The News You Missed in 2020, From Every Country in the World (Part 1)
In 2020, one singularity dominated the news. There was one story that filled almost every front page, of every paper, on every day. If I asked you what was the biggest story from 2019, or 2018, or 2017, or almost any other year was, there’d be some debate, but not in 2020. I don’t even have to tell you what I’m talking about--you already know. But just because the front pages were clogged up, that’s not to say page two, three, or four were. While we may have stood still, the world kept spinning, and news kept happening--some of it was heavy, some was sad, some was bizarre, and some momentous--but what binds these stories together is that you likely didn’t hear about them. By no fault of your own, it was difficult to follow what was happening in the world, because the only thing you could hear was that one, singular story. The year’s not over yet, though, at least as I’m saying this, and so
there’s still a chance to catch up on the news you missed in 2020, from every country in the world. Here’s how this’ll work. We ordered the countries by population from largest to smallest according to 2019’s statistics. There are 195 of them: 193 countries recognized by the United Nations, plus two UN-observer states: Palestine and the Vatican City. This list was chosen because
it is the most definitive list, it’s the list most commonly used as a list of all countries, so some of its entries might include nations that you or your government do not consider as countries, or omit ones that you or your government do recognize. At the end of the day, we had to pick a list, and if any is the list of countries, it’s this one. Oh, and one more rule: the C word, as in, the word that describes that one, singular story of 2020, you’re not going to hear it once. We start in China, the most populated country in the world, which continues to expand its global presence, and in this case, its space presence too. It became the second country in the world to plant a national flag on the moon, 50 years after the United States did. China is trying to catch up with American and Russian planetary endeavors, and, in recent years, has poured millions into its military-run space program with the hopes of sending humans to the moon.
Another country with a burgeoning space-program is India, where Amazon recently completed its largest office building in the world. The 1.8-million-square-foot behemoth was erected in Hyderabad--a city of nearly 10 million that’s grown into a sizable technology and financial hub. India, as the world’s second-most-populous country, is the fastest growing internet market and Amazon joins other major tech multinationals which have opened offices there, though none with a campus that spans 65 football fields. A United States man that was facing sentencing for two vehicle-theft charges might be looking at a lot more jail time now that he was caught faking his death. His attorney submitted a fraudulent death certificate, and it might have passed had there not been typos, like the misspelling of “registry.” Stay in school, kids.
In Indonesia, a stimulus bill aimed at restarting Southeast Asia’s largest economy was met with months of protests because citizens said it slashed worker’s rights and environmental regulations. But, President Joko Widodo signed the bill into law anyway, saying it will bring over a 1 million jobs to the struggling economy, which until this year, had been on an upward trajectory. Opponents, though, argue it weakens rules that already don’t do enough to protect the country’s natural resources and workers. Rice is a serious business in southern Asia, and it’s a profitable one too. That’s why Pakistan is vehemently fighting India over the long grain—basmati to be specific. This year, India applied to the European Union for a designation that recognizes basmati rice as an exclusive export of the country, even though one-third of EU imports on the product come from Pakistan. In recent years, Pakistan’s basmati rice exports to the EU have doubled,
while India’s are shrinking—which makes the designation, if granted, potentially more devastating and further increases tensions between these two neighbors. Between rain forest fires and a negligent president, the news streaming out of Brazil has been heavy. But, a new discovery about the mating habits of the Thoropa taophora frog lightened the feed. Frogs are either typically monogamous
or not—meaning they get around. This species however, prefers “harem” style—one male to two or more specific females—which is much more common in mammals throughout the animal kingdom, but not seen before in amphibians. Dubbed “group fidelity,” finding this behavior in another set of four-legged animals checks another box in the evolutionary list. One particular virus has dominated the news cycle this year, but in Nigeria, they’re dealing with an entirely different one too--the yellow fever. The disease, which is spread by mosquitoes, had basically been eradicated for 20 years until 2017 when it crept back into the country because of climate change and lower vaccination rates. Now, it’s spiking. In the latter part of 2020, 75 people have already died and health
officials worry that number will increase as people are still hesitant to get vaccinated. India is being beat in another metric as well, and it’s an important one. Bangladesh most likely surpassed India in gross domestic product this year, according to International Monetary Fund estimates. Why does that matter? Well, India is the world’s sixth-largest economy,
and its 10% GDP contraction is a concerning indicator for the world economy. Thanks to increased agricultural production and a focus on developing its low-wage labor workforce, Bangladesh, on the other hand, was able to expand its GDP by 4% this year. Another country that’s known to be slightly competitive is Russia, and that’s a problem since they were banned from the biggest global sporting competition of 2020 because of doping—that would be the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Of course the event was postponed until 2021 anyway, but new investigations reveal that Russia was planning to cyberattack the games, which is something they’ve done before when they attempted to wreak havoc on the Winter Olympics in South Korea by dismantling ticketing and wifi for the opening ceremony, as well as targeting individual broadcasters, sponsors, and athletes. Before flights were ground to a halt in the spring, one health insurer in Utah was taking advantage of Mexico’s inexpensive pharmaceutical prices and actually flying public employees from the United States to south of the border so they could buy drugs at a fraction of American prices. They also got the benefit of those in-flight snack peanuts and a free soda. It’s already
saved the company a quarter of a million dollars, and now other states are eyeing the move—and may mimic it once flight schedules resume to normal levels—meaning Mexico is bound to see an even greater boost to its already burgeoning pharmaceutical tourism industry. Fugaku is not just fun to say, it’s also the name of the world’s speediest computer, which was built this year in Japan. The room-sized computer took first place in a speed-ranking competition between supercomputers, carrying out 2.8 times more calculations than the second-place IBM machine built in the United States. This is notable for the Japanese, who have remained less competitive in the supercomputer realm, often following the leads of the US and China. The systems are used for complex military and scientific tasks,
including breaking code and modeling climate change, and, of course, winning competitions. Africa is getting its own great wall: a green one. The ambitious reforestation project is supposed to stretch 4,350 miles or 7,000 kilometers from Djibouti to Senegal, with an aimed completion date of 2030. Ethiopia is on track to meet its goal, having already planted 5.5 billion seedlings. But its neighbors are slow to start, and the project is only 4% complete at the halfway mark, mostly due to financial struggles. It turns out, it takes a lot of green to make a green wall, and so it's proving difficult for some of the world’s poorest countries to take this project to completion.
