged only in recent elections. In 1989, for example, the leftwing candidate Lula da Silva triumphed in the relatively wealthy southern states of Rio Grande do Sul and Rio de Janeiro, as well as in the prosperous Federal District (Brasilia), while losing most of the impoverished northeast. When Lula finally won the presidency in 2002, he took every state except northeastern Alagoas. Lula’s successful anti-poverty programs subsequently solidified his power across the northeast (with the exception of coastal Alagoas)  In his 2006 reelection, the current latitudinal divide appeared on the Brazilian electoral map. In that contest, the centrist candidate Geraldo Alckmin took most of the south and the center-west. Intriguingly, Alckmin teamed up with Lula to run as his vice-presidential candidate in 2022.

This stark electoral and economic divide has led many observers to worry that there are now “two Brazils” that will not be able to function well together. Lulu is also concerned about this split, which helps explain his partnership with Alckmin. He has also promised to try to heal the division. As Lula recently stated:

“My friends. As of Jan. 1, 2023, I will govern for 215 million Brazilians, and not just for those who voted for me. There are not two Brazils. We are a single country, a single people, a great nation,” he said. …

“We will find a way out so that this country can live democratically and harmoniously again,” he said. “No one is interested in living in a divided country, in a permanent state of war.”

State-level mapping, however, is of low-resolution and is therefore often misleading. But if we look at local level, the same correlation between voting behavior and economic development still holds (see the maps below). Here Minas Gerais does not seem exceptional, as its wealthier southwestern areas went for Bolsonaro and its poorer northeastern areas went for Lula. But again, there are other exceptions. Center-west Brazil, for example, is only moderately developed yet voted heavily for Bolsonaro. This seeming oddity will be explored in a later post.

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Brazil’s Lack of a Metropolitan/Hinterland Political Divide

The 2018 and 2022 Brazilian general elections shared some important features with the 2016 and 2020 U.S. presidential elections. In all cases, a rightwing, populist nationalist won the first contest (Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump respectively) but lost the second, in both instances to an older, politically well established, center-left opponent (Lula [Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva] and Joseph Biden respectively). But the electoral geographies of the two countries are highly divergent. In the United States, and in much of Europe, parties on the political left now find most of their support in areas of high population density, whereas those of the right find most of their support in areas of low population density. Michael Lind, a hard-to-classify political centrist, has analyzed this new electoral pattern in some detail. As he writes:

On a map of the United States color-coded by party, big cities and university towns and a few regions with large immigrant and racial minority populations are a chain of Democratic islands in a Republican ocean. Similar patterns appear on maps of voting for Brexit in the UK and elections in continental Europe.

Looking at these maps, it is easy to see why scholars and journalists refer to the “urban-rural divide.” But this is misleading. Farm owners and farmworkers make up only a tiny sliver of the population in the typical Western democracy. Most voters in Europe and North America today live in broadly defined metro areas or small communities on their periphery. In the case of partisanship, the most important border is not between city and countryside, but between expensive, high-density urban business districts and inner suburbs on the one hand and, on the other, low-density suburbs and exurbs.

Rather than use the terms “city” and “countryside,” we can describe the high-density areas as “hubs” and the low-density areas around and between the hubs as “heartlands.”

In Brazil, a highly urbanized country, such a density divide is barely visible. As noted in The Guardian:

Lula’s victory had a peculiarity: he won many votes in some of Brazil’s most populated municipalities but also in most of the sparsely populated areas. In the latter, he reached more than 80% of the vote. It was at these two ends that he made the difference. Bolsonaro, instead, did very well in medium-size cities, as shown by the concentration of blue bubbles in the graph below in districts with between 100,000 and 1 million inhabitants.

But as The Guardian’s chart shows, Bolsonaro triumphed in more than half of Brazilian cities with populations of more than one million. As a map from the same article shows, Brazil’s “hubs” do not stand out from their “heartlands” in regard to electoral geography. A Portuguese-language graphic from Nexo shows that Bolsonaro won more than half of the capital cities of Brazil’s states. In the northeastern state of Alagoas, where Lula took 58.7 percent of the vote, Maceió, the capital city and largest urban center, went for Bolsanaro. (Note that in Brazil, as in most of the world, red is used for the political left and blue for the right.)

