Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Good News from Gorongosa

The Film Notes page I created for my students provides a lot more detail about the film mentioned below, with links to resources related to specific things mentioned in the film. Feel free to use them while watching The Guide.

I share a lot of bad news on this blog, and here is a bit more: we have so damaged the planet that it is no longer sufficient to seek ways of avoiding further damage through minor efforts such as recycling bottles and cans. If the future is to be anything but bleak, we must engage in restoration, not merely protection.

But here is some good news: restoration is exactly what some people are doing, such as the people in and out of Mozambique who are restoring the Gorongosa National Park.

Our Vision from Gorongosa National Park on Vimeo.

People have lived in the Gorongosa area for 300,000 years -- 10,000 human generations. A little over a century ago, the need to protect it from overuse was recognized, and for most of the 20th Century its natural communities did benefit from preservation efforts.

In recent decades, however, war in Mozambique harmed and endangered both the natural communities of Gorongosa and the human communities closely connected to it. The Gorongosa timeline outlines the place's story from pre-history through colonization to protection and conflict.

Most recently, a positive story has emerged, as local and global people are working together to restore the park's ecosystems by healing its connections to surrounding human communities. The results include an ecotourism initiative that is much deeper than most, which is explored in The Guide, which is the story of the relationship between Gorongosa neighbor Tonga Torcida and the imminent biologist E.O. Wilson.
Global-local teamwork: Wilson & Torcida in The Guide.
(Link above is to Amazon Prime; it is also on YouTube, though perhaps slightly abridged.)

The global importance of the work in Gorongosa and in similar "ark" environments throughout the world was described by E.O. Wilson himself in the February 2002 article "The Bottleneck." (This link is to the Scientific American site where the issue can be purchased; the article is readily available in libraries as well).

When I started studying demographics in the 1980s, we were concerned that human population was experiencing exponential growth that was exhibiting a "J-curve" trajectory. That is, the compounding of population growth was leading to increases that seemed destined to accelerate for decades to come. Around the turn of this century, however, negative feedback processes began to slow that growth. A pattern that seemed to have no end in sight now seemed to have an end point -- a likely plateau of human population at around 9 or 10 billion in the middle of this century. This is known as "S-curve" or sigmoidal growth; we are currently in a long period of population that increases at a decreasing rates.

(Note: a year after this post, I wrote A Decreasing Increase to explain the above graph in more detail. It is a reality of demographic momentum that is difficult to grasp at first.)

For those concerned -- as we all should be -- about providing resources for the growing population, this is good news. It means that our task, though daunting, is not infinite. If we can find a way to support ourselves sustainably until 2050, we should be able to do so after that date. In The Bottleneck, Wilson makes a corollary claim -- any species and wild lands that we can protect until 2050 have a reasonable chance of being protected for the long term.

Update August 2019 (with links updated in 2022)

I watched the full version of The Guide documentary shortly after writing this post, and watched it again after I read a new story about coffee (see below) on the margins of the park. (The preceding link points to filmmaker notes, but no longer to the film itself; see the HHMI YouTube version to watch it.) The film is a welcome respite from the bad news that assails us daily. Not only does it offer hope and beauty, but it lets the viewer witness the rapidly growing friendship between an old New Englander and a young African -- two men from vastly different worlds who find they have a tremendous amount in common. Just try to get through 40 minutes without shedding any joyful tears!

Among the great treats -- E.O. Wilson had never been to sub-Saharan Africa before the age of 82, and yet is able to identify the genus and species of every critter brought to him by local kids -- except those previously unknown to science.

I hope to have the good fortune to visit this park some day. Because the history of colonization connects Mozambique to Brazil, I do speak the local language.

Lagniappe (Coffee-related)
Children taking a break in coffee fields near Gorongosa park. ABC's caption optimistically ignores the fact that these kids are probably participating in the harvest alongside their older relatives.

My well-known interest in all things related to the geography of coffee means that friends regularly forward stories to me that I might otherwise miss. Most recently, it was the coordinator of our campus study-abroad programs who shared Coffee growers help reforest Mozambique's Mount Gorongosa, a story by Andrew Meldrum by way of AP and CBS.

Although the photograph belies claims that the coffee is shade-grown, this is nonetheless a potentially positive story of environmental protection and community development; as The Guide makes clear, the two are intricately connected. The coffee trees themselves provide an important ecological service as a buffer between the carefully protected park itself and surrounding lands with no protection from hunting or clearing. 

The buffer effect is much greater -- and the coffee much better -- if genuine shade-grown methods are employed. I have sent a message to the person directing agricultural partnerships around the park, to see if he can provide more details about the coffee cultivation. Mozambique continues to be a very small producer of coffee, with the entire country growing less than some individual farms in other countries. For it to succeed as an economic-development project, the coffees of the Gorongosa region would need to be grown with attention to quality and perhaps distinct varietals. 

