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Insects and Institutions: In the era of West Nile Virus, do people manage mosquitoes or vice versa?

Dr. Paul Robbins, University of Arizona, School of Geography and Development

After decades of neglect and treatment as an incidental nuisance, mosquito populations in the United States Southwest are resurgent and have become the focus of increased attention as a health hazard vectoring West Nile Virus, along with other potential diseases, including dengue fever. This presentation summarizes work by an interdisciplinary team of entomologists, climatologists, remote sensors, spatial theorists, and political ecologists seeking to understand disease vectors in southern Arizona. The reviewed results especially stress the areas of political economy, institutional development, and local public response. Drawing on interviews with homeowners as well as mosquito control professionals from the public and private sector and a review of industry and government data, I argue that (1) Mosquito control represents a small and fickle niche market for global agro-chemical companies, making it an ‘orphan industry’; (2) Public mosquito control districts, especially those set up after WNV and/or who lack a dedicated tax base, are marginal institutions in local government, vulnerable to budget raiding by more established county departments and underbidding by private contractors, making them in effect an ‘orphan state’; (3) This leads institutions to exhibit problematically high levels of specialization, focusing on either the larval or adult stages of mosquito development, and to trend through boom and bust cycles in mosquito control that serve neither the interests of capital for a strong, steady market for its products nor the public sector for a robust public mosquito control infrastructure; (4) The resulting landscape of management leaves homeowners to improvise their strategies and concerns, leading to a linkage of mosquito habitat management with micro-scale neighborhood conflicts over amenities, home care, and housing values.

Brief Bio:
My students and I seek to explain human environmental practices and knowledges, the influence non-humans have on human behavior and organization, and the implications these interactions hold for ecosystem health, local community, and social justice. Past projects have examined chemical use in the suburban United States, elk management in Montana, forest product collection in New England, and wolf conservation in India. Students working with me have explored the use and conservation of greywater in Tijuana Mexico; the relationship between formal and traditional medicine in South Africa; the transformation of coffee plantation land covers in Vera Cruz, Mexico; the politics of groundwater management in Rajasthan India; the politics of science in managing water quality in Ohio; and the relationship between GIS technologies in conservation and the way people imagine, manage, and debate the return of the Mexican wolf to the US Southwest. My own current central concern is the common mosquito….

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