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Evolutionary biologist Robert Wallace says the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa is better explained by Western-driven policy than indigenous cultural practices

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ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore.

Most policy discussions and media reports on the recent outbreak of Ebola in West Africa and the very few cases in the United States have focused almost entirely on emergency response, crisis management, and containment of the infected. When causes for the Ebola outbreak are discussed, answers usually center around the problem of poverty and insufficient health care systems, or that of West African cultural practices, such as burial ceremonies and funerals and the consumption of bushmeat.

Out next guest argues, however, that this in itself is insufficient, that in order to understand the causes of the current outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, we must understand policy-driven changes in food production, forestry, and development, and that the source of these policies comes not from the nations where most of the devastation and deaths are occurring, but by the countries that are the economic and political centers of global power.

Joining us from St. Paul, Minnesota, is Dr. Robert Wallace. Rob is an evolutionary biologist and public health phylogeographer, and a visiting scholar at the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Global Studies. He also writes a blog called Farming Pathogens.

Thanks for joining us, Rob.


WORONCZUK: So, Rob, what does the examination of land use and other development policies reveal about the causes of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa that crisis management and other emergency responses cannot?

WALLACE: Well, to many of the public health officials responding to the outbreak, that question seems like from another planet. Most basic statements about the outbreak, around which global health response in the media have organized the narrative of Ebola in West Africa, leave out have problems with the most basic facts.

First, it’s a number of statements that we can all agree on: first, the outbreak began in villages across four districts in southeastern Guinea–Patient zero is apparently a two-year-old boy from a village north of Guéckédou, in Guinea Forest region; statement as bushmeat appears a main conduit by which Ebola spills over into humans, as you noted in your introduction; and that the medical infrastructure in the region isn’t up to the task of such an emergency. Now, all these facts are indeed supported, and all the facts miss the point.

The fact of the matter is is that Ebola has been circulating in the area for at least ten years. In fact, some of the epidemiological work in Sierra Leone indicated that patients had been producing antibodies against Ebola for at least as long ago as five years. So it’s been circulating in the area for a considerable amount of time. So this notion of patient zero or this particular village in the Guinea Forest region misses the issue that there are these larger structural issues that are selecting for the emergence of Ebola.

Now, the land use is a very important point here, because even if–as Ebola may have been circulating in the area for some time, all of a sudden there’s this spillover. Now, in likelihood there have been spillovers from animals who are hosting or who are reservoirs for Ebola for many a year, but at some point you do that fast enough and long enough, one of the spillovers into humans catches fire and the Ebola begins to spread from human to human.

Now, it’s our contention that there has been a change, a fundamental change in how the forest is being used that has increased the interface between animals that harbor Ebola and humans in the local area. Now, the Guinea Forest has long been farmed. This notion that somehow you just have a bunch of hunters in the forest is incorrect. There’s been farming going on for hundreds of years, all sorts of crops, and technically it can be characterized as a kind of agroforestry. So you have slash and burn, you have rotation of various crops, and then you have a recovery period by which the forest can grow back and the soil can become enriched again.

However, what’s happened in the last 30 years has been a fundamental shift in that kind of forestry. And we see increasingly, in the whole entire region, increasing commoditization of the crops that are being grown there. So Liberia, for instance, since World War II, has established a kind of open-door policy by which multinationals can come in and conduct mining and logging and agroindustrial cropping.

WORONCZUK: This is, like, the Firestone Company, right?

WALLACE: That’s correct. Well, Firestone goes all the way back to 1925. It was able to secure a million hectares throughout Liberia in order to tap rubber trees to produce tires. And they entrapped the Liberian government at the time into a loan structure that in essence made the government there beholden to the Firestone Company. And they have a 99-year lease that continues on, that was only renegotiated slightly in 1998.

And Firestone represents the bigger picture. Liberia is in essence–has turned into something of a land rush for multinationals. About a third of the country’s land surface is dedicated to being leased or owned by multinationals. Another 15 percent is to be given to these companies. So, I mean, we’re talking about nearly 50 percent of the country has been given way to multinationals for resource production. I mean, you can imagine if the United States [incompr.] given to companies from elsewhere. And it’s all being cut down. The forest is being deforested. The mines are being opened. The land has been dedicated to growing monocrop, monocultural crops. And that has a fundamental effect on the ecology of the region. And, indeed, pathogens are part of that ecology. Guinea, in which ostensibly the first outbreak occurred, has only recently joined that kind of–or participated in that kind of land use. So while you had the traditional agroforestry happening in the Guinea Forest, within the last few years it’s been opened up to more of an industrial production.

WORONCZUK: And how does that then change the way that the disease is spread or its infection rates?

WALLACE: Right. Well, the scientists have pretty much concluded that there are three bat species that are in all likelihood the reservoir of Ebola. And those species, their host range extend from deep in the Congo all the way as far west as Guinea and Liberia. Those countries represent kind of the western edge of these bats’ traditional habitat. And so they have been traveling in the forest for thousands of years, and they in all likelihood have had situations, just probably even circumstances, in which Ebola has spilled over from these bats into other animals, including gorillas and chimps [inaud.]

