Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Why Walk

Amidst some errands Tuesday morning, I enjoyed hearing most of a conversation between WBUR journalist Meghna Chakrabarti and Norwegian author Erling Kagge, whose most recent book is Walking: One Step at a Time. Just as I was contemplating the pathetic irony of listening to their conversation -- Why We Walk -- in my car, I heard a caller describe her neuroscience research (yes, call-in shows in the Boston area are not like those in other places) about a place where I had a walk planned the very next day!
In the fall semester of alternate years, I teach a course called Land Protection (GEOG 332). It is the epitome of environmental geography class in that it examines the interface between physical and human geographies. In this case, we study forest ecology and landscape change as it relates to conservation policy and related elements of the tax code. It's a fun course, really, and many who take it go on to work as volunteers or professionals in conservation.

One of the texts in that course is Thoreau's Country, in which author David Foster compares observations from Henry David Thoreau's daily journal with his own observations of New England forests, especially those he has made as the long-time director of the Harvard Forest in Petersham. I take my students to that forest -- almost all of which would have been agricultural land in Thoreau's day -- for some close-up examination of landscape change. Over the years I've been aware of various kinds of research going on in the forest, including snow studies by a friend of mine and long-term climate studies under the auspices of the United Nations.

It is at about 22m45s into the On Point installment that the caller Susan discusses her research into the mental-health benefits of walking, particularly in the woods, and by extension a key benefit of maintaining public open space. She has been learning more about these benefits through research in the very same woods that I was visiting in order to fine-tune the forest-ecology exploration I will be repeating in the autumn.


Lagniappe

Humorist Bill Bryson has written a very different book with a similar title, which I have read with students in another context and that I highly recommend -- A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Squaring History



Amidst the jumble of place names strewn across this scene from a busy part of the Belgian capital is symbolic but hard-won effort to right -- albeit in a very small way -- an historic wrong of European colonialism in Africa.

The square recognizes the 1960 independence of the Belgian Congo -- now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- by honoring Patrice Lumumba, its first prime minister. In 2018, officials in Brussels renamed Bastion Square in his honor; as of this writing, Google Earth continues to use both names.

As reported by Times journalist Milan Schreuer, the honor is in stark contrast to the brutality of Belgium in the Congo in general and of its treatment of Lumumba in particular. That he would be honored in a neighborhood that is both in the metropol and populated by many of his compatriots gives the irony of the honor a spatial manifestation.
Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba of Congo in New York in 1960.
Allyn Baum/The New York Times

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Coffee Prices Under Water

I welcome this story from NPR's Planet Money journalists Sally Herships and Stacey Vanek Smith, in which they draw attention to the perilously low prices of coffee.


Image (as seen in my family's dining room)
By Oliver Ray
They rightly ask why prices paid to farmers can be so low when retail prices for coffee drinks is increasing. The answers they provide are correct, as far as they go, and include one that I had not thought of: coffee itself constitutes a shrinking proportion of what is in a typical retail cup of coffee, as concoctions involving milks, creams, sugars and syrups become more popular.


Regular readers of this space will not be surprised that as a Coffee Maven, I have several caveats:
  • The story focuses on Colombia, which is an important producer, and Brazil, which is the biggest. Production trends in these countries certainly are important. They neglect to mention Vietnam, where the World Bank has promoted high-volume, low-quality production. Its rapid move to second place about two decades ago continues to disrupt the market, while causing environmental problems and not providing much benefit to farmers in Vietnam itself.
  • At $1.08/pound, the current price in Colombia, though low, is a bit higher than the most commonly used benchmark price, which is $0.94. Readers of this blog can always find the benchmark price at the top-left of this page, courtesy of a widget from Investing.com.
  • These prices refer to the export price -- coffee as it gets placed on a ship in Colombia, Nicaragua, Ethiopia, or any producing country. Most farmers are several steps removed from this, and must work through a series of middlemen (they are always men), including unscrupulous ones known as coyotes. Unless they are involved in a fair-trade or direct-trade contract, farmers will see only a fraction of the export price.
  • Farm workers will earn even less if they do not own the farm. Harvesting coffee pays the equivalent of a nickel or so per pound.
  • Just as the piece focuses on Colombia as a producer, it also focuses on a single retailer: Starbucks. It is indeed important, but in many ways not representative of the retail side of the industry.
  • And finally, a small mistake that is often made. The story references the New York Stock Exchange, which facilitates public trade in equities (stocks) that constitute corporations. Coffee is traded on the New York Coffee Exchange, also known as the C Market. The operation of this market is explained in the very important film Black Gold, which I mention in various contexts throughout many posts on this blog.
Still, this story is an important one, and I am very glad to hear it told to an audience beyond my small orbit. Please scroll up and give a listen!

And always remember: #thankthefarmers

Dam Problems

Journalism, it is said, is the first draft of history. Journalism can also serve as a window on geography. That is often the case with the work of journalist (and fellow employee of Massachusetts public higher education) Steve Curwood. The view is amplified by the journalists and scholars he brings onto his show, Living on Earth.
I recently found his January 2018 conversation with environmental journalist Fred Pearce is an excellent example. Wetlands are seasonally inundated areas that play a vital role in ecosystems throughout the world.

In the segment (13 minutes) entitled African Dams Dry Up Wetlands & Local Jobs, Pearce explains the causes and consequences of wetland losses in several parts of Africa. His emphasis is on the lost of riparian wetlands lost as annual floods are eliminated by the construction of dams. The conversation illustrates how environmental problems interact with economic security, migration, and even national security. He links the loss of wetlands to decisions about migration on the part of people who would have much preferred to stay home.
Manantali Dam, Senegal River Basin
The conversation also reminds us that although climate change has wide-reaching consequences, it is not always the primary driver of environmental problems. Sadly, humans have no shortage of ways to disrupt the natural systems upon which we depend.

Lagniappe

The very first project initiated by the World Bank was the Aswan High Dam in Egypt, which created electricity and extended growing seasons, but disrupted the floods that had supported Egyptian civilizations for thousands of years and made farmers there dependent on chemical fertilizers. It would be the first of many dams that came to symbolize the arrogance of Rostovian  development theory (simply build infrastructure and everything will improve).

Dams featured prominently in the very first book I read as a geography student, and small dams were essential parts of my master's thesis, Source-area erosion rates in areas tributary to Miami Whitewater Lake (Ohio). Finally, this blog includes the story of the Rio Doce, a dam failure in Brazil that did incalculable damage.

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