Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Rey de Maíz

Recent discussions about trade have included an odd discussion of whether it was Mexico or the United States got the better of the other in the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (which also, of course, includes Canada). My main concerns with NAFTA -- and with the even more comprehensive World Trade Organization (WTO) agreement -- had to do with the likelihood that they would weaken labor and environmental protections.

The increase in trade -- and the vulnerability of workers to distant competitors -- was already underway before NAFTA went into effect, and it is difficult to know how much the agreement contributed to the downward spiral in the compensation and protection of workers. But that spiral does continue, and the corn farmers of Mexico continue to be among those most adversely affected.

This short report by journalists Todd Zwillich and Franc Contreras puts the opposition of these farmers in the century-old context of the conflict that led to the modern Mexican state.

To understand how the trade in corn became so lopsided, I recommend the pithy documentary King Corn, which shows what two Boston-area guys learned from trying to grow a single acre of corn in Iowa. (Spoiler alert: nobody grows a single acre of corn any more.)

As the trailer suggests, the filmmakers were initially most interested in the insidious penetration of corn into the diet and the deleterious effect of simplified carbohydrates on public health. In the process of pursuing that story, however, they also learned how large-scale corn growers came to dominate the political sphere.

Another film that is essential for understanding the inadequate representation of small-scale farmers at trade negotiations is Black Gold. Its focus is on coffee, but several important scenes explain the trade milieu that works to the disadvantage of small farmers across the globe. I have written more extensively about both films (which are available in various formats) in Nuts Have a Geography, Too (2014) and Cups and Summits (2012). Those posts are a few years old now, and the films a few years older than that, but the basic arrangements have not changed.

Geographic Lens on New Bedford

I'm hoping for two kinds of students in my New Bedford course next summer: those who know the city, and those who don't. In other words, everyone is welcome (despite the 400-level course number).

This combination works well in my classes about other places, whether they be Brockton or Latin America. Students who know a place directly bring something extra to the class, but they also gain something from applying a geographic lens to a place they have known in other ways.

I hope that the geographic lens is exemplified by the informal photo essay I just completed, based on a walk I took in the city one morning at the end of the summer.
Acushnet Avenue -- A Avenida -- is a great place for geographers.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Spotlight on Courage

Just last month, we had the great privilege of attending a forum on information integrity led by journalist Sasha Pfeiffer, a print reporter who is also very present on public-radio airwaves in the Boston area. Upon finally viewing the film Spotlight for the first time this week, I learned that she is an even more formidable journalist than I had realized.

The diligent work of her entire team, including upper management at the Globe, is a reminder of the importance of professional journalists in the protection of democracy. Reporters take great risks and great care in finding facts.
Among many cogent insights in the film is attorney Mitchell Garabedian's assertion that "if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one." The film makes clear that one of the biggest barriers to exposing the criminal conspiracy surrounding pedophilia was Boston's winged-tipped tribalism. Self-reinforcing networks of elite business, education, and religious institutions were (and to an extent still are) expected to protect each other. A key turning point in the film comes when a new Globe executive agrees to meet the archbishop, but makes it clear that he will do so as a journalist, not a member of the city's elite.

Lagniappe: Alabama

I started to write this post a few days ago, and finish it just as I read about another group that is standing up to misplaced loyalties that are couched in religious terms. In this case, it is southern ministers who are speaking out against the depravity and bigotry of the disgraced judge and senate candidate Roy Moore. He is playing on Alabama's church-supper tribalism to recast his political agenda as a religious cause, and some actually consider his alleged actions to be appropriate. Thankfully, a group of 70 Alabama pastors has refused to have their faith misused in this way.

Taking an even bolder stand, Southern Baptist leader Dr. Russell Moore (no relation), has addressed a "nominal, culturally 'Christian'" brand of religion, writing:
“It is predatory, soul-twisting, covers over violence and racism and molestation. The gospel of Jesus Christ brings life and joy and rest and peace.”
It is refreshing to someone inside a faith tradition take on so directly the damage done by misplaced loyalties based in commonalities of religious or political affiliation.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Malbeclipse 2019


The opening episode of Modern Family Season 9 is about a vacation organized around watching a total eclipse of the sun, presumably on August 21, 2017. And yet! ... I failed to realize what was going on when various characters began to channel their inner Bonnie Tyler in honor of the greatest comeback of an MTV icon in some while. (The very strange video above has had over 342 million views.)

