Maps and Graphs to Help Explain Italy’s Turn to Rightwing Populism

Rightwing populist parties have gained support over much of Europe over the past decade. Italy, however, is the first western European country to see a rightwing coalition led by a populist party come to power. The success of Giorgia Meloni’s Brother of Italy is partly explicable on the basis of Italy’s extremely low fertility rate in combination with its highly negative attitudes toward immigration, as can be seen in the map and charts posted below. With few children being born and immigrants generally unwelcome and no longer staying in large numbers, Italy faces an impending financial/demographic crisis. Unless something changes, future retirees will no longer be easily supported. Meloni’s pro-natalist plans, which call for substantial subsidies for child-bearing couples, thus proved attractive to many voters. Widespread antipathy to immigrants also helps explain the appeal of Meloni’s majoritarian identity politics, focused on nationalistic sentiments.

Why the Italian population is so averse to immigrants is an open question. The country’s foreign-born population is not high by western European standards. It is significant, however, that Italy does not have a long history of receiving immigrants; for most of its time as a nation-state, it has been noted instead for sending out emigrants.

Italy’s economic malaise is another important factor in its swing to the right. In the late twentieth century, the Italian economy was in good shape. In the Il Sorpasso phenomenon of 1987, Italy’s GDP overcame that of the United Kingdom, making it the sixth largest economy in the world. Today Italy’s GDP stands at 2,058,330 (US$ million) whereas the UK stands at 3,376,000 (US$ million). Italy has experienced pronounced economic decline over the past dozen years, and most of its regions suffer from high unemployment. Considering as well Italy’s chaotic political system, it is perhaps not surprising that its voters have turned against their country’s political establishment. Such dissatisfaction also helps explain the recent rise of its left-populist Five Star Movement. But Five Star saw a massive decline in support in the 2022 election. Perhaps its suspicions about economic growth were a factor here.

Maps and Graphs to Help Explain Italy’s Turn to Rightwing Populism Read More »

The Cost of Housing and Essential-Worker Relocation in Booming Southwestern Montana

Casual conversations in Bozeman, Montana often turn to housing. Some verge on the tragic. I have spoken with several young couples who spent years saving for a down payment and were finally on the verge of making an offer – and then Covid hit, remote work intensified, and prices soared. As can be seen on the map, housing prices are high in Gallatin County as a whole, but in central Bozeman they approach the level found in California’s Bay Area. As a result, the city faces a mounting labor crisis, particularly for essential workers such as nurses. According to a confidential source, in a single unit of approximately 30 nurses in Bozeman’s Deaconess Hospital, 12 nurses quit in the past 12 months, with 9 citing housing costs as their reason.

Nurses and other financially stressed residents are abandoning Bozeman for more affordable places. Several nurses have relocated to Spokane, Washington, where wages are higher and housing is cheaper. Most have opted for another Montana city. As can be seen in the paired maps, nurses make more money in Yellowstone County (Billings) than in Gallatin County, and the cost of living is much lower.* Trade-offs, of course, must be factored in. Yellowstone County has a much higher crime rate than Gallatin County, and both its natural and cultural amenities are less appealing.



For those who value natural amenities above all and want to remain in Montana, options are more limited. Most of the scenic valleys of western Montana also have high housing costs. As can be seen on the ArcGIS “housing affordability” map, made just before the Covid price surge, Madison County, with fewer than 10,000 residents, was even less affordable than Gallatin. In such a low-population county, it does not take many affluent amenity seekers to skew the market upwards. Housing is less costly, however, in a few western counties, such as Silver Bow (Butte), Deer Lodge (Anaconda), and Lewis & Clark (Helena).

Anecdotal evidence from casual conversations suggests that the favored destination of priced-out Bozeman residents is Helena. Surrounded by mountains, Helena is nestled in a scenic location, and as the state capital it has a descent array of cultural resources. More important, it is relatively affordable and its crime rate is relatively low.





Another popular relocation place is Anaconda in Deer Lodge County, a former copper-smelting city of some 9,000 people. After a long period of decline, Anaconda is again growing. As an extended headline in a recent article in the Montana Free Press (MTFP) reads, “Building on its past, Anaconda draws new residents seeking best of Montana: The long-struggling southwestern Montana town is gaining popularity with recreationists and homebuyers. Can it retain its historic character?” As the article notes:

Anaconda is the last best place of the last best places,” said Vanessa Romero, 39, who moved to Anaconda in 2017 from Boise, Idaho, and is opening a wine shop downtown.

This isn’t the typical Montana discovery tale. Movie stars aren’t buying sprawling ranches here. Tourists aren’t pouring into town, though they are coming at a steady trickle. The rich and famous aren’t flocking to the local ski area. Rather, Anaconda’s newcomers are often young couples and extended families who want a low-pressure lifestyle in a Montana community but have been priced out of other areas. The town is an example of a historically industrial community that is adapting to a recreation economy. …

We’re seeing the refugees of Missoula and Bozeman” and other rapidly growing towns in the West, said Adam Vauthier, executive director of Discover Anaconda, an economic development organization. “The other recreation towns in the vicinity just got so big.”

But will such cities as Anaconda and Helena retain their affordability?  Footloose and often well-compensated Zoom workers also find them attractive. And prices are increasing. As the Montana Free Press(MTFP) article notes, “the Multiple Listing Service shows a median home price of $294,000 in Anaconda, up 36.7% over the same time in 2021.” Some local residents are also concerned about the city’s changing demographic characteristics. As one resident told MTFP reporter Erin Everett, “’We want to get rid of the buffalo touchers’ … referring to visitors who get too close to bison in Yellowstone National Park.”

*As the paired maps also show, Golden Valley County is an even more advantageous location for nurses, but with only 823 residents, employment opportunities are limited.

The Cost of Housing and Essential-Worker Relocation in Booming Southwestern Montana Read More »

What Is a Zoom Town?

Bozeman, Montana is often described as a quintessential “Zoom town,” a city or small town that has experienced explosive growth owing to the relocation of remote workers since the beginning of the Covid pandemic. Bozeman is certainly booming, and many of its new residents do work remotely, usually through Zoom. But how widespread is this phenomenon, and where might other “Zoom Towns” be located?

Although many article have been written recently on Zoom towns, the term remains poorly defined, with most designations based on informal impressions. Maps showing Zoom town locations are all but non-existent. The only map that I was able to find comes from the Ownerly website, specializing in data for homeowners. This map was made to illustrate an article called “Zoom Towns USA: America’s Best Cities for Remote Workers.” Ownerly devised a metric to measure Zoom-town suitability by analyzing:

445 cities across the nation, looking at rent and housing prices, cost of living, safety data, level of broadband and free Wi-Fi coverage. Besides expanding our list of cities by nearly 50% from our 2021 Best Zoom Towns list, we also added new metrics that include cost and availability of childcare, restaurants and coworking spaces.

The resulting map is reproduced here. Ownerly’s “best” Zoomtowns are concentrted in the northeastern quadrant of the country, with Wisconsin and Pennsylvania leading the list. But ideal though they may be, few of the towns and cities on this map are commonly deemed “Zoom towns.”  Consider, for example, a map showing Wikipedia’s “examples of Zoom towns and regions.” Intriguingly, none of these places makes the Ownerly list. Wikipedia’s Zoom towns are concentrated in the West, with California in the lead position.

Other sources have their own lists, often focused on a particular part of the country. Rate.com emphasizes towns in the Rocky Mountain region, calling special attention to Lewistown, Idaho; Walla Walla, Washington,; and Caspar Wyoming. Northwest News, focusing on the Northwest, focuses on Bend, Oregon while also mentioning Washington’s Methow Valley and San Juan Islands; Kelowna in British Columbia; Sandpoint, Idaho; and (yet again) Bozeman Montana. A BBC article on Zoom towns begins with a discussion of Fayetteville, Arkansas while also mentioning Sandpoint, Idaho; Moab, Utah; and Durango, Colorado. The article stresses the location of Zoom towns in “rural enclaves.”

