Monday, February 22, 2021

Acid Rain History


Forests, buildings, and lakes can be severely damaged by rain that is acidified by 
pollutants from hundreds of miles away. Image: BBC

Today's installment of BBC Witness History is the story of the Swedish scientists who identified the acid-rain problem. Their story is emblematic of many such discoveries. Denial was strongest among those most responsible for the problem. When proven wrong, the deniers switched from "it's not happening" to "it is not worth solving." 

This story included a special gem for me: the graduate student being sent by his professor to share findings at a hostile conference. Reminds me of the (rhetorical) rotten tomatoes thrown at the stage when I spoke at a conference of lake managers.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Oro de Madre

Unusual optics make these gold mines appear golden from the 
International Space Station. Image: NASA via CNN

A colleague just shared a CNN article about gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon, which opens with a surreal image of glittery gold mines. That is an optical illusion: spent ore does not look like gold. 

The focus of the article is on mining in a heretofore fairly pristine corner of the Peruvian Amazon, about 500 river miles upstream of Porto Velho, where I did my dissertation research and to which I returned most recently in late 2019. It is also just to the east of Cuzco, which I had the pleasure of visiting in 2014. About half of the Amazon basin is in Brazil, with smaller parts in each of several neighboring countries upstream.

CNN journalist Jack Guy describes the problems associated with these glittering mines, but he begins by framing the situation in an odd way. Near the beginning he writes "Independent gold mining supports tens of thousands of people in the Madre de Dios region..." 

He goes on to mention some very salient details: the mining is unregistered, settlement is in temporary boom towns, and the practice is contributing to deforestation. So the use of the word "support" is problematic, and the article could more appropriately begin: "Illegal gold mining draws tens of thousands of people into the fragile Madre de Dios region for short-term employment."

The tendency of illicit mining (known in Brazil as garimpo)  to bring unsustainable settlement and social dislocation is described in the 1997 book Rainforest Cities.  


The trade-off between short-term employment and long-term jobs is not limited to the Amazon basin, of course. The global economy demands resources from remote areas where other high-paying jobs are scarce. Extraction of minerals -- including petroleum, tar sands, natural gas, and precious metals -- does provide employment, but often at social and environmental costs that are not fully acknowledged. Moreover, the "boomtown" scenario provides those jobs to people who were not local before the rush and who will not be afterwards. 

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Exceptional Qualifications

Mario was the beloved custodian of our church when we lived in Tucson in the 1980s. His previous employment had been as a school principal. Both are honest and honorable positions, but it is reasonable to suppose that something went awry that prevented him from working in his chosen profession. That something was an international move, in his case from El Salvador to the United States. I do not know the details of Mario's crossing, but as I wrote in my 2009 Just Like Arlo post, our congregation has long been involved in providing humanitarian assistance to refugees and other migrants, including many who were fleeing El Salvador in the 1980s.

I was reminded of Mario by the latest episode of BBC Witness History, in which Dr. Cecilia Anim describes a career in nursing that began in Ghana and continued in England. Unlike Mario, she migrated freely rather than as a refugee. But like Mario, the move resulted in a de-credentialing. I recommend this 9-minute history lesson for those tempted to make assumptions about their neighbors who have migrated from afar. I also recommend the more recent story of Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu, a Nigerian-born doctor who helped to develop a Covid-19 vaccine.

Before I thought of Mario, however, I thought of the nurses who cared for my mother in her final days, which spent last July in a nursing home in Annapolis. Many members of the staff were originally from Nigeria, Ghana, Haiti or other countries in Africa and the Caribbean. Among these men and women -- who are often derisively called "the Africans" in online reviews of the facility -- was a nurse from Nigeria who went to my mother's room just a few minutes after seeing me leave for the last time. It was in Nigeria -- almost next door to Ghana -- that she began to prepare for the care she provided to my family.


The deflation of professional credentials across borders is not limited to migrations from the global South to North. I have seen the credentials of education professionals from western Europe dismissed in the United States, and those from one state not accepted in another. 

