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. …

Totally Drug Resistant Tuberculosis

In our book and this blog we give considerable attention to the threat posed by avian influenza, which also attracts a great deal of media coverage. But there is another, and older, threat that also deserves attention. Tuberculosis has been a growing problem. As Paul Farmer’s work has described, it flourished in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and drug resistant tuberculosis has been a growing threat from Peru to Haiti. The challenge is that if patients are not properly diagnosed, or if they fail to take a long course (a minimum of six months) of medication, the disease becomes resistant.

"Bacteria" by ddpavumba at freedigitalphotos.net

This problem has combined with the spread of HIV/AIDS, which decreases people’s resistance to TB. This led to a terrifying outbreak in KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, where an epidemic of extensively drug resistant (XDR) tuberculosis (TB) began spreading in 2006. From South Africa, the disease was moved into neighboring countries, such as Lesotho.

A recent news article in South Africa gives some insight into why TB was so difficult to treat. After a woman was diagnosed with XDR TB, she required intensive, inpatient care. Her family had to conduct a (successful) fund-raising campaign before she could be admitted to a hospital, where she is finally receiving the care she needs. In this case, the woman’s family rose to the challenge, and obtained care for her. But what if she had not been so fortunate? …

Canada’s Northern Gateway Pipeline

An article by Edward Welsch in the Wall Street Journal today today talks about upcoming

Photo “Two Oils of Alberta” by Rosemary Ratcliff, courtesy of www.freedigitalphotos.net

hearings regarding Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline, which would bring oil from Alberta to Kitimat on the British Columbia coast. As I discussed in an earlier blog post, Canada views this pipeline as an alternative to the Keystone XL pipeline, which would move oil to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Legally, the Obama administration must make a decision on this Keystone XL pipeline by the end of February. Because production from the Oil Sands is increasing so rapidly, Canada badly needs to find an additional means to bring petroleum to market. From the perspective of the Canadian government, therefore, the Northern Gateway pipeline allows it to hedge its bets, by allowing to sell oil to the Asian market, in particular China. Even if President Obama’s administration approves the Keystone XL, the Canadian government badly wants this other pipeline to the Pacific to increase its market options. …

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