Money problems are also the reason that the Philippines’ largest news network cited when it shuttered dozens of its regional stations around the country, but the audience isn’t buying this excuse. Instead, they’re wondering if it has more to do with President Rodrigo Duterte’s criticism of the network’s coverage of his antidrug platform. Either way, the loss will be felt by millions of rural residents who rely on the network as a lifeline for critical information.
Wealthy residents of Egypt are getting their 15 minutes of fame, just 2,500 years too late. More than 100 ornately painted wooden coffins were unearthed by archaeologists near Saqqara, 20 miles or 30 kilometers south of Cairo. This area is a large burial ground and is home to more than a dozen sites with similar tombs. This discovery, however, is one of the most exciting in recent years and comes at a time when the country continues to try to draw tourists back after a sharp decline resulting from the Arab Spring in the early 2010s.
Tourism isn’t a problem in Vietnam, where 18 million people visit per year, and that should mean liquor sales aren’t either. But, a new zero-tolerance drunk-driving law that went into effect this year has taken the fizz out of one of the world's faster growing beer markets. Since implementation, beer sales have dropped 25% in the country, and violators face a fine of up to $345, which is double what the average Vietnamese makes in a month. Even those who think riding a bike is a safe alternative will be shocked with a $25 fine for drunk-pedaling. In other 2020 epidemic news, the World Health Organization declared that an ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was officially over, after two years and 2,280 deaths. It was the country’s 10th outbreak of the disease, but its second most deadly, stemming from people’s mistrust of the government and feuding between officials. That doesn’t mean the country is in the clear though, as
it’s now dealing with the world’s largest measles epidemic, and, of course, the global pandemic. Germans are taking a stand, and, well, technically a sit, in Dannenröder forest, south of Frankfurt, where they’ve been camped out to oppose the government’s construction of a highway that will route through the wild lands and cut down 67 acres or 27 hectares of 250-year-old trees. These activists are calling the government hypocritical for cutting down cherished trees when it should focus on public transportation infrastructure, and both sides expect standoffs for months to come. Also bad news for trees are the more than 9 million that have died in Turkey. Last year, as part of National Forestation Day, volunteers across the country planted 11 million trees across more than 2,000 sites—including 303,150 saplings planted in Çorum, which broke the world record for most trees planted in a single location. Now, officials are reporting that up to 90% of these have died because they either weren’t planted properly or lacked enough rainfall to grow.
In neighboring Iran, a woman was filmed riding a bike without a hijab near a major mosque in Najafabad. Why is this news? Well, in Iran, it’s been against Islamic law since 1979 for women to be seen in public without a covering for their head and hair and this is largely obeyed. Though women have started to push the limits in larger cities, like Tehran, it’s still widely criticized and, in this case, punishable. The woman was arrested for this display, which was widely shared on social media. Another arrestable offense, this time in Thailand, is writing a bad online review--yes, you heard that correctly. An American living in the Southeast Asian country wasn’t happy with being charged a $15 corkage fee at a beach resort in Koh Chang, so he did what any thumb-happy traveler would do and wrote a negative TripAdvisor review. The hotel was
equally displeased and had him arrested on defamation charges, which are notably harsh in a country that attempts to stifle some free speech. He therefore spent a weekend in jail. In more turbulent waters, construction started on what will soon be the world’s largest off-shore wind farm. When completed, the Dogger Wind Farm in the North Sea off the eastern coast of the United Kingdom, will provide enough energy to power 4.5 million homes every year, or 5% of England’s total energy demand. The enormous energy production capability is made possible by their use of one of the world’s largest wind turbines, the Haliade-X, which stands 853 feet or 260 meters tall and has 351-foot or 107-meter blades.
Requiring much less power than that, though, is the Ami, a mini car released in France that can be driven without a license by anyone over 14. Manufactured by Citroen, the all-electric Ami is what’s officially dubbed a light quadricycle. The four-wheel cube can travel 28 mph or 45 km/h with a range of 46 miles or 75 kilometers, and it’s got a mini price too, ringing in at just over $7,000.