But what happens when you cut into the forest: it puts the bats on notice that they’d better change their mind about where to get their food. And bats aren’t stupid. Even if you cut down the forest, they’re not going to curl up and die. They’re very smart, and they make a decision to go where the food is being grown. And that food, of course, is the crops that we raise. And so they have a particular affinity for some crops over others. And I think the example that we give is that of oil palm.

Oil palm is a natural oil that’s increasingly being used worldwide. There’s been an explosion in the market for oil palm. And countries around the world are increasing its growing and raising of oil palm. And Guinea has actually participated in that. And in the last few years, it’s moved toward industrializing the raising of oil palm.

And oil palm, the bats love it. It provides them protection. It provides them the fruit that they can eat. It provides them with wide spaces between the trees that permit them to fly from their roosting sites to their foraging areas. And so, in essence, these bats are attracted to oil palm. And as the forest is cut down to grow more and more oil palm, that increases the interface between bats that are reservoirs for Ebola and the humans that are harvesting the oil palm.

WORONCZUK: So more people are likely, then, to get bit.

WALLACE: They’re more likely to get bit, or there’s examples with other viruses, Nipah virus, for example, in Bangladesh, in which the bats will urinate on the actual palm that the humans will subsequently harvest.

So, clearly there is an issue with bushmeat. That’s one means by which Ebola can be transferred. But there are other means as well. And I think bushmeat is a kind of distraction from the larger picture. There’s a larger global economy that is putting pressure on local oil palm producers to industrialize their oil palm in such a way that it increases the interface between these bats and the humans that harvest them.

WORONCZUK: And I’m guessing this palm oil production is also not for internal consumption.

WALLACE: Right. So this is why we move–kind of the idea of causality extends out beyond what the local villagers are doing. So it’s not merely a matter of deforestation by the local villagers. There’s a broader economic context that is changing the way the forest is being expropriated and used. And that, in turn, changed the way the local agroecology and the way the various animals and humans are interacting with each other. So it in essence weakened the notion that neoliberalism is as much a part of the story or in fact may be a much more important part of the story than any local culinary practices.

Neoliberalism, as many of your listeners may know, is in essence capitalism with the gloves off. It means reducing the barriers for foreign companies to come in and engage in local trade and production, removes tariffs on those companies. It moves subsidies that local farm cooperatives are given. It basically opens up local farmers to the onslaught of global competition. In addition to that, it reduces the investment by way of structural adjustment, the investment in public health and in animal health. So you have a mechanism by which the forest is increasingly exploited, the foods that are produced are actually produced for export economy, and the locals, who had previously been able to feed themselves and engage in full employment, are thrown out of work, and that puts the pressure on them to find food for their families, which includes, increasingly, hunting animals in the forest.

WORONCZUK: And I guess this explains why this isn’t front and center of the conversation in the mainstream media, because it’s really an indictment of global financial institutions.

WALLACE: Very much so. And it’s my viewpoint that many public health researchers are in a position to receive the benefits of not talking about this work, this possibility. I mean, in essence we’re directing our attention to the prime directives around which civilization currently is organized. If indeed the entire world is engaged in this kind of neoliberal globalization, to put the onus on the emergence of a pathogen that could potentially kill millions of people is indeed a serious indictment of the most basic practices of our civilization.

WORONCZUK: Okay. Well, let’s finish on one point, something that you wrote in a recent blog post titled “The Palm Oil Sector”. Here’s what you wrote. You said,

The shock of Ebola may clear many a head of the illusions that we can continue to mystically externalize the costs of separating ecology and economy.

Can you elaborate on that point?

WALLACE: Sure. The way we run our economy is we run it as if ecology doesn’t exist except as a source of resources, and a source of resources which will last forever, that provides everything we possibly need, and economy comes down to supply and demand. Unfortunately, in the course of destroying the environment, there are all sorts of costs that accumulate. Some of these costs, as many of your listeners know and many of your viewers know, extend to the climate change. They extend to pollution. They extend to unemployment. They extend to the effects on the animals that are raised, if we’re talking about agriculture. And so there are all these external costs. And the reason why they’re called external costs is because the companies who produce these costs are able to externalize them onto the public, onto the taxpayer, onto local governments.

And I believe Ebola is an example of one of those external costs. In the course of razing the forest to produce commodity palm oil, we end up producing a pathogen with the potential to kill millions. And that is a kind of economy that I think is increasingly being looked upon as something that we can no longer engage in. And we can no longer engage in trying to separate ecology from economy or economy from ecology. Those two things interpenetrate with each other, and we can’t separate them out. So we have to move toward more of an economy that can integrate the effects of our production on and consumption on local ecologies.

WORONCZUK: Okay. Dr. Robert Wallace, joining us from St. Paul, Minnesota.

Thank you so much for joining us.

WALLACE: Well, it’s been a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

WORONCZUK: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Rob Wallace is an evolutionary biologist and public health phylogeographer visiting the University of Minnesota's Institute for Global Studies. His research focuses on the ways agriculture and the economy imprint upon the evolution and spread of pathogens. He has studied the evolution and spread of influenza, the social geography of HIV/AIDS, the emergence of Kaposi's sarcoma herpesvirus out of Ugandan prehistory, and the evolution of infection life history in response to antivirals. author of the forthcoming book Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science You can find updates about his work on his blog, Farming Pathogens.