All of which is by way of saying that we have been making some big plans for the next total eclipse of the sun. Not the next eclipse to reach totality in the U.S., as did the one we missed in 2017 (jury duty kept us close to home): the next total eclipse on the planet. It will happen on July 2, 2019, and we will be there! The path of totality will mostly be over water, but the continental portion will traverse South America farther south than any place I have been.
Map: timeanddate.com
It coincides with the birthday of our geographer friend Jeff.  Actually, we have at least three geographer friends named Jeff. This is the one who joined us on a previous South American adventure, and who has said he might want to join us for this one. He and his partner were easy to convince because of something that will be apparent to oenophiles viewing this map: the eclipse will be visible from some of the most interesting wine-growing regions on the planet: the very high and dry growing regions of Chile and Argentina.

As with Jeff's husband, one of those wines is originally from France. In the Cahors region where it was developed, Malbec is a mid-level wine at best, sometimes even described as "animal" and suitable only for blending. It was introduced over two centuries ago to the high altitudes of Mendoza, Argentina, where it produces full-bodied wines of notable complexity. It is so successful there, in fact, that the vintners of Cahors now look to Mendoza wines for instruction. The success of these wines has been so widely discussed in the industry that we are able to find a dozen different Malbec wines from that single town. And we frequently do.
Map: timeanddate.com
When we learned that our favorite wine-growing region would be just outside the zone of totality, we started making the plans mentioned above. With 96 percent coverage in Mendoza itself, it would be easy to find a good viewing spot and explore the vineyards of Mendoza in the same trip.

Just as these ideas were coming together, I met a young biochemist who visited our campus as part of a fellowship program sponsored by the U.S. State Department. She suggested that I consider the Elqui Valley in Chile. It is a beautiful highland valley at the southern edge of the Atacama Desert, which is the driest desert on earth. She shared a video that invites exploration of the region's dramatic topography, architecture, vineyards, and astronomy facilities.

It turns out that the Elqui Valley is one of the highest-elevation wine-growing regions in the world and receives more sunlight than any of the wine regions of Europe, allowing for the development of complex Syrahs and other reds. The cool nights require close attention but also provide special opportunities to the vintners of Elqui. The Wine Searcher web site provides fascinating details about the geographic factors affecting vineyards in both Elqui and Mendoza.

Moreover, the remarkably clear skies of the Elqui Valley make it ideal for stargazing and professional astronomy, so that viewing the eclipse there may have some real advantages. It turns out that it will be in the center of the path of totality, so Malbec is beginning to look like a second choice.
Map: timeanddate.com
Not to worry, though! If we do decide to view the eclipse in Chile, we will not neglect our favorite wines on the other side of the Andes -- a stunning drive and/or a short flight away.


Lagniappe: Botanicals

A friend who is a world-class gardener saw this post and referred me to a friend of hers, another botanical expert who writes beautifully about his recent visit to the southern Atacama in Puya Vida, on his urbane horticulture blog. He even found a plant called the Chilean Wine Palm. His post also includes many photos of beautiful, flowering plants because he was fortunate enough to be traveling with someone who knew when and where to go, following a rare rain event.
Jubaea chilensis, photo by urbane horticulture
We can certainly look for these botanical treasures when we go, though we are very unlikely to find so many (if any) in flower. We can, however, find out more about all of the plant communities of Chile at the exquisite Parque Quilapilún, which is between Santiago and the Elqui Valley.


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Monochrome Photo Challenge

I was recently tagged in a popular challenge in Facebook that began:

"Seven-day black-and-white picture challenge! Seven days, no people and no captions! Cheers to day 1/7!"

Loving photography and having plenty of photos to choose from, I took up the challenge, though instead of tagging individuals, I decided to "challenge whomever is inspired." I am not sure whether anyone was.

After posting a couple of photographs -- using an easy Macbook trick to make them monochrome -- friends asked questions about where they were taken. I decided not to caption any of them until my week was complete. I did hint that each day's challenge was met by a photo (or two) taken in a different country.

To avoid spoilers under the original posts, I have decided to post all of the captions here. And at the suggestion of a geography alumna, I am entering approximate coordinates, rather than place names.