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Thalweg Travelers

My January 2020 Geography of Coffee travel course in Costa Rica included a bonus country: Panama.

Bribrí community houses. Image: Stribrawpa
These houses are in Costa Rica, but the photographer
may have been standing in Panama (see below).

Without any paperwork, immigration officers, customs declarations -- or even a sign indicating we had done so -- we visited a country that was not listed on our itinerary and for which we have no passport stamps. This was possible because of several aspects of the human and physical geography of the Bribrí community with which we enjoyed an overnight visit.

Specifically, we were visiting the Stibrawpa cooperative in Yorkin, which is one of more than a dozen Bribrí villages in the Talamanca Bribrí Indigenous Territory, which in turn is part of La Amistad (Friendhip) International Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The most accessible (by road) of the Bribrí settlements include one known as Bambú, where our group was greeted by a community leader who took us to the two dugout canoes that awaited us. Each was cut by hand from a single tree trunk, equipped with a small but powerful outboard motor, and driven by a captain in the stern and an expert first mate with a pole in the bow. That mate watched for obstacles, fended off rocks with his long pole, and occasionally used the same pole for propulsion, adding his muscle power to what the engine could provide in shallow waters. It being a bit of a low-water day, there was a lot of heroic digging.
This wave to a passing boat might be across an international border.

Our journey took us just three miles or so, first down the Telire River and then up the Yorkin to a settlement of the same name. 

The current was against us for most of that distance; more importantly the rocky, meandering stream required constant vigilance on the part of the crew, who needed to follow the thalweg carefully from side to side. Everyone knows that rivers move water, but they also move rock and soil slowly but inevitably toward the sea (in this case the Caribbean).

Typically, deposits form on alternating inside curves of a river and it is scoured from alternating outside curves. The thalweg is the deepest part of the river, which sways from side to side, extenuating the already sinuous path that one would follow down the center. The point bars are generally impassable and often mainly above water; near the cutbanks water is deep enough for passage but the deep part may be narrow and can be quite swift. In the short straight stretches between bends, riffles (or rapids) may present uniformly shallow water from bank to bank.
Typical geometry of a meandering stream. Thanks to River Bum for the
diagram. Stream geometry is important for people who boat, who fish,
and who are interested in political geography.

Where a river forms a boundary between states or countries -- as the Yorkin does between Panama and Costa Rica in this area -- that boundary is most commonly defined as the centerline of the river. 


I indicated that borders "most commonly" follow the centerline because I was remembering that between Ohio and Kentucky, the boundary is on one bank. I could not remember which bank; checking the map indicates that it is the right bank and also that the river has moved since that boundary was established. 
Detail from Google map of downtown Cincinnati/Covington.
Note that during the days of the Underground Railroad, enslaved
persons needed to cross the river completely to escape the South.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Jane Goodall: Climate, Community, Coffee

I found a recent installment of the BBC radio program HARDtalk to be uncharacteristically uplifting. In a rebroadcast of a segment that originally aired in July 2020, Dr. Jane Goodall did discuss some hard truths, but she also offered listeners hope of a way forward in this most dismal year.

Dame Jane Goodall. Image: BBC

I am sharing this interview with students in several of my courses because she explains the importance of connecting environmental protection with human rights and she describes exactly how that connection is made: by listening to the people most directly involved. She carries out this work with communities and individuals worldwide through two organizations -- the think tank/foundation Jane Goodall Institute and the youth movement Roots and Shoots.

More specifically, I am sharing this with students in my coffee classes because one of her many projects involves a cooperative of coffee farmers near the Gombe National Park, as the site of her original field work is now known. I first learned of the project when Gombe Reserve Coffee was being sold by Green Mountain Coffee. Jane Goodall continues to work with the Kanyovu Coffee Cooperative Society, a consortium of 12 coffee collectives representing 7,600 farmers near the park. Because sustainable coffee farming is a form of agroforestry, it can provide a critical buffer in areas adjacent to protected parks such as Gombe. Since the partnership with Green Mountain Coffee ended, I have not been able to find this coffee at a retail level, but the Goodall Institute and US-AID both continue to support the work of these growers.

