Chaos in Central African Republic

Dedicated followers of the news will have heard of the ongoing violence and atrocities in the Central African Republic (CAR) a country of some 4 million people. While Z Geography hasn’t stared at nearly enough data to bring you, my trusted reader, an in-depth geographic analysis of the conflict – certain threads in the recent news deserve some commentary.

The violent conflict has been increasingly labelled sectarian by French and British news media (Americans aren’t particularly interested it seems). As France24 notes the violence pits the Muslim minority, concentrated in the north along the country’s borders with Chad and Sudan and the urban areas of the south (principally Bangui, the capital), against the Christian majority. In March 2013 (yes this has been going on for almost a year) the primarily Muslim “Seleka” rebels deposed President Francois Bozize. He had been ruling for a decade or more. The new President was a Muslim, the first in the country. Though the President, Michel Djotodia, disbanded the Seleka group, former members began a campaign of violence. Former Seleka rebels are accused of “looting” and “raping” civilians, primarily Christians. The violence has since led to the creation of “anti-Balaka” (anti-Machete) vigilante groups comprised primarily of Christians.

Last month (January 2014) Djotodia resigned his presidency as part of a regional peace process to limit violence (BBC). Except violence hasn’t abated – even with the introduction of French and other African peacekeepers, notably from Rwanda (France24).

Now somewhere between 20% and 25% of the country’s population (over a million) has been displaced, that is driven from their homes, because of the violence. This includes those families now considered “refugees” (fleeing over an international border) and “internally displaced” (still within CAR). The BBC reports (using Medecins sans Frontieres figures) that 30,000 refugees are in Chad and 10,000 are in Cameroon. One human interest story carried by the BBC relates the desire of one imam (Islamic religious leader) to be the last “Muslim in CAR”. France24 reports that the entire Muslim population of a town south of Bangui had fled toward Chad as part of a convoy of 10,000 refugees.

The imam also points, and the BBC picks up on, another important demographic/cultural geographic point: many of the refugees are Muslims and are important traders supplying food, seeds, and other goods to the local population. He says:

Bangui is losing its business community which is made up largely of Muslims – they’ve been ransacking Muslim shops.

Commodity prices have gone up, a bunch of salad will cost you 200 CFA Francs (40 cents; 25p) – twice as much as a little while ago. A bar of soap is worth 100 CFA Francs (20 cents; 13p), again twice as much as before.

Buying meat? Don’t even think about it, there is none. The Fulani and nomadic Chadians that used to drive their cattle to Bangui have decided to head for Cameroon because there’s too much violence here. (BBC)

The BBC, reporting Oxfam and Action Against Hunger views, notes that the “exodus” of Muslims could lead to “catastrophic market collapse” and that only 10 wholesalers were left in Bangui, many of whom are considering fleeing. The BBC correspondent points out that Muslims were the “backbone of the local economy.” Substantial price increases or the simple disappearance of food would worsen an already serious humanitarian situation. As the BBC notes, the UN estimates 90% of Central Africans eat one meal a day. Compounding this problem is the continuing violence, which is causing cattle herders from neighboring countries to avoid entering CAR.

The persistence of violence is something of a mystery, considering the presence of armed peacekeepers. The former colonial power, France, is accused of standing by while a Christian lynch mob mutilated the body of a murdered Muslim, according to Human Rights Watch (BBC, note the article is graphic):

The French soldiers were there, just sitting metres away, and didn’t stop this horrific mutilation from taking place.

The soldiers were heavily armed, they could have easily parked one of their armoured cars next to these two bodies, which were about 50m [164 ft] apart, and stood by them until the Red Cross came to collect them.

But instead they checked out the scene and then they got back in their cars and drove away.

Tellingly “the French defence ministry has not commented.”

Further, French peacekeepers have also been accused of standing by as looting continues in Bangui. According to France24 looters “know” that the French cannot fire on them: “The peacekeepers went from door to door to try to rout the looters, who simply moved on to other targets, pushing their carts and wheelbarrows between French armoured cars. ‘The French won’t fire at us,’ one young looter said, laughing.”

On the other hand, African peacekeepers have a mandate to open fire. France24 reports that these peacekeepers fired on civilians in Bangui that were “jeering, threatening, and throwing stones at the [Muslim refugee] convoy”. Rwanda peacekeepers also shot a suspected Christian militiaman who was about to burn the body of a Muslim, whom he had killed (France24). An angry crowd shouted at the Rwandans, evidently believing they were Muslims.