Wednesday (1 of 7): Science! One of the world's great telescopes. (2016)
18°21' N; 66°45' W


Thursday (2 of 7): Working waterfront. (2015)
 41°38' N;  70°55' W

Friday (3 of 7):  A community in a Spanish-speaking country, where Spanish is the second language. If you eat quinoa, people in these houses may have grown it for you. Bonus: there might be a cat lounging on one of these walls! (2014)
13°25' S; 72°12' W

Saturday (4 of 7): "The periphery of the periphery of the periphery" is a phrase first uttered by my good friend Dr. Nenevê, about his own home, which was not quite as peripheral as this one, shown in 1996 (taken with an entire city to my back). When I returned in 2000, this was a bustling neighborhood. (1996)
8°48' S;  63°53 W

Sunday (5 of 7 -- 2 photos): This UNESCO World Heritage Site includes a stark reminder of a terrible history and a charming home of stone, thatch, and cactus. (2006)

14°55' N; 23°36' W

Monday (6 of 7): A lovely stone gazebo in the Shangri La of coffee estates. (2017)
 13°00' N; 85°54' W

Tuesday (7 of 7): Welcome meal at our partner church featured a very large caldron of soup! And our hosts spend their summers "making hay while the sun shines." (2004)
46°18' N;  24°25' E

Monday, November 13, 2017

Racing to the Quake

Thirty-two years and six hours after Mexico City was shaken by its most devastating earthquake, the city was rocked again, and this just two weeks after a strong quake shook the southern state of Chiapas.
Sept 7 & 19 earthquakes in Chiapas and Mexico City.
Photos: BBC

Immediately after the September 19, 2017 earthquake, hundreds of its citizens ran towards its many collapsed buildings.

The September 20, 2017 edition of The Takeaway begins with a detailed interview with a former Mexican diplomat, who explains the lessons residents of Mexico City have learned, and compares the experience of the capital with that of rural Chiapas, which was struck by a quake earlier this season. No longer available on WNYC, this segment is on iTunes.

A few days later, journalist Maya Kroth described the response in detail, especially the work of Los Topos (The Moles), the volunteers known for their extraordinary rescue efforts. Her interview with Todd Zwelick is followed by a conversation with Janise Rodgers, CEO of GeoHazards International, who discusses the vulnerability of schools throughout Latin America.
It is useful to consider the context of Mexico City, built as it is in a former lake bed. It is more than 7,000 miles above sea level, but it is at the bottom of a volcanic valley, built on unconsolidated sediment that has flowed from surrounding peaks. To get a sense of the scope of the affected area, begin in the map of the city center below, and gradually zoom out to the mountains.

It is vulnerable to the movements along the Middle America Trench, one of the world's most active tectonic convergence zones. Both the September 7 and September 19 earthquakes originated along this deep boundary, though the distance between them suggests no direct causal connection.
Map: BBC
The U.S. Geological Survey Earthquake Hazards Program provides real-time and follow-up information about earthquakes throughout the world. Its report on the September 19 earthquake reveals that it was an intraplate event, meaning that it happened within the Cocos plate, rather than at a plate boundary. Nonetheless, the event was very close to the boundary, 48.0 km below sea level and near a sharp bend in the plates.
Source: USGS, Ayulta event summary page
The USGS report on the Tres Picos Magnitude 8.2 September 7 event along the Chiapas coast does not include a comparable cross section, but it does report a similar depth and intraplate location. (Note: USGS gives a September 8 date, because all of its instruments follow Greenwich Mean Time.)

These thorough analyses by scientists based in the United States is possible because its network of seismic stations allows for detailed measurements of earthquake activity, regardless of its location on the planet. Similar efforts are devoted to the USGS Volcano Hazards Program, but the nature

Saturday, November 11, 2017

From Chains to Supply Chains

Thank the Farmers
I love coffee. Most people who know me know this about me.

I have a lot of fun with coffee and the many ways it intersects with geography and popular culture. I am, in fact, enjoying my umpteenth cup of fine coffee of the day, even as I write this.

But as most people who know me realize, my love of coffee is exceeded by my love of the people who produce it and the lands from which the best coffee is grown. I end almost every coffee story with the hashtag #thankthefarmers for that reason.

It is good to remember that however much fun we can have with coffee and however much we can appreciate the social and environmental benefits of coffee that is grown carefully and traded fairly, coffee can also be a very serious matter indeed.

A reminder come from a March 2016 Guardian article that has been sitting on my desktop since someone shared it with me a couple of months ago. For all this time, I have not know quite what to do with Nestlé admits slave labour risk on Brazil coffee plantations, but I knew I could not let it go until I found a way to share it and to connect it with my other work on coffee.

As I look at the title carefully, I notice two small things. Where The Guardian uses "slave labour risk" a U.S.-based paper would use "slave-labor risk." Spelling and punctuation aside, the use of the word "risk" is itself interesting. From the standpoint of a major corporation, the possibility that slavery was involved in its operations is a risk to be managed like any other, such as weather or the fluctuation of currency markets.