Another European product is making headlines, but this time it’s for lack of it. The world’s second-largest producer of olive oil, Italy, has been plagued by bad weather and a deadly bacteria, cutting production by more than a quarter this year. The Xylella bacteria, also called leprosy, has hit the olive trees in the Puglia region particularly hard, and those effects will be felt globally, especially in the United States, which purchases one third of Italy’s oil. At the southern end of the world, a 116-year-old man died in South Africa. He was, however, the oldest man in the world at the time of his passing, at least unofficially, having lived through the Spanish Flu, which took the lives of his entire family.
He credited his long life to “God’s grace,” but it may have been health and strength too—a couple weeks before he died of natural causes, his family said he was chopping wood with a 4-pound hammer. Up the African coast, the two largest Tanzanite gemstones ever unearthed were pulled out of the only country in which they’re found: Tanzania. The two dark violet-blue minerals, each about 11 inches or 30 cm long and 4 inches or 10 cm thick, rang in roughly $3.35 million for the mining boss who runs the 200-person operation in the country’s northern region. He did what anybody who struck the motherlode would do:
promised to build a school and shopping mall, but first threw a neighborhood party. Multiple drug raids in the hills of Myanmar revealed a complex and burgeoning synthetic drug market that’s speculated to be fueling global demand for opioids like methamphetamine and fentanyl. The seizures were the largest finds in Southeast Asian history, and represent a transition away from China, which had previously been supplying many of the chemicals for synthetics but cracked down under worldwide pressure. In Kenya, the score is 1 for the fig tree, 0 for developers. A four-story tree in the country’s capital of Nairobi was set to be cut down to make way for an expressway but environmentalists put up a fight—and they won. Not only will the tree be preserved in its spot, but it’s now been elevated
to legend status, gaining notoriety both as an environmental symbol and as a call to action to protect even more green space in a city that’s constantly seeing parks and nature eliminated. In grimmer news, the mayor of Seoul, the capital of South Korea, was found dead in a park this summer. He was a potential presidential candidate and the second-most powerful person in the country, so the passing sent unrest through the nation. Several days before his death, a former secretary accused him of sexual harassment—especially shocking since he was a champion of women’s rights in a male-dominated country—so his death is being treated as a suicide. A less grim story comes from another mayor on the other side of the world in Bogota, Columbia, who recently became the first openly lesbian mayor ever for the capital city in January.
This was an historic moment for the conservative Catholic country, and Latin America in general. Claudia Lopez married her partner in 2019, and is recognized for being a progressive beacon in a region that’s slow to progress LGBTQ rights. Yachting in the Iberian Sea was a little more raucous than usual this fall, after a string of orca incidents were reported in Spain, in which killer whales were targeting boat rudders and causing damage to more than a dozen vessels. The increasingly aggressive interactions initially puzzled researchers, but they now believe the trio of orcas—which accounted for almost two-thirds of the two dozen reports—were previously injured by a boat and perhaps reacting defensively to yachts because of those traumatic incidents. Another boating story brings us to Argentina, where a determined sailor finally docked on land after completing an 85-day journey across the Atlantic Ocean. The Portugeuse resident set sail in mid-March after lockdown restrictions kept him from traveling to see his 90-year-old father. He would not be deterred by the lack of flights,
and decided to voyage by sea in his 29-foot boat, accompanied by rice, canned tuna, and fruit. Uganda is home to 50% of the world’s mountain gorillas, so when one of the country’s most famous, Rafiki, was killed by a poacher, the government took a harder stance than it had previously. Officials chose to jail the killer for six years. This landmark ruling sends a message to future poachers that animal killings won’t be tolerated and is a win for wildlife groups which have been calling for more restrictive measures for many years. In terms of on-brand news for 2020, wildfires coming within 1 mile of Chernobyl in Ukraine has to be near the top of the list. An 18-mile radius exclusion zone was set up after the nuclear
disaster there in the ‘80s, and this wildfire spread into that area, causing officials to worry that not only would radioactive material be dispersed into the air, but that it might threaten existing structures and a disposal site. More than 300 firefighters were able to control the burn, preventing this lesser-known story from becoming a major headline. When a migrant rescue boat came across a backpack floating in the Meditteranean Sea, officials assumed its owners had perished in crossing from Algeria to Italy, as is often the case with many found personal objects floating in this part of the world. But this time, there was a happy ending: An NGO in Italy was able to track down the owners of the personal items, who were migrants that survived a shipwreck, and return the contents to them, which included their inscribed wedding rings.
Sudan is taking baby steps toward democracy, after three decades of oppressive laws that were primarily targeted toward women. Of highest priority is banning female genital mutilation--a typically religious practice that affects almost 90% of Sudanese women. The new transitional government is also loosening wardrobe restrictions for women, and saying OK to alcohol consumption, at least for non-Muslims in the country.
The 3,600-year-old Gilgamesh Dream Tablet is being returned to its rightful home in what is now Iraq, where it originated, after a curious and illegal journey that brought it to the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC, which was co-founded by none other than tablet king and crafts retail giant Hobby Lobby. The rare cuneiform tablet features one of the oldest works of literature in the world, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and was purchased by Hobby Lobby at auction for $1.6 million in 2014. This isn’t the first time Hobby Lobby has had problems with the provenance of its acquisitions, as it previously had to forfeit 5,500 artifacts and pay a $3 million fine.