 

An important exception to this generalization is the city of São Paulo located in the state of the same name. São Paulo is Brazil’s largest city by a wide margin, and São Paulo is Brazil’s most populous state by a wide margin. The state voted solidly for Bolsanaro (55.2 percent), but the city went for Lula by a similar margin. Given the large size of São Paulo city, its votes were critical for carrying Lula to victory.

The same pattern is evident in São Paulo’s 2022 gubernatorial election, which was won by a close ally of Bolsanaro, Tarcísio Gomes de Freitas. As can be seen on the Nexo map posted below, Tarcísio (as he is mononymously called) lost São Paulo city and most of its inner suburbs while winning in most of the rest of the state. But Tarcísio did triumph in several large cities, taking both Campinas (population 1.2 million) and São José dos Campos (population 729,000; metropolitan area, 2.5 million). No U.S. cities of such a size vote for rightwing candidates. The largest to support Donald Trump in 2020 was Oklahoma City, with a population of 681,000 and a metropolitan area of 1.4 million.

We will examine other aspects of Brazil’s electoral geography in later posts

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Human Development Index (HDI) Rankings in South & Central America

Compared to greater South Asia (mapped in a previous post), South & Central America has relatively high levels of human development, as well as fewer disparities between countries. The basic spatial pattern is clear: higher levels of HDI in the “Southern Cone” (Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay) and in southern Central America (Panama and Costa Rica), and lower levels in northern Central America and Guyana. Venezuela still has a moderately high ranking, but it has been dropping, declining from 0.777 in 2013 to 0.711 in 2019. Venezuela is mapped here in the same category as Bolivia and Paraguay, whereas until recently in had a comfortable lead over both countries. Presumable, this downward trajectory continues.

 

Owing to the relatively small HDI gaps among countries in this region, I have revised the initial map by making a finer level of distinction. The same general patterns hold, although here Venezuela drops into a category below that of Paraguay. On this map, unlike the preceding one, Argentina and Chile fall into the same slot, as their HDI figures are very close (0.845 for Argentina and 0.851 in Chile in 2019).

 

 

 

As Brazil is roughly the same size as the rest of South America, it is useful to break it down into its constituent states. As can be seen on this map, Brazilian HDI levels are higher than average in the far south (Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina) and southeast (Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo states), and lower in the north. But the disparities in these numbers across Brazil are much lower than they had previously been, as is evident in the final map posted here. This map also shows major human developmental gains across the country in the first nineteen years of the century. A similar trend is holds for almost all countries of the region. But while Latin America has experienced major strides in human development, its economic growth has stalled out over the past decade, resulting in massive dissatisfaction and a strong turn against incumbents in political contests.

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The Brazilian Crisis: Lecture Slides

The DuckThis week’s lecture on the history and geography of current global events examined the on-going political and economic crisis in Brazil.  The lecture slides, converted to PDF format, can be found at the links below. (As the file was large, it was divided into two parts.)

I ended the lecture with some images and comments pertaining to my frustrations with the idea of the one-dimensional (left-right) political spectrum. I find that I need to constantly evoke this notion when discussing political issues, yet at the same time I think that it obscures as much if not more than it reveals. In the end, I think that we would be better off envisaging political ideas within a complex, multi-dimensional space, but that is easier to advocate than to accomplish.

Brazil Crisis 1

Brazil Crisis 2

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Customizable Maps of Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Ecuador

Mexico StatesDear Readers,

As it is taking longer than expected to distribute all of the GeoCurrents customizable maps, I have decided to expedite the process. As a result, I have not done anything with the maps that I am making available in today’s post other than color in the provinces, regions, states, etc. of the countries in questions, which are Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Chile, and Ecuador. Those Argentina Provinces MapPeru Regions Mapwho download the customizable base maps in the PowerPoint and Keynote files at the bottom of the post can, of course, use them to make any province-based thematic maps that they see fit. Just click on a shape and assign it a color. For small provinces, the name-labels may have to be moved away to allow one to click on the shape rather than the label. In such cases, the name-labels can then be dragged back to the proper place after the color has been assigned. This may sound confusing, but it is actually quite easy.