Serious Biking

According to Google Maps, the trip from Kathmandu to Leh would be a grueling 16 hours by air, twice that by car. I do not know what route they are taking, but a dedicated group described as "Kung Fu Nuns" is currently completing this journey by BICYCLE.

As someone with very minimal biking capabilities, I have tremendous respect for these women, 500 of whom trekked 4,000 kilometers to draw attention to the worldwide problem of human trafficking. That is well over one million nun-miles in some of the world's most serious hill country!
They intend to show that women "have power and strength just like men" to which I would humbly respond -- much more than this man! Journalist Nita Bhalla tells their story in Business Insider.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Weapon of Choice: Fountain Pen

Woody Guthrie and his famously labeled guitar -- "This machine kills fascists." Eight decades after his work helped to define politics for a generation, some fools still argue that artists should avoid politics. As if that were not what the arts are for.

Two "small" items in today's news put me in mind of our greatest troubadour. I employ the scare quotes because these stories that would have been leading news items in other times, given the scale of the crimes involved. But in a year in which the presidential campaign is about greater and lesser degrees of lies and loathing, and on a day in which North Korea tested a nuke half the size of that with which America leveled Hiroshima*, it may have been easy to overlook trifling frauds measured in the mere billions of dollars.

The two stories I heard were about criminal proceedings that were proceeding on the terms of the criminals. That is to say, these are stories of white-collar crimes in which the rules have rather soft edges.

The first is the story of Wells Fargo, which fired 5,000 employees for defrauding customers. The company also paid $185,000,000 in penalties (perhaps the price of keeping these well-dressed thugs out of jail) and set aside $5,000,000 for repaying defrauded customers. That is to say, the company paid penalties equivalent to two days of earnings, while setting aside the earnings of a typical hour or so for repaying customers.

What did these wayward employees do? Exactly what one would expect them to do. Think about the pressure people who sell cars are under to meet their quotas, and the rewards they get when they meet or exceed targets. Now imagine a salesperson who could cause you to buy a car without you knowing it. That is what these banksters were doing -- selling various kinds of accounts to existing customers without their knowledge, leaving customers to pay penalties if they overdrew the accounts that funded these purchases.

NO: I did not make up that last paragraph. I'm not that smart. The settlement seems hardly necessary -- overbuilt for-profit prisons have plenty of space for these worthies.

UPDATE: Carrie Tolstedt, the executive ultimately responsible for these crimes, has decided to retire early. CEO John Stumpf praised her as “a standard-bearer of our culture” and “a champion for our customers" while ensuring that she would walk out the door with $124,600,000 in her final paycheck. Banking reforms following the 2008 were supposed to prevent such bonanzas, but loopholes apparently were found.

Meanwhile, an even bigger crime resulted in an actual indictment that was announced today, though jail time seems unlikely for Volkswagen engineer James Robert Liang. He is busily turning in those who helped him to implement the now-famous scheme to thwart emissions testing of VW vehicles, specifically those with "clean" diesel engines. As soon as he realized that he could not meet the ambitious emission targets that had been set for him, he designed a way for the engines to recognize testing equipment and operate in a non-performance mode during tests. The result was the sale of 600,000 vehicles for something like $10,000,000,000, many of which VW is busy buying back. Remedies in this case are being offered to the people who purchased the cars and are considered the primary victims of Liang's scheme, but the real victims are harder to identify -- everyone who suffered needless respiratory problems as a result of thousands of cars exceeding emissions standards over many years.

Monday, September 05, 2016

The Grandest Canal ... or None At All

When I made my first visit to Nicaragua in January of 2006, I had the intention of teaching my coffee travel course there just once before moving on to other countries. Little did I know that I would return almost every year, mostly at exactly the same time of the year. The regular rhythm of my visits has allowed me to develop friendships, to observe the perils of an unraveling climate, and to notice evolving stories at the national level.

It was just before my 2011 visit that I learned of a dispute about the portrayal of the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border in Google's mapping of the Rio San Juan area. Troops were actually deployed to defend against the encroachment on Nicaragua that the government saw in Google's cartography. During my 2011 visit, I learned of the importance of this dispute for Nicaraguans living far from the contested area. For its part, Costa Rica was determined to protect the ecological integrity of the river, in part because it is an important component in Costa Rica's ecotourism development model.