National identity cards in Afghanistan include a person’s name, date of birth, and now, both of their parents’ names, which sounds pretty normal, but previously, just the father’s name was listed because using a woman’s in public was traditionally frowned upon and even considered an insult—it’s a restriction that goes so far that much of Afghanistan does not list females’ names on their gravestones. This step in updating ID cards is seen as a small victory for women’s rights in the overwhelmingly conservative country. When a herd of elephants at Poland’s Warsaw zoo became sad after losing their matriarch—which lead a given herd—veterinarians turned to Colorado’s favorite stress reliever: medical marijuana. The three African elephants are being given doses of liquid cannabis through their trunks, and researchers will study hormone levels in their blood over the next two years to monitor how it affects their stress. A small town of 7,000 people in Canada gave itself a new identity when they voted this year to change the city’s name from Asbestos to Val-des-Sources, or Valley of the Springs.
The town got its name for being home to the largest asbestos mine in the world, but since the mineral has been linked to causing cancer and the mine has shut, residents voted to disassociate from the toxic substance. But it wasn’t without a fight. More veteran members of the community were opposed to the name change as they felt it was unnecessary, because in French, which is spoken there, the word for asbestos is amiante. Tensions are simmering in a United Nations-backed buffer zone between Morocco and Mauritania, which could bring a 29-year truce to a boiling point. The Western Sahara-contested
zone has long been controlled by Morocco under a ceasefire agreement with the Polisario Front, a pro-independence movement. But now, the front has blocked transportation between the two countries, and Morocco launched a military operation in response. On the same latitude, but a few time zones over, Saudi Arabia wants to maintain its claim as the world’s top energy exporter, but now with hydrogen. Blue hydrogen is a carbon dioxide byproduct of reforming natural gas,
and Saudi Arabia sent its first cargo shipment of it to Japan this year, all in an effort to profit off of the world’s transition to greener fuels. Part of this goal also includes plans to build a $5 billion hydrogen-based ammonia plant powered by renewable energy on the Red Sea. Uzbekistan’s language can be written in three ways: Arabic, Cyrillic, and Latin, but it’s the latter that will soon be the norm, thanks to a decree by the country’s president which called for a faster transition away from Cyrillic. Though Uzbek was originally written in Arabic, Russian influence during the early 20th century changed it to Cyrillic and now, to distance itself from Russia, Uzbekistan wants to move toward Latin script, consisting of 29 letters and 1 apostrophe, to help develop a stronger, more unique national identity. Peruvians are hoping that the third time’s a charm after three presidents reigned in just one week. Francisco Sagasti will now lead the country, following a Congress-led ousting of one president and a five-day term-turned-resignation by the second. Sagasti is seen as a consensus-builder,
so citizens are hopeful, but the tumultuous leadership changes over the past several years leave a lot of uncertainty, and, frankly, apathy, at this point. If there’s a baby boom this spring, a shortage of condom manufacturing in March may be the culprit. A Malaysian company, Karex Bhd, makes one in every five condoms globally, and when the pandemic hit this year, facilities were forced to shut down resulting in at least 100 million fewer condoms worldwide. It ramped back up quickly, but the effects of a shortage like this could be at least nine months away. It’s been a year for Africa’s richest woman, Isabel dos Santos. She’s the eldest daughter of Angola’s former longtime leader Jose Eduardo dos Santos, and in January was charged with embezzlement and laundering more than $1 billion from her native country.
Then, in October, her husband died in, reportedly, a diving accident off the coast of Dubai. He was an avid art collector, and also tied up in the scandal she faced, meaning it’s a tragic tale with lots of plot twists, that doesn’t seem to have a final chapter yet. Another story about $1 billion revolves around the United Kingdom’s investment in Mozambique. This year, a deal was inked to send UK taxpayer-funded financial support to develop and export the African country’s gas reserves—one of the largest financing projects on the continent ever, according to some reports—but citizens and environmental groups are shouting “hypocrite” as the UK continues to claim it’s a global leader in the fight against climate change. Speaking of oil in Africa, a floating storage and offloading facility moored off the coast of Yemen continues to deteriorate and threatens to spill 1.1 million barrels of crude
oil into the Red Sea, which would be four times the amount of the Exxon Valdez spill. The war in Yemen has prevented the United Nations from doing anything to prevent a potential leak, but recently Houthi rebels—which control the area where the vessel is stuck and the oil company that owns it—gave permission for world leaders to move ahead with rehabilitation plans. The African country of Ghana may be a respite for Black Americans seeking refuge from the United States’ ongoing racial injustice, and Ghanian officials are actually recruiting members of the African diaspora. The government set up a handful of enticements for transplants, including land deals, expatriate guides, and quicker paths to citizenship, and all of this comes on the heels of a 45% increase in visitor numbers from the United States last year. Math, science, and reading are, of course, required subjects for children in school, and now, in one country, downward dog is too. In March, Nepal became the first nation in the world to incorporate yoga into its mandatory curriculum. Students in the Himalayan country won’t just
practice the poses, but they’ll learn about the history of yogic thought and Ayurvedic medicine. Children, or the idea of them at least, are making headlines in Venezuela, where controversial Twitter-happy President Nicolas Maduro asked for every woman in the country to have six children. The plea was met with immediate backlash because the country is in a deep economic recession, and is unable to provide essential services like food and healthcare for the millions of residents it already has. He, apparently, views more children as part of the solution, though he offered little in the way of specifics as to how.
