ABIDJAN - “It isn’t easy to concentrate on your work when bullets are flying over your head,” says Gilbert Fokou, an ethnologist at the Swiss Center for Scientific Research in the Ivory Coast (CSRS). With its luxurious flora and its population of large, flashy lizards, the institution is a haven of tranquility.

And yet a year ago, it was in this Abidjan neighborhood - where many supporters of former president Laurent Gbagbo used to live - that the death throes of the post-electoral crisis took place. The CSRS barely survived a raid of militiamen searching for money, gas, food and vehicles. Banks closed, so did roads and borders. The two universities in Abidjan are still closed, but the institution, which celebrated its 60th anniversary at the end of 2011, held on.

“It’s easy to stop, but much harder to start over,” says Bassirou Bonfoh, CSRS’s general director. Through a decade of on-and-off conflicts in the Ivory Coast, the center has pursued its research on health, environment, food security and biodiversity. In spite of the crisis, or rather, taking the crisis in account: whether the problem is agronomy or malaria, it has to be factored in.

The CSRS was created in 1951 by professors from Neuchâtel University and the Tropical Institute of Basel, who wanted to study African fauna, flora and sicknesses. At the time, it took twelve days of by sea to reach Abidjan from Marseille. “At first, it was mostly observation expeditions,” recalls Marcel Tanner, director of the Tropical Institute, which pilots the center for Switzerland. 

Local partnerships

There were no African scientists, the center was a platform for foreign researchers, and local employees only did janitorial work. The situation slowly evolved into a partnership. “It became increasingly hard to justify coming and going home with blood or stool samples just to write good scientific papers,” says this malaria specialist.

The first African director was appointed in 2004. Since 2007, the center is co-financed by the Swiss and Ivorian governments. Switzerland puts in $470,00 a year, the Ivory Coast puts in $83,000 and adds another $281,000 in kind, through the presence of teachers for instance.

The CSRS has transitioned from a field lab to a fully-fledged research center that publishes in prestigious international reviews. “Of course, we aren’t at Harvard’s level yet, but I am proud of the stage we’ve reached,” says Marcel Tanner.

This collaborative approach has probably helped the center last so long. Nearby, the ruins of the French Office for Technical and Scientific Research Abroad are a reminder that things aren’t a given. Of course, the absence of a Swiss colonial past and its neutrality has helped the center navigate through rough patches. The most important was to stay neutral and beyond reproach, especially since CSRS has projects in areas controlled by rebel factions - like in Korhogo, in the far north of the country, where researchers are studying the effects of climate change on sacred forests.

The CSRS believes that field projects have also played an important role in the center’s longevity. In the shadow of a great tree in Bringakro village, where one of the research field stations is, the village chief agrees: “There was no duplicity, only grace.”

Fields around Bringakro were used for the development of a new variety of manioc. More resilient against diseases, it has a higher yield and is just as good, says Dao Daouda, director of the promotion, resources and applications at the CSRS.

The project was a partnership with Nestlé. The agro-business giant uses starch from the manioc in its Maggi cube, which “makes each woman a star,” according to a giant billboard on the walls of capital Yamoussoukro. This research was accompanied by social initiatives in the village, like installing a water tank and a health center.

Weathering the crisis

Last year, the post-electoral crisis threatened a farming project that the Ivorian authorities had entrusted to the CSRS. The crisis broke out right when the fertilizer and the pesticides were supposed to be deployed. Despite the rampant insecurity on the roads, a truck driver accepted to bring stocks from Abidjan to the farmers. “Most people had lost their harvest, explains Bassirou Bonfoh. “There wasn’t much food, demand was very high. As a result, those who were able to treat their crops were able to sell their products for a very good price.”

At the Taï National Park, near the western border with Liberia, park rangers left during this troubled period, leaving animals and CSRS researchers unprotected from poachers. It was in this forest they discovered that male Campbell's monkeys used a form of protosyntax, with specific suffixes and calls to convey messages. Today, Karim Ouattara from the CSRS biodiversity and food security department is trying to determine if captive animals in the Abidjan zoo also use these vocal sequences. Unfortunately, due to lack of health care and food, many died during the crisis and there are only two females left, one of which is probably a mix of another species.

Researchers at Taï National Park are also following groups of chimpanzees and studying their food ecosystem. “They carry a virus similar to HIV but they are more prone to contracting the sickness in captivity than in their natural environment,” explains Angora Remi Constant Ahouha. The scientist is trying to see if this is linked to the plants the monkeys eat. The hope is to eventually develop food supplements for people with weak immune systems. The team has also been meeting with traditional healers to identify and test plants used to fight malaria.

Legitimacy in difficult times

The center puts important efforts into the demographic and sanitary monitoring of over 40,000 people in the Taabo dam lake region between Abidjan and Yamoussoukro, in collaboration with local partners. Ivorian authorities are interested in the project. “To have any sort of health planning, you need to understand the local social fabric,” says Marcel Tanner.

The CSRS believes that their weathering the crisis has given the center additional legitimacy in its partner’s eyes. “If we had closed, it would have been like we were abandoning our employees and our researchers,” says Bassirou Bonfoh. “In the field stations, the population would have also had a dim view of our departure. Our presence continues to strengthen the CSRS’s position: people know that we are here in times of war and of peace.”

From an economic standpoint, the director estimates that the cost of leaving is equivalent to that of a complete reconstruction. Marcel Tanner is even more adamant: “If we stop, we fall. People leave. Starting over is extremely expensive. I could list a dozen projects we couldn’t continue because of the crisis, but also a dozen others that we were able to finish. Even if the work is barely good or mediocre because of the conditions, it’s a good investment. Because if we hadn’t done anything, today we would be visiting empty laboratories with only a few guards and a cook left.”

For Bassirou Bonfoh, the Ivory Coast’s troubles have created parameters the scientists can’t ignore. “If we are studying malaria, we have to take into account the context that makes access to health services difficult. It doesn’t make sense to only do research in areas where there are no problems. It so happens that here, for the past ten years, there have been war-like conditions. We need to understand the events and adapt to the context in order to provide better responses.”

Read more from Le Temps in French.

Photo - CSRS