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Khareef Season Draws Thousands to Southern Oman

Lush, verdant hillsides are not the type of landscape one would expect to find on the Arabian Peninsula. Indeed, most of the region is parched desert where plant life is extremely sparse without human intervention. As explored previously on GeoCurrents, Oman is one of the most culturally exceptional countries in the Middle East, and its physical environment surely fits that description as well. During the summer monsoon season, parts of Oman and Yemen find themselves soaked in rain and wreathed by fog. Known as the khareef in Southern Oman, the annual rainy season creates an occasion for local celebration, draws large numbers of tourists from across the Arab world, and allows for a temporary flowering of greenery. The city of Salalah—Oman’s second largest city and the capital of the Dhofar Governate—sits at the center of the excitement.

Khareef season officially lasts from June 21 through September 21, with the most pleasant weather and largest tourist throngs usually coming in August. Most years see around 300,000 people visit Salalah and its environs during the khareef. A large majority of visitors come from other parts of Oman, yet tens of thousands also make their way from other parts of the Middle East elsewhere in Asia. Europe, the Americas, Africa, and Oceania typically send a few thousand visitors in total. This year, the timing of Ramadan delayed the tourist season, causing especially large numbers to descend on Salalah during late August. Statistics are not available, but all residential accommodations for tourists appear to be booked solid for weeks. Attractions are reportedly overcrowded, with some tourists picnicking on roadsides.

The Arabian Leopard. (Both photos from the Oman Bureau of Tourism)

Such enthusiasm for Salalah might seem baffling at first, but the area is home to a fascinating array of flora and fauna. Arguably the most impressive is the critically endangered Arabian Leopard, which struggles to compete with pastoralists and frankincense gatherers for habitat. The region also hosts a population of Striped Hyenas, which have a much larger range outside of Oman. Bedouin tribesmen of the Arabian interior traditionally use hyena meat as ritual medicine, though it is also occasionally eaten as food. Southern Oman’s African flavor is not limited to mammals; at high elevations in the Dhofar Mountains one can find clusters of Baobab trees. The trees, with their definitive fat trunks, large size, and longevity, appear most closely related to similar trees in East Africa. It is unclear whether the groves of Dhofar represent the remnants of a formerly much larger Baobab range, or if seeds were brought to the region from Africa through trade at some point during antiquity. Either way, when the trees are paired with the lush hills of the khareef season, the uplands around Salalah look more like some strange mix of Africa and the British Isles than the Middle East.

Outside of khareef season, the coastal parts of Dhofar are relatively dry, but they still receive some moisture through the condensation of mists wafting in from the ocean. Known officially as the Arabian Peninsula coastal fog desert ecoregion, this narrow band of watered land along the coast of Saudi Arabia and Oman allows trees to flourish even where monsoon rains do not play a major role.

As alluded to above, the Salalah area provides ideal conditions for Frankincense-yielding trees, the resin of which has been an important export item since ancient times. Even in China, chroniclers knew that the inhabitants Southern Arabia’s rich mountains were the main suppliers of the pleasant-smelling resin, and trade within and between Arabia and East Africa dates back at least 5,000 years. Observers today question the future of the Frankincense trade, warning that stresses due to overharvesting could cause the number of trees to fall up to fifty percent by 2026.

As long as the monsoon rains continue to fall in the mountains of Oman, the summer will remain an exciting time for residents and visitors alike. As the Middle East continues to grow both in population and economic sophistication, tourist season in Salalah promises to get even more hectic. For those who will only know the region through their computers, Khareef season can still provide a vivid illustration of the diversity and beauty of Middle Eastern physical geography.

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A New Capital City for South Sudan

Though South Sudan remains a predominantly rural country, its urban areas—particularly Juba—are growing rapidly. Juba, the country’s largest city and its current capital, is estimated to house nearly 400,000 people, twice as many as in 2005. Years of civil war devastated the city’s infrastructure and drove many of its residents to seek safety in neighboring Uganda, but with the return of stability people are returning in droves. As the southern terminus of Nile River water traffic and home to South Sudan’s best international airport, Juba appears ready to serve as the focal point for future economic growth in the region. Nevertheless, South Sudan’s government plans to go through with a proposal put forward last year to move the country’s capital 125 miles north to what is now the rural location of Ramciel.

The move is projected to cost $10 billion and take twenty years. Water, sewage, and electrical systems will all need to be built from scratch, transportation connections to the region are severely limited, and the construction of governmental buildings has yet to begin. Critics both within South Sudan and in foreign governments have blasted the relocation plan for its costs, which they see as overly extravagant given the country’s current state of poverty. Government officials defend the plan on the grounds that jurisdictional disputes with Juba’s state government, the general chaos of the city, and limited availability of space for expansion all make eventual relocation a necessity.