Farmers protecting forests near Gombe
Image: Jane Goodall Institute

I was lucky enough to be in a room with Dr. Goodall just once, when she was kind enough to accept the first Atlas Award from the American Association of Geographers in 2010. This award is given by our national organization to a person who advances the values of geography but who does not identify primarily as a geographer. The HARDtalk interview reveals an interesting connection between geography and her work as an anthropologist: at a pivotal moment early in her studies in Gombe, National Geographic decided to report on her work. In the 2010 article Being Jane Goodall, the magazine reflects on the the first half century of her remarkable career. (This link is for NatGeo members only, but the article is available through most libraries.)

Lagniappe: Gorongosa

Thinking about Jane Goodall's embrace of local communities as an integral part of her environmental work reminds me of another example of a prominent scientist who partners with local experts. In my 2017 post Good News from Gorongosa, I introduce a wonderful documentary about the relationship between Tonga Torcida, a young man in a part of Mozambique that has been inhabited for 300,000 years and the imminent biologist E.O. Wilson.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Post-Peak Oil


Detail of photo by Adriana Loureiro Fernandez
for Bloomberg Green

Perhaps the most profane guest lecturer I ever brought to campus was James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency. I qualify this with "perhaps" because I also helped to bring Junot Díaz to campus. Kunstler is certainly the more curmudgeonly of the two: a professional pessimist for whom dire predictions are a moral imperative. It is as if we were stepping off a curb in front of a fast-moving bus, and he is trying to push us out of its path with books, lectures, and profanity-laden blog posts.

I was reminded of this by a recent story from Bloomberg. In Toxic Spills in Venezuela Offer a Bleak Vision of the End of Oil, journalists Fabiola Zerpa, Peter Millard, and Andrew Rosati describe the multiple environmental catastrophes that are accompanying the financial collapse of what was once a leading national petroleum industry.

As the article describes in detail, the demise of petroleum in Venezuela is following a path that is not likely to play out in other producing areas. It is, after all, failing to refine oil while it still has plenty. Most other oil fields -- and the global oil field as a whole -- will not run aground financially until reserves are proportionally much scarcer than they are in Venezuela at the moment. 

But the tale is a cautionary one for another reason: it is difficult enough to get polluters to take financial responsibility for the havoc they cause while they are profitable. It is much more difficult when they have run out of money. It is for this reason that regulatory programs such as RCRA in the United States require industries to show strong financial reserves as part of any process of permitting potentially polluting facilities. 

As oil reserves dwindle worldwide -- and all of them will -- abandoned fields and infrastructure will require close scrutiny. Unfortunately, many of the costs of our oil addiction are likely to be borne by generations who do not enjoy the benefits.

Saturday, December 05, 2020

Latin America: Globalization & Cohesion

Visiting the Elqui Valley of Chile for a solar eclipse in 2019.

Where is Latin America exactly, and why is it called that?

What causes deforestation in the Amazon, and why does it matter?

Infamous BR-364 
See note below

What do migration patterns have to do with the price of coffee?

How is land connected to political upheaval in the region?

How does climate change affect Latin America, and how are people responding?

What can we learn about Latin America from its music?

These questions and many more are part of one of my favorite courses -- 

GEOG 381 is Latin America: Globalization & Cohesion
Tuesdays 11:00am-12:15pm
In the spring 2021 semester it is offered fully online, partly synchronous. This is a complicated way to say that we will have one Zoom meeting a week, with students working independently otherwise.

International development amid the diverse global cultures of Latin America and the Caribbean is considered as globalization is balanced with local identities from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego. Common themes that define the region are contrasted with unique developments at national and local scales. 

