Friday, July 31, 2020

Supporting Agualí

As many of you know, Nicaragua is near and dear to my heart. In January 2006, I intended to take students there just once. One of those students returned the following year, and I took a total of more than 100 students and colleagues and my own family members over the next decade. Many of those students have returned with me or on their own, and many more of them tell me that their visit was one of the most important experiences of their life. It is my home away from home, and I am in contact with one or more friends in Nicaragua every single day.

Things went seriously awry there in April 2018, so I have not been back -- though one of my Nicaraguan friends co-led my January 2020 travel course in Costa Rica. In fact it is that friend -- Ernesto Ocampo -- with whom I have been working most directly on a new project to help the people of northern Nicaragua. By "working with" him, I mean that he and others in Matagalpa have been doing terrific work to help their community, and I've been consulting with him on how to share that work with potential supporters in North America and Europe.

Nicaragua faces a triple crisis: the global pandemic and economic recession are compounded by the political repression that I have described in some detail elsewhere on this blog. Ernesto and others are responding with a comprehensive approach that integrates community development, environmental education, and English-language education. It is best described by our mutual friend Sage from Chicago -- please keep reading Sage's excellent description of this exciting work, and please join us and other friends of Nicaragua in sharing the project and pledging financial support.

Note that the sponsorships being suggested could be shared as part of a project for a class, club, or religious organization, or simply a group of friends wishing to make the world a better place!

Read all about it at Agualí
Sage writes:

Please consider sponsoring a student for Estación Biológica Agualí's new and exciting project investing in a new generation of environmental leaders in Nicaragua.

Here's an overview from program materials:

"The Agualí Biological Station has created a one-a-half year program for 25 young people that facilitates high-quality education, using English-learning as a tool to acquire new skills in environmental education and multiple other skills."
"In order to carry on with this project, we need people who will be willing to sponsor as many students as possible, the cost for the whole program is worth twice than requested; however, we ask for a contribution of USD 40 per month for each student, and other costs will be covered by the Biological Station and Matagalpa Tours."

There are different sponsorship opportunities that you can explore at this link:

Sponsorship keeps the program 100% free for students, keeping people afloat during these difficult times - in particular in economies that rely on tourism. Agualí's educational model is holistic - not just English language education, but also a base in subjects from permaculture to trail building to theater - the skills to create a graduating cohort of professional naturalists and environmental educators.

You can commit to a one-time donation or recurring sponsorship for a part or all of the program. For example, I have committed to sponsor one students at $40/month for 12 months. You also have the option to be put in contact with the student you are sponsoring and have a more intimate look into the program and the amazing work that is happening at Estación Biológica Agualí.

Head to to check out the other work Agualí is doing, and send me a message to access a comprehensive overview of the program through email - I hope that you will consider supporting the amazing work of Ernesto Ocampo and the Agualí team!

James again:

Feel free to contact me with any questions. I would also be happy to set up a video chat with Ernesto, myself and any potential supporters.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Mitigating Flood

Scholars Jacob Bradt and Carolyn Kousky recently analyzed the most recent data on flood insurance claims in the United States in studies published by the Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at the Wharton School. Claims vary considerably from year to year (they call the data "spikey"), but claims have been increasing. Moreover, the average value of each claim is increasing dramatically. As with any good business-school presentation, this graph of claim values is already adjusted for inflation. That is to say: more damage is being done by floods in real terms.

I learned of this study from the notes published to complement the following radio segment, which I recommend highly. In just four minutes, NPR journalist Rebecca Herscher conveys the implications of this trend in both personal and policy terms.

As her reporting illustrates, the rising cost of claims is putting increasing pressure on the mitigation efforts of the federal government. For decades, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has sought to reduce flood damage through mitigation: simply purchasing properties considered particularly vulnerable to flooding.

