Geography is destiny” is a phrase rumored to have been uttered by Napoleon before he invaded Russia in 1812. Most often used in a geopolitical context, the phrase implies that certain geographical regions have inherent strategic, political or economic value and thus the control of them is paramount for any leader or nation seeking to wield political or economic power.
Napoleon may be rumored to have declared the words and then acted upon them, but he stands in a long line of rulers and nations that have taken up arms to gain territory seen as having innate worth and value.
The phrase also has another meaning. “Geography is destiny” can also be used to refer to the likely outcome or prospects for people unfortunate enough to live in certain geographic areas. Such areas are normally desolate economically, lacking in educational opportunities, hazardous physically and deprived culturally of those intangibles that serve as a stairway to upward social mobility.
In such places the prospects for a healthy, successful and fulfilling life are bleak. For many born into these geographic circumstances, geography becomes destiny, a destiny none would willingly seek.
One doesn’t need to travel far to find such places. There is no need to go half a world away. Unfortunately, one could travel within the confines of the state of Alabama’s borders and encounter such areas.
For example, 14 of Alabama’s 67 counties, all located in what is known as Alabama’s Black Belt region, have a poverty rate higher than 25 percent. In one of them, Perry County, the poverty rate is 40 percent. Other Black Belt counties are not far behind, though. Bullock County’s poverty rate is 39 percent. Greene and Lowndes counties are 37 percent and 35 percent, respectively. Dallas County is at 34 percent and Sumter at 33 percent.
Last year, United Nations official Philip Alston, at the invitation of the United States government, was invited to study the persistence of extreme poverty in America. One of the areas he visited in the U.S. was Alabama’s Black Belt, in particular Lowndes County. He released his preliminary findings in December. One of his observations? He had never before seen conditions in the developed part of the world like those he saw in Lowndes County. For example, one Lowndes County community he visited had homes in which “raw sewage flows … through exposed PVC pipes and into open trenches and pits.”
Alston’s discovery may be a causal link to something that officials thought had been pretty much eradicated in America between the 1950s and 1980s: hookworms. Hookworm was pervasive in America a century ago. It was a particularly acute problem in the South because sewer systems weren’t widely available and many Southerners didn’t have hygienic outhouses.
Such conditions serve as a breeding ground for hookworms. They spread through exposed and infected human fecal matter. Eggs in the fecal matter hatch, the soil becomes infested with the worms, and the worms are able to attach themselves to the bare feet of those who walk by. The tiny worms work their way through a hair follicle and end up in the small intestine to feed on blood. What are its effects? Impaired cognitive development, iron deficiency and stunted growth in children.
Today, hookworm is generally associated with undeveloped nations that have areas with poor sanitation and extreme poverty, such as in South Asia, Southeast Asia and South America. Now, however, Alabama’s Black Belt can be added to the list, where last year 19 individuals tested positive for it.
Speaking of the findings released in November, George Washington University hookworm expert Dr. David Diemert noted: “I was very surprised by this, there has not been any documentation of people being infected in the U.S. [with hookworm] for the past couple of decades.” As stated earlier, for some Alabamians their geography, the areas they live in can bring about a perilous and uncertain destiny.
The Black Belt is not alone. There are other pockets scattered throughout the state, where for far too long geography has served as a painful and hopeless destiny for many.
Thankfully, state leaders are moving in earnest to address and hopefully begin to disrupt these geographic generational problems. Last summer, the House Standing Committee on Urban and Rural Development was formed to study and put forward policy recommendations to shatter these enclaves of poverty and deprivation that exist throughout the state.
Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon noted at the time, “For the past several years, Alabama has led the nation in attracting new jobs, opportunities and industrial development, but there are areas of our state that still struggle economically and they deserve our attention.”
Last month, Rep. Randall Shedd, who chairs the committee, held a legislative hearing in Scottsboro to elicit input from citizens and political leaders there about problems and solutions they see as pivotal to undoing the systemic poverty that has handcuffed struggling communities.
According to an economic analysis by the Atlanta Branch of the Federal Reserve, although the Southeast is experiencing “rapid urbanization,” there are two states that still remain “uncommonly rural — Mississippi and Alabama.” That means bringing change will take much effort and require surmounting serious obstacles, but positive change is possible.
From access to quality health care, economic renewal, quality education opportunities, infrastructure improvements, providing and increasing broadband access to combating drug addiction, the destiny of Alabamians living in these dire geographic regions can in time be altered to one that brings hope and opportunity, not despair and fear. To do so, we must be persistent in our resolve to ensure discussions and studies turn into action — purposeful and consistent action.