Should the plan be brought to fruition, South Sudan will become the latest addition to the ranks of countries with purpose-built capital cities. Most such cities are based on sterile designs full of wide-open spaces and monumental architecture that might look good from a bird’s eye view, but which tend to be forbidding on the ground, as is the case with Myanmar’s Naypyidaw and Brazil’s Brasilia. Detailed plans for the new city are difficult to find, but if photos taken of model versions of the city are any indication, Ramciel promises to be another aspirational addition to this genre of architecture and city planning. Pictures tend to emphasize wide streets, grassy fields, geometric patterns, and modernist buildings. Such a city would be the antithesis of Juba, whose years of weak governance have resulted in a very spontaneous kind of urban form. Though such spontaneity can be beneficial in measured doses, the scale of Juba’s growth has fueled dangerous chaos in the past. Last March, several people died in a land dispute between tribal groups in the city during violence that forced President Salva Kiir to call up security forces to deal with the fighting.

Though most of South Sudan’s people are small-scale farmers, government revenue—and by extension the country’s ability to provide education and infrastructure—is almost entirely dependent on oil revenues. Since South Sudan needs to export most of its oil through its longtime enemy (North) Sudan, oil income is highly unreliable. Oil production in South Sudan has been almost entirely shut down since January due to political disagreements with the North over how to divide revenue, and as a consequence the country is almost bankrupt.

Despite South Sudan’s dire fiscal situation, proponents of the move to Ramciel in the government remain undaunted. In an interview with Reuters, Minister for Housing and Physical Infrastructure Jema Nunu Kumba said that “the only option was to go to a complete new place where the government can be able to design the city as it wants, and also to avoid confrontation with local people and the stakeholders.” Avoiding confrontation with local stakeholders is always a tempting prospect for bureaucrats, especially those attempting to build an iconic new city for a new country. But whether $10 billion—almost a year of South Sudan’s GDP and about $1,250 per South Sudanese citizen—is a fair price for avoiding such confrontation remains to be seen.

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The U.S. Drought and the South American Farming Boom

The drought in the U.S. farm-belt is having major repercussions in South America, as farmers in the region seek to take advantage of high commodity prices. As reported in BloombergBusinessweek, Argentine farmers hope to harvest as much as 31 million tons of corn (maize) in early 2013, which would smash their previous record of 22 million tons. The acreage under soybeans in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay will also expand dramatically, perhaps by as much as 30 percent, which will likely allow Brazil to surpass the United States as the world’s leading soy exporter. Soil moisture conditions over most of the South American agricultural heartland are currently good, although that could change as the southern hemisphere passes into its spring and summer growing seasons. Eight months ago, after all, the situation was revered, when Bloomberg reported that “Corn rose, capping the longest rally since August, and soybeans climbed to a one-month high as adverse weather threatens crops in South America, boosting demand for U.S. supplies.”

The South American agricultural export boom, on-going for several years, has resulted a major economic transformation over a broad area. Paraguay, for example, has emerged as the world’s sixth largest soybean producer and fourth largest exporter. The Paraguayan government is currently courting South Korea, hoping that Korean investments will allow further increases in agricultural production. Foreign companies, it stresses, can purchase farmland in the country without restriction. Paraguay is also embracing agricultural genetic engineering. According to a recent Reuters report, “Paraguay will approve Monsanto’s genetically modified Roundup Ready 2 soybean seeds before the end of this year along with new corn technology aimed at improving the country’s competitiveness as a grains exporter…”

Uruguayan agriculture, for its part, has traditionally emphasized beef, and until recently the country produced few soybeans (as can be seen on the map). But soybeans are now the country’s top export item, with the value of the crop in 2012 estimated at $1.1 billion. Yet Uruguayan beef remains extremely important. Over the past few years, the country’s beef industry has sought to capitalize on problems in neighboring Argentina, emphasizing the fact that most of its cattle herds are largely grass-fed and free of hormones. As Argentine farmers have increasingly plowed their pastures for row-crops, the Argentine beef industry has by necessity turned to the U.S.-style of grain-fed, feedlot production, which many experts think produces an inferior product. If Uruguay follows its neighbors in emphasizing corn (maize) and soy exports, its advantage in the beef market may fade.


