The Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras

This is going to be the first of many posts that highlight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, cultural and natural landmarks that are identified for their incredible value for humanity. 

The Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras — which span five sites — was the first property to be included in the cultural landscape category of the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995.

Built 2,000 years ago and passed on from generation to generation, the Ifugao Rice Terraces are a marvel of engineering, built on steeper slopes and reaching a higher altitude than most other terraces. The terrace pond fields were created using stone or mud walls, and were carved carefully to follow the natural contours of the hills and mountains. They’re irrigated through an intricate system that harvests water from the forests of the mountain tops. The rice terraces are incorporated almost seamlessly into nature.The maintenance of these living rice terraces require a cooperative approach among the entire community. They rely on detailed knowledge of the rich diversity of biological resources existing in the Ifugao ecosystem, a finely tuned annual system respecting lunar cycles, meticulous zoning and planning, extensive soil conservation, and mastery of a complex pest control based on the careful processing of a variety of herbs, all accompanied by religious rituals.

Archaeological evidence reveals that these techniques have been used in the region virtually unchanged for 2,000 years. Because they illustrate the persistence of cultural traditions and remarkable continuity and endurance, they were included in a list reserved for sites of profound global importance to humanity — rightfully so, in my opinion.

Twenty-One Children and Their Bedrooms From Around the World

PolicyMic is featuring the engaging works of James Mollison, a Kenyan-born, English photographer based in Venice whose 2011 photo book, Where Children Sleep, collects photos of various children and their sleeping quarters. It was meant to draw attention to each child’s “material and cultural circumstances” and to put perspective on the class, poverty, and the diversity of children worldwide.

I strongly suggest you check it out here; it’s well worth your time. Some of these images are pretty powerful, highlighting the vast discrepancies in standard of living between (and within) countries around the world. Many of the subjects have a lot of personality and character as well (which is no doubt why they were chosen.

Our Dying Seas

A recent study conducted by an international team of ecologists and economists predicts that the majority of saltwater fish will be extinct by 2048, due to overfishing, pollution, habitat loss, and climate change. Already, 29 percent of edible fish and seafood species have declined by 90 percent, only one percent of the global ocean is effectively protected.

But the issue isn’t just having seafood on our plates. Ocean species filter toxins from the water. They protect shorelines. And they reduce the risks of algae blooms such as the red tide.

“A large and increasing proportion of our population lives close to the coast; thus the loss of services such as flood control and waste detoxification can have disastrous consequences,” Worm and colleagues say.

The researchers analyzed data from 32 experiments on different marine environments.

They then analyzed the 1,000-year history of 12 coastal regions around the world, including San Francisco and Chesapeake bays in the U.S., and the Adriatic, Baltic, and North seas in Europe.

Next, they analyzed fishery data from 64 large marine ecosystems.

And finally, they looked at the recovery of 48 protected ocean areas.

Their bottom line: Everything that lives in the ocean is important. The diversity of ocean life is the key to its survival. The areas of the ocean with the most different kinds of life are the healthiest.

But the loss of species isn’t gradual. It’s happening fast — and getting faster, the researchers say.

The researchers conclude that it is not too late to reverse the trend, provided we act quickly to established sustainable fisheries management, control pollution, maintain habitats, and create more ocean reserves. Of course, acting both speedily and decisively, in an international context, is far from easy.  It’s the classic tragedy of the commons: why should anyone cease their consumption or extraction of resources if they don’t think anyone else will either?

That’s one of the reasons why most solutions are to established public, semi-public, or cooperative institutions to manage and protect global resources. But again, the desire to consume freely — combined with the inability to grasp the bigger picture — gets in the way. But a lot is at stake, especially since half of the world’s population directly lives off the sea (and nearly all of us depend on its resources in one way or another). Will that be enough to get us to act before it’s too late?

What the World Thinks of America in 10 Words or Less

NPR asked Americans living abroad to tell answer the following question in 10 words or less: What Do People In Your Host Country Think Of America?. Here are some of the answers (click the link to see them all).