Rural enclaves certainly do not dominate Wikipedia’s list of exemplary Zoom towns. Roughly half of the places on the Wikipedia list are suburbs with populations over 100,000. Such cities were growing quickly before Covid and are within the normal commuting range of their metropolitan cores. Placing such cities in the same category as Aspen, Colorado; Truckee, California; and Bethel, Maine might be a bit misleading.

A rigorous definition of Zoom town would emphasize population growth since 2020 and the percentage of workers working remotely. The latter piece of information is not easily obtainable. Using LinkedIn data, however, a 2021 Make It article claims that:

      These small cities have the highest proportion of remote work applications:

    1. Bend, Oregon: 41.8%
    2. Asheville, North Carolina: 38.7%
    3. Wilmington, Delaware: 35.9%
    4. Johnson City, Tennessee: 35.2%
    5. Eugene, Oregon: 34.9%

These larger cities have the highest proportion of remote work applications:

    1. Cape Coral, Florida: 33.1%
    2. Charleston, South Carolina: 31.6%
    3. Tampa Bay, Florida: 29.6%
    4. Jacksonville, Florida: 29.4%
    5. Orlando, Florida: 29.2%

Based on the information contained in this GeoCurrents post, Bend, Oregon is a good candidate for the title of America’s quintessential Zoom town. Bend was booming, however, well before it was Zooming; its population surged from 20,000 in 1990 to 99,000 in 2020.


What Is a Zoom Town? Read More »

The Recent Gilbertese Settlement of the Line Islands

Map of KiribatiIt is difficult to convey the immensity and emptiness of the Republic of Kiribati. The country extends across more than 3.5 million square kilometers (1,351,000 sq mi) of oceanic space, an area considerably larger than India. The distance between its western and eastern islands is comparable to the distance across the United States. Yet Kiribati contains only 800 square kilometers (310 sq mi) of land, an area slightly larger than the city-state of Singapore, and considerably smaller than the city of Los Angeles.

With some 103,000 inhabitants (in 2010), Kiribati has only a moderately dense population. Its 135 people per square kilometer of land (350 per sq mi) places it in the 73rd position among the world’s 244 sovereign states and dependent territories, well below Italy, Germany, and the United Kingdom. But such figures are misleading, as the population of Kiribati is by no means evenly distributed over its far-flung expanse. Most of its residents live on the 16 atolls of the Gilbert Archipelago in the west. Here more than 85,000 people are crowded into roughly 281 square kilometers of low-lying land. On the main atoll of Tarawa, a fast-growing population of some 55,000 is limited to 31 square kilometers. Tarawa’s highest point is three meters above sea level.

The Phoenix Islands in central Kiribati are a different matter. These islands contain 84.5 square kilometers of land but their population is negligible. Only Kanton Island is inhabited, and its population in 2010 was all of 24, having declined from 61 in 2000. Although archeological remains indicate that some of the Phoenix Islands had once been settled, they had no human inhabitants when they were first sighted by Europeans. In the late 1930s, major efforts were made to populate the Phoenix Islands, described by the Wikipedia as “the last attempt at human colonisation within the British Empire.” Imperial agents wanted to reduce over-population in the southern Gilbert Islands and to forestall potential U.S. attempts to gain territory under the Guano Islands Act. The colonization project was abandoned in 1963, however, with the settlers returning to the Gilbert Islands. Low prices for copra, the islands’ only significant export, along with recurrent drought, undermined the scheme.

Pacific Rainfall MapDrought is also a problem in many of the Line Islands, which form Kiribati’s eastern archipelago. The central and southern Line Islands fall within the low-rainfall region of the eastern Pacific, which is generated in large part by the cold waters of the Humboldt Current that are deflected into the equatorial region by the shape of the South American landmass. Partly as a result of meager and uncertain precipitation, the Line Islands—which themselves stretch over 2,350 kilometers of sea-space—were also uninhabited at the time of European discovery. They were all claimed by the United States under the Guano Islands Act, but the U.S. relinquished all of its claims in 1983, with the Congressional ratification of the Treaty of Tarawa (more formally known as the “Kiribati, Treaty of Friendship and Territorial Sovereignty, September 20, 1979,” with a subtitle reading “Treaty of Friendship Between the United States of America and the Republic of Kiribati”).

Line Islands Population growthToday, three of the Line Islands are inhabited: Teraina, or Washington Island, with 1,155 residents (2005), Tabuaeran, or Fanning Island, with 2,539 residents (2005), and Kiritimati, or Christmas Island, with 5,115 residents (2005). The populations of all three islands have increased rapidly in recent decades, owing in part to official Kiribati relocation schemes designed in part to reduce crowding in the Gilbert Islands. Teraina Island was first settled after WWII through the agency of the Burns Philip Copra Company, but its population expanded significantly only after 1990. As noted in an official publication of the Republic of Kiribati:

The population of Teeraina in the 2010 census was 1,690. Compared to the 2005 population of 1,155 and the 2000 population of 1,087, the population is growing very rapidly. The population of Teeraina grew by 535 people between 2005 and 2010, an annual population growth of 7.9%. In percentage terms, Teeraina is the fastest growing island in Kiribati, although the growth is much less significant in terms of absolute numbers.

Kiritimati Island MapGrowth on Kiritimati Island, the giant of not only the Line Islands but also of Kiribati as a whole, has been even more dramatic, its population jumping from 3,431 in 2000 to 5,115 in 2005. With some 388 square kilometers of dry land, Kiritimati Island has a larger terrestrial extent than any other coral atoll in the world.

The vast majority of the people now living in the Line Islands are originally from the Gilbert Archipelago and speak Gilbertese, also known as the Kiribati Language.* As noted in the Wikipedia, “Unlike many in the Pacific region, the Kiribati language is far from extinct, and most speakers use it daily. 97% of those living in Kiribati are able to read in Kiribati, and 80% are able to read English.” Gilbertese has also expanded into nearby countries, with some 5,000 people speaking the language in the Solomon Islands and perhaps another 1,000 doing so in Vanuatu.

Kiribati Fertility LevelThe expansion of the Gilbertese-speaking area has been driven largely by population growth. Although Kiribati’s fertility rate has declined in recent years, it is still well above the replacement rate. Given the small size of the Gilbert Islands, migration to other areas is not surprising. The government of Kiribati is also keen to establish permanent populations in its distant islands in order to cement its control over areas that had been tenuously held. Kiribati also views Kiritimati Island as a potential refuge in the event of a catastrophic sea-level rise. The European Union agrees, and has thus pledged substantial development funds. As noted in a February 2015 article in Radio Australia:

The European Union has just announced a 23 million Euro grant for Kiribati, money that will be used to develop the nation’s largest atoll, Kiritimati Island.

Although it makes up 70 per cent of the country’s landmass, Kiritimati Island was virtually uninhabited for decades and is relatively undeveloped.

By improving facilities on the island, the EU Ambassador to the Pacific Andrew Jacobs says the aim is to reduce the threat posed by climate change to the main population centre of Tarawa.

Kiribati is also concerned about its elevated fertility level. As noted in a World Culture Encyclopedia article on the country:

Population has been growing rapidly since the early 1900s, and overpopulation is a serious concern of the government. While family-planning methods were introduced in 1968 and are delivered free, fertility remains moderately high and large families are culturally valued. Despite government efforts to maintain and improve life on the outer islands, there has been substantial migration to the capital on South Tarawa. There are several thousand I-Kiribati in other countries, most serving as temporary workers.