As the number and value of properties actually damaged by flooding increases, so too does the cost of meaningful mitigation. The focus of the story is on the increasing importance of funding of flood mitigation by state governments, as they realize that FEMA funding is not keeping up with the increase in damage resulting from land-use patterns and climate change. As I wrote in Climate Foxholes back in 2013, climate denial is not an option for those with real-world responsibilities such as planning and insurance.

Much of my writing on this topic has been inspired by the painful experiences of flooding in Ellicott City, Maryland, a charming mill town just a few miles from the campus where I became a geographer. My 2018 post Not in the Cards post includes the most direct explanation of the changing math of assessing flood risk; my more recent Dam Shame post includes links to each of my Ellicott City posts and a link to the recovery efforts of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey.


Herscher reports from two states where I have lived -- Virginia and Texas. The water official she interviews in Texas has both a great Texas accent and a fun aptronym.

Career tip: if all of this mitigation work sounds like a job for geographers, that is because it is. A few years ago a student enrolled in our department because of her background in public safety and her  interest in emergency preparedness. She is now one of many geographers working for FEMA. As the NPR story suggests, there will be increasing need for geographers in similar agencies at the state and local level.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Belts and Roads, Worldwide

Shopkeeper Amaleea Hayu supports the rail link in Malaysia,
which of course will have benefits along with its costs.
One reason I teach is that it helps me to keep learning. It was from a student in my summer class that I learned of an article describing the BRI -- China's Belt & Road Initiative, a major series of projects of which I had only the vaguest understanding.

Its scope is enormous -- trillions of dollars of infrastructure spending in 125 countries over the next three decades. This story in Sierra magazine describes the destructive potential of just one small segment of the ambitious work, in Malaysia. It also describes the problematic relationships among those who finance these projects and those who are responsible for regulating them. Patterns established by colonial projects the world over will be easy to recognize.


Those interested in the wetlands aspects of this article might be interested in my other articles that mention wetlands, including Louisiana in Tough Shape and Hot Island Hotspot.

Micro Quality

I was pleased to be part of an online discussion of coffee quality recently -- specifically about the connections between cupping quality and the quality of life for the people who grow the coffee. The short version: better quality is good for producers.  Feel free to watch the long version of our discussion, entitled Our Version of the Perfect Cup, and to read about the context of that conversation.

This discussion was part of an ongoing series of educational events organized by the Equal Exchange Action Forum, the citizen-consumer arm of the fair-trade company. Equal is known for its leadership in coffee, but now sells cocoa, tea, cashews, and other products on behalf of small farmers throughout the world. The Action Forum allows its customers to think deeply about the entire food system and to collaborate on making it healthier and fairer for people and the planet.
A central premise of our discussion is that higher quality in the coffee itself is associated with the development of producer communities. It also reflects one of the principle benefits of the entire fair-trade movement in my view: greater transparency and better connections between those who produce food (if we count coffee as a food) and those who consume it. As we explain, prior to the fair-trade movement, farmers has little if any information about the quality (and therefore the real value) of their products.

So please listen to the conversation in which we explore these connections; for those who have not given much to how high quality is achieved in coffee or why it matters, I think we provide a worthwhile introduction. As we explain in our discussion, an important aspect of improving coffee quality is the selection of better-quality coffee at various stages. From picking the coffee through roasting it, the best beans can be separated to get increasingly high-scoring results in the cup (coffee is scored much like wine).
Mild spoiler alert: I went looking for an image like this on
Instagram while watching one of the videos below. I should
not have been surprised that the first good example I found
was posted by the same person! It is part of a series of slides that
presents his case about microlots in a different way.
But please note that my co-presenter Mike Mowry begins to explain the problems that can arise from a focus on microlots, which are at the far end of the quality distribution. Microlots are very small batches of coffee -- perhaps just a couple of 100-pound bags -- that have been cultivated, selected, and processed with great care. They have the potential to earn premiums far above the price of ordinary coffee, and even more than most specialty coffee.