Cheap iPhones, rap music and better movies exist in America.” — Russia

“Gun-loving but fun-loving; hard working but spoiled and fat.” — Hungary

“Americans are aggressive, paranoid gun-hoarders who don’t want social health care.” — China

“Americans are very patriotic and all have guns.” — Italy

“Full of contradictions: confusingly progressive yet behind the times.” — Spain

“Has a limited worldview and is absolutely crazy about guns.” — New Zealand

Notice a theme with many of these?

This is part of NPR’s “Project Xpat”, which explores the lives and experiences of Americans living abroad. It’s very interesting stuff, so check it out when you have the chance.

Daily News Wire – 6/27/12

World History?

Am I the only one who was taught “world” history as if it were mainly European history? Throughout primary school, I scarcely learned anything about the rest of the world unless it involved the West in some way. Aside from some token references in textbooks – which were often glanced at or skipped anyway – it seemed that very little occurred in most of the world for most of human history. In fact, one gets the impression that Africa, the Americas, and much of Asia were devoid of history until the Europeans showed up.

Indeed, how many people can recall the civilizations that existed in Sub-Saharan Africa prior to European colonization – or if any civilization existed in the first place? How many people know anything substantial about the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incans other than that were conquered by the Spanish? The Persians, who constituted one of the most ancient and advanced civilizations in human history, emerge first – and often solely – as antagonists to the Ancient Greeks, whose civilization is the one many world history teachers start from instead.

And what about the invaluable contributions made by the ChineseIndian, and Islamic civilizations, each of which produced countless innovations, art forms, and philosophies? Their very existence changed the course of human history. Chinese civilization alone spans tens of thousands of years, most of them rich in all sorts of political, cultural, and intellectual developments. Yet by my recollection, the Chinese generally receive little more than passing acknowledgement of their ingenuity, much less any in-depth coverage.

To be clear, I’m not trying to denigrate the importance of European history. To me, there’s no competition between any of the world’s many histories – they should be taught collectively and with as much equal consideration as possible. Obviously, we know more about some histories than others, and certain time periods were more influenced by some nations than others.

But the point of history, as the root word shows, is to tell a story. It shouldn’t be limited to just the victors or superpowers. Every perspective is pertinent to a holistic understanding of history. Even if Europe was the dominant bloc for many of the last few centuries, does that make the point of view of “lesser” or colonized states any less valuable or insightful?

Also, my assessment comes from personal experience, as well as my own observation of what young people are learning now. I’m not aware of any research on the subject, although I’d be very interested to read other people’s experiences. But either way, I’m certain that if I had limited my worldview only to what was presented to me in (public) school, I’d be woefully ignorant of the astounding richness of human civilization across the planet and the ages.

Sadly, if my anecdotal accounts are correct, not a lot has changed. The American public is woefully ethnocentric and has little knowledge or concern for other cultures, languages, and global events. Most people have little understanding of their own nation’s history, much less that of foreign entities. The overwhelming majority of Americans don’t even have passports.

Some may argue that all this is a consequence of our superpower status, since smaller and comparatively weaker states must necessarily look outward to compete. Even geography may play a role – compared to other regions like Europe or East Asia, we’re quite isolated from other distinct civilizations. Another argument involves the nature of the public education system, which is too focused on math and reading at the expense of social studies.

So is the way we approach history the cause of our cloistered attitudes? Or is it the other way around? Are private schools any better? Whatever the case – and I confess having my own internationalist bias – I’m still lamenting the overall lack of appreciation for a genuine global history.

The Best (Political) Photos of 2011

Needless to say, just about every media outlet or publication has it’s own compilation of images they tout as the definitive depiction of last year’s greatest moments. But long-term readers, and those of you willing to do a search, will know I have a soft spot for Foreign Policy, not only due to my internationalist leanings, but for the quality of its work as well. There are few better places to go for anyone with a modicum of worldliness to them, so I recommend you all check out the rest of the site after you browse through the slideshow.