* The word “Kiribati” itself means “Gilberts” in the Gilbertese language. It is unclear what the indigenous word for the archipelago is, although “Tungaru” has been suggested. Note that in Gilbertese orthography, a “ti” is pronounced as an “s” sound, giving the preferred pronunciation of the country as “keer-ə-bahss.” By the same token, the island of “Kiritimati” is rendered as “kuhris-muh s” or “kəˈrɪsmæs,” the local pronunciation of “Christmas.” It is unclear why the “s” sound in Gilbertese is written as “ti”; I dimly recall reading that the first missionaries brought a typewriter with a broken “s” key, and hence used “ti” as a substitute symbol, but I have been unable to find confirmation


The Recent Gilbertese Settlement of the Line Islands Read More »

Lecture Slides on the Mediterranean Migration Crisis

Dear Readers,

Military Spending per GDP mapYet again, other obligations have prevented me from making regular GeoCurrents posts. Most of my recent time has been devoted to preparing lectures for my course on the History and Geography of Current Global Events. This week’s talk was on the Mediterranean Migration Crisis; the lecture slides are available at the link below (“MediterraneanMigration”). The remainder of this post summarizes those slides

The lecture began with an overview of recent events, using media headlines, maps, graphs, and quotations from various articles. The table on page 11 departs from this introduction, showing that although human smuggling—whether across the Mediterranean or anywhere else—is indeed a big business, it is much smaller than many other illicit activities, including that of counterfeiting auto parts (the table is from the invaluable site Havocscope: Global Black Market Information). Slides 14-19 consider some of the reasons why human smuggling and its associated fatalities have increased recently, including Italy’s abandonment of “Operation Mare Nostrum” and the construction of border barriers by Greece and Bulgaria.

The next slide simply outlines the remainder of the lecture: 1. Global Perspectives on Migration; 2. Local Particularities: Europe and the Mediterranean; 3. Response from Europe & Repercussions for Europe; 4. Contrasts with Australian Policy.

Slides 21-34 present maps and other visuals that try to capture the global dynamics of international migration. The overarching idea here is that people tend to move from poor and chaotic countries to wealthier and more stable ones. The best of these maps is a busy and somewhat dated French portrayal that contains a wealth of information. Slides 26 and 27 illustrate the under-appreciated fact that a major portion of migration occurs within the so-called Global South, going from poor countries to richer but still not “fully developed” ones. (In discussing slide 28, however, I critique the very notion of the “Global South,” as the conventional definition places a number of impoverished states on the “rich” side of the line [Tajikistan, Moldova] and quite a few wealthy countries on the “poor” side [Singapore, Qatar]). The next set of images gives information on a few particular instances of troubled international immigration in the “South,” including Nicaraguans moving to Costa Rica, Paraguayans and Bolivians going to Argentina, and Indonesians migrating to Malaysia. Slides 33 and 34 show that this process sometimes goes into reverse, as when Ivory Coast experienced protracted conflicts that resulted in millions of people from Burkina Faso and Mali fleeing back to their homelands.

With slide 35, the lecture returned to the current crisis in Europe and the Mediterranean. Slides 36-38 show migration routes, but not very accurately (the last of these maps appear to be the best). More significant is slide 39, which includes two tables showing the countries of origin of people illegally crossing the sea into Europe in recent months. This slide brings up the significant question of why these particular countries send so many would-be immigrants into Europe. Some are easy to explain on the basis of war and related calamities, such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Others can be explained on the basis of severe repression, including the Gambia and Eritrea. A number of these slides (41-50) delve into the horrors of life in contemporary Eritrea. Beginning with slide 50, the lecture took on the issue of why Libya has become the main embarkation point for trans-Mediterranean migrants. Here I first explored the political chaos encountered now in Libya and then considered the legacy of Muammar Gaddafi in encouraging trans-Saharan immigration into his country. The final slides in this section examine to proximity of Libya to the Italian island of Lampedusa, considering as well the conditions found on that small island.

At this point, the lecture turned to the responses to the crisis found in Europe. Different European countries have had different reactions, and the EU’s “ten-point plan” has been wide criticized for being weak and ineffectual. Many Europeans, however, maintain that they have been unduly taken to task, especially considering the fact that Europe takes much more than its “fair share” of asylum seekers. Some European countries, however, attract many more asylum seekers than others (slide 73), but do so for different reasons. Sweden is particularly generous, while Hungary is merely located in an area that is easy to reach for many asylum seekers. Slides 76 and 77 examine Europe’s detention system for people claiming refugee status, considering as well the criticisms of this system by human-rights activists.

The next set of slides examine debates within Europe over the larger immigration issue. Images 98-82 consider the argument that Europe needs high levels of immigration due to its low birth rate and rapidly increasing dependency burden, showing as well the growing demographic imbalance between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. But as the next group of slides shows, Europeans are increasingly opposed to high levels of immigration, although sentiments vary considerably from country to country (with Italy and Sweden at opposite ends of the spectrum). Attitudes also vary widely in regard to the country-of-origin of would-be immigrants. Perhaps surprisingly, in Western Europe opposition to migration from Eastern Europe is almost as strong as that to migration from the Middle East or Sub-Saharan Africa.

Beginning with slide 86, the presentation considers the political ramifications for Europe of the migration crisis, focusing on the rise of so-called right-wing, anti-immigrant parties, most of which are also highly skeptical of the EU. In the lecture, efforts were made to differentiate the political philosophies of these various parties, which differ significantly. Map 89, for example, distinguishes the “extreme far right” from both the “far right” and the “populist right.” Although the distinction between the “extreme far right” (Jobbik in Hungary, Golden Dawn in Greece, and Attack in Bulgaria) and the other parties seems valid, I am not convinced about difference between the “far right” and the “populist right.” Although Alternative for Germany has often been portrayed as populist in the German press, as it is on the map, it appears to me to be more of a neo-liberal (or “classical liberal”) party. At any rate, the remainder of this section of slides provides more detail on number of these parties. As can be see, they generally have heavier representation in the European parliament than in the legislative chambers of their own countries.

A number of these parties would like Europe adopt immigration policies more like those of Australia. The final set of slides thus outline the Australian immigration system, examining policies on both asylum seekers and those seeking work permits through standard immigration channels.


Lecture Slides on the Mediterranean Migration Crisis Read More »

NPR’s Incomplete Story on “Trimmigants” in the California Marijuana Industry

Emerald Triangle MapOn December 4, 2014, National Public Radio (NPR) ran an interesting story on a severely underreported matter: international seasonal labor migration to the “Golden Triangle” of marijuana cultivation in northwestern California. This report—“With Harvest Season, ‘Trimmigrants’ Flock To California’s Pot Capital”*—captured many of the more intriguing and important aspects of the phenomenon. But it also missed some significant things and made a few doubtful assertions. This post seeks to provide a more comprehensive picture.

Before proceeding, it is necessary to outline my own sources of information. Although the evidence in most GeoCurrents posts derives from a variety of published materials and on-line sources, this one relies entirely on oral interviews. Since my earliest years, I have spent a considerable amount of time recreating in Mendocino County, arguably California’s cannabis core (neighboring Humboldt County, however, would contest that claim). After a close friend moved to the county, I began to meet his neighbors and attend local events. I have been to road-association meetings, informal community gatherings, and even assemblies devoted to dealing with troublesome neighbors. The last-mentioned gathering led to a particularly riveting experience: an afternoon in a Mendocino County courtroom considering requests for restraining orders. As the case that I was interested in came last, I got to witness six compelling micro-dramas, several of which involved marijuana cultivation in one way or another. The tragedy, pathos, and unintended comedy of the proceedings surpassed anything that I have seen on film or in television shows.

I have devoted time to exploring Mendocino County because I find it an environmentally gorgeous and culturally captivating place. Eventually, although probably not until retirement, I plan to write a historical geography of the county, focusing on the history of land-use. I have not yet dipped into the local archives, but I have been informally gathering oral histories from talkative residents for some time.

After listening to the NPR story mentioned above, I arranged to meet first with a few marijuana growers and then with a group of itinerant workers to discuss the issues faced by “trimmigrants.” The growers interviewed all run small-scale operations that are as legal as possible. They cultivate under medical license, remain within the county’s 25-plant limit, and sell their product to official medical dispensaries. All of them found the NPR report to be insightful but incomplete and somewhat exaggerated. But my sample of growers, it is necessary to note, is both highly limited and confined to one small area. As a result, this post should not necessarily be taken as representative of the larger enterprise.

