TROMSO — Officials in China, now the second-largest economy in the world and a major global emitter of greenhouse gasses, now acknowledge that the country is important in the fight against global warming. It and many other Asian nations such as Singapore are also voicing greater concern about environmental changes in the Arctic region, changes they say are beginning to have a major impact back in their own countries.
A group of Chinese officials and scientists visited the Norwegian city of Tromso last month for the Arctic Frontiers conference, where 1,400 government officials, scholars and activists from 30 Arctic and non-Arctic countries gathered to discuss climate change and energy matters related to the Arctic.
Norway's Foreign Affairs Minister Borge Brende says China's growing economic affairs and scientific community will demand that the country become increasingly involved in issues related to the Arctic.
In fact, in 2013 China was granted permanent observer status to the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum for addressing the region's issues. India, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Singapore won similar recognition. The Arctic Council was founded about 20 years ago by eight nations with territory in the Arctic: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States.
Asian countries are now becoming more involved primarily because of issues related to climate change, shipping and natural resources, says Ian Storey, an expert at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. These countries, especially China, will also play an important role in exploiting the region's resources, he says.
A Singapore government official Sam Tan Chin Siong says that his country is facing threats related to rising sea levels caused by melting Arctic ice. Between 3.5% and 4.1% of the region's ice melted every 10 years from 1979 to 2012, according to a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations body.
Seven thousand kilometers away from the Arctic, Singapore has celebrated its 50th National Day on land, Tan says, but No. 100 might see it under water.
Another reason Asian countries are paying more attention to the Arctic is because more shipping lanes could open as ice disappears. One of these paths is the Northern Sea Route, which runs from the Atlantic Ocean, past Norway and Russia, and then into the Pacific.
Russian nuclear icebreaker Yamal on the Northern Sea Route —Photo: de:Benutzer:Wofratz
Six ships sailed through the route from Europe in 2010, and more came in following years. This Arctic route is shorter than the traditional one through Egypt's Suez Canal and the Strait of Malacca. The northern path could trim travel time from East Asia to Europe by 3% to 50%, and a voyage from China could be 40% shorter.
If an Arctic route could be used regularly, Chinese ships would use it more, says Zhang Pei, an expert from Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.
In 2013, the Yongsheng, a ship from China Ocean Shipping Co., traveled from Taicang, in the eastern province of Jiangsu, to the port of Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, via the Northern Sea Route. The vessel reached the major European port in 18 days, nine fewer than a trip using the Suez-Malacca path takes.
But Storey says that the northern passage is still unreliable, and not yet ready to challenge the Suez-Malacca option.
The Arctic region has oil reserves of more than 90 billion barrels, about 13% of the global total, according to a 2008 report from the U.S. Geological Survey. There are also 47 trillion cubic meters of natural gas reserves, 30% of the world total.
Chinese companies are already interested. In 2013, China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) agreed to buy one-fifth of the Yamal liquefied natural gas project in the Arctic from the Russian oil company Novatek Inc. No amount was announced.
Getting at Arctic oil and gas will be difficult and expensive, Zhang says, and cash-rich Chinese oil companies could be big players in the field. He warns, however, that they have no advantages in technology and personnel.
Russia, the United States and Norway have started researching technologies to exploit oil and gas in the region. Sun Xiansheng, a research institute expert, says Chinese companies will learn from foreign experience and are confident they will play a role in Arctic oil exploration.
In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.
SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.
What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?
But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.
An appetite for gentrification
I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.
In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.
This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.
Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.
Informal street vendors are casualties.
A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.
On paper, this all sounds great.
But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.
This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.
In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.
A call for food justice
Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.
Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.
It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.
In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.
Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.
Upending an existing foodscape
In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.
San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"
But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.
Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.
All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.
So what happens when new competitors come to town?
Starting at a disadvantage
As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.
My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"
San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.
When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.
Going up against the urban food machine
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.
I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.
When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.
Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.
It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.
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