Economic Geography

Mapping zones of wealth and poverty; illustrating the global geography of economic development

The Tax Haven of Norfolk Island

With just 13 square miles and 2,142 residents, Norfolk Island is not large. Lying 900 miles off Australia and 600 miles from New Zealand, it is also very remote. But Norfolk played a key role in the British colonization of the Austral realm. Extensive groves of tall, straight Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla, now a common houseplant) carpeted the uninhabited island when James Cook happened upon it in 1774, as did thickets of New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax).The British Navy, concerned about the declining supply of masts from North America and hemp from Russia, took a deep interest in the island’s resources, contributing to the decision to found a settlement on the Australian mainland. Through the early 1800s, Norfolk maintained close contact with New South Wales; it too served as an early penal colony.

Although unpopulated when discovered by the British, Norfolk had been settled by Polynesians six to seven hundred years ago. It is not known what happened to the settlement – Norfolk was one of a number of Pacific islands that were only temporarily occupied by Polynesians. The Polynesians did leave their rat, however, along with an ecologically simplified island.

The human geography of Norfolk was transformed in 1856 with the arrival of 192 settlers from Pitcairn Island, a magnificently remote outpost east of French Polynesia. Pitcairn, a volcanic island slightly larger than Norfolk, had been settled in the late 1700s by the famous mutineers of the Bounty along with their Tahitian wives. It was not an idyll, with drunken violence decimating the men, but the population grew nonetheless. When the community threatened to outgrow Pitcairn, a contingent was relocated on Norfolk. Along with the settlers came their distinctive dialect, usually described as a blend of eighteenth-century English and Tahitian. Today the Norfolk language—Norfuk—has official status along with English on the island. Local officials fear that it is falling into disuse but are trying to encourage it. (To hear the language spoken, visit the Norfolk Language website.)

Norfolk is under the sovereign authority of Australia, but it is legally autonomous. The inhabitants have made money by doing the same thing that the legally autonomous islands attached to Britain (Man, Jersey, and Guernsey) have done: set themselves up as a tax haven. Norfolk’s government has further tried to leverage its autonomy into becoming an offshore banking center, but here it has found little success, as such moves have been resisted by the Australian government.

Norfolk controls its own immigration policy, demanding that Australians come with passports. It sometimes refuses permanent residency even to wealthy outsiders. According to the Wikipedia, Norfolk rejected singer Helen Reddy, despite her roots on the island. Norfolk’s anomalous geopolitical situation sometimes gets noticed in the North American news. In February 2010, The Vancouver Sun reported on its role in a complex legal battle over the estate of Eldon Foote, a Canadian-born entrepreneur and philanthropist, that pitted Foote’s widow and children against two charitable foundations. The heirs wanted to argue the case in a Canadian court, but the charities insisted “that Norfolk Island, a sun-drenched tax haven and self-governing territory of Australia, was the philanthropist’s legal home.” An Alberta judge ruled that this was the case, thwarting Foote’s wife and children.

Geopolitically anomalous islands – including Norfolk – occupy significant positions in the global financial order, serving as refuges from standard legal systems. Island governments take advantage of such irregularities, as do wealthy individuals and corporations. Whether the global economy as a whole gains from such stratagems is a different question.

Argentina’s Claims to the Falkland Islands, and Much More


The Falkland Islands, known in Spanish as the Malvinas, are back in the news, as Argentina reasserts its claims while objecting to offshore oil exploration in the vicinity by British firms. In 1982 the Falklands made global headlines when Argentina unsuccessfully attempted to militarily wrest control of the archipelago from the United Kingdom. In the intervening years, Britain beefed up its military presence on the islands, granted full British citizenship to their residents, and endeavored to diversify the economy. The 3,000 or so Falkland Islanders, English-speaking settlers nicknamed “kelpers” after the local seaweed beds, now profit from the massive export of squid, mostly to Spain. If oil exploration pays off, significantly higher revenues could follow.

After losing the Falkland War, Argentina underwent a political transformation as its discredited military government yielded to civilian rule. Although it subsequently reestablished diplomatic recognition with Britain, Buenos Aires never dropped its claim to the islands, which it views as inalienable Argentine territory. War with the U.K. is not a current possibility, but Argentina does want to make continued British political control and economic exploitation as diplomatically uncomfortable as possible. On February 24, 2010, The Wall Street Journal noted that a summit of 32 Latin American and Caribbean countries had expressed “moral support” for the Argentine claim, while calling for high-level talks on the disputed sovereignty. The same summit also laid the foundation for a new regional organization, The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, that could continue to pressure the United Kingdom over its disputed control of the archipelago.

Historically speaking, sovereignty over the Falklands is a complex matter. Since 1762, actual control has shifted between Britain, France, Spain, and Argentina – with a brief U.S. foray into the region in 1831. By 1834, Britain was in firm possession. Argentine nationalists, however, have never wavered in their demands. Often overlooked is the fact that these demands extend well beyond the Falklands/Malvinas themselves. Argentina also claims sovereignty over a number of other British-controlled sub-Antarctic islands, including South Georgia and the South Sandwich islands. While none of these islands is permanently inhabited, they do include non-trivial land areas as well as large swaths of sea-space. The potential resource base of the combined area is substantial, raising the stakes of the current conflict.

