Lecture discusses problems, opportunities in Central Asia

	Courtesy Photo
Ethnic Conflict

Courtesy Photo
Ethnic Conflict

Chelsea Lane

He is one of the only men to have walked in almost every city on the face of the earth, but professor Leon Yacher found himself Friday in Grand Rapids to teach Grand Valley State University students about the often-understudied region of Central Asia.

Yacher is currently professor and chairperson of the geography department and interim director of the graduate program in urban studies at Southern Connecticut State University. Born and raised in Peru, he immigrated to America as a teenager and began researching abroad in college. In 30 years as a geographer, Yacher has lectured on four continents and his research has been published in multiple languages.

In his lecture, “Ethnicity, Settlement, Conflict and Reconciliation in Cental Asia: A Geographical Perspective,” Yacher offered both a geographical overview of Central Asia and an exploration of some of the region’s sociopolitical issues. Central Asia presently faces a wide variety of challenges, including a struggle to find stable leadership, large gaps in distribution of wealth, ethnic tensions and establishing international trade routes. In addition, there is not even definitive agreement on which nations comprise Central Asia and where the region’s borders lie, although most agree that Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are part of Central Asia.

The Silk Road, a key trading route between Asia and Europe in the ancient world, once passed through the nations of Central Asia. Today, the “New Silk Road,” a highway system connecting China to Europe, helps facilitate trade between China and the European Union, China’s second-largest trading partner. However, the fact that the entire region is landlocked makes international trade – and access to clean water – an ongoing problem.

“Being landlocked creates geological disadvantages,” Yacher said. “…With any market, if you ship here, it will cost more. So you have to be nice to your neighbor so that they will give you access to the sea.”

While some countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – which Yacher called the “poor children” of Central Asia – are extremely impoverished, other countries like Kazakhstan have accumulated huge amounts of wealth from the oil and gas reserves along the Caspian Sea. In fact, the world’s largest mall is currently being built in Astana, Kazakhstan. Upon completion, the mall will span the length of more than 55 football fields.

The region also boasts a wide array of unique natural resources.

“Almaty (the capital of Kazakhstan) means ‘city of apples,’” Yacher said. “I must tell you that the variety of apples in this region is truly quite amazing. Some apples are used purely for cider; apples that, living here (in the United States), you wouldn’t even know anything about.”

Central Asia’s ethnic groups are equally diverse, with the people’s roots ranging from the Middle East to the ancient Mongols.

“It is extremely complex in that you can’t go to a city and not find other ethnic groups,” Yacher said. “Certainly after Revolution, the titular, that is to say, the dominant ethnic group is that one that began asserting its influence right away.”

Yacher, who has visited Central Asia “a couple dozen times,” interspersed various stories and anecdotes throughout his lecture, one of which involved competing Russian and American military bases in Kyrgyzstan.

“We Americans just love to irk the Russians,” he said. “…We have one of the biggest American flags I’ve ever seen (at our base), just pointing at the Russian base. It’s really Comedy Central at its best. But at the end of the day, the soldiers, Russian and American, go to the local bar and have a Pepsi together. So it’s really just posturing.”

His stories were greatly appreciated by the students in attendance.

“I thought this lecture might be a little dry, but Professor Yacher is very interesting and I quite enjoyed the discussion,” sophomore Kaley Bectel said.

Yacher ended the lecture with an appeal for students to someday visit Central Asia themselves.

“The U.S. government is in great need of young people like you – they don’t want old people like me-to go there,” he said. “… The Fulbright Program is really very, very generous.”

[email protected]