I hope to finish this process over the next two weeks. In the last week of March, I will begin teaching a 10-week course on the history and geography of current global events. During that period, I hope to post one GeoCurrents article each week that reflects on the topic currently under Chile Regions Mapconsideration in the class.Ecuador Provinces Map

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Customizable Maps Mexico …  (Keynote)

Customizable Maps Mexico ..   (PowerPoint)

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Customizable Maps of Brazil and Colombia, and Brazilian Social Development

Tocantins in Brazil mapGeoCurrents is continuing its initiative of providing free customizable maps. Today’s offerings are of Brazil and Colombia, based on their first-order administrative divisions (states in the case of Brazil; departments in that of Colombia). The Brazil maps also includes portions of neighboring countries, and one of its versions includes as well the map on which it was constructed, which allows one to “reveal” individual states, as demonstrated here for Tocantins. As in previous offerings, these maps are constructed with simple presentation software, and are available at the links at the bottom of this post in both PowerPoint and Keynote formats.

I have used the Brazil base-map to make several thematic maps of the country. The purpose here is mainly to demonstrate the significant socio-economic progress that Brazil has made since 1990. The current economic and political situation of the country is, of course, grim. As noted in a recent Forbes article, “According to the weekly Focus survey by Brazil’s Central Bank, 2016 will herald a depression-era contraction rate of 3.8% this year instead of the previous estimate of 3.5% made by dozens of Brazilian economists at the big banks.” The detention of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (“Lula”)—seen by many Brazilians as the main architect of their country’ recent social progress—underscores the current political crisis, although some observers think that his arrest indicates the strength of Brazilian democracy.

Brazil 1991 HDI MapBut regardless of what one thinks of either Lula or of Brazil’s current situation, the progress that it made in the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st is difficult to deny. Consider, for the example, the composite Human Development Index (HDI), which takes into account education, longevity, and income. Here we see that the highest Brazil 2010 HDI Mapranking unit in 1991, the Federal District (Brasília), scored lower than the lowest ranking state (Alagoas) did in 2010 (0.616 vs. 0.631). Other countries have also seen major improvements in their HDI figures over this period, but few have made gains as large as those of Brazil. As the maps posted here show, the geographical patterns of Brazilian HDI did not change much during this period. The large interior state of Mato Grosso, noted for its soy boom, did register a particularly large jump, however.

Brazil Life Expectancy MapI also mapped more recent data for life expectancy and infant mortality, found on the Wikipedia page of the states of Brazil. In terms of life expectancy, the northeast no longer appears as the worst-off part of Brazil. Instead, the north as a whole occupies most of the lower categories. It is interesting to see that Mato Grosso does not show particularly well on this Brazil Infant Mortality Mapmap, which may indicate that its recent gains have been more in the economic than in the social sphere. Somewhat similar patterns are found on the map of infant mortality. Here I am surprised by the low showing of the state of Rio de Janeiro and by the very low showing of Bahia.

Brazil Customizable Maps  (Keynote)

Brazil Customizable Maps (powerpoint)

 

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Argentina’s Controversial Energy Policies

Argentina Oil Natural GasAs noted in the previous post, the most economically productive areas of Argentina depend heavily on the extraction of oil and natural gas. Argentina, however, is not a major fossil-fuel producer, and its reserves of conventional oil and natural gas are modest. Although it still exports some crude oil and until recently sold large quantities of natural gas to Chile, Argentina has been a net importer of both gas and oil since 2011. Its economy is also heavily dependent on fossil fuels, with natural gas alone supplying 55 percent of its total energy supply. Considering Argentina’s high inflation rate and other economic difficulties, this situation generates considerable concern.