Two years after that, we had learned more details about what made the territory so sensitive for Nicaragua -- especially for President Daniel Ortega and business interests associated with him: a new canal to compete with the Panama Canal. Various routes across Nicaragua were considered when the Panama project was being contemplated; today growing ship traffic has renewed interest in those alternatives. In 2013, I wrote about plans to open just such a route, and the environmental concerns raised by these plans.
The canal would involve substantial dredging in Lake Nicaragua.
Image: Meridith Kohut, New York Times
In early 2015, work on the canal actually began, with a much-publicized ground-breaking ceremony. Tensions rose as the idea of a canal began to become a reality. I had assumed that the transit of Lake Nicaragua would be the easy part of the project, but the size of the ships envisioned would require deep channels to be cut and maintained, creating permanent turbidity throughout much of the largest lake in Central America.

In an April 2016 article, New York Times writer Suzanne Daley provides a cogent description of the political and economic context in which this project has unfolded, and explains why it may never happen after all. A single wealthy investor from China has led the project, and his personal fortunes have since declined. It is not at all clear whether the Chinese government is directly involved or interested enough to finance what would be the largest excavation project ever attempted. Meanwhile, land and water rights along the proposed route remain uncertain.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Generation M

In a recent BBC radio program exploring various current religious stories, I heard a very interesting interview with author Shelina Janmohamed, regarding her new book Generation M. (To hear the interview, go to the program and queue it to 13:00.) It is based on her study of Muslim young people throughout the world

Janmohamed concludes the interview by saying that her study of this generation leaves her with the feeling that "we all share a very optimistic collective future."

The book is available in the UK now, and will be available in the U.S. on November 30, at Amazon (of course) and local booksellers.


While searching the BBC web site for a separate audio clip of the interview (which I have not yet found), I encountered a 12-minute clip with a similar title. In Young Muslims (July 2015), journalist Edward Stourton interviews young people at an East London mosque, regarding then-Prime Minister Cameron's anti-extremism proposals.

Six months after that interview, PM Cameron allegedly described Muslim women as a "traditionally submissive" monolith with weak language skills. Janmohamed launched a Twitter campaign that revealed a very different reality.
One of many polyglots showing she is not #TraditionallySubmissive 

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Teachers Opting Out

I have always assumed that I would remain a university professor until retirement age, because I absolutely love what I do, and the people with whom I teach and learn every day. But it is no longer a certainty. Twenty percent of K-12 teachers near retirement age are now leaving early, for reasons that are starting to threaten higher education as well.
Carrying the Load of False Accountability Measures
Image: LA Johnson/NPR
I was both saddened and mildly encouraged to hear the story of one such teacher -- Rick Young of Colorado -- on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday this morning. I was saddened, of course, because this educator has been pushed out early, robbing about seven years' worth of students of his passion and expertise.

I was mildly encouraged, though, because NPR bothered to tell his story, and to identify the burden of paperwork as the culprit. The description of this burden was superficial, but it is a start. NPR cannot exercise very rigorous journalism in this area because its funding comes from some of the culprits -- the Walton and Gates family foundations.

These and other "reformers" are applying some of the weakest ideas from the business arena to education at all levels. "You can't manage what you can't measure" is simplistic thinking that serves as a crutch for weak managers, but it is now applied with abandon in education, in the guise of greater "accountability."

Imagine following Picasso, Madonna, or Mick Jagger around with a clipboard, asking them to document the objectives and metrics of each brush stroke or song note. Ludicrous, right? Imagine me demanding that a ballerina describe her performance ahead of time in terms I can understand (knowing little about ballet) and being subjected to my metrics of her performance. This is what is happening in education, as great teachers are asked to explain themselves in ever-greater detail to managers with little or no teaching experience.

Higher education has been insulated from these movements, with university professors hired for their expertise and then being allowed to exercise it. Academic freedom has given us a nation full of top-notch colleges and universities, but this is changing quickly as accreditation bodies start to demand more uniformity, and that more time be spent on fads and measurements than on teaching and learning. And although we are encouraged to teach our students to dream big, we are asked simply to play along.

I remain an optimist -- otherwise I would not be a teacher at all -- but the cynics are better funded and better organized than those of us in the classrooms. So my expertise in Latin American geography might be shifted from developing lectures to locating a retirement community, earlier than expected.

Friday, September 02, 2016

Diverting Bullies

Parisian filmmaker Maeril created this handy infographic to assist people who encounter bullying in public places. The remarkable power of fear and ignorance is such that many "adults" now feel entitled to berate people based on their own perceptions of difference. Those of us who are outraged by such behavior are often at a loss as to how to respond without making the situation worse. Maeril's approach is a good one -- supporting the victim and deflating the perpetrator.

I hope never to need this advice, which I could have used in a somewhat similar situation on public transit in Boston about a decade ago, I responded, but not as effectively as this.
Reposted with commentary on Bussfeed

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