This Christmas, I have been reading the latest report on the conflicts in Eastern DR Congo by Global Witness. It documents how «all the main warring parties are heavily involved in the mineral trade in North and South Kivu», both rebels and the national Congolese army (FARDC). Their involvement includes the use of forced labour, systematic extortion, illegal “taxes” on the civilian population, as well as outright violence. In the Bisie mine in North Kivu, an army brigade operated as rogue feudal landlords for almost three years, reaping huge profits by taxing the miners. Their commander, Colonel Sammy Matumo, has not faced any disciplinary or legal action.
The FARDC and the FDLR (remnants of the old genocidal regime in Rwanda), who are supposed to be enemies, sometimes cooperate on this lucrative business, «carving up territory and mining areas through mutual agreement and sometimes sharing the spoils».
Natural resource rents are keeping the conflict in Eastern Congo alive, providing various armed groups both with a means and a motive to keep fighting. Foreign companies play their part, as do various intermediaries Global Witness, having contacted more than 200 companies doing business in the DRC, reports «a lack of a sense of urgency and limited commitment to applying checks throughout the entire supply chain» of the major electronics companies. Minerals such as coltan, cassiterite and wolframite are used in the manufacture of electronic goods such as telephones and gaming consoles. Watch NRK’s excellent documentary «Connecting people» to learn more (in Norwegian).
The results? A decade of conflict. Millions dead. GDP at below 1975 levels and a HDI of 0.389. In July this year, there were around two million internally displaced people. When I visited the DRC in April this year, an Oxfam aid worker told me that none of the IDPs he had interviewed were on the run for the first time, nor the second. A few for the third time, while most were fleeing from their homes for the fourth or fifth time in a few years.
What is happening in Congo is an example of what economists have dubbed the «resource curse» – a somewhat broad term referring to the observation that countries endowed with natural resources tend to perform worse than others in terms of economic and human development. This is why oil has been dubbet «the Devil’s excrement» – a description which would be just as fitting for Congolese minerals. This happens through various mechanisms – promotion of corruption and clientalism, dutch disease, volatility of prices – and armed conflict. Natural resource reserves are both an attractive prize to claim and a means to fund an army, and therefore work to increase the chance of civil war.
Or do they?
World Bank economist Paul Collier, one of the big shots on this field of research, has found a correlation between resource dependence and war. He is being challenged by Christa Brunnschweiler and Erwin Bulte, who in a recent paper claim that the relation might be just the opposite:
Countries with more abundant natural capital appear to have a lower probability of becoming engaged in civil war. However, civil war tends to disrupt manufacturing and scare investors away, thus leading to increased dependence upon natural resources. The relation appears not to be natural resource dependency -> civil war, but civil war -> natural resource dependency.
(Look to Norway! To Botswana! To the admittedly undemocratic, but nevertheless stable petrostates of the Middle East!)
Why do Collier and Brunnschweiler/Bulte arrive at different conclusions? Basically, because they measure resource dependency differently. Collier looks at resource dependence, measured as natural resource exports as a percentage of GDP. This measure may be problematic. A poor country will be counted as being more resource abundant than a rich country with the same amount of resources. Brunnschweiler and Bulte use resource abundance as a starting point, the net present value in US dollars per capita of the natural resource stock of a country, and derive resource dependence through a more complex equation.
As a consequence, Brunnschweiler and Bulte argues, the label ‘resource curse’ may be misplaced, and common sense as we have leaned to know it could be turned upside down. Maybe. But some of the most conflict-promoting resources, such as diamonds, are not included in their dataset, and the final verdict is yet to be issued on the resource/war link.
To the people dying in the coltan mines of Congo, however, the resource curse is very much a reality. While the results of a generalized statistical regression may point in one direction or another, natural resources clearly has the potential both to fuck up a country (DRC) and make it filthy rich (Norway). As Ragnar Torvik writes, «[t]he most interesting aspect of resource abundant countries is not their average performance, but their huge variation. Resource abundant countries constitute some of the richest and some of the poorest countries in the world». Can we get closer to the answer by looking more closely at different policies and institutions?
I was intrigued enough by this to make it the subject of my term paper in political economy and macroeconomics. You can read it here. This has also been the subject of a recent article in New York Times.
Stopping for three days in Riga on my way from Oslo, I met up with the Latvian tribe of role-players, who were happy to share their city, their beer and their company with some random Norwegian. One guy even handed me the keys to his appartment and let me stay there, alone, without ever having met me before. His girlfriend spent a whole day showing me around the city. What genuinely hospitable and generous people.
(My only previous connection with the Latvian larpers is two articles written by Agnese Dzervite, edited by me, in the anthology Larp, the Universe, and Everything, published in conjunction with the Knutepunkt live roleplaying conference in Oslo earlier this year. If you want to know more about Latvian role-playing, check it out.)
Judging by the laid-back, chilled-out ambience in the city, one would not believe that Lativa competes closely with Iceland as the one country that thas been most thoroughly fucked over by the global financial meltdown. But resigned complaints about the SNAFUness of it all were never far away, much like Norwegians complains about the weather.
