The Mystery of the Arctic Sea

"Sea Victim" by Evgeni Dinev at freedigitalphotos.net
“Sea Victim” by Evgeni Dinev at freedigitalphotos.net

In July 2009 the world was fascinated by the mystery surrounding the cargo ship the Arctic Sea. American owned, Canadian operated, based in Malta, and with a Russian crew, the ship had taken on a load of timber in Finland, which it was delivering to Algeria. It never arrived. After passing through the English channel, its tracking system was shut off, and the ship disappeared from the world. It was amazing enough that in an era of satellites and modern navigation systems an entire ship could disappear. But then came the remarkable announcement that in July the ship had been taken over by pirates in the waters off Sweden. The men had approached the ship, and -in English- claimed to be police. They took over the ship, and interrogated the crew, before leaving hours later. But first they allegedly had disabled communications equipment and confiscated the crews’ phones. This was unusual enough, as there had been no pirates in the Baltic in living memory, or for centuries for that matter. The ship was in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Even stranger, however, was what happened next- the ship continued on its way without stopping for authorities to investigate the crime (for a timeline of events, click here). …

The Vela Incident

Image of satellite courtesy of dream designs at freedigitalphotos

On September 22, 1979 an aging American spy satellite detected a powerful flash of light that was so deep in the southern oceans that it was unclear if the flash was in the South Atlantic or the Indian ocean. National Security authorities soon notified President Jimmy Carter that there had been a nuclear test. But had there really been one? The issue mattered because at the heart of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treat of 1963 was the belief that the United States (and the Soviet Union) could detect clandestine explosions. The President convened a special task force to determine what the satellite had observed. In the end, the committee decided that the flash most likely resulted from a micro-meteorite hitting the satellite, rather than an event on earth. Many defense observers with considerable expertise held a different view. The debate has continued over three decades, with the consensus shifting as first one piece of new evidence comes forward, only to be countered by the next revelation. So what exactly happened deep over the southern oceans? …

The Lost Island of Bermeja

The world is filled with mythical islands, maybe because the idea of an isolated place evokes ideas of a utopia. Perhaps that is why Judith Schalansky’s

Image of islands courtesy of Liz Noffsinger at freedigitalphotos

Atlas of Remote Islands became a popular book. But few mythical islands islands have been as enduring as Bermeja, which cartographers have been placing on maps off the coast of the Yucatan since Alonso de Santa Cruz first mentioned it in 1539.  In the nineteenth century something strange happened. The island disappeared, likely because it had never existed. But the power of this idea is so strong that people continue to look for it, including a BBC film crew.

What is more important, however, is the popular view of the island in Mexico. How is that an island that existed on maps for centuries could disappear? A cynic might wonder if map-makers had been copying each others’ maps for centuries. But within Mexico there are conspiracy theories, which argue that the United States destroyed it. Because Mexico lost so much of its national territory to the United States in the U.S.-Mexican War, there is a profound distrust of the U.S. in Mexico. Much of Mexico’s national budget comes from the operations of the state oil company PEMEX, which pumps much of its oil from the Gulf of Mexico. And a June 2000 treaty between Mexico and the United States defined rights to oil reserves based on the distance from U.S. or Mexican territory, in particular islands. For this reason, one can find Youtube clips blaming the United States for dynamiting the island into oblivion, and calling on Mexicans to be aware of what has been stolen from them. Posts about this are easy to find on the web. Mexican radio stations and TV news also discuss this topic, as these Youtube clips (for those who speak Spanish) show. …

Mystery rocket launches off of L.A. and Newfoundland

On Monday, January 25th 2010, Darlene Stewart saw something remarkable in the skies over Harbour Mille, a small community in Southern Newfoundland. She grabbed her camera, and snapped a picture of what appeared to be a rocket shooting diagonally into the sky. Another witness said that the rocket appeared to be only one of three objects that seemed to come out of the ocean itself. As people in Harbour Mille tried to understand what they had seen, different branches of the Canadian government passed of the responsibility for answering questions amongst themselves: “Originally on Wednesday, the RCMP said questions about the alleged missile sightings were being handled by Public Safety Canada, which had no comment other than to refer questions back to the RCMP. Then on Thursday, that federal department referred questions to the PMO” (Prime Minister’s Office). …

Colombia’s Oil Boom

Brazil, Canada and the United States are currently receiving a great deal of attention for an energy boom, which has seen dramatic growth in the oil produced in the Western Hemisphere. But there is one nation that may soon be added to this list, which has never been thought of as an energy power: Colombia. The reasons for this shed light on energy politics in South America, and suggest the costs that Venezuela may be paying for its policies.