The inability of the peacekeepers to impose peace (since there is no peace to keep) appears to point to the necessity of a new mandate (for at least the French) to actually fire on Christian (and Muslim) militias in order to stop violence. In many ways, CAR’s current situation is similar to the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s – there the UN peacekeeping force lacked the mandate to effectively protect Tutsi civilians during a Hutu-led pogrom.

Without a semblance of peace, Muslims will continue to flee the Central African Republic and, as we have seen, their flight could make a serious humanitarian situation into a disaster as food prices spike and supplies vanish. Further, the Muslim community’s flight is sowing the seeds of a future conflict when legitimate citizens of the Central African Republic, who are Muslim, come home from Chad, Cameroon, or wherever to reclaim their properties. As Liberia found following their decades of instability, insurgency, and civil war – the lack of documentation of who owns what will only spark renewed violence.

A quick note on the Muslim community often coinciding with the business community – particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa. As Islam spread south of the Sahara (centuries ago), Muslims often moved into and settled in predominantly Christian areas. Since land, and agriculture, has traditionally been viewed as a “desirable” or “honorable” occupation Muslims were prevented from owning land, attempting to avoid relegation to being landless agricultural laborers, many turned to trade and commerce. Some were successful because of their intrinsic cultural links with Muslim caravans from the north bringing in other goods from abroad. There’s obvious parallels of this story with the Jewish experience in Europe and the Chinese experience in southeast Asia.

A Curious Geography: Single-ness in the U.S.

And it rhymes!

Today I take a quick break from the places and spaces series to discuss the influence that socialization/acculturation has on our everyday lives. The case, as you probably guessed, is the differing geographies driven by single-ness (or couple-ness), specifically in the United States (and I suspect in other western Anglophonic countries).

Socialization and acculturation is the (continual) process of instilling a place’s “culture” into an individual, most effectively in a child. A person born and raised in one place, especially if a single local place (a single town, or city) will have that place’s customs, values, imprinted onto her behaviors. This doesn’t determine the child (of course) and the child can grow up to ignore social customs and values learned from her early years. Some habits, beliefs, and taboos are harder to break. Moreover, some habits, beliefs, and taboos are more geographically widespread than others (compare Bostonian accent with spitting in public). One particularly widespread taboo is dining as a single person.

A friend and I discussed this over dinner last night at swanky restaurant in Chinatown, D.C. We had both agreed that we would have never had dinner at this place, simply because of having to sit – in the dining room – alone. This was driven by our single-ness, our being unattached to a “significant” other. On the other hand, while we wouldn’t partake in a solo dinner at a restaurant, lunches and breakfasts at coffee shops or “fast food” places where the cooking is done nearby (think about a Cosi, Panera Bread, Corner Bakery, and so on) or dinner at a bar was perfectly acceptable.

We know single-ness is frowned upon in the United States specifically, and much of the Anglophonic world in general. Just listen or watch our mass media. These are acculturation tools, considering how much Americans spend in front of televisions, at movies, or listening to music and its obvious that there’s a definite slant to couple-ness. Music harping on being single is often associated with a roguish and extreme lifestyle filled with overabundance of some stimulant – sex, drugs, alcohol. On the other hand, how many songs lament a departed lover, the influence of some lover, or the general happiness from couple-ness? Television and movie is much the same way, single characters are often depicted as incomplete and perpetually seeking some way to complete them. As an (admittedly) single piece of evidence of the early acculturation of single-ness being negative, a popular children’s animated movie (and popular with DCgrapher) a character observes to his friend:

She’s tons of fun and you’re no fun at all. She completes you.

So why all the emphasis on couples? The answer is multi-faceted (as every question about human behavior is) but the first thing I think of is the general pro-natalism bent prevalent in socially conservative countries. The pro-natalist argument, among a range of other arguments, beliefs, habits, and taboos, also applies to the distinct aversion to abortion in the U.S.

Is this some nefarious plot to keep single people from enjoying good food in pleasant places? Hardly. What my friend and I experience is a socially-rooted taboo, an aversion, to an activity that we could enjoy – if only we were with someone else. And we all take part in the propagation of this taboo. Have you ever looked quizzically at someone eating alone in a dining room? Perhaps your eyes lingered a bit too long, or you wondered if they got stood up? Indeed.

Dining Room of Esan Thai Restaurant. Couples-approved. (Bloomington, Indiana)

Firehouse Bar. Couples- and Singles-approved (Alexandria, VA)


Egypt: Dependent on the Nile

On March 26th, Earth Snapshot captured this great view of the Nile River valley in Egypt. Though a dust storm obscures the Nile River delta in the north (bits of the delta are visible as the dark green almost triangular area), I really wanted to focus on the valley.