According to the NPR story, European trimmers are favored by most growers over American youths, who are often disparaged as “hippie kids.” The reporter interviewed a young man named Fermin who had been unsuccessfully seeking work for a month and was forced to “dumpster dive” for food. My sources were not surprised by Fermin’s plight, but they nonetheless expressed doubt that American trimmers per se face discrimination. In their operations, local youths are the first to be hired and the last to be let off. Partly this is due to basic community ties, but it is also a matter of these youngsters’ deep experience with a demanding job. One local girl joked about “being born with a pair of scissors in my hand,” and others told of not being allowed to watch television or listen to music as children until their daily allotments had been trimmed. But people like Fermin, scruffy outsiders with Pit Bull Terriers, would only be hired in a case of desperation.

Fermin’s problems extend beyond his appearance, choice of pet, and lack of local contacts to encompass his gender. Men, everyone agreed, are disfavored when it comes to the delicate job of trimming. Although they agreed that they were being “politically incorrect,” the growers insisted that women have, on average, much better fine-motor skills than men, as well as more patience with a grindingly monotonous task that often goes on for more than twelve hours a day. Trimmers are usually paid by the pound, as noted by NPR, and as a result the slower-working men make much less money than the generally faster women. But quality also factors in, as buds must be carefully manicured but not trimmed down so much as to cut into the weight, and workers must remain vigilant in searching for mold, the growers’ worst nightmare. Relatively few men, I was informed, can pass the test of the more demanding artisanal cannabis cultivators. When young men do find work, it is more often in harvesting, hanging buds, and covering unharvested plants with plastic sheeting before rain events. There is much less demand, however, for this kind of labor than there is for trimming.

Of the seasonal workers I interviewed, four were locals (three female, one male) and four were Spaniards (all female). Three of the Spaniards came from the same part of Spain, an area well known for both its high-end tourism and countercultural flair. Some of them have been coming to the Emerald Triangle for years, but one was on her first trip, having been tearfully forced to leave a 14-year-old daughter at home. They all talked about the difficulty of finding employment in Spain, and all maintained that a two-month stint in California could allow them to subsist for the rest of the year back home. Getting work for the full two months, however, did not always prove easy, as small-scale growers only hire trimming crews for a week or two. As a result, they had all traveled back and forth among different “grows” in Humboldt, Trinity, and Mendocino counties. In finding such work, all were indebted to another person hailing from the same region of Spain. This woman’s outsized personality and immense knowledge of cannabis processing, gained in Morocco and India as well as in Spain and the United States, allows her to serve as a kind of informal, international go-between. When issues arose among the workers and between the workers and their employers, she would be called, in Spain, for consultation.

Other aspects of the NPR story generated skepticism among the growers. They scoffed at the assertion of one cultivator who claims to harvest eight pounds per plant, and then laughed when he said that the plants in question are of the OG Kush variety. Eight-pound plants are legendary: everyone has heard of them, but no one has actually seen one. And while OG Kush is indeed the cultivar of the year, in hot demand by the metropolitan cognoscenti, but it is a notoriously poor producer, usually yielding fewer than two pounds per plant. In the end, my sources could not decide whether the grower interviewed by NPR was greatly exaggerating the yield of his plants, or whether they themselves needed to do something to improve their own cultivation.

The NPR story ended, as these things often do, on a doleful note:

But as laws around the country change — making marijuana legal — analysts say the pay scale is bound to go down, making trimming more like any other low-paid farmwork. And, like farmwork across the country, marijuana production is already becoming mechanized — gradually making trimmigrants a thing of the past.

California-top-cash-crops-1024x638These assertions, not surprisingly, generated much discussion. The first elicited general agreement: the prospect of full legalization makes growers nervous. The idea that mechanization is replacing manual trimming, however, evoked only scoffing. Attempts have been made, they told me, but all have failed. One grower even purchased a $14,000 automatic trimmer a few years ago, a machine designed to process hops (Humulus [hops] and Cannabis are very closely related plants). But the buds had to be pre-trimmed before going into the mechanism, as it cannot handle large stems, and then post-trimmed after coming out, as medical-marijuana dispensaries are exacting customers. More problematic, the machine had to be shut down and cleaned several times an hour, as the resinous buds would quickly gum-up the cutting blades. After a few days of operation, the machine was put into storage and has remained there ever since.

But as alluded to above, threats to marijuana cultivation across the Emerald Triangle are very real. Prices are steadily dropping, and some growers are now having a difficult time making ends meet. The real problem is that of competition from indoor cultivation, which is coming to dominate the market. Indoor buds are more uniform than those grown under the sun, generally have less mold, and are usually more potent as well. As a result, they command a steep price premium, and many medical dispensaries are no longer even willing to sell outdoor pot.

The growers that I interviewed are both dumbfounded and heartbroken by this development, as indoor cannabis cultivation is one of the most environmentally destructive forms of agriculture imaginable, whereas their own “sun grown” product is environmentally benign. They cannot understand why the marijuana market, of all things, would disdain organic farming and instead embrace a hyper-technological, eco-hostile form of production. Regional and generational antipathies also come into play. My interviewees are mostly in their 50s and 60s, and they strongly identify with the neo-rural cultural values of the Emerald Triangle; their indoor competitors, in contrast, are mostly in their 20s and 30s, and are largely based in major metropolitan areas. “We invented this business in the 1970s,” my sources argued, “and we did so under extraordinarily adverse conditions, and now these environmentally unconscionable kids, these corporate wannabe LA pot-snobs, are undermining our livelihoods! How can that be?”

Farmers, in my experience, almost always complain, about both the weather and their agricultural markets, whether they grow wheat, corn, or cannabis. But as we shall see in subsequent posts coming next week, the environmental arguments made by Mendocino County pot growers are difficult to deny.

*The text version of this article at the NPR website is abbreviated; listen to the audio version for the full story.

Note that the location for the story has been keyed to Mendocino’s county seat, Ukiah, rather than to the actual places of cultivation and processing alluded to in the post.

NPR’s Incomplete Story on “Trimmigants” in the California Marijuana Industry Read More »

The Different Modes of Language Spread

In this second-to-last post on Indo-European origins and expansion, we turn once again to language diffusion, a cornerstone of the model employed by Bouckaert et al. A previous post asked whether languages actually spread by diffusion, arguing that the much more rapid process of advection is often more important. As was then pointed out, physical geographical factors, such as impassible mountains and fertile river corridors, guided such advectional movement. Today’s post considers language movement more generally—whether conceptualized as diffusion or advection—focusing more on the social than the natural environment.

A root error of Bouckaert et al. is regarding language expansion as a singular process. Actually, it can operate in two complete different modes: sometimes a language spreads with a group people, and sometimes it does so among different groups of people. To put it in most schematic terms, language movement occurs when a speaker moves from place A to neighboring place B, but it can also happen when a resident of A imparts his or her language to a resident of B. One process is basically demographic, the other conversional. In geohistorical terms, both forms of language expansion have been ubiquitous. They are generally meshed together in a complex manner, but sometimes one or the other process dominates. As they differ so fundamentally, it they could be realistically modeled in the same manner.

The clearest case of demographic expansion occurs when a single human group arrives on an uninhabited landmass and settles it. As the population expands in numbers and spreads geographically, its language will gradually differentiate into dialects and eventually into separate languages, as sub-populations pushing into new areas become socially separate and their forms of speech drift apart. Such linguistic differentiation could be arrested and reversed by state formation or the emergence of over-arching religious or other cultural institutions, but over the long span of the human past, divergence is usually the rule.

The settlement of Madagascar some 1,500 years ago is a prime example of such virgin-land expansion. Linguistic evidence confirms that the original Austronesian-speaking settlers arrived from Borneo in the Malay Archipelago. As their descendents spread over the mini-continent, their original language differentiated into dialects, some of which are regarded by linguistic splitters as separate languages (the Ethnologue lists ten). Later streams of migrants from the African mainland enhanced the island’s genetic diversity while introducing new linguistic elements, but the newcomers always adopted the language of the original settlers. As a result, all the indigenous forms of speech on Madagascar are very closely related, and are usually classified as variants of the single Malagasy macro-language.