The article mentions two of the very biggest such corporations in the $77-billion coffee market, which were known at the time it was published as Nestlé and Jacobs Douwe Egberts. The latter is now known as JAB, which includes those companies as well as Keurig (a little Boston-based company whose convenient brewer was purchased by the erstwhile Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and eventually swallowed Green Mountain and much of the industry). Together they sell about 40 percent of all of the coffee that is sold on the planet. For food companies operating at this scale, the food and the lands and people from which the product comes are such abstractions that even fundamental questions such as slavery and freedom become mere columns in a spreadsheet.

If slavery -- or any other inconvenient truth -- turns out to be contributing to the bottom line, the equivalent of a politician's plausible deniability provides a convenient fig leaf to cover the original sin of greed. In coffee, that fig leaf is in the form of a supply chain that is deliberately blurry in appearance. Someone growing $5,000 worth of coffee in a year cannot bring it to the gates of Nestlé or JAB -- there are in fact no such gates. The small farmer sells to middlemen (always men, and known in Latin America as coyotes) who consolidate purchases for the convenience of large processors ; it turns out that even a large plantation can benefit from selling coffee through brokers who can hide their practices.
Federal auditor investigating claims of human-rights abuses on a coffee farm in Brazil.
Photo: Lilo Clareto/DanWatch via The Guardian
When price is the main competitive factor, the pressure to force prices down will stop at nothing, not even the use of bonded labor. When citizens -- sometimes thought of only as consumers -- push back, the race to the bottom involves deceit, even self-deceit. Kate Hodal's excellent reporting on this complicated matter could be read by some as Nestlé and JAB being victimized by bad actors in a complicated network of suppliers. Stories like this -- which have parallels in the U.S. chicken industry and throughout food systems globally -- can also be read as evidence that more vigilance and accountability is necessary.

Moreover, it is a reminder that education about coffee in particular and food in general should continue to begin and end with considerations of human rights.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Afghanistan in the Long Shadow of Benghazi

Beginning with Ronald Reagan embraced the Mujahideen in the 1980s as part of his multi-pronged effort to topple the already-teetering Soviet empire, tactics in Afghanistan have been unable to redeem strategies that landed the United States there in the first place.  As many of us suggested at the time -- and were dismissed as not sufficiently rabid against the USSR -- Afghanistan has never been a good place to invade. Obviously.

We are there now, however, in a long occupation. As I write this Veteran's Day, I am saddened by how much has been sacrificed by our (mostly young) men and women in uniform, many of whom I have known, and some of whom never came home.

I am also mindful of those out of uniform -- both Afghan citizens who want a normal life and our own men and women who serve in diplomatic and development roles. According to Tom Bowman's recent reporting, they are essentially confined to barracks.


The current administration came to office in part on the basis of mischaracterizing the terrible events in Benghazi, Libya, in which four U.S. diplomats and eleven (always forgotten) Libyan colleagues were killed. That terrible event was reduced to a couple of soundbites and hashtags as it was used for political purposes, mainly by people who cared not one whit about the work of the diplomats who perished. For of course, it was many of those same people who had failed adequately to fund diplomats in general and diplomatic security in general.
Photo: S.K. Vemmer, U.S. Department of State, from Louisa Bargaron's Keeping America Safe: Development's Role in National Security

Remarkably, diplomats and their colleagues in social and economic development remain committed to the improvement of U.S. relations with Afghanistan and the well-being of its people. They are in the country right now, ready to serve and having at least some good ideas of how to do it.

The administration to which they report, however, is paralyzed by its own rhetorical excesses. Those who stand ready to serve in Afghanistan are thus virtual prisoners of an overly cautious security posture that does not allow them to work freely -- even within the boundaries of secure areas, according to Bowman's reporting.

Aid and diplomacy will not make Afghanistan a safe and prosperous place in the near term -- nothing is going to do that. But hunkering down is not a viable option. The current non-strategy serves nobody well by this -- not the civilians and diplomats, nor the soldiers and marines on whom they rely.

Library Movie; Coffee Movie

Whenever my favorite librarian is reading a book, she keeps sticky notes nearby to mark any passage that mentions libraries. Even a single mention will get the book reviewed on her "Library" Books blog, a sort of metablog about the representation of libraries in written works. (She uses a digital equivalent of the sticky-note process for e-books.)