Tribal War and Natural Gas in Papua New Guinea

With roughly a thousand languages divided into a surprising number of linguistic families, New Guinea is noted for its extraordinary cultural diversity (see map above). The central highlands of New Guinea also form a diversity center of a different sort: that of warfare. Tribal combat remains ubiquitous, especially in the troubled Southern Highland province of Papua New Guinea (PNG). Most conflicts here are localized, short, and fought with traditional weapons, but the cumulative casualty rates can be substantial.

Few tribal wars from New Guinea reach the global media. Access is difficult when not impossible, and the stakes are regarded as low by the rest of the world. When conflicts are reported it is generally due to unusual circumstances. In February 2010, for example, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation recounted a battle between two clans in the southern highlands that was provoked by a young man sending a pornographic text message to a young woman in a different village. Her male relatives were offended enough to attack the sender’s kin with bows and arrows, knives, and homemade guns. In the ensuing fight, two people were killed, several were injured, and a number of houses were burned.

The armed struggles of New Guinea can provoke serious gender disputes. Women often complain that pervasive warfare makes it difficult for them to feed their children. According to a November 2008 report in the Daily Mail, the women of two villages in the eastern highlands decided to end the local cycle of violence in a drastic manner: over a ten-year period, they killed all male babies. “It’s because of the terrible fights that have brought death and destruction to our villages for the past 20 years that all the womenfolk have agreed to have all new-born male babies killed,” reported one local women. Women were able do so – if the reports are true – because they lead relatively sex-segregated lives; men control men’s houses, while women control their own. According to the Daily Mail article, promising efforts were being made by a local pastor of the Salvation Army to mediate between the warriors and the mothers of their children.

A few tribal wars in New Guinea have global repercussions, prompting occasional reports in the global media. The southern highlands have vast natural gas deposits – according to some reports, the largest underdeveloped fields outside of Qatar. Plans to exploit the gas have been in place for some time, but tribal violence has delayed implementation. In 2006, the PNG government declared a state of emergency in the Southern Highlands, imposing a curfew and sending in soldiers, so that development plans could proceed.

In December 2009, ExxonMobil and several partners determined that conditions were stable enough to proceed with a $15 billion liquefied natural gas project. This would be the largest foreign investment in Papua New Guinea’s history, potentially tripling its exports. On February 11, 2010, however,Radio New Zealand Internationalreported that the project was inciting tribal warfare, even among groups that had previously had peaceful relations. As a result, Exxon had to suspend operations in several areas. As Dame Carol Kidu, Papua New Guinea’s Minister for Community Development stated, “suddenly with this LNG project and all of the tensions and jealousies over the land ownership and all these things, it blew up into a tribal war, a village war; inter-village war.”

Papua New Guinea has had its share of trouble since independence in 1975. Its most serious insurgency had been on the mineral-rich island of Bougainville, physically located in the Solomon Island chain. The Bougainville rebellion was largely defused with an autonomy agreement in 1997. Meanwhile, security deteriorated in the highlands. In December 2004, a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute argued that Papua New Guinea was heading downhill and even risked becoming a failed state. In 2009, widespread anti-Chinese rioting and looting further damaged the country’s economy.

Will the development of its natural gas fields give Papua New Guinea the money that it needs to genuinely develop? Or will it form a “resource curse” that will enrich a few, further impoverish others, and provoke more tribal warfare? Either scenario is possible.

DR Congo’s Geographical Challenges


Yesterday’s post outlined the troubled history of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Today I would like to briefly examine a few of the geographical issues that make it a challenge for DR Congo to function as a country.

The first issue is transportation. To say that overland transportation is difficult in DR Congo is a laughable understatement, as is clear if one carefully examines the Wikipedia map included above. Note how the country’s meager road system fails to link many areas; note also how many roads are classified as “earth tracks,” meaning that they become impassible mud-pits after heavy rains, which occur frequently. As brief exercise, try figuring out how to travel from Goma in the east to Mbuji-Mayi in the south-center without using an “earth track.” Eastern DR Congo is much better connected to neighboring countries in east Africa than it is to the western DR Congo. It is noteworthy, however, that China recently (2007) agreed to lend DR Congo US $5 billion to improve its transportation system, in particular by upgrading the linkages between the major mining area around Lubumbashi and the ocean port at Matadi.

The second map overlays the distribution of DR Congo’s four major regional languages on a 1970 interpretation of its population density patterns. (Several hundred languages are spoken in the country, but these four are used as common, “transethnic” tongues.) Here we can clearly see how the country is divided into several distinctive “core” areas. Three of these linguistic groupings, moreover, extend deeply into neighboring countries. Eastern DR Congo thus has profound cultural ties to Kenya and Tanzania, where Swahili is also used as a common language. Voting patterns in the final round of the 2006 election closely followed language lines, with Joseph Kabila taking the Swahili-speaking areas, and Jean-Pierre Bemba, now imprisoned in the Hague for war crimes, winning in the rest of the country.