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Slovenia’s Sausage Struggles

The small country of Slovenia is often noted as the most prosperous former-communist state. The Economist, however, is concerned about a possible Slovenian financial meltdown, warning that “if Slovenia succumbs, it would be the first former communist country in the euro area to need aid. And once again the badge of honour of joining the zone would have become a mark of humiliation.” Recent news reports on the former Yugoslav republic, however, are more inclined to fret about the sausage struggle currently pitting Slovenia against both Austria and Croatia.

The row began last spring when Slovenia petitioned the European Union for official recognition of the “Krainer Wurst” (Kranjska klobasa in Slovenian) as a geographically specific product. Under the EU’s “protected geographical indication” (PGI) regime, foods and drinks so classified are regulated to ensure “that only products genuinely originating in that region are allowed to be identified as such in commerce.” (Existing examples, of which there are many, include Roquefort and Gorgonzola cheese as well as Champagne.) Austria quickly objected to the maneuver, fearing that it would be forced to rename its own “Krainer” sausage, the Kaesekrainer. Austrian officials further argued that their version of the sausage was distinct from that of Slovenia, owing to its cheese filling. The loss of the Kaesekrainer name, they contend, “would be an economic blow to sausage producers and to Austria’s cultural heritage.”

While the dispute is being considered by EU officials and as possible compromises are being discussed, Croatia voiced its own objections. Although Croatia is not an EU member, it is slated to join the union in 2013. Croatia produces its own “Kranjska sausage,” which that generates some $13 million annually. Like Austria, it does not want to be forced to rename the product.

As reported by the BBC, The European Commission describes Kranjska klobasa as a “pasteurised sausage made from coarsely minced pork and pork fat, with added salt, garlic and pepper. The sausage undergoes hot smoking and is eaten warm after brief warming in hot water. It has a distinctive “mildly smoky smell.” The Wikipedia article on the sausage contends that it is similar to Polish kielbasa, and further notes that it has become very popular in Australia:

Kranjska klobasa is known as Kransky in Australia, to where it was introduced by post-war immigrants from Slovenia in the late 1940s and 1950s. The Kransky is very popular in Australia and New Zealand. The Waiters Club in Melbourne, Australia, is renowned worldwide for its wide range of Kransky dishes.

The geographical designation Krain (German) or Kranjska (Slovene) is rendered in English as “Carniola.” Carniola was a historical duchy, under the control of the Hapsburg dynasty, the territory of which forms the core of modern Slovenia. Its territory did not extend to any appreciable extent into the areas that now constitute Austria or Croatia. On that basis, Slovenia does have a certain claim. But to restrict the name of a widespread, well-established product to a particular region of origin strikes many as an extreme move, much like limiting “wieners” to sausages produced in Vienna or “frankfurters” to those made in Frankfurt.

In the United States, the move to restrict “champagne” to sparkling wine made in Champagne has made some headway, but many Americans steadfastly resist the trend. As explained by Mental Floss:

The French are really, really prickly about misuse of the word champagne. Only sparkling white wine that comes from the Champagne region of France, in the northeastern part of the country, can be called champagne. And that’s not a suggestion; in Europe, it’s the law. It has been illegal for non-Champaignois vineyards to call their booze champagne since 1891. In fact, so important is French ownership of the word champagne that it was reaffirmed in no less important a document than 1919’s Treaty of Versailles—the one that ended World War I.

But here’s the loophole: The United States never ratified the Treaty of Versailles—not because of the champagne clause, but because the Republican-controlled Congress didn’t want to see the formation of a League of Nations. And so, in America, it is perfectly legal to call your sparkling wine “champagne.” In fact, you can call your gym shoes champagne, if you’d like.


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Puntland’s Security Offensives and the Growing City of Galka’yo

The most recent version of the ever-changing and always excellent Wikipedia map of the political situation in Somalia shows the internationally recognized Federal Republic of Somalia controlling roughly half of the country, with most of the rest falling either under the power of the Islamic Emirate of Somalia, closely aligned with the Al-Shabaab radical Islamist Group, or that of  the self-declared independent state of Somaliland. What the map fails to adequately convey is the fact that several of the regions that acknowledge the Federal Republic are actually fully autonomous political entities. Polities such as Puntland support eventual Somali reunification, but tense relations between the country’s different autonomous regions make such a scenario unlikely, at least in the short run. Puntland and neighboring Galmudug, for example, have tussled over a number of issues, although the two governments did agree in 2011 to “cooperate on security, economic and social matters.” Yet in July of this year, the airport in the important city of Galka’yo came under mortar shelling, which the Puntland-based management blamed on “a local armed militia from Galmudug state.”

