Doctoral Dissertation Research: Chronic Kidney Disease, Environmental Risk and the Transformation of Agrarian Landscapes and Livelihoods

Project: Research project

Project Details


This project investigates how environmental illnesses reconfigure the relationships between health, knowledge, and agricultural modernization. In recent years a mysterious and severe form of Chronic Kidney Disease (CKDu) has emerged in several agricultural communities around the world. Those affected are predominantly young and middle aged male agricultural workers who do not suffer from the risk factors typically associated with kidney disease. While the exact cause of CKDu is still a source of scientific uncertainty, narratives that link the disease to the agrarian landscape have captivated popular imagination and influence farmers' cultivation practices, albeit in uneven, haphazard, and poorly understood ways. This project builds upon political ecology of health and science and technology studies (STS) to investigate how uncertainty about the cause of CKDu shapes health-environment interactions and agrarian landscapes and livelihoods. In doing so, it will account for the complex ways that farmers perceive and act on agricultural health risks while illuminating how contested understandings of environmental illnesses can fundamentally restructure agricultural practices, systems of production, and relations of expertise. Through this analysis, the proposed research will contribute directly to the development of policies and programs that facilitate agrarian livelihoods in the context of disease.

Since the first reports of the emergence of a new form of Chronic Kidney Disease (CKDu) in the early 1990s, Sri Lanka's once peripheral dry zone has become the epicenter of an epidemic that is slowly crippling agricultural communities across the island's rice belt. The proposed project focuses on three dimensions of the relationship between CKDu and agricultural practices to explain how this scientifically contested illness is remade into an agricultural problem, and with what effects. First, the project investigates how ideas about the environment and its links to disease are formed, reinforced, and circulated. Second, it evaluates how farmers' cultivation practices are changing in response to the problem of CKDu and documents their shifts to native rice varieties and also to organic - or chemical free - systems of production, albeit in spatially uneven and sometimes transitory ways. Additionally, this study investigates how uncertainty about CKDu's cause mediates farmers' interactions with the environment and shapes the uneven adoption of native seeds as disease management strategies. Finally, the project examines how relationships between health and agricultural modernization in the dry zone have changed over time and inform contemporary agrarian shifts in response to CKDu. The project integrates archival research, ethnographic methods, and household surveys to study two dry zone farming communities. Findings of this research will provide insights into how contested agri-environmental-health problems shape practices of disease management and give rise to new forms of agricultural production. While this research is anchored in an analysis of shifting agrarian livelihoods in CKDu endemic areas of Sri Lanka, its findings will be applicable to other geographic regions where parallel epidemics of mystery kidney disease are found in agricultural communities such as India, Egypt, and Central America.

Effective start/end date9/1/161/31/19


  • National Science Foundation: $15,997.00


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