Click here to revisit the great stories, big and small, that shaped our eventful past year. As a bonus, also check out another photo essay (also from FP) that looks back on what was perhaps the most memorable event of 2011 – the Arab Spring. Though the movement’s outcome remains mixed and disputed, there’s no denying the influence it has had on the region and the wider world. Whatever your views, it was definitely an important even worth reflecting on.

The Best Articles of 2011

I know it’s cliche to start off a new year with a perfunctory reflection on the preceding one, so I’ll be doing so only briefly, with Foreign Policy as my proxy. For those of you who are fellow internationalists, or who care about being informed about the world around you, check out FP’s compilation of last year’s biggest events, debates, and concerns.

Not only does the slideshow include the better known issues, like the Arab Spring or America’s relative decline , but it covers some lesser known ones: the rise of India’s military, the looming food crisis, and a list of the year’s best global thinkers. Each photo has a hyperlink below, so click it if you want to read the relevant article. Last year has been pretty eventful, and there’s no telling how it’s various paradigms will turn on in 2012.

Russians Rally in Defiance of Government

On December 4th, Russia held elections for the lower house of its legislature, the State Duma (akin to the US’s House of Representatives or the UK’s House of Commons). As typical of the nation’s grimy politics, there was a  widespread perception – by domestic and foreign observers alike – that the process was rigged in favor of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party, which has become almost inseparable from the state.

Despite this fraud, United Russia still received far fewer votes than in previous elections, which suggested that Russians were starting to tire of the corruption and autocracy that has defined Putin’s regime. Although not President, he is widely considered to be the true ruler of Russia, assisted by a network of thugs and lackeys that have previously kept a lid on any criticism or dissent. A few weeks prior to the elections, Putin had even announced his intention to run for President again, leading to some grumbles but little surprise.

So few people in or out of Russia expected the Russians to take to the streets in any meaningful way, much less in such great numbers. As the New York Times reports:

Tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets in Moscow on Saturday shouting “Putin is a thief” and “Russia without Putin,” forcing the Kremlin to confront a level of public discontent that has not been seen here since Vladimir V. Putin first became president 12 years ago.

The crowd overflowed from a central city square, forcing stragglers to climb trees or watch from the opposite riverbank. “We exist!” they chanted. “We exist!”

The demonstration marked what opposition leaders hope will be a watershed moment, ending years of quiet acceptance of the political consolidation Mr. Putin introduced. The leaders understood that for a moment they, not the Kremlin, were dictating the political agenda, and seemed intent on leveraging it, promising to gather an even larger crowd again on Dec. 24.

Saturday’s rally served to build their confidence as it united liberals, nationalists and Communists. The event was too large to be edited out of the evening news, which does not ordinarily report on criticism of Mr. Putin And it was accompanied by dozens of smaller rallies across Russia’s nine time zones, with a crowd of 3,000 reported in Tomsk, and 7,000 in St. Petersburg, the police said.

Indeed, some sources have claimed the protests to be the largest since the fall of the Soviet Union. Russian police estimate the demonstration’s numbers in Moscow alone are around 25,ooo, with some activists claiming anywhere from 40,000 to 80,000 participants. In Russia’s second city, Saint Petersburg, there are another 10,000 demonstrators, and rallies of various size are taking place in at least 88 more towns and cities throughout the country.
These all began as a coordinated and but largely spontaneous response to the electoral fraud and Putin’s consolidation of power, and there seemed to be no clear point other than expressing angst and indignation (as most such grassroots movements begin).
But the rallies have quickly escalated in their demands and grievances, including, as the Guardian reports:

1. Freedom for political prisoners

2. Annulment of the election results

3. The resignation of Vladimir Churov, head of the election commission, and an official investigation of vote fraud

4. Registration of the opposition parties and new democratic legislation on parties and elections

5. New democratic and open elections

This looks like the beginning of a full-fledged political movement, with comparisons to the recent Arab Spring abounding. Police have already arrested over a 1,000 demonstrators in Moscow alone, and Putin has responded by inciting his own pro-government factions to counter-protest in his favor (including the Nashi, a thuggish youth group compared to the Hitler Youth). Interestingly, a smaller number of people are have been detained in connection to these rallies than in previous ones – does that suggest sympathy on part of the police?