The situation in Galka’yo, a regional metropolis of more than half a million people, is complicated by the fact that city is divided between Puntland, which controls the urban core to the north of the airport, and Galmudug, which controls the suburbs to the south. Overall, the city has prospered since the fall of the Mogadishu warlords to the now-defunct Islamic Courts Union in 2006; money and resources that previously flowed to the Somali capital of Mogadishu now remain in the region. According to a 2011 article in Africa Review:

Hotels, guest houses, supermarkets, restaurants, and new office blocks for NGOs and the government compete in height with the newly-erected, tall minarets of the mosques. The city [of Galka’yo] also boasts of social services like hospitals, schools, police stations and petrol stations. Even the former Somali army barracks in the city has been renovated and is kept in good condition.

Tensions between Puntland and Galmudug, however, are not the only threats to Galka’yo’s stability. The Puntland government had been widely been seen as acting in concert with pirate captains; a January 2012 BBC report claimed that the Puntland economy overall had reaped substantial benefits from piracy. More recently, however, Puntland has apparently been taking on the pirates of its coastal strip, and at some cost. The reach of the pirates evidently extends well inland. On August 13, Garowe Online reported that:

Puntland forces repelled an attack by armed pirates on the Galkayo central jail station early Sunday afternoon. Pirates equipped with automatic guns attacked the Galkayo central station in a bid to forcefully free fellow pirates who were apprehended in a raid by Puntland security forces that netted over 40 people related to insecurity in the region.

More recently, Puntland security forces have also taken on Al-Shabaab insurgents who seek to destabilize the region and impose their own exceptionally harsh version of Islamic law. On August 23, Shabelle News reported that the Puntland military had “detained dozens of armed men carrying explosives, whom the officials are accusing to have links with Al Shabaab militants and are now being held at a prison northern Galka’yo.”

Puntland’s military is evidently relatively well run and well equipped. Even its paramilitary division, the Puntland Dervish Force, controls its own battle tanks (T-54/T-55) and armored personal carriers.


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Malawi and Tanzania Spar over Lake Malawi (Nyasa)

International boundaries in oceanic space are often complex and disputed, especially in areas that abound in hydrocarbons. Boundaries that extend across lakes are usually less contentious and convoluted, but that is not always the case. Consider, for example, Lake Malawi (also known as Lake Nyasa) in southern Africa, widely considered to be the world’s eighth largest lake. As can be seen on the map, the central portion of this lake is evenly divided between Malawi and Mozambique, yet Malawi controls two islands that are well within the territorial waters of its neighbor, Chizumulu and Likoma, which together constitute a Malawian exclave district, with a population of some 13,000. As the Wikipedia explains, this situation “came about because the islands were colonised by Anglican missionaries spreading east from Malawi, rather than by the Portuguese who colonised Mozambique.”

The boundaries extending across southern Lake Malawi not particularly contentious, but the same cannot be said for those in the north. As can again be seen on the map, the international community has in general accepted Malawi’s claim to the entire northern portion of the lake, right up to the Tanzanian shore. Tanzania, not surprisingly, objects, claiming that the border should run down the center of the lake, arguing that “most international law supports sharing common bodies of water by bordering nations.” Tanzania regards the Malawian claim as illegitimately rooted in the colonial dispensation.  As again explained by Wikipedia, “The foundations of this dispute were laid when the British colonial government, which had recently captured Tanganyika from Germany, placed all of the water under the jurisdiction of the territory of Nyasaland [which later became Malawi], without a separate administration for the Tanganyikan portion of the surface.”

This territorial dispute between the two countries has long simmered, but it has recently intensified due to the decision by the Malawian government to award an oil- and gas-exploration contract in the lake to the British company Surestream Petroleum. Then company is currently undertaking environmental impact assessments. The Tanzanian government has demanded a halt to all activities until the dispute is settled. Talks are currently underway, but tensions remain high.  Earlier today, according to the Nyasa Times, Malawian police “arrested two freelance journalists who went to cover the ongoing diplomatic border talks between Malawi and Tanzania at the Mzuzu Hotel accusing them of publishing false news.”


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Taiwanese Initiatives in The Gambia and Burkina Faso

Recent African news reports often focus on investments and diplomatic initiatives undertaken by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Yet when one scans the news from The Gambia, the PRC figures little, whereas the Republic of China (Taiwan) looms large. Recent stories in the Gambian press have focused on Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs awarding scholarship packages to 27 Gambian college students to study on the island country, the initiation of a four-year project aimed to triple Gambian rice production, and the donation of funds to Gambian orphanages by the Taiwanese shipping firm Pacific Concord International Limited.

