Monthly Archives: July 2012

North Africa Turns to Solar while Phosphate Mining Ramps Up

Juan Cole posted in his “Top Ten Reasons Fracking Won’t Last” that Algeria was hoping to become a solar energy powerhouse (sadly, pun intended). The Sahara desert has almost infinite potential for solar energy production because, well, it’s a desert. 364 days a year there is full sunlight, and given the equatorial nature, for days longer than other geographical areas.

This is coming on the heels of growing interest in north African phosphate mining:

Miners have been working in Khouribga for almost a century, but only now is the area poised to become central to the global economy. Back in the 1920s pioneers started tunneling through the earth here, digging through layers of sediment formed under an ancient sea, looking for phosphate-rich rock and occasionally plucking out the tooth of a 30-million-year-old shark. The phosphate extracted from the rock, used in fertilizer, detergent, food additives, and more recently lithium-ion batteries, sold for decades in its raw state for less than $40 per metric ton. Those days are gone. It’s currently trading at about $130.

Phosphates are used in a diverse set of industries, from agriculture to tech. It is the building block of modern food production, meaning that cheap phosphates are key to cheap food for a growing world population.

This is good news for King Mohammed VI, 47, who owns more than half the world’s phosphate reserves. James Prokopanko, chief executive officer of Plymouth (Minn.)-based fertilizer giant Mosaic (MOS), has called Morocco the Saudi Arabia of phosphate,

This sounds great on paper: an African nation, friendly to the West, providing raw materials critical to food production  to the nations of the world.

However, since our job here is to examine indirect costs, it might behoove us to consider the plight of other African nations that are inundated with mineral resources. Nigeria comes to mind as a worst case scenario: the country is a wild west for oil and mineral production, and is currently struggling with popular insurgencies dedicated to liberating areas plagued by the problems with mining. Minerals are a blessing and a curse. Closer to home, United States municipalities are struggling themselves with the very real and present dangers of hydraulic fracturing. I cannot imagine that phosphate mining is any different for ground water.

The question now becomes one of competing industries. On the one hand, we have Algeria and others striking ahead with solar power production, a clean energy alternative to the fossil fuels that Algeria also possesses. This would attract money from Europe and others without being a political and social liability. On the other hand, we have untapped mineral resources in the Atlas mountains that will make it the center of international attention when it comes to agriculture. I cannot imagine that the regime of King Muhammad VI will be any better than the United States when it comes to mining for these phosphates, and the looming specter of Western imperialism for mineral resources should be in the minds of policymakers in Morocco.

This is something to keep your eye on.

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Drugs and the CIA – Mexican Officials Blame CIA for Continuing Drug War

“It’s like pest control companies, they only control,” Guillermo Terrazas Villanueva, the Chihuahua spokesman, told Al Jazeera last month at his office in Juarez. “If you finish off the pests, you are out of a job. If they finish the drug business, they finish their jobs.”

A spokesman for the CIA in Washington wouldn’t comment on the accusations directly, instead he referred Al Jazeera to an official website.

CIA operations in war torn Mexico are allegedly under the auspices of combating the drug trade, presumably stopping traffic into America and other nations. The accusations of Mexico’s foremost drug warriors is an indication of the general atmosphere in Mexico surrounding the drug war: very grim.

However Villanueva’s accusations aren’t completely out of left field. As AJE points out, this wouldn’t be the first time there have been accusations of manipulation of the drug trade by the CIA. This is an organization that gets paid to be paranoid, and whose operations included the drugging of prostitutes with LSD and the aforementioned trafficking of cocaine in order to fund a puppet Nicaraguan government.

It’s impossible at this point to verify what the CIA’s involvement with the drug trade is. However I want to bring one more aspect of the drug trade into this strange discussion. The CIA can manufacture its own LSD, and seems to have the cocaine market on lock, so what’s left?

Heroin, of course!

It was recently revealed that Afghan heroin trade is up by about 3% (it’s like a Cost of Living Adjustment!), which suggests that all the posturing and worry over drugs done by the US government is either a farce, or it’s been grossly ineffective. We’ll give the USG the benefit of the doubt and say it’s both, but it’s been common knowledge that the military has been protecting poppy fields. Photos speak loudly. Fox News screams. Geraldo even says that destruction of poppy would put the troops at risk. Wait, so opium allegedly funds the Taliban (allegedly being the key word, they were taking down poppy growers under their reign of terror), but protecting poppy fields will protect Taliban money and protect American soldiers? I suppose that makes sense. Image

This, combined with the draconian drug war back home, is a pandemic of corruption. Drug money is big, larger than some national economies.

If this is a coordinated effort to control the illegal drug trade, what can we do to stop it?

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US Drought Will Cause Billions in Damage

One of the industries least affected by the recession was agriculture. This is about to be undermined:

Already, the U.S. Agriculture Department has designated 1,016 counties in 26 states as natural disaster areas — meaning hard-hit farmers in those areas can apply for low-interest emergency loans from USDA. According to Bloomberg, that’s “the biggest such declaration ever.”

Weather Underground’s Jeff Masters adds that the costs associated with this drought “are certain to be many billions of dollars, and the disaster could be one of the top 10 most expensive weather-related disasters in U.S. history.” As he points out, “droughts historically have been some of the costliest U.S. weather disasters.”