The Nile River Valley, 26 Mar 2013 (via

As ES notes, except for the areas associated with the Nile, most of Egypt’s land area is a “vast desert plateau”, the domain of the Sahara. Further we learn that less than 3% of the country’s land is suitable for agriculture, a combination of the delta, the valley, and whatever groundwater and oases are available. Less than 1% of the land area is able to support permanent crops.

Of course, this begs for context – what does this mean for people? One method to express the interaction between cropland and population is similar to population density, the physiological population density. Whereas population density relates the number of people residing in an area per unit of area (such as square mile or square kilometer), the physiological population density relates the number of people per unit of agricultural area. The idea is not to capture the number of people actually living ON farmland but rather the amount of that state’s farmlands support. Obviously, this doesn’t account for out-of-state transfers (food imports, food exports, and international aid). But it does provide a general sense of relative food insecurity since countries with higher physiological population densities are more likely to be at-risk (all other things considered equal).

According to the CIA’s World Factbook there will be an estimated 85 million Egyptians (by July 2013). Its land area is approximately 995 thousand sq. km. giving an average population density of 85 persons per sq. km. Of course, that’s assuming a normally distributed population across the entire geographic space. As we see from the ES image and its text, agriculture and human activity is concentrated close to the Nile River. Applying the 3% to the 995 thousand sq. km. yields about 30 thousand sq. km. of agricultural land. They physiological population density than is over 2,800 persons per sq. km. of agricultural land. As an aside, the CIA reports an arable land area of 2.92% of total land area and 0.5% for permanent crops. This number means that, on average, every sq. km. of agricultural land in Egypt supports over 2,800 Egyptians (again not counting food imports, exports, and aid).

For comparative purposes, the United States will have an expected population of about 316 million by July 2013. With a land area of 9.1 million sq. km. the U.S. population density would be 34 persons per sq. km. With 18% of this land area arable (according to the World Factbook), resulting in 1.6 million sq. km. of arable land, the physiological population density of the United States is 197 persons per sq. km. of arable land.

Bread-making: Perspectives on Self Sufficiency

Well, I’d like to say I’ve discovered the joys of bread-making, or baking (as its more commonly known). While I made a “passable” (I could eat it) loaf of white bread with flour and store-bought yeast, I have yet to make a loaf with self-grown yeast (oh yes, I’m trying). Two weeks, three loaves, two failures (the one success being the store yeast). Today I was thinking about my quest for bread self-sufficiency and was thinking about the bread-making process. It really starts outside, in the ground, on a field, where wheat is grown and harvested, then milled into flour, and then made into bread. I was then thinking about wheat production in the United States and how much this would translate into loafs of bread, sort of a metric for the country’s self-sufficiency. Imagine a scenario where we would have to depend on our own wheat for our own bread, could we? I’m happy to report that we could, provided that the Federal Government or the U.S. Free Market system remains in place permitting the free movement of goods from one U.S. state to another. So if we’re talking about a Texas Secession scenario (I hang my head in shame) would we or they be self-sufficient? As I present the data, I’ll be sure to call out the underlying assumptions in this mini-project and we’ll conclude with its implications and how I could have improved it.

First the data, it comes from the U.S. Census Bureau (population estimated on July 1, 2012 by state), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (production by wheat type, yield, acreage by state), and the National Association of Wheat Growers (for some general ideas on how much bread is produced per bushel, and other fun facts). Second, my model assumptions. I’m assuming that every.single.bushel of winter wheat is being baked into a loaf of bread, at some point, over the year. Further, I assume that these loafs get to those who are the hungriest. Why winter wheat? Another website (that I conveniently forgot to keep in open) reported that Winter Wheat is primarily used for bread. Durum is used for pasta. And there this spring wheat as well. In 2012, the U.S. was on track to produce 2,224,075,000 bushels of wheat (2.2 billion) by July 1, 2012. Of that 1.6 billion or so was winter wheat, 82 million was durum, and 471 million was “other spring wheat.” Why is this important? Because some states, Arizona (durum) and Minnesota (other spring wheat) produce only non-winter wheat. So by leaving out those two types I essentially assume that they won’t be able to feed themselves (with bread) in this scenario. Further, some states produce multiple wheat types so I’m penalizing them for crop variety, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Imagine a winter wheat disease ravages the U.S., Arizona, Minnesota and diversified winter wheat states will be better off than say, Kansas. Which brings me to my next point, scope, I’m only looking at winter wheat, white loaves of bread, and whole wheat loaves of bread. Further I’m assuming everyone in the state will eat this bread when they’re hungry and won’t die because of it. In essence, this is a model – not reality, its a discussion and analytic exercise. To the results!