As can be gathered from these stories, Taiwanese activities in The Gambia focus more on humanitarian concerns than on economic investments. Taiwan is eager to offer such assistance in order to maintain its diplomatic standing in the world; The Gambia is one of only four African countries (along with São Tomé and Príncipe, Burkina Faso, and Swaziland) to officially recognize the Republic of China rather than the People’s Republic of China. (Six countries in Oceania and twelve in Latin America and the Caribbean also recognize Taiwan).

Retaining such diplomatic recognition is extremely important to Taiwan. In April 2012, Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou undertook a twelve-day tour of three Taiwanese allies in Africa, visiting The Gambia, Burkina Faso, and Swaziland. In Burkina Faso, as reported by the Taipei Times, “Ma was greeted by Burkinabe President Blaise Compaore at the airport, where he was welcomed with full military honors, complete with a 21-gun salute.” The article further noted that Taiwan would “provide more assistance to Burkina Faso in the areas of education, medical care, transportation and agriculture.” One of Taiwan’s largest initiatives in Burkina Faso, “A Lamp Lighting up Africa,” provides solar-powered LED lamps for students in the impoverished country.


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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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Revamping French Guiana for the World Cup and Olympics

Although Brazil has received ample press attention in its scramble to prepare for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic games, its neighbor French Guiana has also started drawing up plans to host athletes competing in the two sporting events. The overseas region of France will expand its sport, tourism, and transportation infrastructure in order to attract elite athletes to train there for the games. Earlier this month in London, the government-sponsored group GIP Guiana 2014-2016 promoted the region as a convenient, safe, and scenic place for foreign teams to train away from the hustle and bustle of the main competition venues.

The French government will spend about €35 million ($43 million) over the coming three years on projects that will include the renovation of two soccer stadiums in Rémire-Montjoly and Kourou, as well as the construction of new sports facilities. Future high-end training centers will include an Olympic-grade running track, a swimming pool, and a gym for martial arts, which together would accommodate athletes competing in up to 20 different Olympic events. In addition to a new transport system, French Guiana will also build new hotels, with a capacity of up to 4,000 visitors.

Government officials hope that these activities will boost the economy of French Guiana, which like the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique and the African island of Mayotte, is considered an integral part of the country of France. The construction jobs and tourism that the project will generate should reduce the region’s unemployment rate of about 20 percent. After the next Olympics, the new stadiums would provide a venue for the cultivation of sports talent in French Guiana, which has a youthful population and many cultural affinities with the Caribbean. Even though the region is considered politically equal to any other in the country—it sends representatives to the French legislature and is part of the EU and Eurozone—it has a much lower standard of living than metropolitan (European) France. While the highest in South America, French Guiana’s GDP per capita is slightly less than half the national average, and the economy is highly dependent on government subsidies and the presence of the European Space Agency’s spaceport.

The effort so far has been promising. Twelve countries are already considering using the country’s facilities, and GIP Guiana 2014-2016 has received advice from the London Olympic authorities about planning for the infrastructural challenges of hosting thousands of athletes and their coaches.


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In Unrecognized Somaliland, Berbera Comes to Life

Today Berbera is a city of about 100,000 located on the coast of Somaliland, an unrecognized state occupying the northern portion of Somalia. As the only sheltered seaport on the South shore of the Gulf of Aden, Berbera’s economic fate is thoroughly entwined with that of Somaliland. Currently, Berbera’s main export is livestock, earning it the name “Aden’s butcher shop”. The port exported 2.5 million cattle in 2010, most of which found their way to Saudi Arabian, Yemeni, or Egyptian dinner tables. The export of livestock provides over half of Somaliland’s GDP and almost all of the currency that allows its internal economy to function. Recently, the money-transfer firm Dahabshiil Group, Somalia and Somaliland’s largest company— and its closest thing to a bank—donated hundreds of livestock to hospitals around the region to encourage philanthropy during the Muslim holy moth of Ramadan.

Berbera has been an important port since at least the first century CE, when a Greek merchant described its wares: “There are imported into this place … drinking-cups, sheets of soft copper in small quantity, iron, and gold and silver coin… There are exported from these places myrrh, a little frankincense, … the harder cinnamon, duaca, Indian copal and macir, which are imported into Arabia; and slaves.” The city’s history is rather hazy, but it eventually succumbed to the Ottoman Empire and later to the British, who described it as “the true key of the Red Sea”. During the Cold War, Berbera’s perceived strategic value led the Soviet Union to build the city’s current port as well as a runway for limited air traffic.