Witches’ Broom: The Mystery of Chocolate and Bioterrorism in Brazil

Geographic and Genetic Population Differentiation of the Amazonian Chocolate Tree, Juan C. Motamayor, Philippe Lachenaud, Jay Wallace da Silva e Mota, Rey Loor, David N. Kuhn, J. Steven Brown, Raymond J. Schnell; from Wikipedia commons
“Geographic and Genetic Population Differentiation of the Amazonian Chocolate Tree,” Juan C. Motamayor, Philippe Lachenaud, Jay Wallace da Silva e Mota, Rey Loor, David N. Kuhn, J. Steven Brown, Raymond J. Schnell; from Wikipedia commons

When people think of chocolate, they may know that it roots stretch back to Mexico, where Aztec emperors used to drink a frothy concoction of cacao and chile. They are less likely to know that cacao originally came from the Amazon, most likely somewhere in Ecuador, which still has the most genetically diverse cacao trees. How it traveled north, perhaps on trading ships along the Pacific Coast, or overland through Central America,  we will never know. But its origins are less of a mystery, than the disappearance of chocolate in Northeastern Brazil beginning in the late 1980s.

Chocolate was originally brought from the Amazon to Brazil’s north-east in 1746. This region was colonial Brazil’s heartland, where the legacy of slavery had created a society defined by both poverty and social inequality.  I spent two months in Recife, Brazil in 1990, where I saw the gold and jewels in the Baroque churches, and the poverty in the countryside. This poverty -and the power of traditional elites- may have motivated one of the greatest crimes in all history, if such a crime actually took place. …

Sheng: Cultural Globalization and New Languages in Africa

With cultural globalization comes cultural change. I have been on the Rio Negro in the Amazon rainforest, only to hear a canoe approach with someone playing Madonna. Hip hop has become a global phenomenon. Many people decry what they see as the emergence of a new global culture: shallow, celebrity-focused and American dominated. Part of this critique focuses on the danger not only to local cultures, but also to languages, thousands of which are endangered globally. The Enduring Voices project of National Geographic is currently seeking to record some of these tongues before they disappear forever, not only to document them for history, but also to facilitate efforts to revitalize them. I have thought about indigenous language based on my field work in Oaxaca around HIV/AIDS. How do you do HIV prevention work in a region that may have more than 16 different indigenous languages, each of which has many different dialects? Zapotec itself has more than twenty dialects, each of which has its own name, such as Lhej, Xan, Xhon and Xidza. The diversity of these languages is amazing. Mazotec is a tonal language, which has a whistled form, so that people can communicate across the valleys through whistles. But while we focus on language loss, and indigenous languages, it is interesting to also remember that new languages are also being born. …

The Lord’s Resistance Army and the Power of NGOs

The Lord’s Resistance Army is an armed group that first appeared in Northern Uganda in 1987-8, but later spread to Southern Sudan and Central Africa. Over the last 25 years it has become infamous for kidnapping children to serve in its ranks, as well as for using violence against civilians. Although the group’s power largely comes from military force, its leader Joseph Kony also tries to claim legitimacy as a religious leader, who blends Christianity with local beliefs, such as spirit possession. Because of the group’s brutality (mutilating people, sexually abusing children) the LRA creates such great fear that after one attack in Northern Uganda in 1997, perhaps 100,000 people became refugees, who fled the region to escape the violence. According to the website Global Security, in 1998 the LRA kidnapped 6000 children into its ranks, although most of them ultimately managed to escape. Because of this long history of violence and brutality, in October 2011 President Obama chose to send 100 troops to Africa, to help regional armed forces track down the Lord’s Resistance Army. …

Oscar Niemeyer, New Cities, and the future of Global Aging

There seem to be a plethora of new capitals emerging around the globe. South Sudan is planning a new

bangkok at night, courtesy of Sura Nualpradid at freedigitalphotos.net

capital in Ramciel, even as it suffers from ethnic conflict, and the myriad challenges of creating a new state. In 2005 Myanmar (Burma) created a new capital called Naypidaw, which already has nearly a million people. Although there are many explanations for the rationale behind the move (one involving an astrologer) the most likely was that this was intended to increase the military’s control. In 1997 Kazahkstan moved its capital to Astana, 600 miles away on the steppe, although few besides President Nazarbayev were enthusiastic about the idea. Angola, now one of the world’s fastest growing economies, faces problems with its capital, Luanda, which is the most expensive city in the world. As Africa’s largest oil exporter, it also has the resources to fund dreams, one of which has been the idea of creating a new capital.

Narco Blogs: Following Mexico’s Drug War

In an earlier post, I talked about Mexico’s drug war. Because the cartels have murdered journalists, and infiltrated news organizations, it can be difficult to follow the conflict using the main-stream Mexican press. For this reason, Mexicans themselves have increasingly turned to blogs that cover the conflict -so called Narco blogs- to gain information that may be difficult for conventional reporters to print. At the same time, some of these blogs clearly play to people’s interest in sensationalism, and most sometimes contain videos or photos that are disturbing and violent, or even have been filmed by the cartels themselves. The bloggers are also facing pressure, although sometimes it is unclear from whom the threats are coming.  In particular, Mexico’s Blog del Narco has had trouble remaining accessible, which has attracted media coverage in the United States. Still, for students interested in Latin America, and what is happening in Mexico, these blogs are a useful resource, particularly if they speak Spanish, so I wanted to list a few here. …

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