 

Argentina does, however, possess massive quantities of unconventional oil and natural gas. Such deposits are locked up in shale formations and are Shale Gas and Tight Oil by Countryonly economically recoverable through hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). According to most estimates, Argentina’s shale gas reserves are second only to those of China, while its tight oil reserves are the world’s fourth largest. Most of the country’s shale gas and tight oil deposits are found in the Vaca Muerta (“dead cow”) formation, located mostly in Neuquén province. A year ago, optimism ran high in this region, as many experts predicted a boom similar to the one that had had emerged in the Bakken Formation of North Dakota. As noted in The Economist in 2014:

Argentina Vaca Muerta MapNeuquén is readying itself for a boom. Shopping centres have sprung up; so have clean new hotels that boast English-speaking staff and American-style food. Horacio Quiroga, the city’s mayor, compares its residents to expectant diners who have tied on their bibs. Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, is equally hopeful. “I shall no longer call [it] Vaca Muerta,” she said last year. “I shall call it Vaca Viva (‘Living Cow’).”

But at the same time, other observers were urging caution. Shale-gas deposits elsewhere in the world were proving more difficult to tap than those of North America, in part because of local geological particularities but also because of the large amounts of capital and high levels of technical expertise required for successful fracking. In most cases, substantial foreign investment would be necessary. Argentina’s history of fraught relations with overseas-based energy companies, however, has created major investment obstacles.

But despite such problems, significant investments have been made in in the Argentine energy field over the past several years. A recent report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration contends that outside of North America only China and Argentina have produced commercial volumes of gas and oil from fracking. As detailed in the report:

In Argentina, many international companies hold leases and have drilled wells in shale formations. Much of the initial activity has targeted shale oil and natural gas in the Neuquen Basin’s Vaca Muerta shale formation, located in west-central Argentina. National energy company Yacimientos Petroliferos Fiscales (YPF), the largest shale operator in the country, reported production in April 2015 of 22,900 barrels per day (b/d) of oil and 67 million cubic feet per day (MMcf/d) of natural gas from three joint ventures in Vaca Muerta: one with Chevron at the Loma Campana field, a second one with Dow Chemical at the El Orejano field, and a third joint venture with Petronas at La Amarga Chica field. In addition, China’s national oil company Sinopec and Russia’s national oil company Gazprom have recently signed a memorandum of understanding with YPF to jointly develop shale from the same basin.

Considering its economic difficulties, the Argentine government is not surprisingly eager to frack for natural gas and oil. The steep drop in the global price of oil over the past year, however, threatens the viability of the industry. Argentina has responded, as it often does, by manipulating the market. In particular, its government has fixed the local price of oil at US$ 77 a barrel, a figure almost twice that of the world market. Such policies aid producers, but harm consumers. As explained by Bloomberg Business:

South America’s second-largest* and most enigmatic economy is marching to its own drummer. In most of the developing world, governments subsidize fuel prices. In Argentina, motorists now are subsidizing oil and gas producers.

“This is not sustainable in the long term,” said Agustin Torroba, senior analyst at Montamat & Associates, an energy consulting firm. “It is the most expensive oil in the world.”

The policies of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, whose second four-year term ends in December, are rarely considered conventional. In addition to energy, Argentina’s unusual approach to economic management includes currency and import controls, export taxes, reneging on sovereign debt commitments and general acceptance of 25 percent inflation.

 

As is true elsewhere, fracking has generated considerable controversy in Argentina, as can clearly be seen in the website ASF Argentina Sin Fracking. Opposition to the process by Pope Francis has gathered considerable attention, both in Argentina and abroad. In eastern Argentina, many communities have instituted fracking bans. As was recently reported in Free Speech Radio News:

The red carpet treatment for foreign energy companies has met resistance in various parts of Argentina.

Authorities in around 50 municipalities have enacted local fracking bans in response to public pressure. This has, in turn, created a power struggle between national and local officials over what steps communities can take to prevent energy projects.

“We want to have the right to protect our water from pollution, to keep living in our hometowns,” says Ignacio Zabaleta with the Assembly of Fracking-Free Territories, a network of groups opposed to the extraction technique. “It’s a response to the sidelining of the will of the people. It’s about people who have lived in certain areas for centuries being displaced for the benefit of two or three corporations and for the benefit of corrupt and immoral officials.”

Most of the municipalities that have rejected fracking are in the province of Entre Rios, home to part of the Guaraní Aquifer — one of the world’s largest underground bodies of freshwater. The aquifer spans the borders of Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay.