They city’s current port infrastructure is sufficient to ship goats and cattle across the Gulf of Aden, but upgrades will be needed if the port—and the country—is to encourage the development of higher value-added industries. No private investors have stepped up yet, but Somaliland remains optimistic. Coca-Cola recently opened a $17 million bottling plant 54 miles from Berbera, where an underground river affords easy access to freshwater. The Coca-Cola plant is Somaliland’s largest private investment ever, and according to the Guardian relied on half-century old Chinese surveys and the advice of local elders in order to locate the underground water supply.

Pirates remain a problem for Berbera, which has lost two fully laden ships during the last year. The risk of losing everything to a pirate attack constitutes an intolerable amount of uncertainty for many merchants, though there has been a marked decrease in pirate activity since the mid 2000’s. Somaliland takes the problem very seriously, and the Somaliland Counter-Piracy Co-ordination Office is currently working with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to educate citizens about the evils of piracy. The full brunt of its campaign is expected to begin in September. Berbera’s efforts to make its port safer and more attractive to shippers put it in direct competition with nearby Djibouti, which has traditionally hosted a significant share of Somaliland-bound shipping.

The outcome of Somaliland’s quest for diplomatic recognition will likely hinge on the extent to which it can show it has developed the institutions necessary to support a peaceful and prosperous society. Though the political action will be taking place in the capital of Hargeisa, Berbera promises to be vital part of the country’s future.

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New Government in East Timor Sparks Gender Debate

Over the last half-century, peace and stability have remained elusive goals in East Timor, officially known the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste. Invaded by Indonesia shortly after it achieved independence from Portugal in 1975, East Timor has only been a formal country with de facto control of its borders only since 2002. On July 7, the country held its third parliamentary election that was won handily by the ruling party, the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction. Outside observers have praised the election as relatively uncorrupt, with people walking hours in order to cast their votes. Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao announced the formation of a new cabinet on August 7th, completing the new government.

The choice of Maria Domingas Alves, previously the Minister of Social Security, for the more prestigious position as Minister of Defense and Security (the military’s top civilian overseer) proved to be the most controversial cabinet pick. President Taur Matan Ruak, who was elected as an independent candidate in April, seems to have balked at the selection of a woman, and forced the nomination of Cirilo Jose Christopher instead. Christopher’s nomination is now secure, but women’s rights groups in East Timor are furious. The Rado Feto womens’ network claims that the snubbing of Alves is a decision to “reduce the dignity of East Timorese women, and ignore women’s capacity that was well demonstrated [by Mikato] in her over five years contributing strong successes in the administration of the first coalition government.” The women of East Timor’s parliament have also expressed their anger, claiming that the President’s decision “kills the spirit of participation among women.”

President Ruak’s real name is José Maria Vasconcelos. Taur Matan Ruak is rather a nom de guerre meaning “two sharp eyes” in Tetum, an Austronesian language straddling the Indonesia/East Timor border. Having fought the Indonesian occupation of East Timor for its entire 29-year duration, Ruak remains a very popular political figure. He played a controversial role in the 2006 East Timor Crisis, a period of infighting among the military, where he distributed weapons to civilians to help back his faction, but this seems not to have damaged his political career. After a generation at the helm of East Timor’s armed forces, Ruak sees Alves as an outsider who lacks the necessary experience and pedigree, a charge deemed ridiculous by Alves’s supporters.

Adding to these tensions is East Timor’s persistent (and historically justified) fear of conflict with Indonesia. Recently a small fight broke out between Indonesian and East Timorese civilians inside the “Free Zone” that separates the two countries. Apparently, the East Timorese attempted to build a customs facility in the zone, which Indonesians attacked with rocks. An East Timorese security post suffered damage, but otherwise no one was harmed.

Allegations of presidential sexism notwithstanding, the last month has generally been regarded as a success for East Timor. With its history of war and a GDP per capita of only $1,588 in 2011 (156th in the World according to the World Bank), carrying out successful elections remains a significant accomplishment for the country.

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Tower Proposal Draws Ire in Venice

The picturesque Venetian skyline has remained virtually unchanged since 1514, when St. Mark’s Campanile—the city’s largest structure—reached its current shape. Although past its prime in the early 16th Century, Venice remained a center of trade and manufacturing, even ruling directly over Crete, Cyprus and much of the Dalmatian coast. Though the city’s empire is long gone, its form remains a stunningly beautiful and potent anchor for nostalgic sentiment. Enter the French fashion designer Pierre Cardin, whose proposal to build a new sixty story tower comprised of “three fin-shaped towers connected horizontally by six huge steel discs” (pictured at left) on the mainland near Venice has drawn heavy criticism. The building, dubbed the “Palais Lumière,” would be built in a currently abandoned industrial area in Porto Marghera, which lies about two miles from Venice (see map below), and include residential, commercial, industrial, and public areas. The project appears to be slowly working its way through the Italian bureaucracy, but that hasn’t stopped an outpouring of anger from preservation-minded Venetians.