Ever heard of Voeltzkow’s chameleon? No? Well, that’s OK, almost nobody has, since the elusive reptile hadn’t been seen in almost 100 years and was actually placed on the extinction list. But, this year a team of researchers spotted it on the northwest tip of Madagascar. There, the reptile is only thought to live during the rainy season, making it a “mayfly of vertebrae.” This, of course, makes it even more vulnerable to the deforestation that continues to threaten their sheer existence, but its rediscovery gives scientists hope for other species which were also thought to be extinct.
More than 40% of North Korean men smoke, but a new law that bans puffing down in public places might smolder that statistic. Citing health reasons, tobacco is now prohibited in specific venues, such as political and ideological education centers, theaters, cinemas, and medical and public health facilities. One person who might struggle with this new law: Leader Kim Jong Un, who is a chain smoker and frequently photographed with a cigarette in hand. But, the country is moving forward with the prohibition despite being unable to convince its supreme leader to kick the habit. Political unrest looms over the Ivory Coast after President Alassane Ouattara won, controversially, a third term in November. When his planned successor suddenly died this summer,
Ouattara reneged on his pledge to leave office, and even though he received 94% of the vote, many, including the opposition, saw the process as unfair. It’s indicative of a wider trend in African politics, which has seen third-term bids and constitutional amendments increasing in recent years. The unearthing of four 8,000-year-old skeletons in Cameroon is a groundbreaking find that’s providing new information about our current human species. The DNA from these skeletons offers the first genetic material from West African humans, painting a better picture of how ancient people split into four genetic groups, both physically and geographically. Of the four populations, it’s been the West African genes that have remained elusive to researchers—until now.
Another big find was recently made by scientists, this time in the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia, where a pinnacle of coral one third of a mile long was discovered by researchers. While you might think that the world-famous natural wonder would be thoroughly mapped out, this was actually the first major new element of the reef to be discovered in over 120 years. Of course, the reef is shrinking by the year due to the effects of climate-change and coral bleaching, so even the discovery of this comparatively small section is great news. Niger is one of the world’s poorest countries, but its location also makes it a key regional recipient of western aid funding the fight against Islamic terrorism. That’s why an audit of its defense spending that revealed a loss of $137 million over eight years raised more than eyebrows. Apparently the country was overcharged in several instances—sometimes by nearly $20 million—for important military equipment, and western countries that grant Niger money are questioning their decisions, and potentially future giving.
You don’t have to worry about the spread of airborne viruses in Sri Lanka’s newest museum because it’s... underwater. Created by naval officers off the southern tip of the island nation, the country’s first-ever below-water museum is a collection of artifacts and sculptures installed 50 feet beneath the surface. The attraction is not only intended to draw tourists, but it should lure fish and spur coral growth too.
One of Burkina Faso’s largest gold mines was shut down for almost a year after 39 employees were killed in an attack on their convoy. Since then, the Canadian-owned Boungou mine has restarted with tightened security measures and improved infrastructure. During the year hiatus, the mine’s owners actually changed from one Canadian company to another for $735 million, which is notable because, even though agriculture still accounts for 80% of the country’s economy, gold exports driven by foreign investments continue to develop alternative economic sectors. And on the subject of West African unrest, a military coup in Mali ousted the country’s president and prime minister in August, following eight years of disrupted elections, government corruption, and Islamist insurgency. Military colonels remain in power today. This further instability could send ripple effects across the region because of Mali’s strategic location for Western countries such as France and the United States, which have actively tried to prevent increased tensions in the area. File this story under stranger than fiction, because, well, it’s about nonfiction. Some 200
books, including first editions by Galileo and Sir Isaac Newton, were found buried underneath a rural Romanian cottage, after a three-year search that spanned 45 addresses and three countries. The $3.35 million worth of books were stolen during a heist from a London warehouse in 2017. Looking to get away from it all? For a cool $20 million, you can buy a 50,000-acre island off the coast of Chile. Acquiring private islands is nothing new, but this one is making headlines because environmentalists and the indigenous population are not happy that this biodiversity hotspot has a price tag at all. Even though the island has been in private hands for a century, they’re worried
that new ownership could jeopardize its future conservation and sets a dangerous precedent. In an effort to bolster its economy, Malawi became the fifth African country to decriminalize medical marijuana. Almost 80% of the country’s population is employed in agriculture, and it used to be a major producer of tobacco, but, as global demand for tobacco declines, it’s looking for alternative revenue streams. Enter, Malawi Gold, an already popular strain of recreational cannabis. The country’s dry climate is actually conducive to growing marijuana, and as the herb’s popularity increases around the world, Malawians plan to jump on the ganja train. Kazakhstan is known for a few things: its oil and gas economy, its proximity to Russia and Mongolia, and just generally for being a “stan,” but in Western culture it’s perhaps most famous for one of its fictional natives: Borat Sagdiyev. Played by actor Sacha Baron Cohen, the satirical character Borat pokes
fun at Kazakhstan with the catchphrase “Very nice!” but officials there realized those words have staying power, and recently officially adopted them as their official tourism slogan. The African Ansell mole-rat, native to Zambia, is near-blind, burrows underground, and this year, scientists discovered it can sense magnetic fields with its eyes. Though the animal’s eyes are barely functional, discerning between just light and dark, this new discovery gives more clues as to how the creature travels and lives in an underground network up to 1.7 miles or 2.7 kilometers long, and of course, it may help humans in our own scientific advances, as we learn more about nature, and as we often do, try to mimic it.
