Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Why should you care about the Albertine Rift? The November National Geographic does a spectacular job of explaining


The Albertine Rift extends 920 miles from Lake Albert in the north to Lake Tanganyika in the south. The giant but much shallower Lake Victoria, by the way, isn't a true rift lake at all, though as the National Geographic article explains, its underlying geology explains why the East African Rift splits below Uganda into western and eastern portions. (By all means click to enlarge this map, which this isn't a National Geographic map, by the way. It's from the Woods Hole Research Center's PAWAR project.)

"As the global population soars toward nine billion by 2045, this corner of Africa shows what’s at stake in the decades ahead. The Rift is rich in rainfall, deep lakes, volcanic soil, and biodiversity. It is also one of the most densely populated places on Earth. A desperate competition for land and resources—and between people and wildlife—has erupted here with unspeakable violence. How can the conflict be stopped? Will there be any room left for the wild?"
-- the introductory blurb for the November
National Geographic feature
"Rift in Paradise"

"The paradox of the Albertine Rift is that its very richness has led to scarcity. People crowded into this area because of its fertile volcanic soil, its plentiful rainfall, its biodiversity, and its high altitude, which made it inhospitable to mosquitoes and tsetse flies and the diseases they carry. As the population soared, more and more forest was cut down to increase farm and grazing land. Even in the 19th century the paradise that visitors beheld was already racked with a central preoccupation: Is there enough for everyone?"
-- from Robert Draper's main article text

"The Albertine Rift, as writer Robert Draper and photographers Pascal Maitre and Joel Sartore show us in this month’s story, is a landscape shaped by violence -- the convulsions of plate tectonics produced its beautiful lakes, savannas, and mountains. But the overlay of human violence on its geography is unremittingly ugly. The Rift is a malignant tangle of human need and suffering."
-- from Geographic Editor Chris Johns's Editor's Note

"In the [Ugandan] capital city of Kampala, one gets a taste of what the end of the world might look like. Uganda is a country that can sustainably hold 8 to 9 million people. They're at 34 million now, on their way to 80 to 90 million by mid-century. The cars are out of a Mad Max movie. People cook meat in the dark by burning charcoal in tire rims. Mounds of garbage are everywhere. It's filthy, grueling, and crushing."
-- from photographer Joel Sartore's sidebar essay,
Close Call in Paradise"

by Ken

I've written a number of times about one of my favorite New York City tour leaders, Jack Eichenbaum, with whom I've done tours organized by the Municipal Art Society, the New York Transit Museum, the Queens Historical Society (Jack is the Queens borough historian), as well as tours of his own (notably the more or less day-long "Life on the #7 train"), trying to explain that what sets Jack apart from other tour guides is in part his profession: not "architectual historian" or "urban historian," but urban geographer.

Oh, I know. You're saying, "OMG, this one is going to start yammering now about bleeping geography. There is truly no God."

What can I say? I know Americans hate geography. Almost as much as they hate history, and they only hate history more because they're more often poked and prodded about historical jibberjabber they don't want to know about. Whereas Howie and I have had lifelong fascinations with geography. Not identical fascinations, but fascinations strong and deep enough to be an important underpinning of our bond.

So when I do a walking tour with Jack Eichenbaum, I know I'm not going to get so much about the design of the buildings, as I will from other tour leaders. What I'm likely to get striking insight into is how the development of regions and towns and cities and neighborhoods has been shaped by the configuration of land and water as related to the surrounding area and impacted on by climate and weather. So much of New York City's development, for example, has been strongly influenced by transportation -- as with the arrival and placement -- all geography-influenced -- of trolleys and ferries, and later railroads and subways.

Which is by way of trying to explain why I've been blown away by a spectacular set of features in the November National Georgraphic focusing on a seemingly arcane subject: the Albertine Rift of East Africa. Oh, I've known in a general way about the East African rift system, and with maybe a little prompting I could have explained that it's a major north-south fault system at the juncture of the Nubian and Somali plates (to the west and east, respectively). But in truth I would have been kind of vague about what geographical form this rift system takes -- kind of vague, and wrong.

In my head I've got the phrase "East Africa Rift Valley," and so I always think "valley" -- that the rift takes the form of a valley in the region where the two great plates are pulling apart. And there is a certain amount of valley in the East African Rift system. But there are also substantial mountains and, perhaps most significantly, resource-rich highlands, along with those big lakes, the "Great Lakes of Africa."

This issue of the Geographic includes one of the society's famous "map supplements," a feature that used to excite me but hasn't much for a lot of years now. This one, though, has on one side the best map I've ever seen of the region, and on the other side a host of visual elements that help the reader understand just what goes into making up the region's geography. It's been a couple of weeks now, and I'm still beginning to digest this material. It actually shows us, not just tells but shows, the four basic kinds of terrain found in the Albertine Rift. Just extraordinary stuff. I'm sorry I couldn't find any of it online to share.

National Geographic caption for this photo by Pascal Maitre: Rule of the gun prevails in North Kivu, a conflict-ravaged province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Mai-Mai Kifuafua, one of many local militias, flaunts its power on a road where it extorts money from villagers and travelers. For almost 20 years near-constant fighting over land, mining riches, and power has terrorized the people.

