Fragments of

the Forest

Hot Zones, Disease Ecologies, and the Changing Landscape of Environment and Health in West Africa

Project Overview

In the late 1920s, as colonial resource extraction in West Africa ushered in immense ecological, economic, political, and social change, Rockefeller Foundation scientists began a concerted effort to identify “endemic” regions of yellow fever in West Africa, which they believed posed a threat to colonial extraction and development and to international health. They did so by collecting vast quantities of human blood and animal species living near and within the Guinean rainforest, extending from Sierra Leone to Nigeria. The blood, viruses, insects, and wildlife specimens they collected served as a foundation upon which Western scientific understandings of viral infectious diseases and their ecologies were built and maps representing West Africa as a disease hotspot were made. Such efforts in virus hunting, wildlife sampling, and disease surveillance in the Guinean rainforest continue into the present day.

Why have certain regions, like West Africa, rich in biodiversity, also become identified as emerging disease hotspots in scientific and popular understanding? This project aims to discern the ecological, economic, political, and social forces at play that have turned fragments of the Upper Guinean rainforest in Liberia and Guinea into “hotspots” where biodiversity conservation concerns, emerging infectious disease threats, and resource extraction interests converge.

At its core, the project seeks to interrogate the following questions. How have past scientific approaches to emerging infectious diseases, such as yellow fever, Lassa fever, and Ebola, transfixed scientific attention on the Guinean rainforest as a hotspot of viral infectious diseases? How have foreign economic interests tied to natural resource extraction produced new understandings about the ecology of disease, simultaneously creating new environments and species relationships that eliminated certain diseases, while also creating conditions of possibility for other pathogens to thrive? And, how are current One Health programs altering, if at all, priorities and practices attending to health and conservation at different scales, from the local to the international level?

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