 

Argentina will be holding a presidential election in late October of this year. Some observers think that the outcome could significantly influence the country’s economic and energy policies. A recent Stratfor report, however, argues to the contrary. Its forecast runs as follows:

  • Regardless of election outcomes in October, Argentina’s next government will begin liberalizing its economy, potentially loosening restrictions on the repatriation of funds, reducing the enforcement of price controls and reducing subsidies.

  • Despite slight changes to Argentina’s regulatory framework, the government will continue to bar some investment and businesses to stem capital flight and to maintain a positive trade balance.

  • Though the next administration may begin laying the groundwork to attract greater energy investments, the country’s barriers are unlikely to be completely lifted during the next presidential term.

* This assertion is questionable. Although most data assembled by international economic organizations place the Argentine economy above that of Colombia in both nominal and purchasing-power-parity terms, a 2014 International Business Times article came to a different conclusion:

Argentina, once the third-strongest economy in the western hemisphere, extended its decades-long decline by ceding the No. 3 spot among Latin American economies to Colombia later this year — thanks to the second-weakest currency in the region, soaring inflation, weak economic growth and chronic political problems, Capital Economics said on Monday. Brazil and Mexico remain No. 1 and No 2, respectively.

 

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Argentina’s Striking North/South Economic Divide

Argentina GDP by Province MapAs previously noted, Argentina is characterized by a north/south socio-economic divide, with the south being much more prosperous than the north. This regional disparity is visible on the HDI map included in the most recent post, but it is more clearly marked on other maps of economic development.

Consider, for example, GDP per capita by Argentine province (2008 data). As more than an order of magnitude separates Argentina’s least economically productive province (Chaco, at US$ 2,015) from its most productive province (Santa Cruz, at US$ 30,496), I have used a two-color scheme to call attention to the disparity, with the wealthier provinces mapped in blue and the poorer provinces mapped in red. The basic geographic pattern here is clear: the south has high per capita economic output, that of the center-east is slightly above the national average (with the exception of the city of Buenos Aires, which is very high), and that of the far north is low.

Argentina monthy salary by province mapBut as has been discussed in previous GeoCurrents posts, per capita GDP is not necessarily the best way of measuring actual economic conditions, especially at the sub-national level. The map of average monthly salary is more representative in this regard. As can be seen, income levels vary significantly over Argentina, but not as much as might be expected on the basis of provincial GDP variation. Here the lowest figure is US$ 945 in Santiago del Estero and the highest is US$ 2,646 in Santa Cruz. On this map, the north/south divide is clearly evident. One surprise here is the very low standing of Tucumán. Known as “El Jardín de la República” (“Garden of the Republic”), this agriculturally productive province is heavily dependent on sugar, a lagging industry. But according to the Wikipedia, Tucumán’s economy has been growing strongly in recent years.

Argentina vehicle ownership mapSimilar geographical patterns are apparent in regard to other economic indicators. The “vehicles per 1000 inhabitants” map shows a nice north/center/south differentiation; there are almost five times more vehicles per Argenina poverty mapcapita in Santa Cruz than in Santiago del Estero. The map of income poverty exhibits the same pattern, with strikingly high levels of poverty in the far north.

 

 

 

Argentina Population Density Map

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some aspects of Argentina’s north/south economic bifurcation are easily explained. Much of the south is very sparsely populated but rich in natural resources, particularly oil and natural gas, a situation that often generates high levels of economic production. As the map on the left shows, Santa Cruz and Chubut in particular have low population densities, and as the map below it shows, both provinces are heavily dependent Argentina GDP from Mining Mapon mining (especially oil and natural gas extraction), as is Neuquén, located a little further to the north. As noted in the Wikipedia, Santa Cruz, Neuquén, and Chubut have the least diversified economies in Argentina. Sheep ranching was formerly an economic mainstay in these generally arid provinces, but this industry has been battered by low global wool prices (Argentina is the world’s fifth largest wool producer, with roughly 3 per cent of the market, following Australia, China, the United States, and New Zealand.)