Does DR Congo make sense as a country? I wonder whether its recent history would have been less dismal if it had been allowed to break into four separate states after independence in 1960s.

DR Congo: A Potemkin State?

The ongoing war in the Democratic Republic of Congo is reputed to be the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II. Most observers estimate the death toll at around 5.4 million deaths; some figures put the toll as high as 6.9 million. One controversial 2009 report—from the Human Security Report Project of Simon Fraser University—claims that the actual death count was less than a million. Such wild discrepancies suggest how difficult it is to collect accurate information in a place as anarchic as DR Congo.

The Democratic Republic of Congo isn’t much of a democratic republic, but that’s not its major problem. More serious is that it doesn’t really function as a country at all. The government hardly governs even in the portion of its territory that it actually controls. Our reference works mislead us when they classify the DRC is a “developing nation-state,” as they habitually do. It certainly isn’t developing (see the chart above), and its governmental apparatus remains miniscule; the DRC takes in less revenue annually than Haiti ($700 million as opposed to $961 million), a deeply impoverished country a fraction of its size. National identity is weak at best. Those Congolese who went to school learned that they constitute a Congolese nation, a lesson that many have apparently taken to heart, but when push comes to shove regional and ethnic cleavages deeply divide. To put it bluntly, since independence in 1960, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been a de-developing, non-national Potemkin state: a façade of a country with scant substance.

The DRC owes its existence to the wild greed of Leopold II, king of the contrived state of Belgium. Desperate to put his mark on the globe, Leopold unleashed his agents, starting with Henry Stanley, to cut a swath of terror across central Africa. Local people were forced to collect vast amounts of wild rubber; if they failed to meet quotas, hands were chopped, and often heads as well. At the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, Bismarck and the other European leaders simply awarded Leopold the bulk of central Africa as his personal domain, calling it the Congo Free State (ironies run deep here). After word of the carnage in the Congo reached global attention, Leopold lost his African estate to his own government, and in 1908 the Belgium Congo was born. When Belgium abruptly withdrew from Africa in 1960, the Congo almost immediately split in four (see map). It convulsed with violence through the first half of the 1960s, as regional leaders turned to either the Soviet Union or the United States for support. Che Guevara came to mentor Laurent Kabila, founder of the DR Congo, in the arts of revolutionary war.

Relative stability, but little else, came to Congo in 1965 with the dictatorship of Western-backed Joseph Mobutu, who renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko just as he rechristened his country Zaire. Reportedly the third highest grossing kleptocrat (thief-ruler) in world history, Mobuto made off with an estimated $5 billion in his 32 years of rule; only Indonesia’s Suharto and the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos stole more. But when one considers the vastly greater resources of Indonesia and the Philippines, Mobutu must take first place. While Indonesia prospered and the Philippines merely stagnated under kleptocratic rule, Mobutu’s realm steadily declined. When the Cold War ended, its economy collapsed. In the mid-1990s, Zaire collapsed as well. Its demise came in 1997 when Rwanda-backed Joseph Kabila, no longer a Marxist, seized control. A year later, his disappointed Rwandan backers sent another army to replace him. As Rwandan forces were closing in on Kinshasa, Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe (with a little help from Chad and Libya) stepped in to defend the Kabila regime. By the beginning of the millennium, DR Congo had fractured into a complex welter of militia-run territories – the geography of which no map adequately conveys. Increasingly, these militias came to fight, with extreme brutality, over access to resources, particularly coltan (a rare mineral used in the manufacture of electronics).

It is quite telling that Rwanda – a country a fraction the size of DR Congo that had just endured its own genocidal hell – could treat the vast DR Congo as its pawn. This is not something that would have happened to a genuine nation-state. (To be continued.)

Russia’s Changing Demography

In August 2009, Russia recorded 1,000 more births than deaths, the first month of natural population increase in more than 15 years. Russian officials, worried about their country’s declining population, were pleased that their efforts to encourage childbearing were showing signs of success. Overall, however, demography is still a major concern for Russian nationalists.

The Wikipedia map of the Russian Federation’s natural population growth (excluding, in other words, immigration and emigration) shows some intriguing patterns. Most striking is the fact that areas of relatively rapid growth (dark green on the map) have large non-Russian populations. Russians constitute roughly 4 percent of Chechnya’s population, 7 percent of Dagestan’s, 20 percent of Tuva’s, and 41 percent of Sakha’s. Russians are more prevalent in the demographically expanding areas of western Siberia (Tyumen, Khantia-Mansia, and Yamalia), but Tyumen is still one of Russia’s most ethnically diverse oblasts, and Khantia-Mansia and Yamalia both have large non-Russian minorities (34 percent and 41 percent respectively). The Russian heartland of western European Russia, on the other hand, shows the largest excess of deaths over births. The proportion of Russians in the federation, currently at 80 percent, is thus declining – much to the consternation of the Russian nationalists.