Examples of the opposite process of conversional language expansion are common in today’s world. The process occurs whenever parents neglect to pass on their own mother tongue to their children, in favor of the language of one of their neighboring groups. Hundreds of languages have become endangered in over past generation alone by such changes in behavior. Most disappearing American Indian languages in the United States, for example, are in danger not because their populations are dying out or because their lands are being overrun by English speakers, but rather because decisions are made by parents to raise their children as English speakers.

Such processes of language abandonment and replacement are by no means limited to the modern world. A prime ancient example comes from the Philippine archipelago. Almost all Philippine languages belong to one branch of the Austronesian family, which is almost limited to the Philippines (see the map posted here). Such a pattern would seemingly indicate that the Philippines, like Madagascar, had been initially populated by a single group of settlers whose descendants subsequently spread over the archipelago as their language differentiated. But the actual demographic history of the Philippines was completely different. The original Austronesian settlers came to a land that had already been occupied by tens of thousands of years. Its indigenous* inhabitants were collectively called “Negritos” by Spanish authorities, a word meaning “small, dark-skinned people.” Their languages were undoubtedly unrelated to Austronesian, but we cannot say much beyond that. Although the Philippine indigenes have survived to this day, they abandoned their original tongues many centuries ago in favor of the Austronesian speech of the newcomers.

The social interactions between the Austronesian migrants and the indigenous inhabitants of the Philippines are poorly understood, but the key dynamics are evident. The newcomers were an agriculture people with much more highly developed technologies and forms of political integration than those held by the native foragers. The Austronesian migrants demographically overwhelmed most parts of the archipelago in short order, spreading their language(s) and well as their genes. Yet the indigenes held on in a number of rugged areas, particularly those characterized by heavy, year-round rainfall, such as the Sierra Madre Mountains of eastern Luzon** (in the winter dry season, the Sierra Madre catches rain from trade winds forced up-slope). From such redoubts, however, the indigenous foragers interacted extensively with their Austronesian neighbors, exchanging rain-forest products for agricultural and manufactured goods. Eventually, the languages of their trading partners fully “diffused” across their societies and then began to evolve in their own directions. Today, the several surviving “Negrito languages” are much more closely related to the languages of their neighbors than they are to each other. Strikingly similar processes have occurred elsewhere in the world. The most notable case is that of the “Pygmies” of central Africa, another group of diminutive, rainforest hunter-gatherers who long ago abandoned their own languages in favor of the tongues of their more numerous and powerful neighbors, in this case, languages in the Bantu sub-family of Niger-Congo.

The two cases explored above, Madagascar and northeastern Luzon, are best regarded as ends of a spectrum. Most examples of linguistic expansion involve both processes. When one language group expands it usually does so into the territory of a people speaking another language. As communication between natives and newcomers is essential, many individuals acquire a second language. Over time, such a process often leads to the linguistic conversion of the indigenous group—although advancing group are sometimes converted instead, in which case the language frontier retreats. Such encounters are generally accompanied by some conflict, as the native inhabitants typically resent the incursions of the newcomers, who in turn often use force to advance into new lands. To the extent that the indigenes are able to resist the settlers, they will delay the linguistic expansion. The effectiveness of any such resistance in turn depends on the relative numbers of the two groups and on their levels of political and technological development. Any realistic modeling of linguistic spread must take such factors into consideration.

Patterns of physical geographical play an important role here as well, as resistance by native inhabitants is usually more effective in areas of rough or otherwise difficult-to-traverse topography. In some cases, a particular climatic feature can stop language advance; the spreading Bantu-speakers, for example, encountered a firm barrier in the arid and Mediterranean climates of southwestern Africa, which precluded their faming practices and therefore created a refuge for peoples speaking Khoisan languages. Even the geometry of landmasses can play a role. As Anglo-Saxon speech spread across southern England, Celtic speakers were increasingly concentrated in the funnel-shaped peninsula of Cornwall, increasing their population density, shortening their defensive perimeter, and thereby enhancing their ability to resist the spread of English (further north, it was the rugged uplands of eastern Wales that afforded such protection).  Yet again, all such features must also be taken into account by any effective attempt to model language spread.

The movement of one language group into the territory of another typically results in complex and variable linguistic interactions. Outcomes again depend heavily on relative numbers and different levels of technological and political development. When a large group of technically advanced people spreads over a landscape occupied by scant numbers of less technically advanced people, the linguistic impact can be minimal. As English advanced across Australia, for example, it picked up place names, animal designations, and words for unique landscape features (such as billabong) from Aboriginal languages, but not much more. But when two groups with more similar levels of development come into contact, much more intensive linguistic interactions typically result. Sometimes the linguistic substrates bequeathed by vanquished populations can be profound at both the grammatical and lexical levels, at other times they are of little significance, and occasionally they seem to be minor at first glance but turn out to be surprisingly important.***

When a language group moves into the lands of a different people, the initial linguistic development is often that of widespread bilingualism. If the newcomers are dominant, as they often are, the subjugated indigenes will find advantage in learning the new language, but even members of the dominant group sometimes acquire the native tongue. Gender relations typically play a crucial role here as well. Men from the more powerful group often take women from the subordinated people, insisting that their native wives learn their language. Such women do so imperfectly, often imposing upon it sounds, words, and grammatical patterns from their native tongue. When they pass down the transformed language of their husbands to their children, a certain degree of linguistic fusion results.

The preceding discussion only hints at the possible complexities involved in the linguistic interactions that occur when one language group pushes into the territory of another. Even so, it deeply challenges the diffusion model of Bouckaert et al. Rather than advancing by steady progression, an expanding language often moves forward in a spatially dispersed manner, as its speakers establish themselves as a dominant social stratum in a foreign land. Many members of the native population will learn the new language, but they will at first continue rearing their own children in their own tongue. After a number of generations of such bilingualism, most parents in the indigenous group may opt to acculturate their infants in their second languages rather than in their mother tongues. As a result, a language could “spread” almost instantaneously over fairly sizable areas. Over broader areas, however, such a process is likely to be patchy, with some areas “converting” much sooner than others.

A prime example of such uneven processes of language change comes from Anatolia. Most of the region was Greek-speaking in the 11th century when the Turkish influx began. By the 13th century most of Anatolia was firmly under Turkish rule, and by the middle of the 15th century Greek political power had vanished everywhere. Throughout this period, Turkish gradually supplanted Greek, but along both the Black Sea coast and that of the Aegean Sea, largely bilingual but primarily Greek-speaking communities persisted until the expulsions of the early 20th century. And as we saw in an earlier post, mixed “Turkish-Greek” forms of speech emerged in some areas.

A second major challenge to the diffusion model emerging from this analysis involves the unpredictability of language change when two (or more) linguistic communities come to occupy the same general territory. Although one might expect that the language of the dominant group would always prevail, that is obviously not the case—if it were, England would have switched to a Romance language after the Norman conquest, and Russia would have ended up with a North Germanic language of its Variangian rulers. Instead, England kept a Germanic tongue, and Russia—a Slavic one.

Interesting examples of the uncertain nature of language change after a successful invasion come from the Danubian grasslands of central and southeastern Europe. From the fourth century to the ninth century CE, this area experienced four major incursions by non-Indo-European-speaking, militarily dominant, pastoral peoples from the steppe zone to the east: those of the Huns, the Eurasian Avars, the Bulgars, and the Magyars. All four groups built empires of a sort, and all subjugated the much more numerous local inhabitants. The Huns and the Avars, however, disappeared within a century or so with little trace, linguistic or otherwise. The Bulgars, on the other hand, built a kingdom so powerful that vestiges of it survive to this day in the form of Bulgaria, but their Turkic tongue vanished long ago, failing to maintain itself in the heavily Slavic environment over which the Bulgars ruled. The Magyars, on the other hand, were able to firmly establish their language, which is spoken today by roughly 15 million people, even though the Magyars themselves were a relatively small group, substantially outnumbered by the peoples that they dominated.