Government officials in Guatemala passed a $12.2 billion budget that raised stipends for representatives’ meals while cutting funding for human rights agencies, healthcare, and education, triggering residents to protest in the streets and set the congressional building on fire. Their anger at the misplaced spending comes on the heels of not only the pandemic, but two destructive hurricanes that tore through the country this fall. It turns out, tragedy after tragedy is when people need help the most. In July, Ecuador reported that more than 300 Chinese fishing vessels were encroaching on its exclusive fishing zones near the Galapagos, with the illegal fleets going as far as to turn off their tracking devices to remain undetected.
So the South American country joined coastal neighbors Chile, Peru, and Colombia to file a joint statement—or rather, a light threat—about protecting their waters from the increasing creep of foreign fishing, and ultimately, China’s expanding presence. Overseas, some new research into the life of the Netherlands’ most famous artist, Vincent Van Gogh, reveals that he didn’t suffer from schizophrenia or syphilis, as some have theorized, but rather that the delirium leading up to his death may be attributed to alcohol withdrawal. The artist was institutionalized twice—once after cutting off his ear—and reported hallucinations both times. Researchers now believe these symptoms were due to his lack of wine and absinthe, which he consumed in great amounts during the most prolific, and final, years of his life. In somber news, Syria topped an unenviable list in 2019, being named the deadliest place in the world for humanitarian workers. The report on the subject, released this year,
details that the number of people killed helping the war-torn country rose sharply last year, with the majority of deaths stemming from aerial strikes. Officials say the grim statistic will make it harder to recruit aid workers to a place where they’re needed the most. One rodent that’s turning its species’ reputation around is Magawa, a land-mine-sniffing rat in Cambodia. The 5-year-old African pouched rat has discovered 39 land mines, 28 pieces of unexploded ordnance, and helped clear more than 1.5 million square feet of land over the past four years,
rightfully earning itself the gold medal from the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals. That, unsurprisingly, makes it the first rat to receive an award that is usually reserved for humans. After the tragic port explosion in Beirut, Senegal moved quickly to avoid a similar catastrophe and removed 3,050 tons of ammonium nitrate from its port. The substance was transported to Mali, where
it was used to make bombs for mining operations. Ammonium nitrate is commonly found in fertilizers and explosives, so ports around the world which temporarily house the volatile compound, such as Senegal’s Dakar, made sure they weren’t in the same vulnerable situation as Beirut, where the substance led to the accidental explosion that killed 190 people. South African extractive economies continue to make headlines, such as Chad, which recently asked UNESCO to postpone the process for designating Lake Chad as a World Heritage Site. Why? Because Chad wants to explore oil and gas development in the lake area—which directly opposes UNESCO’s conservation goals for World Heritage Sites. It also came as a surprise to Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria, which cooperated on the two-year application process for the multinational lake to gain this distinctive designation. More fish theft brings us to the coast of Somalia, which stretches 2,000 miles or 3,200 kilometers and is the longest coastline in Africa. That expanse makes it harder for
the country to police its waters, where poachers like a 192-vessel fleet from Iran are illegally fishing in the country’s exclusive economic zone. The size of the Iranian operation, discovered this year, is a blow to Somalia, where one in three residents face hunger, and it demonstrates the rising tensions over the planet’s limited natural resources. One resource being exported out of Africa that benefits from increased demand is a Zimbabwean film that became the country’s first feature to make it to Netflix. The movie, “Cook Off,” is about a woman who enters a TV cooking show, and it was made for just $8,000—an impressive feat given that it was produced in 2017 just before the country’s economy collapsed. This acquisition by the streaming giant gives more credibility to Zimbabwe’s film industry, and means that the production crew and actors may finally get paid.
A small band of chimpanzees in Guinea that are known for their remarkable use of tools were thought to be near extinction until the tribe’s last fertile female gave birth to a beacon of hope: another female. Deforestation and isolation have led to the tribe’s demise—and this group is of particular interest to researchers because they mimic human’s use of tools. But this bundle of joy has also created momentum from the country’s residents to increase protections and forestation to ensure there is a future for the chimpanzees. One of the world’s most wanted fugitives was found this year in a small apartment on the outskirts of Paris. Félicien Kabuga was arrested for his role in the Rwandan genocide, which killed 800,000 members of the Tutsi ethnic minority, among others, in 1994. Kabuga will be tried in a UN tribunal court next year, and this capture renews
efforts to find others on the run who played significant roles in the country’s darkest days. France and Benin also made the news in 2020, with the former’s government fast-tracking a bill aimed at returning looted objects to the Sub-Saharan country within a year. The move is part of a multi-year restitution effort between European countries and their former colonies, and this law specifically returns 26 royal artifacts that were stolen from the Abomey Palace during the 19th century. These cultural repatriation efforts are ongoing, signaling an African drive to reclaim its cultural identity after centuries of European pillaging. Efforts to protect sea turtles in Tunisia are working, says new scientific research that shows nests on Kuriat Island have increased from 11 to more than 40 since 1997. Turtles are a keystone species, meaning their disappearance would disproportionately damage ecosystems, and their increased presence in this area—despite threats from people, climate, and pollution—is good news for the reptiles, and the workers striving to save them.