Patterns of natural population growth and decline also correlate with patterns of economic production, but in a more complicated pattern. Higher fertility rates are evident in both the richest and poorest parts of the country. Dagestan, Chechnya, and Tuva, with low levels of per capita gross regional product, show positive population growth rates largely because their fertility levels are high; the average woman in Chechnya, for example, can be expected to give birth to 3.4 children. Russia’s richest areas, such as the oil and natural gas producing Khantia-Mansia and Yamalia, and mineral-rich Sakha, are also demographically expanding. This pattern is most clearly evident in Tyumen Oblast, the richest region of Russia, with a level of per capita economic production seven times the national average. In 2007, Tyumen’s birth rate of 14.2 per 1,000 people comfortably exceeded its death rate of 9 per 1,000. Contributing to its population growth was its relatively low mortality rate; in 2008 in Russia as a whole, the death rate was 14.6 per 1,000 people.

Kaliningrad, Russia’s Restive Exclave

In the last weekend of January, 2010, massive protests erupted in the Russian city of Kaliningrad, unnerving the country’s political establishment. Despite bitter weather, an estimated 10,000 people took to the streets to denounce both the local governor and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, ostensibly for raising utility prices and transport taxes during a time of economic crisis. They also demanded the direct election of regional governors, who have been appointed by the central government since 2004. Unlike most Russian protests, riot police did not intervene to shut things down.

The significance of the event stemmed not just from its size but from the coalition of forces that banded together. Organized by a local non-partisan rights groups, the protest was supported not only by liberal activists associated with Russia’s new Solidarity movement, but also by unreconstructed communists and hard-core nationalists. The latter were represented primarily by members of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. Despite its name, the LDPR is an anti-liberal party that supports the extension of capital punishment, the abolition of “non-traditional religious sects,” and state ownership of strategic economic sectors. Nonetheless, these disparate groups agreed on one thing: United Russia, the country’s dominant party, was exploiting their differences to retain its grip on power.

The size and scope of Kaliningrad’s protest movement is linked to the region’s unique geographical position. Kaliningrad is a Russian exclave, separated from the rest of the country by several hundred miles, its territory bracketed by Poland and Lithuania – both members of NATO and the European Union. Such isolation hindered efforts by the Russian security apparatus to to control the demonstration once it had been ignited. Kaliningrad’s proximity to central Europe also enhanced the spread of anti-establishment political views. People here can easily visit Poland and Lithuania, democratic and relatively prosperous countries. Protest organizer Maksim Doroshok highlighted the Polish connection: “We see that in neighbouring Poland, where they brought in reforms, where there is democracy, it’s cheaper, people earn more, civic bodies function better. Why should we be any worse? Our region is the most European in the whole [Russian] federation because we know Europe and we know how to fight for our rights… There is a different spirit at rule here. There is a wind blowing from … Gdansk.” (Gdansk was the birthplace of the Polish Solidarity movement that helped bring down the communist system; see “Russian Protest Inspired by EU Neighbours,” by Andrew Rettman, http://euobserver.com/9/29378 .)

Russia acquired its Kaliningrad exclave at the end of World War II. It had previously been the northern half of East Prussia, a German-speaking region for some 800 years. In the post-war settlement, Germany was stripped of its eastern territories and their German residents were expelled westward in a convulsion of ethnic cleansing. Most of these lands were awarded to Poland, in compensation for the Soviet Union’s simultaneous annexation of Poland’s eastern regions. Northern East Prussia, however, with its port facilities well suited for a naval base, was appropriated by the Soviet Union. Soviet authorities awarded the new land directly to Russia, the largest of the so-called Soviet Union Republics. As Germans were driven out, Russians moved in, effecting almost complete ethnic replacement. Today the only real German presence in Kaliningrad derives from tourists, many of them elders eager to catch one last glimpse of their birthplace.

The downfall of the Soviet Union in 1991 caused an economic crisis in the newly cut-off region of Kaliningrad. Russian authorities responded by creating a special economic zone in 1996, turning Kaliningrad into a hub for the assembly and distribution of televisions, electronics, and automobiles for the Russian market. Such policies proved generally successful until the economic crisis of 2008, which resulted in huge job loses in Kaliningrad—and led to increased pubic discontent.

As we have seen in Angola’s Cabinda, exclaves often present particular problems for central governmental control, and government weakness in turn can generate demands for secession. In the 1990s, when Russia was weak, some local leaders called for Kaliningrad’s independence, hoping that it could become a fourth Baltic republic. Such dreams are now infeasible; an increasingly muscular Russia would not contemplate letting such a valuable territory go. But Kaliningrad does continue to generate opposition to the Russian government, giving Putin and company a significant cause for concern.

