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Political Ecology Of Malaria

John Quiggin has posted several times recently about DDT, specifically the controversy over restricting its use because of its ecological impacts versus using it to combat malaria (he summarizes his view, which strikes me as reasonable, here). He also points to a letter from The Australian in response to the attempt to blame environmentalists for deaths due to malaria. What caught my attention was this paragraph:

Malaria is a major, ongoing disease problem in much of the developing world. Increases in the incidence of the disease have occurred for complex reasons. Reduced insecticide usage is one, but others include the resistance to treatment in both the parasite and the mosquito vectors, changes in land use that have provided new mosquito habitat, and the movement of people into new, high-risk areas.

I did some brief searching around to find out what these land use changes were. It looks like there are two major factors:

1. Expansion of intensive rice cultivation. Water is a breeding ground for mosquitoes, so irrigation -- especially when water isn't used efficiently and is allowed to sit on the land -- encourages increases in their population. The expansion of irriation is driven by devlopment projects that seek to "modernize" third world farmers' practices, often including large capital investment schemes such as building dams to provide the irrigation water. These sorts of projects generally do raise agricultural yields, but at the expense of undermining local strategies for coping with risk (for example, by undercutting women's traditional de facto rights and powers) and making people more vulnerable. The malaria factor seems to add to the problem.

2. Dense forests. For the most part, malaria is a forest disease. Mosquitoes like puddles in the forest. Colonial and postcolonial land management in the third world has tended to promote the persistence of patches of dense forest by favoring a strong distinction between natural land (often fenced off into parks and reserves) and used land (where cultivation is intensified). This cuts down on human disturbance of the forest through swidden agriculture and surface fires that open up the understory. For the people who live near these now less managed forests, the malaria risk is increased.


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