Could one have predicted the fates of the Hunnic, Avar, Bulgar, and Magyar languages merely from the basic facts of their migrations, conquests, and state formations? I rather doubt it, as far too many contingencies were involved over long periods and broad territories. More to the point, could any such processes be successfully modeled as instances of linguistic diffusion? Here the answer must be a definitive “no.” Of course Bouckaert et al. would object here, as they rule out all episodes involving the “rapid” spread of a single language. Yet over the past several thousand years, the rapid spread of single languages has been the stuff of linguistic history over broad segments of the terrestrial globe. If such processes are ignored, nonsense necessarily results.


*The term “indigenous” becomes problematic wherever multiple waves of settlement have impacted a particular place. The term is used here in the relative sense, referring simply to groups that predated other groups with which they are compared.

**Intriguingly, the most rugged area of northern Luzon, the Cordillera Central, did not serve as a refuge for the indigenous hunter-gatherers, as all of its recorded ethno-linguistic groups are descended from the Austronesian migrants. The Cordillera, the site of my own doctoral research, is an usual area in many respects, as it was historically characterized by higher population densities than those found in the adjacent lowlands to the east; dense populations, in turn, necessitated the construction of some of the world’s most elaborate agricultural terraces (see the photo to the left). In all likelihood, such high population density in the mountains resulted from Spanish pressure; residents of northern Luzon who did not want to submit to Spanish rule and forced Christianization fled to the uplands, where they had to build terraces in order to survive. Prior to this influx, small numbers of “Negritos” may have lived in parts of the Cordillera.

***Intriguingly, substrate influences that seem insignificant at first glance can actually turn out to be important. For decades, linguists looked for Celtic influences on English in the wrong places and thus could not find them; even such a recent, authoritative text as Baugh and Cable’s A History of the English Language (1993) states that, “Outside of place-names the influence of Celtic upon the English language is almost negligible” (p. 85). Currently, however, many of the linguistic peculiarities of English are being attributed to the Celts. These include the do-support construction (where do is required in questions and for negation), the diphthongization of long vowels (possibly, the first push that started the chain reaction of the Great Vowel Shift), expressing possession inside noun phrases, using the same –self items for reflexives (“John cut himself”) and intensifiers (“The president himself will visit”), using the same verb forms for both causative structures (“I broke the vase”) and inchoative ones (“The vase broke”), and the it-cleft (“It was a car that he bought”).



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The Australian Asylum Controversy Extends to Indonesia

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

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

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

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



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The Yakut (Sakha) Migration to Central Siberia

As explained in the previous post, the Yakut (Sakha) people have adapted more easily to the demands of the Russian state, and of modernity more generally, than most other indigenous peoples on Siberia. The relative success of the Yakut is best understood historically. Relative newcomers from the south, the Yakut moved into central Siberia with a more advanced technology and a more complex social order than those of the earlier indigenes of the region. Facing the brutal winters of the central Lena River Valley, the immigrants underwent an ordeal that stripped away part of their original material culture. Successful adaptation to their new environment, however, allowed them to expand in numbers and territory, acculturating peoples of diverse cultural backgrounds into their own society.

Yakut legends put their homeland near Lake Baikal in south-central Siberia, an area now occupied by the Mongolian-speaking Buryats. The two people must have interacted extensively, as roughly one-third of the Sakha vocabulary is of Mongolian origin. Relations were not always cordial; the Yakuts tell stories of their ancestors being driven into the northern forests by the Buryats. Scholars have suggested dates for the migration ranging from the early 11th to the 13th centuries. Their exodus was no doubt traumatic; before their displacement, the Yakut raised horses, cattle, sheep, goats, and camels, but only horses and cattle survived the transition. They originally seem to have had knowledge of the Old Turkic script (“Turkic runes”), but literacy was not maintained. Sophisticated metallurgy, however, was, giving the Yakut an advantage over other Siberian peoples (groups such as the Evenks could work iron, but could not smelt it from raw ore). Military knowledge was also retained. The armored Yakut cavalry met by the first Russian interlopers were said by some to resemble the knights of medieval Europe.

Although the Yakuts seem to have struggled against the preexisting inhabitants of the central Lena Basin, they also interacted with them. They adopted many words from the Evenks, particularly those associated with reindeer and other natural features of central Siberia. The also seem to have intermarried extensively with both the Evenks and the Yukaghirs. Some scholars suggest that low genetic diversity in the Yakut Y-chromosome* indicates that relatively few Turkic-speaking men moved north, where they intermarried extensively with the indigenous women. A major recent genetic study shows some affinities between the Yakuts and the Turkic- and Mongolian-speaking peoples of southern Siberia. But it also indicate that:

[T]he Yakuts and Tuva are somewhat removed from the other populations in the Mongol-Turkic MDS cluster in the direction of the Evenki and Yukaghirs. And with Yakut diversity levels that are intermediate to northeastern Siberians and Mongol-Turkic groups from south Siberia, these results may be indicative of some degree of admixture with indigenous groups and/or differentiation after the Yakut migration northwards to the Lena river basin.

The pastoral way of life of the newcomers hardly seemed possible in the taiga of Siberia, where the dark forests offered scant pasturage. The Yakut were saved, however, by their discovery of the meadows and prairies that dot the forestlands of the middle Lena Valley. In the Sakha language—and now in the vocabulary of science as well—such an isolated grassland is called an alas. In its stereotypical form, an alas is centered on a small lake that is surrounded by concentric vegetation zones as the soil becomes drier as one moves away from the core. The inner belts are marshy, while the intermediate rings support seasonally lush grasslands, offering ample forage for livestock. The outer zone, on the other hand, is often dominated by wormwood, a tough, drought-adapted plant in the same genus as sagebrush (Artemesia).

Typically oval-shaped, alases were formed by the melting of an area of permafrost, the otherwise perennially frozen sub-soil layers that underlie most of the Siberian landscape. Forest fires or other natural phenomena can lead to an unusually deep summer thaw, which can subsequently result in surface subsidence. The depression so formed fills with water from the melted permafrost. In time, such lakes shrink and sometimes dry out completely, due to sedimentation and the accumulation of organic matter, as well as the semi-arid climate of central Sakha. Under grassland conditions, fertile soil is generated, creating environments much more productive than those of the surrounding taiga.

The alases of the Lena Basin offer more than pasturage. As the late American geographer Terry Jordan-Bychkov and the Yakut scholar Bella Bychkova Jordan explain, the significance of these prairie islands runs deep:

Part of the emotional appeal of the alases and their beauty is provided by the pretty blue lake nestled in the middle. They too are essential for Yakut life. While often somewhat mineralized, the lakes provide drinking water, contain fish, and supply irrigation for garden crops. (p. 33)

The alas pastures proved perfectly adequate for the hardy Yakutian horses, discussed in a previous GeoCurrents post. Despite the frigid winters, horses are able graze outdoors throughout the year. But the Yakut cattle, although more cold-adapted than other breeds, could not tolerate winters on their own. As a result, the Yakut had to cut hay assiduously during the summer, storing it as winter feed for their barn-enclosed herds. Hay cutting is a laborious job, and to this day the Yakut tell stories of their ancestors’ more idyllic way of life in the southern grasslands, where such labor was not necessary. The difficulty of raising cattle is also reflected in the fact that horsemeat is generally much cheaper than beef in Yakutia. But as the main milk-providers, cattle were crucial to the Yakut way of life. Horses were milked as well, but much of their production was fermented into kumyss, a much-loved, intoxicating beverage. Together, horses and cattle have been said to “embody the essence of the Sakha people and their identity” (A. Stammler-Grossman, p. 155).

Pine trees were also crucial to the Yakut immigrants to the central Lena Valley. Forests in general were necessary, as the Yakut burned copious amounts of firewood during the brutal winters. But pines also provided basic sustenance; according to the neighboring Evenks, “where one finds pines, one finds Yakuts.” The crucial pine resource is the inner layer of bark, or phloem. Although many peoples have traditionally eaten phloem, the Yakuts took the resource much farther than most. As Jordan-Bychkov and Bychkova Jordan explain:

In June, the “month of the pine”, women went into the woods and cut down young trees, peeled off the layers of new growth, dried it, and ground the sapwood into  powder. They then mixed it into the milk products as a kind of flour, and the chemical action of the lactic acid broke down the cellulose fibers.  (p. 54).