Renewed Violence in the Niger Delta

Few of Africa’s many insurgent groups receive much notice in the global media. One way they can get attention is to attack the infrastructure of oil production. Thus the Movement for The Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) found itself in headlines on January 30, 2010, after breaking its truce with the Nigerian government and sabotaging an oil pipeline. A day later, crude oil jumped 1.3 percent (95 cents a barrel)—after having declined by 8.3 percent in January.

The truce between MEND and the Nigerian government, dating only to October 2009, never seemed particularly secure. MEND leaders demanded quick action to address the needs of the poor but oil-rich Niger Delta. Rapid response, however, is not a hallmark of the Nigerian government—especially now, as president Umaru Yar’Adua is ill and missing from action. Before breaking the truce, a MEND leader expressed his frustration in clear terms: “General Abbe, the current defence minister and his cohorts, rather than encourage the government of Nigeria to address the core issues as demanded by true agitators for justice in the Niger Delta, are still inaugurating one dubious committee after another in a bid to continue stealing funds supposedly allocated for the development of the Niger Delta” (see “Niger Delta’s Endless Planning,” by Ifeatu Agbu. http://allafrica.com/stories/201001270657.html)

MEND is an amorphous umbrella organization for a number of insurgent groups operating in the Niger Delta. Nimble and decentralized, MEND has adopted “open-source” tactics relying on ad hoc recruitment from criminal gangs and local cults to conduct hit-and-run raids. MEND actions are brutal but its grievances are real. The Niger Delta, the main source of Nigeria’s wealth, is characterized by extreme poverty, political marginalization, and environmental despoliation. Earlier non-violent resistance movements were not successful. In 1995, the then-dictatorial Nigerian government hanged Ken Saro-Wiwa, a nationally noted author and television personality, after he organized a peaceful protest through the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. A peaceful resistance movement would have a better chance against today’s basically democratic government.

Nigerian culture and politics are sometimes portrayed too crudely as bifurcated between the Christian south and the Muslim north. To be sure, religious tensions are a major issue in much of the country, particularly in the central Jos region. But the situation in the Niger Delta is different. The Ijaw, who form the bulk of MEND’s support, are a primarily Christian group some 15 million strong, yet one of their heroes is the imprisoned and devoutly Muslim militant, Alhaji Mujahid Asari-Dokubo. Raised a Christian, Asari-Dokubo converted before founding another local insurgent group, the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force.

In the delta, more important than religious conflict is the region’s intricate ethnic geography. The standard ethno-linguistic map of Nigeria, a portion of which is reproduced above, is highly simplified, concealing staggering ethno-linguistic diversity. According to Ethnologue, some 47 distinct language groups are found in the central delta area. Nigeria’s southeastern corner is more diverse still. (See http://www.ethnologue.com/show_map.asp?name=NG&seq=110). Rivalries here sometimes become violent. In the late 1990s, for example, the Ijaw and the Itsekiri fought a minor war, the “Warri Crisis.” Whether inter-ethnic violence will be reignited in the current crisis remains to be seen.

ACFTA, or Is It CAFTA?

January 1, 2010, saw the emergence of the world’s largest free trade area in terms of population, linking China with the ten countries belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Disagreements remain as to what to call the new organization. In the English-language press, the favored term is ACFTA, the ASEAN–China Free Trade Area; Chinese newspapers more often call it CAFTA, the China–ASEAN Free Trade Area. “CAFTA” is a potentially misleading term, as the same acronym was used for the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Officially, however, that CAFTA became CAFTA-DR in 2004, when the Dominican Republic joined the club.

Controversies that go deeper than nomenclature riddle the new free trade pact. On January 7, thousands of workers took to the streets of the Indonesian city of Bandung to demand a delay in implementation of the agreement. The protestors, the JakartaPost reported, “expressed fears that once the FTA came into effect it would trigger mass layoffs, as well as Indonesian products’ inability to compete on international markets.” Similar concerns have been expressed in Thailand and in other Southeast Asian countries concerned about competing with the Chinese manufacturing juggernaut. In the Philippines, highland vegetable farmers are worried about cheap Chinese carrots and cabbages. In response to such concerns, China announced on January 22 that it was willing to work with ASEAN countries to make adjustments to the agreement.

Enthusiasm for ACFTA, on the other hand, runs high in the relatively poor regions along the border between southern China and mainland Southeast Asia. The governments of Laos and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region of China have been holding high-level talks to figure out how to take advantage of the free trade area. On January 7, direct flights began between Laos and Guangxi’s capital, Nanning. Officials in China’s Yunnan province are equally excited about the new economic possibilities. As the website GoKunming reports, the region will soon see “a vast network of highways and rail which will provide cities in Yunnan with cheap overland access to markets in Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.” The article goes on to exclaim that, “difficult as it may be to imagine, Yunnan’s days as an economic and political backwater are officially over.”

(http://gokunming.com/en/blog/item/1309/launch_of_asean_china_fta_to_propel_yunnans_rise)

Economic ties between southern China and the rugged lands of northern Southeast Asia have already been surging in recent years. Such developments have both positive and negative consequences, as was briefly explored in an earlier post on Burma’s United Wa State. Environmentally, the biggest issue is the massive dam-building projects undertaken on the Mekong, Salween, and other rivers that flow across the international boundary. But that is a subject for a later post.

