Malaria & Mental Health: The Political Ecology of Landscape Change and Cumulative Vulnerability in Central Ghana's Gold Mining Country

Authors: Heidi Hausermann*, Colorado State University, David Ferring , Rutgers University
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Medical and Health Geography, Land Use and Land Cover Change
Keywords: Cumulative vulnerability, Political ecology, Malaria, Mental health, Small-scale gold mining, Ghana
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/5/2019
Start / End Time: 9:55 AM / 11:35 AM
Room: Roosevelt 4, Marriott, Exhibition Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Following the 2008 global financial crisis, small-scale gold mining operations proliferated worldwide. Along Ghana’s Offin River, the landscape has been radically transformed by mining, including disruptions to agriculture and surface hydrology, with adverse health outcomes. Yet, health research on small-scale mining tends to focus on miners’ mercury exposure. Further, studies on the relationships between disease and landscape change typically examine disease clustering and risk factor identification, rather than the complex nature-society dynamics shaping infection and uneven vulnerability. Combining ethnographic, remote sensing and quantitative methodological approaches, we detail how the socio-ecological outcomes of mining—from food insecurity and water-logged pits to profound anxiety and mercury contamination—combine to increase local malaria incidence. We argue these changes interact with existing socio-structural conditions and Plasmodium falciparum’s unique biological capacities to render women and children most vulnerable to the disease. We suggest mental health profoundly shapes malaria incidence and, countering individualized constructions of risk, family members’ health is deeply connected. This article contributes to current geographic debates in several ways. First, a cumulative vulnerability approach helps scholars conceptualize how biological, psychological, structural and social conditions interrelate to shape humans’ conjunctural vulnerabilities along axes of difference, particularly in health contexts. We also highlight the importance of materiality in mediating vulnerability and malaria dynamics. Finally, we argue for more scholarly attention to familial relationships of care and mental health, heretofore unexplored topics in political ecologies of health.

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