Two Chinese bidders, with the pseudonyms Super Duper and Hitman, bought a Belgian racing pigeon for a record price of $1.9 million. Belgium is the world’s leading racing pigeon breeding country and, thanks to a booming economy, the Chinese upper class have a lot of money to spend even compared to a decade ago. So why not invest in something like a pigeon? The bird will likely be bred with another genetically superior pigeon to create a super-bird that will dominate in racing circles, and betting on those is just one area where the Chinese are spending significant amounts of their yuan. Eleven months in Argentina sounds nice, but for former Bolivian president Evo Morales, it was more of an exile. He reentered Bolivia this November, after a 2019 campaign for a fourth presidential term became marred by fraud allegations, leading him to flee the country. A caretaker government has managed affairs since then, but when Morales’ former economic minister recently assumed leadership, it paved the way for Morales to return—though it’s unclear what role he’ll play in the country’s new reality. If it all
sounds turbulent, it is. Latin American countries continue to struggle with government instability and this is just one more on the list. The financial situation in Cuba worsened this year when the United States placed increased restrictions on the country, forcing the closure of 400 Western Union offices and potentially cutting off a stream of remittances from abroad. The United States claims the move came in response to the Cuban government
purportedly siphoning a cut of the incoming money, but officials there say the move was politically motivated. Cuban-American relations have become more tenuous under Trump, but the new Biden administration is expected to reinstate diplomatic relations, especially since Cuban refugee Alejandro Mayorkas has been nominated to lead the Department of Homeland Security. Hopping one island over, Haiti’s local president of FIFA—the governing body for soccer—has been shut out, and not in the winning way. Haitian Football President Yves Jean-Bart was issued a lifetime ban from all football-related activities after he was found guilty of sexually harassing and abusing female players, including minors. He was also fined roughly $1.1 million. Many
are lauding the punishment, saying abuse should be rooted out of any industry, at any level. South Sudan is the world’s youngest country, formed in 2011. Since then, it’s experienced almost a decade of civil war but earlier this year feuding parties finally signed a unity agreement.
Millions of people continue to flee the country and suffer from extreme hunger, but the establishment of a ruling party offers one step in the right direction toward stability. President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 55. He leaves behind a legacy as an autocratic ruler known for committing a variety of human rights abuses, and his death in June came just weeks after the country had already elected a successor, which only happened because Nkurunziza did not seek reelection. His death will have impacts on regional and global relationships, potentially allowing for increased unity under new leadership. Despite the pandemic, the Dominican Republic has hosted more than two dozen feature film and TV production shoots this year, which poured $80 million into the local economy, smashing a previous annual record of $30 million in 2017. Producers track their local expenditures because part of the country’s international incentive for filming there is a 25% rebate through a transferable tax credit. That’s attractive to American filmmakers,
like M. Night Shyamalan who took advantage of it this year, because they can spend 25% of wages in the Dominican Republic and maintain tax incentive status in the United States. A deer stealing their rifle isn’t something that hunters would think they’d have to worry about when out stalking, but that’s what happened to one in the Czech Republic when his dog startled the deer, which ran toward him and looped his rifle with an antler. The deer was seen a mile away, with the gun still in tow. Reportedly it wasn’t loaded, but had it been, a deer claiming self-defense might have worked in this case. Also filed under bizarre sightings is a tiny child floating on an inflatable unicorn in the Meditteranean Sea. The 3-year-old girl was swept into the water while playing on a beach in Greece,
but rescued shortly after by a passing ferryboat. She was delivered back to her family safely, and, yes, the unicorn made it too. When Brazilian Maya Gabeira surfed a 73.5-foot or 22.4 meter wave off the coast of Portugal in February, she didn’t just ride the biggest wave ever for a woman—it was the largest wave surfed by anyone, period, during the 2019-2020 season. She is the first woman in professional surfing to top all men in terms of wave size in a season, but with another female surfer earning spot number two on the big-wave list this year, it’s clear she may not hold the title for long. The title for the highest smoking rate in the world goes to Jordan, where a shocking 80% of the male population says they use smoke or use nicotine products daily. This
was a status previously held by Indonesia, and bucks the global trend of declining tobacco use. Multinational tobacco companies are still allowed to hold a large amount of influence in Jordan, from funding school programs to being featured on the prime minister’s social media, and this widespread interference is likely what’s increasing use. Rapper Cardi B may have overstepped her political boundaries when she posted an advertisement supporting Armenia to her 76 million Instagram followers. Like all wars,
the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia has been a tragic one, that ended with Armenia’s defeat and a pact between the two countries over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which will remain with Azerbaijan. But Cardi B was only trying to help a real estate agent friend when she made the post, and has since apologized amid the backlash. Unstaffed grocery stores accessed by logging in with BankID, the national identification app operated by Sweden’s banks, seems like something only Sweden could pull off in remote areas, which is why they’re probably the ones doing it. Amid a drastic decline in food markets across the country, mostly in rural areas, the company Livfs has installed almost 20 small, container stores that are fully stocked with meat, vegetables, dairy, and desserts.