The domestic media, being largely state controlled, has of course avoided any meaningful mention of this event, not that it’s made much difference: as the Times noted, the savvy use of social media, in conjunction with the sheer scale of the protests, have made such sanctioned ignorance ineffective.

Dozens of Russian public figures – from celebrities to activists to politicians – have addressed the crowds and showed support. The Russian diaspora is starting to join in as well. Protesters have already taken on a symbol for their cause, the white ribbon, which is adorning cars, clothes, and other objects, and is the adopted motif of online protest sites (I’ve always said that a symbol is a significant sign of any movement’s maturity, especially since such things are much harder to kill off or suppress).

The movement has already made clear that if it’s demands are not met, follow-up protests will be scheduled for December 24th (alluding to their expectation that they’ll probably be broken up before then). Needless to say, I’ll be watching pretty close to see where this is going to go. It’s only been a couple of days, and already things seem to be escalating. Putin, though still pretty popular, has never faced anything on this scale or organization before , so who knows how he’ll react. The government is unlikely to acquiesce, however, and apparently doesn’t take the movement too seriously – so a confrontation of some kind is pretty much inevitable.

As a Russophile with a good amount of knowledge on the country (so I’d like to think), I’m in some ways surprised, in others way not. Russia has a history of popular revolts, revolutions, and popular movements, dating back to the first Tsars. At the same time, however, modern Russia has long been seen as a bleak and cynical place, where people became grudgingly complacent with what they felt was politics as usual. In fact, I had just read a recent report on Russia by The Economist, which found high levels of apathy, social exclusion, and pessimism all around, especially about the country’s future (to the extent that a large number of Russians expressed an interest in leaving; this may explain the high rate of brain drain and the low birthrate).

So the Russians have surprised everyone in breaking out of their bleak indifference and showing that they do indeed have a stake in their country’s future. While it’s too soon to call this a revolution or a “Russian Spring,” it may hopefully turn out to have some meaningful political impact, however dim the prospects are given the track-record. The negative precedent for positive change hasn’t yet dampened even the famously irreverent Russians.

Aleksei Navalny, a popular blogger who has helped mobilize young Russians over the past year, sent an address from the prison where he is serving a 15-day sentence for resisting the police. Mr. Navalny was arrested Monday night after the first of three demonstrations.

“Everyone has the single most powerful weapon that we need — dignity, the feeling of self-respect,” said the address, which was read by a journalist, Oleg Kashin. “It’s impossible to beat and arrest hundreds of thousands, millions. We have not even been intimidated. For some time, we were simply convinced that the life of toads and rats, the life of mute cattle, was the only way to win the reward of stability and economic growth.”

“We are not cattle or slaves,” he said. “We have voices and votes and we have the power to uphold them.”

Sixteen Cities to Watch Out For

Cities are what are shaping civilization. Humanity is more urbanized now than ever before, and we’ve created unprecedentedly large communities where millions of human beings – and all their ideas, businesses, talents, and beliefs – intermingle and converge within a dense space. This is why cities are dynamic – and also a bit overwhelming – and why they’re driving growth, innovation, and culture across the world. In other words, they’re shaping the next century of human development.

This is especially the case for the developing world, which is rising rapidly, if not tenuously, in economic, political, technological, and cultural clout. Our globalized and interconnected world is giving way to global cities, where cultures, peoples, and businesses from across the world gather, giving urban configurations influence far and wide. These are the cities who’s financial markets, media outlets, industries, and other exports can change nations, or even the world.

Tokyo, Paris, London, and especially New York City were classic examples, and remain core global cities to this day. But they’re already being joined by many others, some surprising and some not so much. Foreign Policy has posted a slideshow selecting the 16 cities that will influence the world – for better or for worse – or that will be defining symbols of the coming era.

Like any list, some of the selections are contentious, but they still make for a good view and a lot of consideration. I hope you enjoy. Feel free to add your own suggestions as well. I’d be curious to read them.

Click here for view the article.