In the last couple of decades, the lush rainforest around the remote village of Meliandou in the heart of Guinea has become patchier. Animals, like bats, saw their habitats dwindle and in a quest for survival, they sought refuge in closer proximity to human environments, making the boundaries between species thinner. A hollowed-out tree in the middle of the village became home to a colony of bats.
About 50 meters from the same tree, in the heart of Meliandou, a two-year-old boy named Emile lived with his family. In a matter of days, Emile fell ill with an unknown virus, developed a high fever, and died. Soon the same virus, that scientists now believe Emile got from the bats, took the lives of his sister, mother, and grandmother. The village, surrounded by a ring of forest, unexpectedly became the epicenter of a devastating outbreak that would leave an indelible mark.
Nearly a quarter of the world’s population, or about 1.6 billion people, depend on forest resources to sustain their livelihood. This number includes an estimated 60 million who are members of indigenous groups. The worldviews of most indigenous cultures include a sacred obligation to serve as stewards of a healthy forest that can sustain its inhabitants for generations.
Indigenous peoples have been effectively managing their forests since “time immemorial,” yet governmental and scientific forestry experts have only recently begun to seek out the knowledge that indigenous peoples have about environmental management.