Although mining is vital for Tierra del Fuego in the extreme south, this province has a more diversified economy than the rest of the Argentine south. Tourism is increasingly significant, but manufacturing is more important. The strong position of manufacturing might seem improbably, given Tierra del Fuego’s peripheral location and harsh natural conditions. Argentina GDP from Manufacturing MapYet as it so happens, its very remoteness is one of the main reasons why it has such a large manufacturing sector. As explained in the Wikipedia:

Manufacturing, despite the province’s remoteness, contributes about 20% to output owing partly to generous certain tax incentives to local industry, a policy Buenos Aires has pursued to encourage immigration to less populated areas. A number of sizable factories have opened on Tierra del Fuego Island to take advantage of the tax benefits legislated in 1972, mainly home appliance and electronics manufacturers.

Recently, in the city of Río Grande, many international and Argentine companies, most notably the Korean company Samsung and the Argentine company Teltron, have set up factories that produce high-definition televisions (HDTV), CD-ROM-related articles, and low-cost GSM cell phones, built mainly from Argentine components.

In proportional terms, manufacturing is more important in Buenos Aires province and much more important in San Luis. The significance of Buenos Aires in this regard is not surprising, as the province and city of the same name unquestionably form the core area of the country, containing almost half of the total Argentine population (18.5 out of 40 million). The economic domination of manufacturing in San Luis, a province of mid-level economic standing, is less expected. But as explained by the Wikipedia, “Since 1983, … Governor (now Senator) Adolfo Rodríguez Saá has also overseen record investment by light manufacturers (mostly food-processors and bottling plants) and advances like the construction of Argentina’s most extensive expressway network.”

 

Argentina GDP from Agriculture MapIt is more difficult to explain the poverty of northern Argentina than the wealth of southern Argentina. This region, and especially the northeast, is heavily dependent on agriculture, although Argentina’s most agriculturally productive areas are located further to the south, in such provinces as Buenos Aires, Córdoba, and La Pampa. Whereas Buenos Aires province has a highly diversified economy, that of La Pampa is highly focused on farming. Considering its central location and rich farmlands, La Pampa has a surprisingly small population.

 

The relative poverty of Argentina’s most agriculture-dependent provinces is noteworthy, as the country has long been famed for its farming prowess and food exports. But recent Argentine governments have not been favorably disposed to agricultural interests, saddling farmers with export levies and other disincentives. As a result, Argentina no longer makes the list of the world’s top agricultural exporters, unlike neighboring Brazil. As is explained in a 2014 article in The Economist:

AGRICULTURE ought to be Argentina’s strength. Instead, incessant intervention has turned it into a source of weakness. The government has meddled in wheat production since 2006 by raising export taxes and setting export quotas. This interference, defended by the government as “protecting the tables” of Argentine consumers, has simply discouraged farmers from planting the crop.

The interventions show no sign of stopping. Last year’s unexpectedly poor wheat harvest caused the price of bread to double, prompting the government to suspend exports of the crop. Last month was the first December in 25 years that Argentina did not export any wheat.

Another surprise, to me at any rate, is the middling position of Córdoba Province in central Argentina in most of these economic indicators. Córdoba is agriculturally rich and has a reputation as a leading industrial center. As explained in the Wikipedia:

Since World War II, Córdoba has been developing a versatile industrial base. The biggest sectors are car manufacturing (Renault, Volkswagen, Fiat), railway construction (Materfer) and aircraft construction (Fábrica Militar de Aviones). Furthermore, there are textile, heavy and chemical industries and some agrobusinesses. Córdoba has been considered the technological centre of Argentina. The Argentinian spaceport (Centro Espacial Teófilo Tabanera), where satellites are being developed and operated for CONAE, is located in the suburb of Falda del Carmen. The software and electronic industries are advancing and becoming significant exporters; among the leading local employers in the sector are Motorola, Vates, Intel, Electronic Data Systems, and Santex América.

Heavy manufacturing and high-tech industries, however, have not fared particularly well in Argentina in recent decades, which may help explain Córdoba unimpressive economic figures.

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Argentina’s HDI: The Wikipedia’s Worst Map?

Argentina HDI Wikipedia MapAlthough the Wikipedia includes a multitude of fine maps, its cartographic archive is by no means uniformly excellent. Perhaps the worst Wikipedia map that I have encountered, posted to the left, depicts Argentinian provinces in accordance with their HDI (Human Development Index*) rankings. As can be seen, all provinces are placed in the same category, that of “very high HDI,” although the key includes unused colors indicating “high” and “medium” levels of development. As the map depicts no differences among Argentina’s provinces, it is essentially meaningless.