The course meets four requirements of the Core Curriculum: CGCL; CMCL; CSOC; CWRT
Global Culture; Multiculturalism; Social and Behavioral Sciences; Writing Intensive
It also fulfills requirements in all four geography concentrations, the geography minor, and the LACS minor. An Honors Contract credit is available for students completing departmental honors in geography.

I became a Latin Americanist geographer because of one of the problems mentioned above: Amazon deforestation. As I learned more about the region -- eventually earning a doctoral minor in Latin American Area Studies -- I have become enamored of its many cultures, climates, and landscapes. I have had the good fortune of visiting all the countries shown in green below -- returning many times to Brazil, Mexico, and Nicaragua. I also lived for seven years in the Borderlands of Arizona and Texas, which should be included in any discussion of the region.

Map from MapChart

For more ideas related to this course, please explore the posts I have labeled GEOG381 in this blog.

Photo Notes
I struggled to find a photo to illustrate this blog post -- even my own modest experience in Latin America has been quite varied. I have been hot, cold, high, low, wet, and dry. I have seen beautiful and occasionally terrible things. I have met so many wonderful people. I compulsively take photos, and each of the thousands I have taken (or have been taken of me) tells a different story.

At the top of this page is a photo my spouse (who is a BSU librarian and Spanish professor) took during our July 2019 visit to Chile and Argentina to view a total eclipse of the sun. We learned why people make such a big deal out of those journeys. Traveling as two Latin Americanists made our travel to view the eclipse a very rich experience, as we could do so independently and appreciate many things about the people and places we traversed.

The BR-364 photo is one that I did not take; I found it on a Facebook group called Rondônia, Minha Querida Rondônia. Like many groups, it features nostalgic photos of a particular place, in this case the Brazilian state where I did my dissertation research in 1996 and to which I returned in 2000, 2003, and 2019. The phrase "minha querida" means "my dear" and it signifies the affection many people feel for their home state, despite it being a place I chose to research specifically because of its many problems. The muddy road BR-364 (usually called Três-Meia-Quatro) is at the heart of thousands of migration stories and one of the world's most severe and prolonged episodes of deforestation. The story behind this photo will occupy about two weeks of our course, and will touch on many aspects of the geography of an entire region.

The final photo -- the sea of flags -- was taken in the spring of 2018 in Nicaragua, not by me. I led study tours in Nicaragua almost every year from 2006 to 2018, almost always in January. In April of 2018, politics in the country took a very dark turn, which I describe in a series of posts tagged #SOSNicaragua -- a hashtag that is also on the back of my car to this day. Although this looks like an ordinary photograph, to understand the photo and the reactions to it is to understand a complicated story of political geography that stretches back decades.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Thanks to Doctor Ogbuagu

This map depicts key points in the early life and education of Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu, a researcher at Yale University known for his work on AIDS and more recently on Pfizer's vaccine for the Covid-19 Coronavirus.

Like many, I learned of his contribution from this tweet issued last week by the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria. The tweet is put in the context of Dr. Ogbuagbu's overall career in an article by journalist Haleem Olatunji on TheCable, a Nigerian online journal.

The story illustrates the importance of scientific cooperation in general and of the mobility of scholars across international borders. For many, it provides what might be surprising evidence of the high quality of medical education in a developing country. For me, it is a welcome story of diplomatic professionals doing what they do best: highlighting that which unites us.

Lagniappe: Biafra

I am glad I took a moment to map the places that were mentioned in Olatunji's article. For then it becomes clear that Dr. Obguagbu was raised and educated primarily in Biafra, a region whose attempt to secede from Nigeria was the crux of a civil war and the subject of Half of a Yellow Sun, a novel I have been reading with students in my course Africa: People, Resources, and Development. Reading that novel helps me to understand some of the quite negative replies I found under the aforementioned tweet -- the division in Nigeria is very much alive, a half century after the civil war.

