Friday, December 3, 2010

Third world economies with punch

Outside of the established powerhouses, there are a number of smaller economies that punch well above their weight.
They may not appear near the top of the GDP tables - in fact you'll find some of them much nearer the bottom - but they all contribute vital materials that play a key role in today's globalised economy.

Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan is the world's biggest producer of uranium. At 14,000 tonnes, it produced nearly a third of the world's total supply of 51,000 tonnes last year.The heavy metal, found in the Earth's crust as well as in seawater, is used by the glazing industry, in kitchen and bathroom tiles for instance, as well as by the military for various projectiles and armoured protection.Nuclear power generation is enjoying a resurgence around the world Oh yes, enriched uranium also happens to be the fissile material used for nuclear power generation.
In France, 75% of all electricity comes from nuclear power. In Japan it accounts for nearly a third, in Germany more than a quarter and in the US and the UK, a fifth.And because of fears about greenhouse gases emitted from traditional fuels like oil and coal, and more specifically the time it will take to develop enough capacity from renewable sources such as wind and solar to replace them, nuclear power is enjoying something of a revival.

Germany for example has just decided to extend the life of its nuclear plants while the UK government wants a new generation of privately-built reactors.Kazakhstan's vital position in the global economy is, therefore, secure for now. Until the uranium runs out, of course.

Malaysia

According to the most recent figures available from the United Nations (UN), Malaysia is the largest supplier of palm oil, just. It produced 17.3 million tonnes of the stuff in 2008, placing it just ahead of Indonesia, on 16.9 million tonnes. Both produced 10 times more than Nigeria, which is next on the list.Palm oil is present in a huge variety of food and consumer products Palm oil comes, surprise surprise, from the oil palm tree, and is one of the most ubiquitous and controversial of all agricultural products.Almost every major food and consumer product manufacturer across the world uses palm oil extensively. It may not be listed in the ingredients, but it is in a huge range of products, from bread, biscuits and margarine to washing powder, soap and cosmetics.One study conducted last year by the UK's Independent newspaper found it in four in 10 of the UK's bestselling grocery brands.It is also used to make biofuels, particularly in parts of Asia. The rapid growth in the use of palm oil has had serious environmental consequences, with huge areas of forest being destroyed to make way for fresh plantations.As a result, there is a concerted move towards more sustainable production, including efforts to boost production in West Africa, where the oil palm originated and which involves less deforestation.For now, however, Malaysia and Indonesia are streets ahead of the rest.

Thailand

Thailand is the number one supplier of natural rubber in the world, producing 3.2m tonnes in 2009, more than a third of the 8.9m tonnes produced across the world.Rubber has a huge number of industrial applications Natural rubber comes from latex, a milky liquid produced by a number of trees and plants, but mainly the Para rubber tree. Cutting the tree allows the latex to run out, and at the same time encourages said tree to produce more.Almost half of all rubber used in the world is produced from this milky sap, which means it forms the basis for a massive variety of products, from tyres, elastic and condoms to industrial conveyor belts, dampeners and adhesives.No rubber means no air or road transport, hugely reduced industrial capacity and an even greater population problem than we have already.Strange as it sounds, the global economy relies on rubber, and as long as it continues to do so, Thai rubber tree farmers will have a key role to play in everyone's life.

South Africa

South Africa is by far and away the world's biggest producer of platinum.Of a total 5.9m ounces mined across the world last year, South Africa produced 4.5m ounces, or about 80% of the total. The next biggest supplier was Russia, with a mere 785,000 ounces.Platinum is a dense metal, and one of the most precious, and therefore expensive, on Earth. For this reason alone, much of the platinum that comes out of the ground is made into jewellery.But it has a number of other vital uses.The most important of these is as the active component in catalytic converters in diesel-engined cars.Indeed, around half of all the global supply of platinum goes into cars, where it converts poisonous gases into less poisonous gases and water vapour.
It is also used to improve the data storage capacity of computer hard disks, as well as a catalyst in the chemicals industry, particularly in manufacturing silicones.In other words, it is pretty vital.


Ivory Coast

When it comes to cocoa, the natural raw ingredient used in chocolate, the Ivory Coast is king.Cocoa has a number of important health benefits, many scientists argue It produced 1.2m tonnes last year, about a third of the world's total production of 3.6m tonnes, and almost double the 650,000 tonnes that the number two producer, Ghana, collected.Cocoa beans are grown on cocoa trees and are the magic ingredient that bring so much pleasure to so many.They release endorphins in the brain which help make you feel good, but research also suggests that the flavanoids in cocoa can reduce blood pressure and act as antioxidants, which some scientists argue reduce the risk of chronic illnesses such as cancer and heart disease.Of course, when they are mixed with bucket loads of sugar and flavourings, as they are in the average chocolate bar, the health benefits are somewhat compromised.But cocoa also has a number of other uses besides chocolate. Cocoa butter's smooth texture and moisturising properties mean it is used extensively in cosmetics and skin-care products.It is also used in pharmaceuticals, particularly as a base for suppositories due to its low melting point.

Indonesia

The king of coconuts is Indonesia, which produced 19.5 million tonnes of them in 2008, according to the UN. The Philippines is not too far behind, on 15.3 million tonnes.Coconuts perform a number of important roles in developing economies The various different parts of coconut trees are used in all manner of ways in developing countries, including making bowls, rope and musical instruments. Both coconut flesh and milk are also cooking ingredients used around the world.
But it is coconut oil that is most widespread. Not only is it used in biofuels in south east Asia, but, rather like palm oil, it is a key ingredient in many cosmetics and personal-care products, most notably soap for its lathering qualities and shampoos and conditioners for its nutritional benefits. The developed world may not grind to a halt without coconuts, but it certainly wouldn't smell as nice.

Peru

Peru has recently taken the mantle as the world's biggest producer of coca leaves.According to the UN, it produced 119,000 tonnes last year, outstripping Columbia on 103,000 tonnes.Coca leaves are used as a stimulant and pain killer across South America Coca leaves are used extensively in South America as a stimulant to overcome tiredness and hunger. They are also used as a pain killer and as an anaesthetic.
Coca tea is widely available in many countries on the continent, while the coca leaf is one of the ingredients in Red Bull Cola.But it is as the main active ingredient in cocaine that the coca leaf is best known.There are more than 16 million people using cocaine in the world, according to the UN, with the market value for the drug pushing $90bn (£57bn).That is more than two-thirds of the entire economic output of Peru.
You may not like it, but the coca leaf is the central ingredient in one of the world's most popular drugs, which itself is central to the illegal drugs industry - one of the biggest on the planet.

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