Customers simply swipe an app to enter and pay for groceries, no store clerk needed. Israeli flights traveling to and from the United Arab Emirates can now cross through Saudi Arabian airspace, marking the first time that commercial jets on this route can pass over the kingdom’s territory. The announcement cuts travel time between the two countries in half, to three and a half hours, and signals normalizing relations, both diplomatically and economically. According to reports, the decision to open the airspace came at the request of the UAE. It became the third Arab country to acknowledge relations with Israel, behind Egypt and Jordan, and the development signals some progress in an otherwise unstable region—though Saudi Arabia was quick to note that opening airspace didn’t change its country’s stance on the Israel-Palestine issue.
Despite having previously faced murder charges, Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares, aka “The Tiger,” was still named police chief in 2012 in Honduras. So it may not come as a surprise that he didn’t uphold the tenets of the job, and is now charged with conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the United States… but the plot thickens. He wasn’t smuggling cocaine for just anyone, but doing the dirty work for the Honduran president and his brother, the latter of which was convicted for drug trafficking in New York last year. In Hungary, a scientist accidentally created a new fish hybrid in a lab, dubbed the sturddlefish. The combination of Russian sturgeon, whose eggs make premium caviar, and American paddlefish, a filter feeder found in less than half of the United States, is an unlikely one that would probably never have occurred without human intervention—based on geography alone. And while there’s no real practical purpose to the awkward-looking creature,
it does demonstrate that species’ genetics are sometimes more similar than previously thought. Also in the neighborhood is the proposed Baltic-Black Sea waterway, a 1,240-mile, 2,000 kilometer inland shipping route that would cut through Poland, Ukraine, and some of the most ecologically rich parts of Belarus. Oh, and it would involve dredging up land inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone, which could potentially expose millions of people to latent nuclear waste. Proponents say it would spur an economic boon for the region, while opponents argue it will destroy the “Amazon of Europe.” It may end up happening piecemeal, with Ukraine and Belarus
committing—and already starting in some cases—to dredging up parts of their tributary rivers. Tajikistan is one of the poorest countries in east Asia and many residents cross into Russia for higher-paying jobs and higher education. The Russian-speaking population in this country has dwindled 10-fold in four decades, but there’s new interest in teaching children their neighbor’s language, marked by officials’ announcement that they would build five more Russian-speaking schools—with a capacity for 1,200 students in each—in addition to the 10 that have been constructed in just the past two years. A musician in Austria is pulling a different sort of string: that of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s 250-year-old violin. The musician took a leap when he asked
the foundation that owns the violin if he could borrow it to play and record the violin concertos on the exact instrument Mozart composed them on between 1773 and 1775. The answer was yes, and he performed them in October to small, live audiences. A group of United Nations officials signed a letter to four countries protesting the development of a massive mine in Papua New Guinea, citing grave concerns both for the environment and human rights. If built, the mine would be the largest in the nation’s history, and potentially produce $1.5 billion of gold, copper, and silver annually for 30 years. But that money would mostly go to Chinese
investors in the Australian-registered mining company, and the real costs could come in the form of a catastrophic environmental disaster on the Sepik River, where it would be located. More than 43 million Tweets amplifying positive news coverage of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić were linked to his Serbian Progressive party, and Twitter subsequently blocked 8,500 accounts for attempts to undermine public conversation. The tweets were making his governing look better than it actually was, and this isn’t just happening in Serbia. The tech company blocked some additional 13,000 accounts in countries like Egypt, Honduras, and Saudi Arabia for doing the same thing.
Serbia is the 98th largest country in the world, meaning we’re halfway to 195. Therefore, that’s where we’ll end part one, and part two will be going up on Thursday, December 31st. While you wait for that, though, I have something else, new and rather exciting for you to watch. Tomorrow, on Nebula, we release the first episode of, “Sam from Wendover Presents: A Very Good Trivia Show, Presented by Sam from Wendover.” You see, we were going to film something for our last Nebula original of the year on-location, like we normally do, but then, you know, everything got in the way--can’t break our no C-word rule now. Therefore, we decided to
do something completely different--a trivia show, filmed remotely with three fantastic contestants: Brian from Real Engineering, Dave from City Beautiful, and Jordan Harrod. They competed in seven games, some of which were pretty normal, and others of which were pretty… out there. This was all hosted by me, and I even go on-camera, so get mentally prepared for that. Of course, the only place to watch this is on Nebula, as their business model makes bigger projects like this financially possible, and there’s quite literally never been a better time to sign up. That’s
because our sponsor, CuriosityStream, is having its biggest ever sale, 41% off, meaning it works out to less than $1 a month, and by signing up at CuriosityStream.com/Wendover, any subscription is bundled with a Nebula subscription for the exact same price. That’s two whole streaming sites, with thousands of top-quality documentaries and non-fiction shows from bigger names, in the case of CuriosityStream, and tons of bigger-budget projects from your favorite educational-ish creators, in the case of Nebula, for less than the cost of a bus fare per month. While you wait for our original to come out, you could, for example, watch something quite similar to this video: it’s where CuriosityStream rounds up the top science stories of 2020 in an hour-long special, which is quite good. This sale will end very soon, so make sure to sign up at CuriosityStream.com/Wendover,
and you’ll be supporting this, and countless other independent channels, while you’re at it.