Maps and Stats, Good and Bad

World thematic maps that treat each country as a holistic entity can be highly misleading. Consider, for example, the ubiquitous economic development map based on per capita gross domestic product. Here we see such countries as Brazil, India, and China uniformly colored, as if the goods and services they produced were evenly distributed over their vast expanses. In actuality, per capita GDP varies by roughly an order of magnitude from the wealthier to the poorer regions of each of these countries. More finely subdivided maps are much more revealing, but they can also be hard to find. In the case of the European Union, fortunately, a treasure trove of regionally specific maps is available from the European Commission Eurostat website: http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/statistics_explained/index.php/Category:RegionsEuropean.

On the Eurostat map reproduced above, a number of significant spatial patterns jump to the eye. Notice how Prague stands out from the rest of the Czech Republic, and how Athens is differentiated from the rest of Greece. The north-division in Italy is clearly apparent, as is the gap between the prosperous south of Germany and its poorer northeastern counterpart. This is just one of many detailed maps available at the Eurostat site, which delves into social as well as economic issues. The map of internet usage is especially noteworthy, revealing as it does a substantial cultural divide between what we might call the networked north and the sociable south.

To be sure, maps based on country-level data can also be valuable, especially for those parts of the world divided into relatively small countries. Such maps cease to be useful, however, when dubious data is employed – as happens all too often. The worst single example that I have come across is a NationMaster map of per capita crime rates, reproduced above. A glance at the key reveals that this map identifies Finland and New Zealand as crime-ridden, while Colombia, Yemen, and Papua New Guinea are portrayed as practically crime free. The accompanying table gives Yemen an absurdly low (and surreally precise) rate of 1.16109 crimes per 1,000 people. Finland, we told on the same page, suffers a crime rate roughly two orders of magnitude greater, at 101.526 per 1,000 people

(http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/cri_tot_cri_percap-crime-total-crimes-per-capita). Similar problems are encountered elsewhere on NationMaster, a site that compiles a huge array of official statistics. The figures for rape rates, for instance, listed on the home page as one of the site’s “top stats,” ranks Saudi Arabia as the safest country for women while marking Australia as the third-worst with Canada close behind.

Could anyone serious believe that a woman is 250 times more likely to be raped in Australia than in Saudi Arabia? — or that Finland’s overall crime rate is 100 times that of Yemen? Finland is famous for its relatively crime-free environment; Yemen is a land of anarchic clan-based violence and rampant kidnapping. In Finland, however, most infractions are reported and recorded, whereas in Yemen few crimes reach official attention. If NationMaster labeled its map and chart “rate of reported and recorded crimes,” it would be an accurate and useful index of police efficiency, if not of criminal activity. But it does not. Does anyone at NationMaster scrutinize the data that is displayed on its site? Does anyone care?

Underlying the promulgation of such misleading maps is our tendency to take the sovereign state for granted: to treat all recognized countries as if they were equivalent entities with comparable governmental capacities, including the gathering and compiling of accurate statistics. This is not the case. And as far as statistics themselves are concerned, we should recall Mark Twain’s warning: many stats are lies, some damned, other worse.

The Mendocino Marijuana Economy

As mentioned recently in this blog, organized criminal activity supposedly accounts for seven percent of the total value of goods and services produced annually in Italy. But that figure is nothing compared to the illicit economy of Afghanistan, where a 2007 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report argued claimed that opium accounted for 53 percent of the country’s GDP. Could any place on Earth have a proportionally larger illegal economy? Perhaps. According to an often cited January 22, 2009 MSNBC report, the marijuana crop accounts for two-thirds of the economic activity in Mendocino County, California. There are good reasons to doubt this figure, originally generated by a county-commissioned study: it is impossible to precisely enumerate illegal transactions, local law enforcement agents often exaggerate the value of black market seizures, and the media tend to favor sensational numbers. But whatever the actual figure is, cannabis cultivation is clearly the economic mainstay of Mendocino County, as well as of Humboldt Country to its north.

Much official policy-making rests on the assumption that we know the size of the economy. So what does it mean when vast swaths of economic activity escape governmental oversight, and everyone knows it? Perhaps state power is not as overwhelming as many of us think, or fear, that it is, whether one is in southern Italy, Afghanistan, or northwestern California. Governmental writ in the latter case is also limited by the conflicting legal environment found at different levels of official authority. Even under the Obama administration, the U.S. government so heavily restricts marijuana cultivation that medical researchers can scarcely obtain it, as discussed in today’s New York Times. Yet according to California, cultivation of up to six plants is legal for approved medical purposes, and according to Mendocino County between 2000 and 2008, one could “legally” grow up to 25 plants. (In 2008, Mendocino voters narrowly approved a ballot measure reducing the upper limit to the state norm of six plants.)

