Unintended Consequences: Migration in Sri Lanka

I came across an interest-piquing article on Colombo (the capital of Sri Lanka) based on the preliminary (at the time) results of that country’s 2012 Census.

According to the article, the Sinhala (presumably Buddhist) population of Colombo comprises 24% of the city (a notable decrease from 50% of the population in 1971). The Tamil population (presumably Hindu) makes up around 33% of the population, an increase from 24.5% in 1971. The surprising statistic is the population of Muslims (alternatively Sri Lankan Moors or Indian Muslims, probably both), whose ratio increased from 19% in 1971 to over 40% in 2012. In terms of absolutes, the population numbers are: over 79 thousand Sinhala, over 106 thousand Tamils, and 126 thousand Muslims.

While the numbers themselves are interesting, Colombo now contains more Muslims than Tamil Hindus or Sinhala Buddhists, they should be understood within current and historical contexts. For instance, the Diplomat reported in September 2013 on the growing violence in Sri Lanka of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists targeting Muslims. As that source points out, Buddhists comprise 70% of the island’s 20 million people. The irony shouldn’t be lost on a world which has (abominably) associated sectarian violence with Islam. For their part, “Buddhists” are often assumed to be one of the more “peaceful” religions. In Sri Lanka, the right-leaning authorities (led by a long-serving President) have turned a “blind eye” to violence unleashed by monks, who are serving as agent provocateurs. In addition to attacking places of worship and business, Sinhala-Buddhist “extremists” (if you would) are calling for a boycott of halal-certified meat.

While sectarian on the surface, the Diplomat also notes an economic undercurrent within the violence. Protesters against halal-certification note that the principle body of Islamic scholars charges a fee to certify meat – and that this fee is passed on to the public. The geographic choices of targets reveals much of a movement’s basis. Places of worship are usually thought of first when considering visible evidence of a minority community and a focal point for anger, they are (after all) focal points for the community. Places of business may often be the real focal points and businesses are often just as visible.

Sri Lanka/Ceylon has witnessed this sectarian-economic violence before. Anthropologist Stanley Tambiah, himself a Sri Lankan, in his book Leveling Crowds: Ethnonationalist conflicts and collective violence in South Asia provides a discussion of Buddhist riots targeting the growing Tamil-Muslim community in Sri Lanka in the early 1900s. As it was then, so it is now. Economics, as well as sectarian differences, provided the impetus for violence against a minority religious community.

Considering the apparent Buddhist-nationalism gripping Sri Lanka and an equally apparent list of economic grievances against Muslims, further violence against this community is (unfortunately) likely. The violence is also a reminder of the problem of politicizing one particular aspect of a person’s identity and highlights the junction between violence, geography, and political identity.

The (Old) People’s Republic: Confronting Demographic Decline

The People’s Republic of China isn’t shrinking, yet. But it is certainly getting older, which presents a significant challenge to the country’s continued long-term economic growth. While the Communist Party of China is attempting to ensure growth through a few demographic policy instruments, some (including Z Geography) think that these are too weak and too late. Z Geography believes that the Communist Party is wary of stronger pro-natal policies because of the potential for demographic to outstrip economic growth, a future which could threaten the party’s singular hold over the country.

Z Geography stumbled upon a BBC article reporting that the PRC’s working age population decreased by over 2 million last year (uncited, of course). While statistics are always problematic (numbers have a nasty habit of differing based on source and definition), the statement in BBC appears sound. Unlike the BBC, Z Geography will give you sources. The U.S. Census Bureau’s International Data Base estimates that the working age population is shrinking.

The working age population is legally defined (in most cases), which provides effective bounding boxes for statistical estimates (of course,child labor isn’t captured in these statistics an important consideration for China). Article 15 of The PRC Labor Law prohibits employers from recruiting minors under the age of 16 (see the U.S. Library of Congress), with a few exceptions. As Bloomberg reports the current compulsory retirement age in China is 60 for males and 50 for females.

Utilizing 1-year age groups for males and females in China, Z Geography discovered that the PRC’s labor pool (16-59 for males, 16-49 for females) shrank for the first time in 2013. In 2012, 830 million (62% of the total population) were in these broad groups and available for (legal) economic employment. In 2013, their number fell to 826 million (61%). This population decline of about 4 million wasn’t due to a natural disaster, pandemic disease, or war – it was simple aging. Between those two years the population considered “elderly dependent” (60+ among males, 50+ among females) rose from 261 million to 274 million (an increase from 19% to 20%).

The Census population estimates over the long term expects a continuation of this trend. By 2025, the labor pool will have decreased by over 75 million persons to 817 million (53% of the population) and 403 million elderly dependents represent 28% of the population. One root of the problem lies in the low fertility rate of China’s women (thanks to the One Child Policy), tallying these ratios only 19% of the population is under the age of 16 (in other words, 19% of the population represents the country’s future workforce). In 2040, Census estimates 648 million workers (47%), 515 million elderly dependents (40%), 194 million youthful dependents (13%).

