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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Family Geography Night: In April 2021, my colleague Dr. Vernon Domingo and I shared many more river stories during a special online version of Family Geography Night, an annual tradition at North Andover Middle School.