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The environment, natural resources and HIV/AIDS

This short report looks at impacts of HIV/AIDS on agriculture and the environment, with a focus on rural areas in Africa. It looks at the effects of the epidemic on local use of the environment and natural resources, and asks why rural areas are particularly vulnerable.

Impacts at the rural household level include loss of labour, lower levels of production, lower incomes and more expenditure (for medical care, medicines and funerals), usually for the poor. The households that are most vulnerable to loss of labour are young households with few working adults and limited resources in the form of land and other assets. This is particularly the case in areas with a small number of crops, distinct peak workloads, a clear division of agricultural work between the sexes, and few alternative methods of making a living. When households lose adult members, they also lose the knowledge and experience of local conditions for farming and natural resources possessed by those who died.

The effects of AIDS depend on the starting point and other crises, so areas already afflicted by poor health, drought, climate change and food insecurity. It can often be difficult to know whether reported changes are chiefly due to HIV/AIDS, whether the epidemic is a main contributory cause, or whether the causes of the change are entirely different. Identifiable impacts on agriculture include a reduction in the availability of labour due to AIDS, which leads to:

  • a reduction in the area under cultivation, a reduction in the number of crops for sale and a process of transition to crops that require less labour and storage facilities
  • difficulties in looking after different types of perennial crops produced for sale, for example coffee, and can have the consequence that production diminishes or comes to a complete standstill
  • less time being spent on the types of soil conservation work that contribute to increasing production and to reducing negative effects, for example erosion. In particular, soil conservation of the type that it intended to have a longterm effect is negatively affected by a lack of labour
  • less time is spent on tending animals and often less qualified labour is used for the purpose (including identifying and treating injuries and diseases) and for feeding the livestock
  • reduction in forestry conservation processes, due to deterioration in traditional control systems, loss of professional forest workers and technicians and increased demand for the most easily accessible fuelwood. When an increasing number of adults and children die, more timber is also required to make coffins.
  • on water collection, there is less time available when, in addition to their usual working duties, they must also look after the sick and do the duties that the sick person no longer has the strength to do. Moreover, the care of people with AIDS requires more water, for example for hygiene.

At the wider level, policies for long-term sustainable use of the environment and natural resources function best in relatively prosperous, economically and socially stable societies. The expected outcome of the AIDS epidemic is that attitudes in matters concerning the environment and natural resources are affected, probably in the direction of greater tolerance for short-term exploitation at the expense of long-term economical use of natural resources and protection of the environment. [adapted from author]