For comparative purposes, the U.S. in 2040 is expected to have 231 million workers (aged 15-64, 60% of the population) and 147 million elderly and youthful dependents.

More succinctly: by 2040, the number of retirees in China will be nearing the number of potentially active workers. While many of these retirees may have access to retirement benefits (presumably) it remains to be seen whether these benefits are sufficient to maintain quality of life for decades. For those without substantial benefits, or no benefits at all, they will have to rely on children or, more likely considering the one child policy, the government.

Recent news highlights at least two policy measures aimed at averting the potential economic consequences of having an overburdened workforce. The first, and somewhat earlier, concerns the infamous One Child Policy that stipulated below replacement-level family sizes. With few exceptions (minorities, rural inhabitants having a daughter, couples who are both only children) the law prohibited families from having more than one child. While the policy succeeded in slowing population growth it is one of the main causes of the declining labor force (another being emigration). The Times of India (via AFP) reported earlier in January 2014 that one province in China is relaxing the policy somewhat. The loosening of the policy, agreed to by Communist leaders in November 2013 and rubber stamped by the legislature in December, allows couples where at least one parent is an only child to have two children.

The Bloomberg article cited above highlights another policy approach, raising the retirement age.  As one analyst noted, this policy move provides a short term salve to the long term population shift predicted by relaxing the one child policy. The Party hopes that raising the retirement age will keep men and women in the workforce longer, increasing the labor pool in the short term, while more children are born. Of course, the labor pool won’t increase due to higher births for 16 years (when these babies enter the work force).

While Z Geography appreciates the complex approach taken by the Communist Party in stalling a potential economic crisis precipitated by demographics, I feel that the relaxation of the One Child Policy might not go far enough. The Party is presumably worried about relaxing the policy too much, thereby encouraging a baby boom that challenges social and political stability, if the economy can’t provide gainful employment for those youth. However, by taking a far more conservative approach (instead of scrapping the law altogether) the Party risks long term economic security, and its political legitimacy. If firms have to raise wages in order to compete for a smaller number of laborers, they may decide to relocate altogether. In fact, Bloomberg observes that Samsung has already decided to relocate to Vietnam (though Bloomberg doesn’t explicitly attribute that decision to rising labor costs). Steering a middle path is more likely an indication of the Party’s desire to hold on to power, rather than decisively correct the problem.

With enough cash, time may be on the Party’s side. As the BBC points out, another potential solution is increasing productivity of the labor pool. Increasing productivity with not only lower labor costs but make the lower birth rate easier to digest economically. However, the long term demographic question than becomes – as Japan has learned – how do families (and the state) care for an increasingly elderly population especially when the country’s population starts to decline (as China’s is expected to do by the mid-2020s)?

A less expensive and quicker way to increase the labor pool and birth rate is, as you may have guessed, immigration.

Japan’s Womenomics: a Demographic Perspective

Z Geography is out of town this weekend.

A 17 January (2014) USA Today article discusses Prime Minister (of Japan) Shinzo Abe’s proposal to expand child care and pressure on corporations to permit (up to) three years of maternity leave in an effort to increase women’s participation in the economy. Additionally, Abe reportedly instructed government ministries to “boost female workers and managers to 30% by 2020.” According to the article, the government believes these efforts will assist in reversing Japan’s “longtime economic slump” (though it is still the third-largest economy, behind the U.S. and People’s Republic of China).

Prime Minister Abe’s proposal will probably be meet with some indirect and subtle resistance, as the article notes. Women make up 42% of Japan’s workforce (compared to 47% in the U.S.) but only 11% of managers (43% in the U.S.). These statistics highlight whether the solution is rooted in women’s economic participation or, more likely, conservative attitudes preventing the employment of women in corporate leadership roles. As one quote illustrates “the business community is dominated by conservative, older-men who don’t’ want to let go of their privileges.” One observation casts doubt on the government’s motives, it has yet to introduce legislation to “strengthen labor or equal-opportunity” laws.

Taken together, Z Geography ventures that the government’s proposals have less to do with stoking an economic recovery through increased participation of women in the economy (which is the stated objective) and more to do with facilitating increased fertility for Japanese women already employed. True, more women will likely enter the economy thanks to increased child care opportunities and longer maternity leave – but these also benefit already employed women as well. Further as Z Geography and others have discussed, Japan faces a shrinking population (Stage 5 in the Demographic Transition Model) and increasing dependency ratio as proportionally fewer workers are economically available and the population of the elderly expands. These proposals, increasing child care and maternity leave, are likely aimed at increasing the fertility of women in Japan’s labor pool.

