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What struck us most about this group of countries was its very troubled history. The borders of every one of the Balkan countries have changed many times over the centuries, as neighbouring countries have invaded and taken over. I have heard that it is possible for a person to have lived all his life in the same village and yet to have been a citizen of three or four different countries as the borders move around him! Some countries, such as Albania, Moldova and Kosovo have ceased to exist for many years and then come back into existence again. Serbia still refuses to acknowledge Kosovo as a separate country.
Despite all its troubles, this part of Europe enjoys plentiful natural resources. The mountains are full of desirable minerals – gold, chromium, nickel, tungsten and others. Mountains also mean that some countries can be almost self-sufficient in hydro-electric power. Albania and Romania have vast oilfields, natural gas and lignite to fuel their power stations but phasing out the use of these will inevitably be controversial.
Fertile soils and a Mediterranean climate enable this region to produce and export a wide variety of fruit and vegetables and some countries have a booming wine industry. The many lakes and the Mediterranean coastline also enable fresh- and saltwater-fish farming on a large scale.
The local languages and the rich folklore combine influences rom Greek, Arabic, Slavic and Roman cultures. These influences, together with the plentiful agricultural production, make for a multitude of mouth-watering national dishes, as Joe found when he researched Bulgarian cuisine. The region also boasts distinctive musical instruments, styles of singing and dancing and elaborate national costumes.
Understandably, now that relative peace has been established, tourism is increasing, and more people are sampling the mountain and coastal scenery and wildlife, the many historic sites and the local food. Croatia, with its disproportionally long Mediterranean coastline, is benefitting more than most from the income this brings. Many of the Balkan countries have applied to become members of the EU, but so far the only three to have been accepted are Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia. Watch this space!
This summer the geography group has been finding out about some of the small countries in the west of Africa. They have magical names which could win you the jackpot in a TV quiz game like “Pointless” but their story is a sad one and they have not managed to win any jackpot for themselves.
Can you connect these capital cities to their own countries?
Accra Burkina Faso
Banjul Cote D’Ivoire
Bissau The Gambia
Freetown Guinea Bissau
Ouagadougou Sierra Leone
Long ago they were numerous small African kingdoms, some, no doubt, with more benign kings than others. But there was already a thriving slave trade amongst and between the kingdoms. Then the Europeans came sailing down the coast to explore the African continent. They found gold, ivory, diamonds, phosphate and of course, slaves. The Portuguese had a head start, then the Belgians, the British, French, Germans and Dutch each came and laid claim to parts of the African coast and as much of the interior as they could reach. In 1884 Otto von Bismarck called a conference in Berlin at which the European powers divided Africa up amongst themselves, drawing new boundaries and naming new countries in their own languages. There were further changes after the world wars when Germany’s holdings were confiscated, and still more changes in the 1960s and 1970s as each “country” achieved its independence.
Through all of this history there have been countless small civil wars, coups d’état, assassinations and massive corruption as people fight for control of the gold and diamond mines, the oil, the bauxite, iron, uranium etc. Today these countries are also used as a staging post for the transport of hard drugs from South America to Europe. You will not be surprised to hear that, with the exception of Ghana, all these countries are in the bottom 14% in the United Nations Development Index. That is, they have the lowest income per capita, literacy rate and life expectancy in the world.
The geography group has been looking at Central America, that interesting but little-known strip of land which links the two major American continents and whose shores are washed by the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.
Just off the western coastline two tectonic plates are colliding, so nearly all of these seven countries have a line of active volcanoes running from north-west to south-east. On the other side of the isthmus lies the Atlantic “hurricane alley” where huge storms are generated and sweep through the Caribbean.
The original population of Central America was Amerindian, but the Spanish Conquistadors subjugated Mexico in 1521 and then moved southwards, brutally laying waste to the land and enslaving the local people. To this day, the Amerindian people find themselves on the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder, while the rulers are mostly of European stock. The official language is Spanish and the predominant religion Roman Catholic. Only Belize escaped Spanish domination, mainly because it had no gold or silver!
The volcanic soils are very fertile and all these countries rely on exporting coffee, bananas, sugar and palm oil to the United States. All are very poor economically and consequently are politically quite unstable. They have been beset by civil wars, drug gangs and general corruption. Costa Rica is a notable exception. It is democratic and peaceful and is one of the very few countries which has no army. Unsurprisingly it is a popular tourist destination.
At the beginning of this year we spent 3 months learning and teaching each other about the countries of Central Asia. Our first task was to master the spelling of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan etc. The ancient Silk Road, which links China to the Middle East and Europe, has run through this part of the world for over 2000 years, and consequently its peoples have had a very chequered history. They have been overrun and conquered many times by various nomadic tribes, notably Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century.
From the eighteenth century until their independence in 1991, they came under the rule of the Russian Empire, latterly the USSR. A variety of local languages are spoken and the majority religion is Islam. Armenia is an interesting exception to this, having become, in 301 A.D., the first country ever to declare Christianity to be its state religion. Today 95% of Armenians are members of the Armenian Church, which is separate from the Greek and Russian Orthodox and from the Western Christian churches.
The Central Asian countries are situated just where the Indian tectonic plate is colliding with the Eurasian plate and so they suffer frequent earthquakes. But this geological fact also means that they are rich in fossil fuels and in rare and valuable metals, especially gold and uranium.
Large areas are desert and a lot of the land is mountainous, but the valleys are very fertile and fruit and vegetables are plentiful. Rice and wheat are staples, and grapes, apricots, sunflowers and almonds grow in abundance.
We were surprised to learn that Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are important exporters of cotton.
But the production of cotton has had a serious impact on the Aral Sea because the rivers which feed it have been diverted, especially in the Soviet era, to irrigate the cotton fields. The Aral Sea used to be the 4th largest freshwater lake in the world but it is now only a tenth of its original size as can be seen in this video:
These are just a few of the interesting facts we discovered in researching Central Asia. Before we began we weren’t even quite sure where these countries were on the map. Now we are much more aware of their existence and some of the problems they face today.
The new geography group decided to spend its first three months studying some of the South Pacific Islands. Many of them were visited by Captain Cook and became part of the British Empire but gained their independence in the 1960s and 1970s.
A few of us had been lucky enough to visit that part of the world, so we heard first-hand accounts of life in New Caledonia (which has just voted to reject independence and remain French), Fiji and Samoa.
We found that, although the islands are exceptionally beautiful and the people warm and friendly, life there is not always easy. All the islands sit on the Pacific “Ring of Fire” and many, especially Tonga, suffer frequent volcanic eruptions and earth tremors. This is also a part of the Earth where typhoons are common and whole villages of flimsy housing can be flattened.
Most of the islands’ economies are dependent upon foreign aid from New Zealand, Australia, and increasingly, China. One or two have deposits of gold and copper, but most make their living from tourism, agriculture and fisheries. They export coconuts, papaya, coffee, timber, palm oil, sugar and pearls, but income from fisheries is declining as fish stocks are depleted and the sea fills up with plastic.
As sea levels rise, some of the lower lying coral atolls are disappearing and villagers will have to be re-housed on other islands. Kiribati is particularly at risk, as only one of its 32 islands has a significant area of land which is more than 3 metres above sea level.
We found studying and discussing these islands’ history, economies, climate and current affairs fascinating. There is so much more to learn about them, and we shall all be much more aware of what is going on in that part of the world in the future.