Approximate boundaries of Biafra within Nigeria: Wikipedia

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Climate Action and the Executive See-Saw

The U.S. Constitution neither defines nor precludes presidential executive orders, but every president since George Washington has issued at least one. The sole exception was William Henry Harrison, who died in office after only 31 days. In more recent presidencies, this would be ample time to issue orders, some of which are ready for a new president's signature before the Mayflower moving van has left the White House grounds on inauguration day.

Political observers now expect a sheaf of executive orders to be ready with each new administration because -- to some degree -- executive orders are sometimes made to be broken. This will certainly be the case with regard to executive action related to the environment in general and climate change in particular when the Biden Administration takes office on January 20, 2021.

Sadly, public policy is sometimes a game.
Image: Card Cow

A pair of recent segments from the public-radio program Living On Earth provide an overview of recent executive actions related to climate change and informed speculation about orders that may be issued just before and just after the moving vans arrive.

In March 2020, program host and environmental journalist extraordinaire Steve Curwood spoke with law professor Jody Freeman about the EPA's rush to rollback regulations before the election. The discussion draws on her experience as Counselor for Energy and Climate Change in the Obama administration, to quickly describe the most important environmental protections that are at stake. 

This is good preparation for a segment that aired today, in which Curwood returns to the topic of executive orders with economist Joe Aldy, who served on President Obama's 2008-2009 transition team. They explore President-elect Biden's environmental priorities. Aldy's experience 12 years ago gives him keen insight into what the outgoing president is likely to do and what tools the incoming president has available -- including the degree to which control of the Senate will matter.


Just as I was posting this, I found a more detailed description of President-elect Biden's climate-related transition plans by journalists and Adam Aton and Jean Chemnick. The intention to address climate in nearly every department of government suggests the need for interdisciplinary approaches to the deepening climate crisis.

Moving two families during a ceremony -- even a long ceremony -- is daunting, but it is done every 4 to 8 years in the People's House. I once read that Mayflower (which seriously botched the 1997 Hayes-Boh family move) was always hired, but a quick image search suggests that competent companies also get the job sometimes, as in the January 2001 move shown above.

Thursday, November 05, 2020

Warm Heart of Malawi

The World Through a Lens is a weekly series of explorations provided by the photojournalists of the New York Times  as a welcome diversion from the isolation many are experiencing during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Malawians: What turned a single visit to Malawi into a lifetime connection.
Photo credit: Marcus Westburg

The contribution of Sweden's Marcus Westberg begins with a two-day assignment in Malawi that has turned into a relationship lasting most of his adult life. We went to the small village of Senga Bay to take photos 14 years ago, when a water-supply well (borehole) was being installed. He was soon captivated by the country, the people, and the lake that helps to define both.

Over time, he came to understand the phrase Malawians use to describe their culture: the warm heart of Africa. His photo essay is a treasure; and though it captures a single recent journey, both the words and the images are borne of a connection built over more than a decade.

Please enjoy the photographs Westburg shares with us; you will feel the warmth and the heart. You will also gain some insight into matters that are important in Malawi and throughout many other countries of the African continent.

I am always intrigued by the map of Malawi -- the country and its eponymous inland sea are almost the same shape. 

BONUS: For his second entry in the NYT series, Westburg shares his experiences in and along the Luangwa River of Zambia. In this case, humans are not his focus: these photos are all about the charismatic megafauna.

Frolicking hippos -- their name is from the Greek for "river horse."
Photo: Marcus Westburg

If you like Westburg's work -- and how can you not? -- consider following his social-media links at the bottom of the article.


I am grateful for Westburg's essay because he so beautifully conveys something similar to my own experiences in a couple different places. My choice of a human-centered photo and my awkward caption about finding Malawians in Malawi are deliberate. In 2006 --- around the same time as Westburg's first visit to Malawi -- I went to Nicaragua with the intention of leading a coffee tour there one time, and moving on to another coffee country the next year. I have taken more than 100 people there during 12 visits so far, and I am in touch with someone from Nicaragua almost every day. In turn, many of those 100 people who went with me for a single visit have returned and built long-term relationships. The reason: we did not just meet Nicaragua; we met Nicaraguans.

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