A variety of wild roots gathered from the alas meadows were another important source of food. They too were often ground and then dissolved in sour milk. Even fish and other animal product—including bones—were sometime dissolved in the mixture. The resulting product, called tar, formed a staple of the traditional Yakut diet. Large blocks of milk tar would be stored as simple frozen slabs immediately outside of the winter dwellings. Russian prisoners exiled to Yakut villages had a difficult time adapting to such fare.

Unlike the other Siberian peoples, the Yakut made relatively little use of berries. In fact, they often mocked the Evenks as “berry eaters.” It has been suggested that the fear of bears dissuaded the Yakuts from intensive berry gathering. The Yakut also traditionally avoided mushrooms, as noted in a previous GeoCurrents post. They did, however, adopt the practice of mushroom eating from the Russians.

Sturdy dwellings were another key to the Yakut way of life. In the summer, they traditionally lived in large, essentially temporary conical structures covered with birch-bark. In the fall, however, they repaired to their much sturdier winter  lodges, timber-framed structures, with chimneys, covered with bark and earth. Sheets of mica or ice were sometimes used as windows, but they had to be small to avoid undue heat loss.

In the early 1600s, the Yakut were firmly ensconced in the central Lena basin, with a population estimated at roughly 30,000. At that time, Russian empire-builders arrived on the scene, as we shall see in the next post.

*In regard to Y-DNA, the Yakut are dominated by haplogroup N, which is widespread across northern Eurasia, and is common in Finland and Estonia


Non-Internet Sources

Forsyth James. 1992. A History of the Peoples of Siberia: Russia’s North Asian Colony, 1581-1990. Cambridge University Press.

Jochelson, Waldemar, 1933. The Yakut. The American Museum of Natural History

Jordan-Bychkov, Terry and Bella Bychkova Jordan. 2001. Siberian Village: Land and Life in the Sakha Republic. University of Minnesota Press.

Granberg, L., K. Soiniu, and J. Kantanen, eds. 2009. Sakha Ynaga: Cattle of the Yakuts. Academia Scientarium Fennica.

Okladnikov, A.P. 1970. Yakutia Before Its Incorporation into the Russian State. Translated from Russian, and edited by Henry N. Michael. McGill-Queens University Press.

Stammler-Grossman, Anna. 2010. “’Political’ Animals of Sakha Yakutia.” In Good to Eat; Good to Live with: Nomads and Animals in Northern Eurasia and Africa, edited by F. Stammler and H. Takakura. Center for Northeast Asian Studies, Tohoku University, Sendai, Japan.

Takakura, H. ed. 2003. Indigenous Ecological Practices and Cultural Traditions in Yakutia. Center for Northeast Asian Studies, Tohoku University, Sendai, Japan.


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HSBC’s Bizarre “Expat Explorer” Index and Maps

The British banking giant HSBC runs a sophisticated interactive website called The Expat Explorer that helps well-off professionals who work abroad determine the quality of life across much of  the world. The site is based on extensive surveys with such expatriates. As the website explains, “In 2011 over 3000 expats answered questions relating to their finances, quality of life and even what it’s like to raise children abroad.”

The widely used site has some useful information, but its problems run deep. To begin with HSBC’s publicity campaign is disingenuous. A YouTube advertisement for the site, for example, emphasizes its broad appeal, trumpeting the fact that  “over 200 million people worldwide have decided to start a new life overseas.” The actual Expat Explorer, however, has little significant information for the vast majority of those 200 million. One of its questions, for example, asks about the opportunities for yachting in the various countries surveyed — one of the few categories in which the United States does relatively well.

As can be seen from the yachting illustration posted above, the Expat Explorer uses a bizarre global map, one on which the shape of the world’s terrain is suggested by circles of various sizes. Most of these circles have little significance, as only a few dozen countries are surveyed—most of the world is actually ignored. On the interactive maps, the sizes of the circles representing countries grow or shrink depending on how the country in question ranks in regard to any specific indicator. As a result, geographical relationships are severely distorted. On the Yachting map, for example, Europe is dominated by huge inflated Switzerland (labeled, oddly, “CH”), which forces France roughly into the spatial position occupied by Iceland.

Beyond its cartographic infelicities, the Explorer forwards information of dubious quality. Consider, for example, its assessment of “local weather” (climate, actually), which places Egypt in the world’s sixth highest position, substantially higher than that of Australia. Somehow I doubt that most expats would be so favorably disposed toward the climate of Cairo (although Alexandria would be a different matter). More important, ranking the “weather” of a climatically diverse country such as Australia is a meaningless exercise. Even Italy, which we are told has the world’s best weather for expats, has pronounced climatic variation.

The Explorer’s composite “economics” and “experience” rankings, displayed on its home page, gives some curious data. Here we are told that Thailand and Saudi Arabia share the top position as the best places in the world for expats, whereas the Netherlands comes in last place. I would be interested to know if any readers find such information to be of any use.


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Smuggling Children into Somalia for their Safety?

The notion of smuggling toddlers into Somalia in order to enhance their safety and increase their opportunities in life might seem utterly ludicrous, yet such an event seems to have recently occurred. According to a credible news report, nine toddlers were brought into the country from Yemen by a couple that was “apprehended … when they failed to produce proper documents for the all nine toddlers.” Several of the youngsters are believed to be the biological children of the couple in question.

The story makes sense, however, when one realizes that the children were brought into Somaliland, a relatively stable and secure country that the international community regards as an illegitimate break-away state from Somalia, a non-functioning but nonetheless officially recognized country. Also significant is the fact that the children had previously been languishing in a refugee camp in Yemen—a country currently being overwhelmed by multiple rebellions and a massive refugee crisis.

The couple in question are neither Somali nor Yemeni, but are rather Oromo, the largest ethnic group of neighboring Ethiopia. Oromia is also the site of considerable geopolitical tension, as several insurgent groups there are fighting against the Ethiopian government.


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Somali Migrants Land on Linosa in Italy’s Pelagie Islands

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

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

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New Evidence on the Settlement of Madagascar

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

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

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




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Hindus Flee Pakistan—and Other Indo-Pak Issues

Indian newspapers have recently been reporting that the large numbers of Hindus are fleeing Pakistan and seeking refuge in India. Such reports focus on southern Pakistan, especially Balochistan and Sindh, where most Pakistani Hindus reside. According to one article, “reports speak of abduction for ransom [of] traders and business-people [and of] professionals like teachers and doctors being harassed and in some cases dragged from their homes or places of work and killed in broad daylight.” Abductions and forced conversions of young Hindu women to Islam are frequently mentioned as well.

Pakistan’s Hindu community is often overlooked yet is far from insignificant, numbering between 2.5 and 4.5 million. Before the 1947 political division of the Indian subcontinent, Hindus were far more numerous than they are today in the territory that became Pakistan. In the bloody partition process, almost all Hindus were expelled from Pakistan’s portion of the Punjab, just as almost all Muslims were expelled from India’s portion of the Punjab. Hindus also fled Karachi en masse at the time. But in rural Sindh, and especially in districts near the Indian border, most Hindus remained.

Very few Hindus live in the northern Pakistani region of Gilgit-Baltistan, an area that has long been almost entirely Muslim, with noted concentrations of Ismaili Shiites. Until recently, Gilgit-Baltistan was a peaceful place, but that is no longer true, as Sunni extremists have been attacking Shiites. As a result, Pakistani authorities fear that the area could experience massive sectarian violence. Some Indian nationalists are angry that this issue is not receiving more attention in their country, as India retains territorial claims over all of Gilgit-Baltistan, which was once part of Kashmir. As one recent article frames the issue:

Ironically, this report, involving the lives of people from Gilgit-Baltistan, which India claims to be an integral part of its sovereign territory and is now currently under the occupation of Pakistan, was published on the ‘international’ page of one of India’s leading national newspapers. Of course, many others did not bother to publish the news at all.