Referencing the table below (I’d make a map but I’m just so tired) Kansas was projected to produce some 396 million bushels of winter wheat, almost a quarter of total U.S. supply. The top three producers, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Washington, account for 40% of U.S. winter wheat production. There are 29 states listed here the other 31 are found in “other states” and account for about 3% of total U.S. winter wheat production among themselves. The top producers span the western portions of the American Midwest to the western side of the Rocky Mountains (the North American continental divide). The 1.6 billion bushels of American winter wheat could produce over 70 billion 1.5 lb. loaves of white bread. According to the National Association of Wheat Growers, one bushel of wheat produces 42 loaves of white bread. If the whole wheat is used, 90 1 lb. loaves of whole wheat bread can be produced from a bushel. In this conversion, the U.S. could produce over 150 billion 1 lb. loaves of whole wheat bread. That’s a lot of bread.

Winter wheat, bread, population, 2012 (via Census, USDA, NAWG)

Winter wheat, bread, population, 2012 (via Census, USDA, NAWG)

But is it enough? Enter the U.S. Census data. By July 1, 2012 the Census estimated there would be about 313 million Americans. 70 billion loaves of bread seems like a lot, but remember that’s over an entire year. I could go through a loaf a week (but that’s a lot of bread so maybe every two weeks would have been a better idea). At any rate, I calculated the number of loaves of bread available, per week, for each individual. In July 2012, the United States probably produced enough wheat to provide every single person in the country, about four 1.5 lb. loaves of white bread OR about 9 1 lb. loaves of whole wheat bread, each week, for a calendar year. By this metric, yes the United States is self sufficient. On paper at least.

As we well know, there’s geographic disparity in wheat production. Based on the population numbers, Kansas produces enough wheat that it could provide a person in the state over 100 loaves of white bread or over 200 loaves of whole wheat bread per week for a year. North Dakota is probably the fourth-most self-sufficient, despite producing “only” 34 million bushels of winter wheat, the resulting bread could provide almost 40 to 80 loaves of bread to the 699 thousand inhabitants. By the same token, Texas is “barely” self-sufficient since its 26 million inhabitants would only receive between 2 and 6 loaves of bread per week, despite being the fourth largest producer of winter wheat. California and New York, other large states, are not self-sufficient in bread given their low winter wheat production and high populations. If the U.S. ever suffered a bread embargo (unlikely) then the populous east and west coasts would be competing for Midwestern breads.

While this exercise is a little bit far-fetched (admittedly) it does have actual implications. The first is for things like agricultural subsidies as integrated as the world economy becomes, food is still a “strategic” resource. Countries typically want to be able to control as much of their food supplies as possible. Though a dated example, Rome reportedly sowed the fields around Carthage with quicklime following the last of the Punic Wars in order to prevent Carthage from ever being a problem again. Today the stickiest negotiations at the World Trade Organization revolve around American and European agricultural subsidies. These subsidies promote an unfair global market titled toward “Western” producers, whose GDP is hardly based on agriculture in the first place, but in many developing economies, a sizeable chunk of GDP is centered on agriculture. The argument goes that if the “West” ended agricultural subsidies, the developing world could actually “develop” (economically). But then the “West” would be at the mercy of developing country governments, climates, and crops.

One thing this model needs is to account for milling locations, this data is probably available. I’m assuming here that the wheat is harvested and milled in the same location (by state). That might not be the case, while I’m assuming flour is easier to transport via rail I’m guessing its much less forgiving in terms of ambient moisture. Perhaps its easier to transport wheat from various locations to a mill?

In fact, I think its this latter point. I’m reminded now of something I read on the development of the northern U.S. economy and railroads. As the American West was opening in the 1800s, companies agreed to fund the construction of railroads westward for two purposes, first, to take eastern settlers to the Midwest (one fare) and second, to take western crops to mills in the East (a second fare). This apparently was enough to make rail lines profitable in the north. In the south, the dominance of the slavery economy and planter/plantation system, coupled with relatively lower population density made railroads difficult to justify. Planters wouldn’t want to fund competitors heading to the west, especially if they took slaves, who would be able to acquire cheaper and more plentiful land, and then out-produce the eastern planters. All of this is driven home in the map below, showing railroads in existence by 1870.

U.S. Railroads, ca. 1870 (via. brianaltonenmph)

So there you have it. A geography (albeit an American one) of bread. While the U.S. may be self-sufficient in matters of white and whole wheat bread, we should really be thanking the Kansans, Montanans, and Dakotans (yes, both of them) for producing so much extra. After all, I’m going to need some more flour to continue failing at making bread.