My co-presenter Mike Mowry begins to explain this during our conversation, and afterwards he shared two videos from Colombia that explain why high quality being good does not mean that extremely high quality is better. In two segments that are part of a series of videos about coffee economics on the Cedro Alto Coffee channel, Karl Weinhold explains the math of microlots and how that math tends to work against farmers, and especially farmer cooperatives. Hint: it is not simply a matter of only a few farmers getting the premium prices; even those getting the premiums might not fare well overall.

To be honest,  I had not thought seriously about the potential downside of microlots until we began to prepare for our presentation.  I remember the thrill of visited a mill specializing in microlots during my January 2018 visit to Estelí, Nicaragua. For a coffee nerd who cares about the farmers, the land, and the cup, it was exhilarating. So learning about the potential downside of ultrahigh quality was sobering.
Africa-bed drying of microlots in Estelí, Nicaragua. These beans are being
dried with extraordinary care, in lots as small as 5 pounds (nanolots).

Long before I knew anything about quality in coffee, I read and re-read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values (Phaedrus, #1). Much of the book concerns Robert Pirsig's maddening (literally) pursuit of the meaning of the word "quality." The rest of the book concerns a long ride on a motorcycle.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Oklahoma Questions

Earlier this month, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch surprised many observers by writing a 5-4 decision in favor of indigenous rights. I had not been aware of the McGirt v. Oklahoma case until the day it was decided, when I saw various links indicating that the map of Oklahoma was to be redrawn. As a geographer, I naturally had some questions.
A map of Oklahoma circulating since July 9.
Because the McGirt case concerns jurisdiction over a criminal case, the immediate effect of the "redrawing" relates to which areas remain the purview of state or federal prosecutors and courts. The majority opinion cites long-standing treaties as the basis for federal jurisdiction on behalf of tribal governments. In his dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Roberts appears to emphasize the inconvenience of this result for the State of Oklahoma, rather than whether the treaties are or are not valid. Journalists Chris Casteel and David Morris describe the ruling in an article and video posted on The Daily Oklahoman immediately following the ruling.

A few days later, the NPR program 1A (please get to know this show if you do not already!) assembled an expert panel to discuss the ruling in a broader context. Host Jenn White discusses the McGirt case, the name change of the Washington-area NFL team, and the victory of native people in the Dakota Access pipeline case with indigenous academics and activists, as well as Jonodev Chaudhuri, ambassador to the United States for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. This discussion is a half-hour well spent, as the experts answer some of the questions raised by these rulings and indicate that some of its geographic implications remain far from clear.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

COVID Policies and Trans Communities in Latin America

Social-distancing protocols in some parts of Latin America have been gendered, because this seemed to be an easy way to reduce potential crowds by one half. In some cases, however, the rules facilitated abuse by police and others. As reported by Jennifer Bitterly for the Christian Science Monitor, some trans activists in the region have found a silver lining in the responses.

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Coffeeland as Empire

I had already begun to read Augutine Sedgewick's hefty tome Coffeeland: One Man's Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug when a fellow geographer passed along Oliver Taslik's much more manageable review, The callous roots of caffeine capitalism.

Taslik confirms my impression that Sedgewick's work has a great tendency to wander and meander across time and space, making me feel a bit better about already having gotten a little bit lost in its pages. He also reminds us that the James Hill -- the "One Man" of the book's subtitle -- is not the real subject of the book.

Rather, it is the broader story of the hazards of economic and social -- and political -- development that is dependent on a single crop. Diversification to other crops is scarcely better, if they remain within a narrow range and share post-colonial patterns of dependency.

I hope to have more to say on the work when I reach its end, and I hope some day to reach El Salvador itself -- a country I have studied a fair bit but not yet visited.


Those who know me well may notice that the title of this book is very similar to a word I use often -- Coffeelands -- as a term of endearment for all of the places around the world that provide our coffee, and to the people of those lands. It is also the name of one of my very favorite coffee shops, whose owner has been with me on three coffeelands journeys (so far).

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