Here are some numbers for you. In an economy where perpetual growth is concidred ‘normal’, Latvia’s economy shrank 18.7 percent in the second quarter of 2009. Public budgets have been slashed. 68 percent of working people have had their wages cut, and over 67 percent of the private sector has let staff go in Latvia, according to Baltic Times. Unempoyment figures have risen to 17,4 percent. This summer, stories began appearing in Baltic newspapers about patients being turned away from hospitals.
Scandinavian banks cheerfully contributed to driving public debt to unsustainable levels – money which was, by and large, used for blowing hot air into real estate prices rather than for investment. Among the culprits are Swedish SEB and Swedbank and DnB NORD (a joint operation between Norddeutsche Landesbank and DnB NOR, both of them partly government-owned). Foreign-owned financial institutions hold the huge majority of Latvian loans, and Scandinavian banks are sometimes jokingly referred to as the real central bank authorities of the country.
When I arrived, Latvia had just been granted more crisis cash from €7.5bn rescue package of the IMF. This will not save them from making «substantial corrective measures, including additional fiscal consolidation», which is IMF-speak for cuts in wages and public services.
The Latvian government has, in conjunction with the European Union and the IMF, decided to maintain Latvia’s pegged exchange rate with the euro. Critics (such as Paul Krugman, Edward Hugh, Center for Economic and Policy Research et al) allege that thish as made recovery from the crisis all the more difficult. As far as my limited knowledge of the situation allows, I think I agree.
With the currency fixed rate, the only way to reduce the country’s current account imbalance is through shrinking the economy, which reduces imports faster than exports and may also reduce real wages. This is similar to the IMF-sponsored policies in the deep Argentine recession of 1998-2002, where a fixed, over-valued currency worsened and prolonged the downturn until the Argentine currency collapsed in 2002.
Meanwhile, I hung out in the park in the late summer sunshine with the Latvians. Zhanete showed me the most charming used bookshop you’ll find anywhere. At night, the city came alive with the White Night culture festival, with art exhibitions and performances being held all over the city centre. There were jugglers, puppets, paper cranes, nude men, music and lightshows. It was beautiful.
And then I went home, to Oslo.
Just a quick photo update this time, from Charyn canyon, about 200 kilometers east of Almaty and a popular trekking spot. The Charyn River is running through the Valley of the castles, with Grand canyon-style rock sculptures, good climbs and a guardsman with the lamest excuse ever for overcharging us («You see, I was drunk yesterday when I told you didn’t have to pay»).
It also had some surprises in store. I discovered that when I suddenly became stuck on a ledge, with no way to go but four or five meters horizontally downwards and my arm still bandaged.
(Yes, I know. But I wasn’t really climbing, just walking, and it suddenly became very steep. So steep, in fact, that I couldn’t go back.)
As I tore of my bandage, grabbed what holds I could find and tried not to apply to much pressure on the broken parts of my hand, it started raining and everything beame slippery. I was saved only by my own badassery and, perhaps even more important, my steady climbing companion, Christian.
Anyway. Nice canyon. See for yourself.
(No, I’m still not in Kazakhstan anymore.)
On a small spot inthe Panilov park, between two massive Soviet-era monuments comemorating WWII and the October Revolution, a group of young people huddle together under the trees. They are the Almaty club of role-players – not an actual club, but a loose network of people playing live-action roleplaying games – having their weekly meeting. Not long ago they played this year’s big summer event, a Viking(!) larp drawing around 300 players. When I meet them they are preparing for the Fair of Epochs, an upcoming festival of fighting, dressing in costumes and getting drunk in the mountains.
The Kazakh larpers have, to English-speakers, been surrounded by an aura of mystery ever since this article appeared in The Independent. In 2001, Kazakh authorities apparently cracked down on «tolkienists», described here as «people who dress up as hobbits», as well as people with various other alternative lifestyles.
A few years later, Kazakh fantasy geeks were the subject of a chapter in You Can’t Get There from Here: A Year on the Fringes of a Shrinking World, in which the author travels to «some of the most exotic spots on Earth» in search of «the most colorful characters and communities she can find» in places «where others fear to tread. These are the two only references to Kazakh gamer culture I have been able to find on the non-Russian parts of the web.
All the «where others fear to tread» stuff aside: Kazakh gamers are people who like to dress in weird costumes, run around in the wilderness and hit each other with swords, just like you and me. finding them was not so difficult: I asked a few people around campus, and there I was.
There wil probably be an interview with the Kazakh larpers in an upcoming issue of the Norwegian geek magazine Pegasus, so I won’t spoil it by giving away too much here. But if you know Russian, you can check out the Almaty gamers’ home page.
Rocky vastness stretcing to the horizon in all directions. Hours of driving through barren landscapes. And still, an amazing variety – and, if you look closely, scattered signs of life. Again, pics speak louder than words.
With its 460.000 hectares, Altyn Emel is the biggest national park in Kazakhstan. Surprisingly, many of the Kazakhs I talked to had not heard about this massive nature reserve, which is located a few hundres kilometers outside of Almaty. Their loss. They’ll miss moments such as this:
Making my way up a massive sand dune, a hundred-meter climb in shifting sand, which gets into your shoes and eyes and everywhere and never lets you find your footing. Gruff from a night of sleeping in a tent and getting up too early to watch animals which never appeared. Fed up with life in general and sand and dust in particuar.