 

I suspect that the map was posted mainly to emphasize Argentina’s relatively high levels of socio-economic development and in so doing provide a little praise for the economically troubled country. A nationalistic orientation is indicated as well by the inclusion of the Falkland/Malvinas islands, which are claimed by Argentina but are not part of it. Also significant is the fact that the map uses official Argentine information rather than the more standard UN figures that give a lower HDI number for the country as a whole. As Argentina’s own economic data, especially in regard to inflation, is notoriously inaccurate, one might be inclined to favor the UN’s assessment. The Wikipedia article that accompanies the map, however, gives a straightforward explanation of the disparity:

The last report is from 2013 and covers data from 2012. It is elaborated by the United Nations in conjunction with the Argentine Senate. It is important to note that unlike the UN’s Human Development Index where Argentina has an index of 0.811 in 2012, the government of Argentina says it has an index of 0.848. This difference is caused because, on the province report, the average family income is used, while on the global report the UN uses the GDP per capita (PPP) to measure the income.

Argentina HDI by Province MapWhatever its validity may be, the Argentine data provided in the Wikipedia article does allow the mapping of HDI variation across the country. I have therefore constructed a map based on this information, which is posted to the left. As can be seen, human development figures are lowest in the north-central part of the country and highest in the south and the center, although the top-most figure is unsurprisingly that of the city of Buenos Aires. As will be seen in the next GeoCurrents post, this pattern deviates slightly from those found on maps of other economic indicators, which show a more stronger marked north/south divide (with Argentina’s south being much more prosperous than its north).

HDI World MapThe U.N.’s official Human Development Index does place Argentina in the highest basic category, that of “very high” development. But Argentina barely makes this position, as it ranks 49th out of 49 countries in the category. An alternative UN HDI ranking, moreover, places Argentina in a lower grouping. This scheme takes into account economic inequality, which is HDI Inequality-Adjusted World Maprelatively pronounced in Argentina. The United States also falls considerably in this revised HDI ranking, dropping below Greece, Estonia, and Slovakia. But as several GeoCurrents readers have pointed out, measurements of inequality are themselves highly problematic, just as inequality itself is difficult to factor into assessments of socio-economic development.

* As defined by the Wikipedia, the HDI:

is a composite statistic of life expectancy, education, and per capita income indicators, which is used to rank countries into four tiers of human development. It was developed by Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq, is anchored in the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s work on human capabilities, often framed in terms of whether people are able to “be” and “do” desirable things in life, and was published by the United Nations Development Programme.

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Oil, Coal, and Economic Development in Colombia

Although Colombia is not usually classified as a major oil-producer, it ranks 19th in the world according to the Wikipedia, turning out more than a million barrels a day in late 2014. Although this figure was well below that of Venezuela (2.5 million barrels a day), it surpassed those of such well-known oil exporters as Oman and Azerbaijan. It is no surprise, therefore, that Colombia has taken an economic hit from the recent decline in the price of oil. Compounding Colombia’s woes are the continuing strikes on its oil infrastructure by leftist rebels. According to a recent Financial Times article, “rebel attacks on pipelines cost state-controlled oil company Ecopetrol $430m in lost output last year.” As a result of such problems, the “Colombian peso [is] one of the weakest freely-traded currencies in the world, rivalling the rouble and the Brazilian real by falling 36 per cent over the past 12 months.”

Colombia exports treemapBut as another Financial Times article notes, Colombia has been able to weather the recent economic storm better than most oil exporters. The Colombian economy is buffered by its broad production of other goods. As its currency has fallen, exports such as coffee, flowers, car parts, and textiles have surged ahead. Columbia is particularly competitive in swimwear and Venezuela Exports Treemapunderwear; in 2013, its international sales in these categories brought in some US$ 133 million. As the export treemaps posted here show, Colombia is much less dependent on oil than Venezuela, its neighbor and rival. (Tensions between these two countries have intensified in recent weeks, as Venezuela has closed the border and deported hundreds of Colombians.)