A country’s fertility rate is understood as the number of children that a woman will (probably) have over her child-bearing years. Thus, increasing the benefits (or subsidizing in this case) of child birth and rearing will spur employed women to have a child (or second or third). In the long term, these policies could increase the size of Japan’s labor pool, though this is uncertain. One uncertainty is how employed women react, for one women (and couples) may choose to have only one child, which is below replacement level fertility (2.1 children per couple with one child each for the parents and a “.1” child to account for those unable, or unwilling, to have children).

Over the short term, Z Geography questions the economic benefits of these proposals. Based on the statistics reported in the article, it seems that the problem lies not in the participation of women in the economy but a gendered “glass ceiling” that prevents their rise.

Finally, the government’s proposals ignore to other “quick” fixes for the economy and demography – immigration. Given that Prime Minister Abe and his party are considered “conservative” (according to the article), this is not unexpected. Despite this the influx of immigrants into Japan would facilitate an expansion of economic output (and the labor pool) while also increasing the birth rate. As one commenter in Z Geography observed (in no uncertain terms) however, national purity is at stake.

Natural Resources: Hidden Curse or Buried Treasure?

Z Geography is out of town this weekend.

A USA Today article (published on 16 January 2014) gushes (no pun intended!) over the continuing development of the Eagle Ford Shale in southern Texas. The article aptly discusses the benefits and problems associated with major natural resource discoveries. Besides the variety of ways physical geography influences natural resources (accessibility, availability, to name a few) human geography also influences (and is influenced by) natural resources.

Over the short term, the article highlights the sudden influx of money into an otherwise struggling, predominantly rural belt in the state of Texas. In an accompanying article, USA Today reports that one county sitting atop the shale had to give $300,000 back to the state last year (under Texas law, more affluent districts return “a percentage” of their revenue in order to fund poorer ones). This year this particular district is projected to return $28 million. This money, derived from a variety of links with the shale’s oil (land royalties, spiking land prices, greater sales), facilitates the district’s acquisition of technology to enrich public school education. In addition, the funds have also allowed for upkeep and maintenance on existing facilities. To illustrate this boom, according to the article 70% of the district’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Through these oil-generated funds, all 1,300 students in the district of access to new iPads, new school buses, and free school supplies.

Of course, there also a number of short term (and long term) problems associated with this boom. There are the deleterious effects of being located so close to production sites with some residents reporting nose bleeds and head aches, in addition to the terrible smell (described as rotten eggs) as trapped natural gases are burned (flaring). The city of San Antonio has recorded higher-than-normal ozone levels since the drill began, according to the article. In addition to negative health effects, these gases will also contribute to a changing climate. In addition to negative health and environmental effects, there have been other second-order effects. Prostitution and traffic have both increased as “man-camps” of oil workers are established throughout the region. This unforeseen geographic clustering is taxing for small, local police services. The massive (though ultimately temporary) increase in population is also straining regional water supplies and raising concerns of potential contamination of groundwater supplies.

A shale skeptic, quoted in the article, discusses another long term pit fall – the end of the oil. He estimates that, at current extraction rates (which are likely to rise), the Eagle Ford Shale has “five to 10 years” of production. These predictions (as dedicated followers of the “peak oil” debate will know) should be taken with a large grain of salt (or sand). As technology, and prices, change it is impossible to predict (especially with great accuracy) when the end will occur. As the article notes, the technology being employed in shale exploitation has been used for natural gas extraction. The difference came with crude oil reaching $100 a barrel and advances in technology. In short, it became profitable. Despite this a geographically-wider reading of oil economies is useful.

The United Arab Emirates, particularly Dubai, provides one method of preparing for time when oil extraction becomes unprofitable. Dubai has been investing much of it’s profits from oil into becoming a financial hub of the Middle East, in addition to catering to high price tourism. These activities ensure a diversification of the local economy that should endure once physical extraction of natural resources end.

The local and state governments also have a positive role to play, and should. Nigeria is enduring a decades-long insurgency in the Nile Delta where locals accuse the central government of failing to redistribute oil revenues fairly. Then there is the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo where extensive natural resource endowment, and extraction, provides little (or no benefit) to locals thanks to a contracted state, persistent political and social violent instability, and corruption. While southern Texans unlikely to turn violent over the various negative health effects associated with production, local governments (backed by the state government) have the ability to mitigate these effects (if not wholly control them).

Natural resources can contribute to conflict (both violent and nonviolent), identifying places where these conflicts can occur is paramount to the geographer. For a transportation geographer, it may be the identification of critical intersections that are most likely to serve as bottlenecks or prone to traffic accidents. For medical geographers, it may be the delimiting of the extent to which serious health issues may arise, the proximity of people to production activities and prevailing winds. While knowing these, and other, answers are unlikely to solve underlying conflicts that can be used to more cost-effectively target solutions.

Thus, the development of the Eagle Ford Shale is “a gift” to an underdeveloped region of Texas. However, as discussed in the USA Today article and this post, the region faces serious long-term and short-term challenges. Properly managing, administering, natural resources is the corner stone of long term stability.