It looks like the federal government has acknowledged the damages with the surge of disaster declarations, however this is just the beginning of a steep decline in American agriculture. 

The Ogallala aquifer is a source of water for much of the midwest’s agriculture. This aquifer began to be tapped heavily in and around the 1950s, but has seen incredible declines since that time.

What we’re seeing today is probably a function of climate change. What we see tomorrow will be a combination of climate change and the tapping out of one of the largest underground bodies of water on the planet. The duo will be absolutely devastating to American farmers, yet at the moment, there isn’t much of a push to do anything but business as usual. The stalled 2012 Farm Bill is light on anything resembling a rescue of the aquifer. It will probably take a disaster with regard to the aquifer before the issue is addressed.

One has to wonder if this current crisis will provide an opportunity to reverse our current path toward ultra expensive food. 

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Tuareg Offer Help Against Terrorism

It’s interesting to see the MNLA’s new strategy: adopt the terrorism language of their nation state counterparts. It’s hard to say how this will turn out for them, but it makes for intriguing news nonetheless:

“The MNLA is not physically in every city in the Azawad, but that doesn’t mean we don’t exist … Azawad is a very large territory,” he said.

“We’re open to any collaboration against terrorism … we’re listening to the international community and are available for possible dialogue with Mali via mediator countries,” he said. But for now we haven’t seen will from Mali to sit at the negotiating table.”

“We’re currently working on a new military strategy to fight against terrorism in Azawad,” he added.

The AJE article characterizes the MNLA as having less military capability than Ansar Dine, but this goes in the face of Jeremy Keenan’s statements about the Tuareg insurgencies. It is clear, however, that Ansar Dine is the louder, more troublesome rebellion, and this may account for AJE’s characterization. 

The ICG distributed a statement on the crisis, warning ECOWAS to not aggravate the “deep fault lines” in Malian society. This is good advice: the war has an ethnic dimension, but still remains a territorial and political dispute over autonomy. It is possible, though not certain, that foreign intervention could turn this into something else. 

ECOWAS countries willing to send troops do not appear to fully grasp the complex social situation in northern Mali, and underestimate the high risk of inter-tribal settling of scores that would result from external military intervention. Such an intervention would turn Mali into a new front of the war on terror at the expense of longstanding political demands in the north and rule out any chance of peaceful coexistence between the different communities.

It’s useful to remember that the MNLA blocked out Ansar Dine’s leader prior to the start of hostilities, though ICG, in their recommendations, lumps them together in a single statement:

To the Leaders of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and Ansar Dine:

12. Formulate publicly clear agendas and commit to:

a) respecting human rights and the principles of democratic and pluralist governance, especially with regard to religion, in the areas under their control;

b) guaranteeing security and equal access of the population to basic public services and facilitating the access of humanitarian organisations to the population;

c) helping to establish the facts regarding the atrocities at Aguelhoc as well as all other atrocities perpetrated during the military conquest of the north;

d) combatting the criminal trafficking activities that thrive in the territory they control;

e) joining immediately the fight against AQIM and its armed offshoots; and

f) exploring with the Malian government how to reach a rapprochement to avoid a lasting partition of the country and an internecine war.

Though they don’t mention it, I think recent news and the MNLA’s statements regarding combating terrorism may be reason for another recommendation to the parties invovled in the fate of the Azawad:

Make efforts to move the MNLA further from Ansar Dine and their goals

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MNLA Activists Petition French Parliament, Lessons from Ho Chi Minh

Mali’s stormy politics spilled onto the streets of Paris on Saturday when supporters and opponents of a breakaway Tuareg state in the north tried, calling itself Azawad, to win the newly elected French government’s ear.

Supporters of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) gathered outside the French National Assembly in Paris on Saturday.

After the Socialist victory in this month’s parliamentary election, they were calling for the new French government to talk to the breakaway leaders.

In April the MNLA declared northern Mali an independent state, which they call Azawad, after a coup by a faction of the military destabilised the central government.

Both ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy and current President François Hollande have said they want the country whole.

Members and supporters of The Association of North Malians turned up to oppose the MNLA’s attempt to divide Mali

The MNLA, while undertaking politics by other means to the south, is undertaking politics as usual in France.

I can’t help but remember that Ho Chi Minh’s appeal to the western powers at Versailles to consider the rights of the people of Indochina as they carved up the world. Ho was, of course, completely ignored, and it’s not difficult to surmise that it affected his political philosophy for the rest of his days. You know the rest of that story.

I foresee a similar response to the MNLA supporters from France and its leadership. Insurgencies such as the movement to free the Azawad are created through a lack of political representation. France will more than likely regret its decision to ignore the Tuareg. 

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Ansar Dine Rapes Timbuktu

UNESCO is concerned about Ansar Dine’s actions in Timbuktu, home to an ancient Islamic heritage that is now threatened by the radical group. 

This comes after the MNLA and Ansar Dine began outright fighting in the north.

The situation is a mess of competing factions and failed states. Ansar Dine is full of extremely conservative militants and that MNLA appears to be distancing themselves from them.

Jeremy Keenan, an expert in this part of the world, says that the MNLA is militarily much more significant than the Ansar Dine forces. One has to wonder if that’s still the case, and if so, whether the government of Mali would benefit from turning the two organizations fully against each other. There certainly won’t be any peace should the sacking of Timbuktu’s ancient relics continue. 

It will be a hot summer in Mali.