The scope of the untaxed marijuana market in the economically besieged state of California has generated calls for legalization, which may be put before the state’s voters next fall. As a result, arguments pro and con are proliferating. One of the more intriguing lines of reasoning in favor of legalization puts the trade in international context: the more cannabis is cultivated locally, the less will be imported from the hyper-violent Mexican drug cartels. According to an October 7, 2009 CBC News report, “Stiff competition from thousands of mom-and-pop marijuana farmers in the United States threatens the bottom line for powerful Mexican drug organizations in a way that decades of arrests and seizures have not, according to law enforcement officials and pot growers in the United States and Mexico” (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/10/07/politics/washingtonpost/main5368594.shtml).

Yet as the CBS story goes on show, the distinction between domestic and foreign cannabis is not necessarily clear-cut. Mexican drug gangs grow large amounts of marijuana in California, generally in remote public lands. In Mendocino County as elsewhere, such activity is widely condemned and increasingly targeted by law enforcement agencies. According to the January 13, 2010 issue of the Ukiah Daily, the County of Mendocino Marijuana Eradication Team had a record-breaking year in 2009, seizing 541,250 plants weighing 205,044 pounds. The campaign is popular among Mendocino voters – even those who make their livings as small-scale marijuana cultivators. According to country Sheriff Tom Allman, the team’s mandate was to “focus on large commercial marijuana operations and focus on people who are greedy” (http://www.ukiahdailyjournal.com/ci_14178382).

The Finances of Man

Sometimes the most obscure news article reveals significant processes that have the potential to reshape global geography. A case in point is a January 13, 2010 article from Transfer Pricing Weekly, all of seven sentences long, entitled “MAP Established between the Isle of Man and Australia.” The first sentence, which outlines “the mutual agreement procedures for transfer pricing adjustments,” promises a real snoozer of a story. The meat comes at the end: “ The Isle of Man government has signed a series of tax cooperation agreements which have helped to demonstrate the island’s commitment to international standards and to the global effort to establish a system based on cooperation between countries, transparency, and effective exchange of information.” In other words, one of the world’s first offshore banking centers—site of many monetary shenanigans in the past—is scrambling to reform itself as the crisis-battered global financial system comes under increasing scrutiny.

“Offshore banking” originated in, and indeed acquired its name from, the islands of Guernsey, Jersey, and Man. Banking secrecy, tax evasion, and other dubious practices of the offshore system were made possible by these islands’ anomalous geopolitical status. As “crown dependencies” they ultimately fall under the sovereign umbrella of Britain, yet they are not part of the United Kingdom (or the EU), regardless of what of our maps may indicate (see map). As a result, they have their own legal systems, tax codes, and regulations, which their governments long ago realized could be used to their advantage in international finance. The business is large; according to some experts, up to half of the world’s capital flows through offshore centers. Although pioneered by Guernsey, Jersey, and Man, the practice eventually spread to other British dependencies, such as the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas, and then to sovereign states. Panama, for example, might now be regarded as an onshore-offshore banking center.

The Isle of Man is actually thought to be one of the more secure and reputable of the offshore banking centers. It is not immune to crisis, however.In the financial disaster of 2008, among the few savers who lost their funds entirely were those who had invested in an offshore branch of an Icelandic bank in the Isle of Man. The Isle of Man Compensation Scheme is trying to ensure that such losses are eventually recouped.

Finance aside, the Isle of Man is plenty interesting in its own right. Its Celtic language, Manx, supposedly went extinct in 1974, but is being revived and now boasts around 100 fluent speakers. Its current head of state is officially Elizabeth II, but not as queen: her title here is “Lord of Mann.” (She is toasted as “The Queen, Lord of Mann.”) Also of note is the island’s symbol, the ancient triskelion: bent legs in a pattern of threefold rotational symmetry (more on this in the next posting).

Violence in Cabinda

On January 8, 2010, a bus carrying Togo’s national soccer team to the Africa Cup of Nations tournament in Angola was attacked as it traveled through Cabinda, an Angolan exclave separated from the rest of the country by territory belonging to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). After killing the driver, gunmen continued firing at the bus for 30 minutes while the players sought safety under the seats. The team’s assistant coach and its media officer were killed, and nine others were injured.

Responsibility for the act was claimed by an offshoot of the separatist group known as FLEC (the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda, or, in Portuguese,Frente para a Libertação do Enclave de Cabinda). FLEC spokesmen claimed that their fighters had intended to kill not the Togolese players but the Angolan security officers who were accompanying their convoy. Another insurgent group, the Armed Forces of Cabinda, also claimed responsibility.

Cabinda boasts massive oil deposits, especially in its near-shore waters (see map). It is believed to be inhabited by 357,000 people, although an estimated one third of the population has fled to other countries; some 20,000 languish in refugee camps in the DRC. Cabindan activists have long claimed that their region is victimized by the authoritarian Angolan state. The secession movement actually dates to the 1960s, well before Angola gained its independence from Portugal. According to Human Rights Watch, the Angolan Army has committed numerous crimes against the people of Cabinda in recent years. As Angola depends heavily on Cabinda’s oil, it has pushed hard to retain control. Until recently, it publicly claimed that FLEC had ceased to be a problem.