Then, the sand dune sang.
The «singing sand dune» is Altyn Emel’s perhaps best-known feature. As the wind swept over the dune, shifting the sand slightly, it emitted a loud, humming roar, not unlike that of a low-flying propeller plane. Running down the dune, it responded by lazy squeaks when my feet touched the sand. Magic.
First weekend in Almaty after a week of running around trying to register for courses, settling in my dorm room, taking care of paperwork that I don’t even pretend to understand, going to the first lectures, which are really about nothing else than the lecturer and the students seeing and feeling each other for the first time, just like home, the main difference being the incomprehensible Russian buzzing in and out of my ears like a swarm of mosquitoes. Similiar scenes are probably being played out on campuses worldwide as I write.
Then, a chance to breathe and take a look at the world outside of campus.
The Great Almaty Lake is located a few miles outside of the city, 2500 meters above sea level. Walking there, or climbing, takes a good five or six hours. I could go on about this, but the photos of the ascent and the lake itself speaks louder than words.Above the lake lies the GAISH astronomical observatory – on the surface a collection of unassuming buildings with a few slightly steampunkish antennae and radar installations sticking out. The observatory looks like something from S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl. Its real miracles, however, only become apparent when you go inside. One of the domed buildings houses a large telescope, operated by an old man looking slightly like Obi-Wan Kenobi. All sorts of wonders are visible through the telescope, such as Jupiter, the Andromeda galaxy, and differently-colored twin stars.
Settling in. I now have a dorm room, have attended my first class and is slowly working my way through the complex kremlinology of course registration (easier than the University of Oslo, but slightly more complex than BI). Campus is lush trees and sunshine.
KIMEP university was set up in 1991, shorty after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Staffed to a large degree by academcs imported from the West, it was intended to act as a catalyst for the transformation of Kazakhstan into a market-based economy. Now, it is attracting students from all over Central Asia and China, as well as a 20-odd number of US, European and Korean exchange students every term. Being modelled after the US system, KIMEP feels very much like my idea of a US university campus, though the two American exchange students present would most likely disagree. The working language of is English, and the words floating from the lecturers’ chairs are often of the nasal US-accented type.
Local businesses, of course, know this: The halls of KIMEP are decorated by large posters shouting «DO YOU MISS AMERICAN PIZZA? TRY PIZZA HUT NEXT DOOR! The Kazakhs have apparently adapted quite well to the logic of the market economy.
While GDP per capita shrank by 26 percent in the Nineties, the economy has been growing rapidly for the last decade. Before the global financial crisis punctured a few bubbles in the Kazakh economy, growth was measured in double digits, a growth mainly fuelled by oil and gas exports. This is why, if your read about Central Asian politics, you’ll stumble across journalistic jingoisms such as «The New Middle East» or «The New Great Game«. Basically, Central Asian oil and gas reserves are the largest in the world after the Middle East, and US, European, Chinese and Russian oil companies are stumbing over one another in a frantic effort to get their greasy palms into it.
(Norwegian StatoilHydro is here too, of course, but is a midget compared to the main players.) At the same time, the Central Asian governments themselves are nobody’s puppets. This all results in a petropolitical landscape that is likely give you a slight headache if you think too much about it. I had planned to do just that, having signed up for a course in Caspian petropolitics that was cancelled the the last minute.
If you, like me, think this is interesting but have no course, You could do worse than reading Lutz Klevemann’s The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia, an accessible introduction to the oily intrigues around the Caspian Sea.
(All the ‘great game‘ talk, by the way, is a reference to the 19th century, when Russia and Great Britain, the main imperialist powers of the day, were struggling for dominance over Central Asia through secret agents, diplomacy, and military conquest. A well-informed account, written in an anglocentric, boy’s own adventures-style, is The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia by Peter Hopkirk.)
I’ve stayed away from Pizza Hut so far. But the shashlyk across the street is delicious, and my Kazakh dormmates make great horsemeat pasta.
«Political art of the anarchist/autonomous blend, while having enjoyed a brief renaissance in the wake of the activist rampages of Seattle, Genoa and the like, is writhing in its death-throes, but defiantly refuses to lie down just yet. In its wake, artist are turning towards conceptions of a more personal character, namely, good old-fashioned fucking.»
I recently attended the larp New voices in art, which can be considered a parody of a contemporary art exhibition, or, more interestingly, of the larp scene itself. The players take on the roles as up-and-coming artists pitching their work at an exhibition. There was a game mechanic in effect compelling you to speak the truth about what you’re thinking about at the moment when another player demands it. As one of the participants put it, «in the beginning, people were expressing their true sentiments about the works of art. Later on, after downing a few glasses of wine, all they were talking about was sex.»
I have elaborated upon this point in an article in imagonem, the indie avantgardist RPG ‘zine you should be reading. Since this is the main point of this post, I’ll give you the link once more. Here it is. Go there.