The Palm Oil Sector?

Palm oil 5And he told them about this new God, the Creator of all the world and all the men and women. He told them that they worshipped false gods, gods of wood and stone. A deep murmur went through the crowd when he said this. He told them that the true God lived on high and that all men when they died went before Him for judgment. Evil men and all the heathen who in their blindness bowed to wood and stone were thrown into a fire that burned like palm-oil. –Chinua Achebe (1958)

There’s something fishy about the bushmeat narrative of Ebola.

In August we explored the way the story internalizes the outbreak to local West Africans. It’s part of the ooga booga epidemiology that detracts from the circuits of capital, originating in New York, London and elsewhere, that fund the development and deforestation driving the emergence of new diseases in the global South.

But in addition, and not unconnected, there’s something missing from the model’s purported etiology. Indeed, Ebola may have almost nothing, or only something tangentially, to do with the bushmeat trade.

In this new commentary just published in Environment and Planning A, a team of ecohealth scientists of which I’m a part proposes Ebola emerged out of a phase change in West Africa’s agroecology brought about by neoliberal development.

We hypothesize more specifically that the pathogen arose as oil palm, to which Ebola-bearing bats are attracted, underwent a classic case of creeping consolidation, enclosure, commoditization, and proletarianization that at one and the same time curtailed artisanal production and expanded the human-bat interface over which Ebola traffic likely increased.

Explorations of such structural causes, the heart of the matter, have largely been shelved before they’ve begun. The emergency response, or lack thereof, has moved front and center. Both eminently understandable and opportunistically convenient. The failure to address upstream causes produces the crisis that becomes another way of avoiding such a discussion.

The tension manifests in some striking ways, with many veiled allusions to structural sources of the outbreak but few open declarations. It’s as if scientists and first responders are expected to talk about the outbreak’s origins without using anything more than generalities, careful euphemisms and pointed ellipses, avoiding offending funding sources whose capital accumulation helped drive the outbreak in the first place.

Like a parlor game of Charades or, perhaps more appropriately, Exquisite Corpse.

On the other hand, we may merely be flipping sides of the same coin. Such epidemiologies routinely ruin the neat dichotomy between emergency responses and structural intervention. The commentary proposes a mechanism by which the two are a composite object in West Africa. Structural shifts may have lowered the ecosystemic threshold to such a point that no emergency intervention can presently drive the Ebola population low enough to burn out on its own.

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. What if, after all, we turn out to be that ‘next generation’ to which many a scold has long been regretfully alluding?


Wallace R G, Gilbert M, Wallace R, Pittiglio C, Mattioli R, Kock R (2014) Did Ebola emerge in West Africa by a policy-driven phase change in agroecology? Environment and Planning A advance online publication, doi:10.1068/a4712com

3 Responses to “The Palm Oil Sector?”

  1. […] of pharmaceutical research and development. Biologist Rob Wallace (Farming Pathogens) discusses potential links between Ebola, the environment, Palm Oil agribusiness, and shifts in human-animal relationships (also “Neoliberal Ebola: The agroeconomics of a deadly […]

  2. Hi Rob,

    Do bats not count as “bushmeat?” I had assumed the term included a wide array of non-domesticated animals, and saw “bushmeat” as a one useful category for understanding that human-animal interface shifting as a consequence of neoliberal agricultural policies. I guess I am trying to differentiate the narrative of “ooga booga epidemiology” you link to (i.e. “bushmeat” as a cultural signifier of poor benighted non-Western sods whose unwise practices brought the epidemic upon themselves), from specific forms of human interaction with non-human animals (i.e. “bushmeat” as signifying shifting ecologies with socially produced histories in which Western neoliberal policies figure deeply).

    Hence, when Paul Farmer rants ( against bushmeat as relevant to ebola, and keeps the lens tightly focused on health care systems and related infrastructure (not unimportant), it looks to me like he’s being complicit in constructing a narrative that washes away the kinds of eco-social histories you invoke in trying to understand ebola’s history.

    But perhaps I am in error: is “bushmeat” too useless or blunt a term?

  3. rgwallace Says:

    Bats certainly count as bushmeat, Alexis, which in all likelihood plays a role across a variety of zoonoses. Our efforts here to understate bushmeat aim to broaden the scope of recent commentary to the greater global economy shaping the underlying shifts in land use that reset regional ecosystemic interactions. Every effort is being made by medicos and media alike to focus on any source of causality otherwise. The political economy is presently like that. In contrast, our focus on neoliberalism folds in both the ecosocial mechanisms you are right to highlight, along which this outbreak originated, and Farmer’s post-outbreak infrastructure.

    Think of it as ordering the eigenvalues of the spillover matrix. We think neoliberal structural adjustment the dominant global factor.

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