The recent massacre in Cabinda brought on several international controversies. Angolan authorities expressed outrage at France, which has reportedly given sanctuary to Cabindan rebels; officials associated with the self-proclaimed Republic of Cabinda are currently based in Paris. In South Africa, anger was directed at the international media for portraying the attack as a typically African incident, implying that all of Africa is insecure – and raising doubts about South Africa’s ability to pull off the 2010 football (soccer) World Cup (http://www.businessdailyafrica.com/Opinion%20&%20Analysis/-/539548/841482/-/svqyk8z/-/). My own criticism of the media is quite different; most American outlets ignored the incident altogether, implying that terrorist attacks in Africa are only significant if they somehow threaten the United States.

Where is Zomia?

Conventional geographical units of any kind often lead the imagination along set pathways. Originality of thought can therefore be be enhanced by the creation of novel regionalization schemes. One of the more intriguing new regions to be proposed in recent years is Zomia, a term coined by historian Willem van Schendel in 2002, and expanded upon by James C. Scott in his recent book The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. As Scott’s title indicates, Zomia denotes the mountainous areas of mainland Southeast Asia, along with adjacent parts of India and China, that have historically resisted incorporation into the states centered in the lowland basins of the larger region.

In one sense, injustice is done to the very concept of Zomia by delineating it on a map with precise boundaries. Premodern Southeast Asian states themselves were not spatially bounded, let alone this anarchic hill country. Still, it can be useful to map the general area of Zomia, which I have done above.

My map is a little different from that of James Scott, on which it is based. I include a bit less of northern Thailand, and substantially less of upper Burma and of Assam, as these areas were important centers of state formation in the pre-colonial era. (I probably should also have excluded the Indian state of Manipur, as it too was the site of a significant, if usually ignored, indigenous state.)

One of the advantages of the concept of Zomia is the fact that it cuts across the boundaries of South, East, and Southeast Asia. While these world regions have their utility, they can also restrict the scholarly imagination. One cannot do justice to the societies of Zomia if one examines them only from the perspective of Southeast Asian studies.

The Marshall Islands and the U.S.

The Marshall Islands is a sovereign state in the Pacific Ocean, recognized as such by its fellow members of the United Nations. But the Marshall Islands forms an unusual country in several regards. Its population is small (62,000) and its land area meager (70 square miles), yet its tiny atolls spread across a vast swath of the Pacific; if one includes its Exclusive Economic Zone of sea-space, the Marshall Islands is a large country (see map). The sovereignty of the Marshall Islands, however, is less than complete. According to the “Compact of Free Association” signed in 1986 when independence was gained, this former U.S. “Trust Territory” allowed the United States to retain responsibility for its defense. In return, the islands were promised substantial subsidies and other benefits.

Technically speaking, the Marshall Islands is an “associated state,” defined by the Wikipedia as “a minor partner in a formal free relationship” with a larger sovereign country. The United States has two other sovereign associates in the Pacific: Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia. A similar compact of free association links New Zealand to the Cook Islands, but the latter is not considered sovereign and does not belong to the United Nations. It supposedly has the right, however, to declare independence if it so chooses.

One perk provided by the Compact of Free Association is the right to travel and work freely in the United States. The American center of Marshallese culture is Springdale Arkansas, home of Tyson Foods—the world’s largest chicken processor. Some 10,000 of Springdale’s 70,000 residents hail from the Marshall Islands. Originally, Marshallese living in the U.S. were eligible for immediate health care coverage under Medicaid, but that provision expired in 1996. The current House of Representatives health care bill would restore Medicaid coverage, but the Senate bill would not. The issue is important because most Marshall islanders in the States work for low wages in chicken abattoirs, an injury-prone environment, and the community has very high rates of diabetes. (The Marshall Islands also has the world’s highest rate of leprosy.)

The Marshall Islands faces long-term economic challenges as well. U.S. subsidies are declining, and in 2024 the major “compact grants” from the American government are set to expire. As a result, on January 4, 2010, Asian Development Bank officials urged the country to start generating surpluses that it could put into a trust fund.

The Marshall Islands play an important role in U.S. military affairs, however, which may lead to continuing subsidy streams. The islands are the primary home to the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, which covers no less than 750,000 square miles of sea-space. The Reagan Test Site’s main facilities are on the small islets of Kwajalein Atoll, which ring one of the world’s largest coralline lagoons. The lagoon forms, in essence, the world’s largest target, well suited for testing missile accuracy (see map). Understandably, Kwajalein residents are not very happy with the situation. Almost all of them have been forced onto one island, Ebeye. Refugees from nuclear testing in Bikini Atoll were resettled on the same island in the 1950s. Today some 13,000 to 15,000 residents are crowded onto a mere 80 acres of land. Not for nothing is Ebeye called “the Slum of the Pacific.”