Meanwhile, efforts to reduce tensions between Indian and Pakistan are proceeding on several fronts. One intriguing avenue for hostility reduction is popular culture, focusing on food and television. As NPR recent reported:

The Indian cooking show Foodistan, on NDTV, has all of these tricks plus another spicy device: nationalistic pride. The show pits Indian chefs against Pakistani chefs in a mad race to prepare three dishes in 90 minutes. And in doing so, it exploits the long rivalry between the two countries — something that has rarely been a joking matter ….

While there’s still a long way to go for the kitchen stadium to replace the cricket stadium as the main battleground for the Indo-Pakistani rivalry, both seem better than the alternative.








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The Hippie Migration to Mendocino and the Establishment of a Cannabis-Based Economy

Although the hippie movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s may seem like a historical curiosity, its consequences were profound. It continues, moreover, to be a contentious topic, often used to score points in political debates. The New Republic, for example, is currently running a slideshow entitledThe Weekly Standard’s Obsession with Hippies Continues,” which pillories the conservative magazine for conflating hippies with Democrats. But as one savvy commentator pointed out, the images used do not necessarily reflected hippiedom: “Whoa, whoa there — hipsters and hippies are totally, completely different! You guys need to get your categories straight!” Hipsters, unlike hippies, are closely identified with contemporary urban culture.

As the previous GeoCurrents post mentioned, a “hippie migration” of the early 1970s resulted in a partial relocation of the subculture from San Francisco and environs to California’s north coast. The larger movement took members of the 1960s counter-culture to a number of rural areas, both in northern California and elsewhere. One of its most famous outposts was “The Farm,” near Summertown, Tennessee, founded in 1971, according to the Wikipedia, “by Stephen Gaskin and 320 San Francisco hippies.” The Farm is still a going concern, although its population has dwindled from some 1,600 at its height to around 175 today. Most hippie communes and intentional communities from the counter-cultural heyday vanished altogether, as eco-romantic dreams were seldom matched by rural realities.

In California’s north coast, however, hippie culture was able to put down roots. Key to its survival was the creation a viable economic niche: the cultivation of premium marijuana. In the early 1970s, the low end of the California cannabis market was dominated by goods from northern Mexico, especially Sinaloa, while more potent products came from southern Mexico (Michoacán especially, which became “Meshmican” in stoner lingo), Panama, Colombia, and Thailand. By the mid-1970s, north-coast hippies learned how to produce something much stronger still, which was first known as “sinsemilla,” from the Spanish “without seeds.” Key to the process was eliminating all male plants and allowing the female buds to become engorged and highly resinous. Before that could be done, however, geographically correct strains had to be obtained. One could not simply plant seeds from market varieties, as they were adapted to tropical conditions. As Jared Diamond emphasizes in Guns, Germs, and Steel, latitude is crucial for day-length adapted crops, which move much more easily in an east/west direction than along a north/south axis. Crucial to the northern California industry were temperate cannabis cultivars, brought back from Central Asia by adventurers straying off the “Hippie trail” (northernmost Afghanistan has the same latitude as Mendocino County).

The hippie migrants to Mendocino faced rough conditions in the early years. Local residents were often unwelcoming or even hostile, as were law enforcement officers. Aging hippies today tell stories of their handmade, un-permitted houses being torn down by county officials, as well as of stints in the county jail for cultivation. Acquiring land was a major hurdle; many pooled resources with friends in the Bay Area to buy plots of cutover forestland, resulting in complex land-partnership agreements, and more than a few fallings-out. As roads were often unimproved, many had to walk to their homesteads for several miles over mucky tracks during the long rainy season. Land parcels were usually off the electricity grid, requiring a Spartan life-style, elaborate adaptations, or dirty diesel generators. Some used water to generate power by way of Pelton wheels, seldom an easy arrangement. As one pioneer described the drawbacks: “In a January rainstorm your power would go out and next thing you know you’d be waste-deep in a frigid, raging torrent, sparks flying everywhere, desperately trying to get your system back on line.”

As the years went on, the living got easier. All-weather gravel roads were pushed deeper into the woods, power-lines went up, and solar cells became available. Intriguingly, not all hippies took to the solar revolution; as one once told me, “never get a photovoltaic array unless you are already connected to the grid and can sell power back to PG&E [Pacific Gas and Electric]; otherwise you generate a useless surplus when the sun shines and then you have to store it for nights and rainy days with evil batteries.”

Most importantly, Mendocino County came to accommodate the newcomers, just as the migrants discovered that they had a lot to learn from the established residents. Accommodation was facilitated over time by the generational shift. As the children of the hippies grew up with those of the previously established families, cultures merged in a seemingly oxymoronic “hippie-redneck” synthesis. The offspring of local ranching and logging families now often grow marijuana, while plenty of hippies and their adult children have no problems with guns, bulldozers, and off-road vehicles. The merger is by no means complete and tensions persist, but overall the mood is relaxed and relatively harmonious. The local Hispanic population generally fits easily into the mix; Mexican immigrants came initially to labor in the vineyards and wineries, but many also work for aging growers and quite a few cultivate their own small plots as well.

Marijuana cultivation, especially in the early years, was not as easy as it might seem. Plantings had to be widely scattered in partial shade to avoid detection. Pests and diseases, especially spider mites and downy mildew, still take their toll, and an early autumn rainstorm can spell disaster (such problems are amusingly recounted at length in T. C. Boyles’ Budding Prospects). Labor demands during harvest season, moreover, restrict crop size. But prices were high in the early years, and if few growers became rich, many made a comfortable living.  More than a few maintained a migratory existence, sojourning in Mexico or Costa Rica during the rainy season and returning to Mendocino in the spring. Many others, however, merely grew a few plants to supplement incomes earned in the formal sector. I have taught several students from backwoods Mendocino backgrounds at Stanford University, and when asked what their parents do for a living, the response is generally on the lines of, “my mother is a teacher/nurse/county employee, and my father, well, he, um, well, he …”

In this milieu of artisanal production, large-scale growers are not appreciated. I once attended a road-association meeting in which one member informed the assembly that he had been contracted by an Oakland medical marijuana co-op to grow over 1,000 plants; the news was most unwelcome, and his neighbors were relieved when his operation was taken down several months later. By early 2000s, many growers had actually come to appreciate CAMP, the “Campaign Against Marijuana Planting,” a multi-agency law enforcement task force, as it had come to focus on large-scale growers. Such cultivators, often connected with Mexican organized crime syndicates, operate mostly in public lands in the eastern half of the county. Their operations are often violent and environmentally destructive, and they threaten the reputation of the business. Whether they drive down prices is an open question, as they typically produce for a lower market-segment, growing the wrong strains, harvesting too early, and curing their buds improperly. Wine snobs have nothing over pot snobs these days, and extraordinary care is taken by serious growers in both pre- and post-harvest procedures.

Regardless of the activities of the big operations, prices have come down. Growers complain that they make less per unit than they did in 1980. Most attribute the relative price drop to the expanded number of small-scale cultivators, and especially to the spread of indoor cultivation in suburban and urban parts of the state. In response, they have taken to growing much larger plants, cultivating them in the full sun, and providing full-spectrum fertilizers. Organic cultivation exists, but the practice is rare, as authentication is impossible and the price premium is small. The real money in the business, I am convinced, is in fully licit growers’ supply stores.

After the passage of the California Medical Marijuana Act of 1996, the business gradually gained a quasi-legal status as far as the county and the state were concerned, as long as the scale of operation remained small, generally below 25 plants. When the county government decided to license the cultivation of up to 99 plants in early 2011, some saw an opportunity for serious money. Dreams were hatched of developing tourist-oriented “tasting rooms,” following the local wine industry. The U.S. federal raids of October 2011, however, demolished such plans, throwing everything into doubt. It is unclear what will happen, but it is all but certain that Mendocino County will continue to produce high-quality cannabis, and most of its residents will continue to be rather proud of that fact.


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