Colombia GDP per capita mapBut despite the profitability of some of Colombia’s other exports, oil still looms large. Its significance is readily apparent in the map of per capita GDP posted to the left. As the map shows, the value of goods and services produced per person in Colombia’s 32 departments varies by more than an order of magnitude. The Colombia oil mapmost economically productive departments, Meta, Arauca, and Casanare, form the heartland of the Colombian oil industry. All are relatively lightly populated Colombia GDP per capita map 2lowland departments; Casanare, for example, has only around 350,000 inhabitants. Their economic productivity runs counter to the more general Colombian pattern, as the country’s elevated plateaus tend to be more prosperous than its lowlands. This pattern is apparent on the next map, in which the highland zone is outlined within dark black lines.

Per capita GDP figures, however, do not necessarily tell us much about the actual economic conditions found in particular places. At the sub-national level, wealth from extractive industries in peripheral areas often flows to more politically powerful regions. Unfortunately, more economically revealing statistics on such measures as average household income are not readily available for Colombia. Colombia Reports, however, has posted a Colombia poverty mappoverty-distribution map, which unfortunately lacks a key and excludes Arauca, Casanare and other eastern departments. As can be seen, oil-rich Meta has a relatively low poverty rate, but not to the extent that one might expect based on its raw economic output. Meta’s per capita GDP figure is roughly three times that of Cundinamarca, yet Cundinamarca, located near the capital city of Bogotá, has a lower poverty rate. Poverty is most pronounced in the distressed Pacific coastal department of Chocó, moreover, even though Chocó is more economically productive on a per capita basis than such departments as Nariño and Sucre.

Colombia kidnapping mapIn some respects, Colombia’s oil-rich departments are more troubled than many much less economically productive areas. The oil industry apparently attracts not just attacks on infrastructure by rebels, but also other forms of crime and violence. As the Colombia Reports kidnapping map shows, Meta, Arauca, and Casanare rank at the top of this unfortunate indicator. Kidnapping in Chocó, a department noted for drug smuggling and corruption, is also elevated.

Colombia’s oil industry is associated with a significant amount of environmental degradation, although its severity is much debated. Many locals even attributed a severe drought that hit Casanare Department in 2014 to oil extraction. Although oil drilling itself has no influence on precipitation, it is possible that a variety of oil-extraction activities reduce dry-season stream flow. Informed observers, however, are more inclined to blame such problems on deforestation in the headwater areas located in the Cocuy Highlands. More recently, however, the problem has been one of excess rain, as floods in early and mid-August 2015 forced many people in Casanare to flee to higher ground.

Colombia coal graphOil is by no means Columbia’s only major source of energy. The country has a fair amount of natural gas and significant hydroelectric potential. Coal is even more important. Colombia ranks 11th in the world in coal production, and its standing in terms of coal reserves is similar. Colombia’s reserves are almost entirely composed of high-quality anthracite and bituminous coal. Colombia coal mapAs a consequence, both production and exports have surged ahead in recent years. Colombia’s largest coal mines are located in the northern departments of La Guajira and Cesar, but deposits are widely scattered across the northwestern half of the country.

Global coal prices have dropped significantly, and the use of the fuel is of course increasingly opposed due to concerns about climate change. Some coal producers operating in Colombia, however, remain committed to expansion. As was recently reported in BloomburgBusiness:

Murray Energy Corp. plans to increase output at the Colombian coal mines it bought from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. this month, betting it can lower costs enough to withstand the prospect of several more years of low prices.

The U.S. coal producer founded by Robert E. Murray intends to push up the annual output rate at the La Francia mine in northern Colombia to 3 million tons by the end of the year from about 2.5 million tons now, Murray said in a telephone interview Monday from his headquarters in St. Clairsville, Ohio.

The industry is in a “very distressed and dangerous condition,” with low prices set to last through the end of 2017, he said. “Murray Energy has done its planning to contend with and compete in this depressed market.”

Local activists, not surprisingly, have leveled harsh criticisms against foreign-based coal producers operating in Colombia. Glencore PCL in particular has been accused of “whisking profits out of the country, while causing environmental and labor issues.”

 

 

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