When we are reading a book together, I ask her to do the same for me, writing the letter "J" on the notes she attaches to passages that interest me as a geographer, coffee maven, or both. As she adds library references to her blog posts, she removes her notes, and I follow up, usually with a shorter post either on this blog or on social media (my "microblogs"). Looking at the drafts folder of this blog, I see that I am half a year behind her very important Timbuktu post. Before I catch up there, though, I need to make a few notes about another book we read together recently, and about which she wrote more extensively -- excerpts from 25 years of the personal diaries of the inimitable David Sedaris.
Selected from thousands of pages of his wry observations of the world from the point of view of a struggling (and later not-so-struggling) artist, we could hear his voice as we read each page of Theft by Finding. Although coffee shops, bad coffee, and geography permeate the work, I noted just three passages.

On October 17, 1986, he describes a small encounter in a Chicago coffee shop -- where he spends much of his time -- that also involves a library book:
"Tonight at the coffee shop a telephone number fell out of my library book and a man pointed it out to me. It was not an important number, but I pretended that this guy had saved my life. He did not seem to care."
I could almost hear the little music NPR puts behind his voice when he makes this kind of deadpan comment.

We were reading the book aloud (by which I usually mean, Pam was reading it to me), and so exclaimed in turn, "Coffee movie!" and "Library movie!" Even though it is not a movie. This is what our home life is like.

On December 21, 1989, also in Chicago, he describes going out with his friend Ben and Ben's mother, who was marking the tenth anniversary of her divorce.
"At first she thought she'd order the pancakes and have a beer to go with them. Then she changed her mind and went with the bacon cheeseburger, deciding that instead of the beer she'd have coffee."
I have to admire the unconventional beverage pairings. And Sedaris had to admire that she worked at B. Dalton, which is where Pam worked when we started dating, not long before this entry, but far away in Baltimore.

Much later, on January 7, 2002, he writes in Paris, describing a coffee-related crisis during a rather bleak winter day there:
"Every day feels the same, in part because every day looks the same. Again yesterday it was cold and cloudy, the sky the flat gray color of a nickel. We'd planned to go to Normandy but it turns out the agency in Argentan has no more rental cars. Going without one means that Hugh will spend the entire week in a sour mood, threatening to sell the house and move back to New York. We'd both looked forward to getting away, but I'm definitely handling the disappointment better than he is. I just watched as he poured an entire bag of coffee into the stovetop espresso machine. Grounds spilled onto the counter and when I asked what he was doing, he brushed them onto the floor, saying flatly, 'Making coffee.'"
That was a passage we had read just before our most recent encounter, in the book-signing line after his uproarious appearance at the Zeiterion Theater. "Have we met?" he asked, recognizing us as the groupies we have begun. We keep coming back, because he is as kind in person as he is acerbic on stage and on the page.

He is also prolific -- we look forward to many more of his diaries going to press in the future.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Fires of the Future Are Here

Essential reading for the next century of fires.
The relationships between humans and forest fires are becoming increasingly complicated and harrowing. I was fortunate to begin learning about some of the counterintuitive parts of this relationship -- most notably that suppressing fires eventually makes them more likely -- from an excellent landscape ecologist with whom I studied briefly just a year after the famous Yellowstone fires. Since then, I have been able to draw on collaborations with forest ecologists and on David Foster's excellent text Thoreau's Country as I explore this increasingly important topic with students. I have even had the good fortune of working with a couple of students with forest-fire expertise.

This has all been very much on my mind, as my Land Protection class once again coincides with a particularly damaging fire season in the western United States. I was therefore very interested to hear a recent Living Lab Radio interview with Firestorm author Edward Struzik. He had a wide-ranging discussion of forest fires, including the both causes and effects related to climate change with Heather Goldstone (sometime visitor to our campus) and reporter Elsa Partan.

The discussion is both a clear summary of some of the ecology I already understood and a source of several insights that were new to me. One of these is the odd distinction we make between fire and other kinds of disaster, in terms of what we expect of emergency responders. In reality, Struzik suggests, we should no more expect firefighters to stop wildfires than we should expect them to stop a hurricane. The threat looks like the sort of thing firefighters are trained and equipped to combat, but the difference in scale is so vast that it is a difference in kind.

On the same day I heard Struzik's interview, NPR's Morning Edition offered a short version in its story: Want Less Wildfire? Prescribe More Fire, Ecologists Say.

This blog includes several other posts on the topic for those who wish to learn more: Wild Fire Anniversary (2010), Hot or Not (2012), Frontier on Fire (2015), Thoreau at 200 (2017),