Canary in the Mine: A Design Foray into the Rural Habitats of Guinea-Bissau

Guinea-Bissau is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change in West Africa due to the low-lying/flat topographical conditions, low nutrient soils, and complete reliance on agriculture for food security. Compressed between two major climatic disruptions—the sea level rise from the West and the swelling of the Sahel’s desertification frontline from the Northeast—Guinea-Bissau’s landscapes and communities are in growing distress with longer dry periods, wider areas of salinized soils, and frequent wildfire events. Despite Guinea-Bissau’s vulnerabilities, the country owns a very long and complex history associated with the establishment of rice domestication in West Africa, the early epicenter of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, the combination of multiple ethnic groups (Muslim, Animistic, etc.) and their traditional knowledge on landscape management, building techniques, musical traditions (ex: Kora), and customary use of plants for medicinal uses. These domains, and their potentials, are still poorly understood worldwide—particularly, their role in promoting cultural and food sovereignty, securing physical and spiritual well-being, and generating strategies for territorial resiliency.

The Option Studio Canary in the Mine: A Design Foray into the Rural Habitat of Guinea-Bissau in West Africa follows ongoing research focused on vulnerable communities and rural territories in which ongoing climatic disintegration paired with unbalanced ecological reciprocities—a result of global markets and/or colonial practices—have amplified social and environmental decline. Amongst these are food insecurity, wildfire occurrences, flood events, and ecological degradation. In these contexts, climatic mitigation also means medicine and traditional practices, food security and ecological stewardship, local culture protection and community life. Therefore, the Studio examines the foundational idea of HABITAT i.e., the reciprocities established between communities and natural resources in support of food systems, sustainable construction, increased resiliency, and eco-cultural stewardship through traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). The research and design work focuses on three relational props:
   1. Cultural practices, including the use of the natural elements (water, fire, soil and air) as catalytic elements in various social-ecological practices shared by the various ethnic groups in Guinea-Bissau;
   2. Traditional Residential Unit, as the built expression of the relationship between natural resources, landscape management, and traditional building techniques for thermal optimization;
   3. Community Forests and co-management practices as means for community and biodiversity protection, economic sovereignty, and spiritual well-being.
The Option studio collaborates closely with a local NGO (KAFO) and 3 villages/ communities in the North-eastern region of the country, Oio: Nemanaco, Bironki, and Indamikunda. The Studio aims at producing a series of potential projects and spatial choreographies for possible futures. This work will be aligned with local desires and follows the reciprocities between the communities with their natural environment, where notions of ecological stewardship align with traditional knowledge and concepts of sacredness.

Sponsored student travel to Guinea-Bissau with the local NGO will occur in September during the Studio Trip week.