In addition, before this issue I certainly wouldn't have understood how this underlying geography has set the stage, in the western part of this rift system, known as the Albertine Rift, for a goodly chunk of the worst violence and destruction taking place on the planet in recent decades. The paragraph I've quoted at the top of this post, from Robert Draper's main article, has its stage set by these two paragraphs:
The horrific violence that has occurred in this place -- and continues in lawless eastern Congo despite a 2009 peace accord -- is impossible to understand in simple terms. But there is no doubt that geography has played a role. Erase the borders of Uganda, the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo], Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania and you see what unites these disparate political entities: a landscape shaped by the violent forces of shifting plate tectonics. The East African Rift System bisects the horn of Africa -- the Nubian plate to the west moving away from the Somalian plate to the east—before forking down either side of Uganda.

The western rift includes the Virunga and Rwenzori mountain ranges and several of Africa's Great Lakes, where the deep rift has filled with water. Called the Albertine Rift (after Lake Albert), this 920-mile-long geologic crease of highland forests, snowcapped mountains, savannas, chain of lakes, and wetlands is the most fecund and biodiverse region on the African continent, the home of gorillas, okapis, lions, hippos, and elephants, dozens of rare bird and fish species, not to mention a bounty of minerals ranging from gold and tin to the key microchip component known as coltan. In the 19th century European explorers like David Livingstone and John Hanning Speke came here searching for the source of the Nile. They gazed in awe at the profusion of lush vegetation and vast bodies of water, according to the scholar Jean-Pierre Chrétien: "In the heart of black Africa, the Great Lakes literally dazzled the whites."

National Geographic Editor Chris Johns provides this up-front Editor's Note from which I've also quoted up top, which in fact I hadn't read until I was preparing this post:
What began as an attempt to do my job in Africa’s Albertine Rift still haunts me. A lovely young woman carrying firewood on her back was walking through lush forest. My guide, a local schoolteacher, asked the woman if I could take her picture. She readily agreed. Afterward I asked if it was appropriate to reward her graciousness. As I gave her a modest amount of money to make her life a little easier, a man swinging a machete burst out of the forest, screaming that he was her husband. In a drunken rage, he demanded more cash and threatened us. As we began to drive off, I glanced at the rearview mirror and saw the man beating her. I stopped and ran toward the stricken woman, but my guide pulled me back. He knew the man, he said. The situation could become more violent if I intervened. The man saw us and stopped his assault. They both waved me on. Reluctantly, I returned to my car, furious at the man and with myself, because I felt responsible for what had happened.

Five years later, in 1994, that region was the scene of more violence: the mass murder known as the Rwandan genocide.

The Albertine Rift, as writer Robert Draper and photographers Pascal Maitre and Joel Sartore show us in this month’s story, is a landscape shaped by violence -- the convulsions of plate tectonics produced its beautiful lakes, savannas, and mountains. But the overlay of human violence on its geography is unremittingly ugly. The Rift is a malignant tangle of human need and suffering. For millennia, people have crowded into the region, attracted by its fertile land and minerals. “The paradox,” Draper says, “is that its very richness has led to scarcity,” and in the story you will read why. This dilemma provokes the unshakable worry: Is there enough for everyone? That’s the pervading question in this seventh story in our Seven Billion series on world population.

I think we're all familiar with place names like Rwanda and Burundi, with their recent history of genocidal violence, and of course perennially suffering Uganda (directly to the north of the Albertine Rift, but obviously intimately connected), and the eastern Congo city of Goma, which most of us are probably aware has become a catch basin for the horrific overcrowding and even more horrific violence besetting the region. It has grown from a minor regional outpost to a refugee-swollen dumping ground of 3 million, and to make matters worse, it's poised between two impending natural catastrophes: the already-active (and already-deadly) volcano Nyiragongo and the likely-to-explode vast concentrations of methane in Lake Kivu to the south.

Refugee-gigantized Goma (photo also by Pascal Maitre) is already a human disaster area, without reference to the potentially catastrophic dangers it faces from deadly volcano Nyiragongo and potentially explosive methane-loaded Lake Kivu.

One last point: At a time when the general assumption is that print magazines have no further use, this is a story that can only be told properly in print, with that map supplement at the ready. Good one, National Geographic!

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At 6:29 PM, Blogger teddymac said...

Thanks for this, I'll be sure to check it out at the library.

At 6:52 PM, Blogger Dameocrat said...

I dont trust national geographic since they have been bought out by fox news corporation. It sounds like they are trying to justify a socalled humanitarian intervention. whereby we will take all those resources for ourselves away from the black savages that dont deserve them.

At 6:03 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...


The cable and satellite National Geographic Channel has always been operated in partnership with News Corp (it was never "bought out"), which provided the TV expertise. But I'm not aware of any News Corp involvement in any other activities of the National Geographic Society, including the magazine. Have I missed something?


At 6:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is one of the best articles I have read- It was an edge of the seat page turning frenzy that left me angry, depressed and wondering whether the ends might sometimes justify the means-


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