Cardin’s supporters, like the head of Italy’s Vento region Luca Zaia, have heaped praise on the project, calling Cardin a “21st Century Lorenzo the Magnificent” who’s project will herald the “start of the renaissance of the whole Porto Marghera area”. Cardin’s nephew, Rodrigo Basilicati, is an architect by training and has taken the lead role in working out the technical aspects of his uncle’s vision. Basilicati grew up in a small town about ten miles from Porto Marghera, and sees the tower as a way to revitalize a desolate area. “We chose this apparently ugly and difficult location because we hope that it will convince other people that Porto Marghera can enter a new chapter,” he says. With Italy as a whole facing 10.8 percent unemployment and government bond yields around six percent, depressed areas of the country like Porto Marghera have good reason to welcome the influx of €1.5 billion ($1.85 billion) that the project would provide.

Porto Marghera, the future home of the Palais Lumière, is the large ‘carrot key’-shaped area on the left.

The potentially negative impact of the tower on Venice’s traditional character and allure is the main motivation for its opponents. Rather than trading Eastern European slaves and timber for Asian spices and silk as in the days of yore, Venice’s economy now depends on the 60,000 daily tourists who come to spend large sums of money as they stroll and dine along its canals. The new building would be about twice as tall as St. Mark’s Campanile, and even its position miles from the city does not assuage fears that it will impinge on the beauty of Venice. Italian historian Tomaso Montanari has likened the project to buildings in Dubai that many consider garish, noting that the Palais Lumière looks like it was designed by the “emirs of the Gulf.” Others have called the building “a spaceship dumped into the lagoon”, and derided it as “ugly and useless.” Italian architect Vittorio Gregotti addressed Cardin saying “Dear Pierre, if you want to do something for Venice, think of something else.” According to the LA Times, the Italian cultural group Our Italy fears that construction would jeopardize Venice’s status as a World Heritage Site—though that is certainly baseless hyperbole.

The word “imbroglio” supposedly has roots in the famously confusing and intricate politics of republican Venice, and it fits the current situation quite well. Every year brings new stories about how Venice might soon sink beneath the sea, and among the architecturally minded the city is more often seen as a symbol of “elegant decay” than a living and breathing place for people. Will a new tower on the opposite side of the lagoon re-energize Venice, or will it forever mar the views that make the city beautiful? The most likely answer is ‘neither’, but Venetians will just have to wait and see.

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TAPI and Turkmenistan’s Natural Gas

While known mostly for its isolation and repressive government, Turkmenistan has some of the largest natural gas reserves in the world. In hopes of increasing gas exports, the country will start promoting its TAPI pipeline project at international shows in London, Singapore, and New York. The pipeline will deliver gas via Afghanistan to Pakistan and India—the first letters of their names are the project’s initials—and will reduce Turkmenistan’s dependency on exports to Iran and Russia, which currently buy much of its gas. The project, in the works for over a decade, was put on hold when the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, and the potential for greater instability after America’s military exit has cast doubts over construction plans for the pipeline. Nevertheless, Turkmenistan plans to start supplying gas to Pakistan and India by 2016 and 2018, respectively.

Though the former Soviet republic remains diplomatically aloof, it gladly cooperates with foreign governments and companies to export its gas. Besides courting India and Pakistan, which would receive 30 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas from TAPI yearly, it has also attracted interest from Bangladesh. The European Union is considering Turkmen energy imports as well because it hopes to reduce dependency on Russia, which has occasionally withheld gas during disputes with Ukraine over pipeline ownership. The proposed Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline would bypass Ukraine and Russia, bringing Europe gas from Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Turkmenistan already exports gas to China via the Central Asia-China pipeline and may more than double deliveries to 65 bcm to meet its trading partner’s growing energy demands.

For all its economic potential, Turkmenistan continues to have major political problems. The previous president not only aggressively quashed political opposition but also created an extravagant personality cult. Having adopted the title Türkmenbaşy (“leader of all Turkmen”), President Saparmurat Niyazov erected large golden effigies of himself across the country and promoted his autobiography Ruhnama as the nation’s spiritual guide. The current president, who is one of the pipeline’s greatest proponents, may be trying to create a personality cult of his own.

Though the United States has openly objected to the country’s human rights abuses and lack of democratic institutions, it has also shown interest in developing Turkmenistan’s natural resources and supporting the TAPI pipeline project. America’s government is concerned that Pakistan will satisfy its energy needs with natural gas from Iran, which has begun construction on its own pipeline to Pakistan and India, if the TAPI project is further delayed. As the United States has had decades-long diplomatic tensions with Iran, it finds Turkmenistan a preferable alternative energy source for Pakistan.

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Environmental Problems in the Solomon Islands

The mostly rural and relatively poor Solomon Islands faces many environmental problems, which development of the country’s small mining sector may soon exacerbate. The expansion of human settlement, agriculture, and timber harvesting has led to deforestation, while blast fishing and the illegal exportation of exotic birds have frustrated conservation efforts. The country has rampant political corruption, which prevents effective environmental policy, and has been recovering from a violent past. In 1999, civil war broke out between the indigenous people of Guadalcanal and migrants from the island of Malaita, and in 2006, native Melanesian Solomon Islanders rioted against the small but economically influential Chinese community.

Although extraction from the small Gold Ridge mine dropped precipitously during the civil war, the Australian company Allied Gold has purchased rights to the mine and plans to greatly increase production. The company has hired over 500 local employees and plans to operate for at least the next ten years, predicting that its gold will eventually make up as much as a third of the country’s GDP (current GDP per capita is $3,200). Though additional mines may not open soon, other firms plan to expand into the Solomon Islands to extract gold and copper. Anglogold Ashanti, the Newmont Mining Corporation, Axiom Mining Ltd., and the Sumitomo Corporation have all shown interest in the country.

As opposed to nearby countries such as Papua New Guinea and New Caledonia, the Solomon Islands has historically produced few minerals. Though its mines may not be as lucrative as its neighbors’, the country could receive great economic benefits from attracting international mining firms, as the last decade of unrest has repelled many foreign investors. China’s large appetite for minerals has made the development of new mines especially profitable. However, open pit mines cause deforestation and can release poisonous chemicals into the water supply.

The experiences of nearby countries portend the possible downsides of mineral extraction. In an extreme case, phosphate revenues temporarily gave the Micronesian island state of Nauru the highest GDP per capita in the world—until the trust fund holding the nation’s mining profits declined sharply in value. Today, the country is in a state of severe economic and environmental distress and has become heavily reliant on foreign aid. There are already worrying signs in the Solomon Islands that the Allied Gold has evaded paying taxes by misrepresenting the amount of gold it has extracted. The Malaita Ma’asina Forum suspects that the company may even further avoid paying the government by merging with another Australian mining company.

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The Poor State of Child Services in Nunavut

The far northern Canadian territory Nunavut has recently instituted health and social services reforms in response to high rates of child abuse and mortality. The territorial government has established a new Department of Family Services and will soon begin an ambitious child health monitoring program. Although Canada overall has a high standard of living, sparsely populated and largely Inuit Nunavut is relatively poor and suffers from widespread social problems, especially ones that affect minors. In addition to prevalent alcoholism and a rise in once uncommon diabetes, the territory faces infant mortality rates three times as high as the Canadian average. Nunavut’s troubling child health statistics resemble those of the country’s Inuit areas at large, where child mortality rates are five times higher than average, and youths are 30 times more likely to commit suicide.

Due to limited resources, the territory’s government has had serious difficulties providing adequate childcare. For example, a recent report found that Nunavut’s Health and Social Services Department performed satisfactory criminal background checks on less than half of prospective foster parents. It also revealed that one third of social worker positions are vacant, meaning that some communities have no family councilors at all. Poor childcare has led to high levels of youth crime, an incidence of violent child abuse ten times higher than the rest of Canada, and a high school graduation rate of 40 percent (the national average is 75 percent).

“Our Children,” the territorial government’s new health program, intends to create a youth welfare database useful for future health care policy. Besides tracking health statistics, the program will also collect other related information, such as family income, nutrition, and home life. While other places in Canada have been using such systems for decades, Nunavut’s program will track children for much longer, following them from when they are in the womb until they are school-aged.

However, comments on a news article about the new system cast doubts about the government’s ability to solve Nunavut’s health problems. Some readers, apparently residents of Nunavut, were concerned about privacy, while others worried that the government would be too incompetent to administrate “Our Children” effectively. One reader wrote, “I know that sounds simple but they are talking about Nunavut, it’s like the Bermuda Triangle for information, stuff goes in and gets written down but it never leaves and nobody can ever find it.”

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