Overstory #152 - Trees on farm to mitigate the effects of HIV/AIDS in SSA
Introduction: Agriculture and HIV/AIDS
The UNAIDS epidemic update reports that in 2004 alone, the global HIV/AIDS epidemic killed more than 3.1 million people, and that an estimated 4.9 million acquired the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). This brings to 40 million the number of people living with the virus around the world (UNAIDS 2005). Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) remains by far the worst affected: also in 2004, an estimated 25.4 million people in this region were living with HIV, this figure taking into account the 3.1 million people who became infected with HIV and the 2.3 million who died from AIDS. Even countries praised for their consistent efforts to fight HIV/AIDS, such as Uganda, which has shown consistent declines in HIV prevalence levels since the mid-1990s, continue to be burdened with a serious epidemic. HIV/AIDS has now become a permanent feature.
For a long time, HIV/AIDS was seen as purely a health issue, and most financial resources have passed through Ministries of Health towards reducing infection rates, buying Anti-Retro Viral (ARV) drugs, educating and awareness-raising, and, more recently, for increasing home-based care (USAID 2001; FAO/WHO 2002). Yet HIV/AIDS has implications that reach far beyond health - including great impacts on agricultural and food production systems (FAO 1995; FAO 2001; FAO 2002a,b; FAO 2003a,b,c; FAO/UNAIDS 2003; FAO/WHO 2002; FASAZ 2003; Gari 2002a,b; Gari 2003; Garí & Villarreal 2002; Gillespie 1989; Stokes 2003; Waala & Tumushabe 2003).
In SSA, most infected people live in the rural areas and HIV/AIDS has become mostly a rural problem (UNDP 2002). With its largely rural-based economies, it is unlikely that the epidemic can be controlled without the effective support of agriculture (du Guerny 1999), and this sector is in a strong position to assist in both the prevention and mitigation of HIV/AIDS (Gari & Villareal 2002). Equally, there are limitations to the extent to which the health or agricultural sector can operate, and for this reason a multi-sectoral approach is crucial (FAO 2005).
HIV/AIDS deepens already existing poverty. Impacts experienced by People Living with AIDS (PLWA) include health constraints, labour shortages and a weakened labour force, social isolation, monetary shortages, impacts within the household (such as redistribution of tasks, and more attention paid to the sufferer at the expense of other necessary activities). PLWA can provide less labour, have less capital and are more in need of risk-management strategies. As they struggle to pay increased medical and other bills whilst at the same time losing their earning capacity, their financial wealth decreases and assets may need to be sold, such as livestock, tools or seed reserves. Cash crop production is often abandoned due to its now excessive financial and labour requirements. All of these aspects contribute to a decline in production in rural communities, and to farm degradation in terms of a decrease in the use and conservation of (agro)biodiversity, a decrease in food quality and quantity, and an abandonment and disinvestment in land. PLWA are less able to grow crops and increasingly shift to gathering for their daily subsistence needs for food, medicine and other products.
Agrobiodiversity and Local Knowledge for strengthening rural livelihoods
Strengthening the agricultural system means a focus not on problems, but on internal strengths and external opportunities. African communities have, over centuries, developed a diverse resource base of cultivated and wild plants, trees and livestock, and site- and gender-specific knowledge which has enabled them to sustain and enhance their livelihoods. This diversity of plants and animals is termed "agricultural biological diversity" - Agrobiodiversity - and the knowledge about these resources - here termed Local Knowledge. Agrobiodiversity and Local Knowledge are two very important internal strengths of rural communities.
Agrobiodiversity (AB) and Local Knowledge (LK) are invaluable resources in their contribution towards strengthening and stabilising rural communities - in fact they are essential for their very survival. However, their value has been undermined by the relatively recent encouragement to adopt "improved" externally sourced crop varieties, seeds and inputs, and market-orientated production. The local resource base is now further under threat due to the impact of HIV/AIDS, which strikes at the heart of these livelihood strategies (Gari 2002a,b; Gari 2003; Garí & Villarreal 2002).
In the face of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, agrobiodiversity and local knowledge are important factors for enhancing rural livelihoods by contributing to:
Food security. The first essential for communities with PLWA is to ensure a more constant supply of locally accessible food, both in quantity and nutritional value. Neither pharmaceuticals nor traditional medicines can work without this basis, the best medicine is sufficient food. In the sub-Saharan African situation, communities have to grow, or gather, most of their food themselves.
Medicinal relief. PLWA have higher medicinal requirements, but are usually unable to afford to purchase allopathic (conventional) medicine. Most people in rural areas rely on traditional medicine; the availability and use of medicinal plants provides a cheap, plentiful and locally suitable form of health care.
Income-generating activities. In the case of HIV/AIDS affected households, the need for income increases due to the rise in medicinal and funeral costs, yet at the same time the capacity for income generation decreases. Useful income-generating activities based around local biodiversity are those requiring little capital investment and labour, bringing more constant dividends throughout the year, and being based on local resources, knowledge and skills.
In all of these factors, labour-, cost- and time-efficient provisioning strategies need to be considered (FAO 2005). For example: producing one's own food, and generating income to purchase food, are dependent on the local labour force, which can be strengthened through improved health, and be supported by more appropriate labour strategies. The weakened workforce of PLWA is less able to provide enough strong and timely labour; therefore, labour-intensive production and post-harvest practices become inappropriate for farmers. Production becomes less a measure of "yield per hectare", than "yield per hour" (Kevin Gallagher personal communication). Shifting to other less labour-intensive varieties or species and practices increases harvest security.
PLWA need more food security, better nutrition, more medicine, more income and increased risk management, and in most cases lower labour- and capital-investment approaches. Trees on farm as part of local agrobiodiversity can be a useful tool in the mitigation of HIV/AIDS. Trees in agroforestry systems, parklands or forests are an important part of agrobiodiversity for rural livelihoods. In seeking ways to enhance food security, food quality, medicinal relief and income generation, as well as local coping mechanisms to deal with a weakened labour force, tree species (and local knowledge on them) should not be overlooked.
Access to knowledge and germplasm
Faced with HIV/AIDS, farmers often abandon market-oriented and high external-input agricultural practices and shift over to subsistence farming (FAO 1995). To be relatively successful in subsistence farming, PLWA require access to germplasm and knowledge: farmers can only plant what is available and what they perceive as useful. A focus on local cultures, knowledge and agrobiodiversity is crucial to any HIV/AIDS mitigation strategy (Gari 2002; FAO 2005). However, local knowledge alone is insufficient to provide timely coping strategies for the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Forests and other natural resources
The natural forest area throughout Africa is decreasing (FAO 2003d). The extraction of useful products such as high-value timber and non-timber forest products is depleting forests. As PLWA are less able to grow crops, they increasingly shift to gathering for their daily subsistence needs. Wild foods are free, nutritious and require little labour input and are particularly needed in times of stress (Overstory 139; 145). The HIV/AIDS pandemic has also generated a greater need for medicine, and most plant-based medicine is sourced from the forest.
There are indications that PLWA in Africa rely more on forest and other available natural resources than non-affected households (FAO 2003e). It would appear that natural forests are an essential safety net for PLWA for their livelihood; for food and medicine, but also for firewood, fodder and other income means, this corresponds with other findings in processes of impoverishment (Overstory 139; 145). The particular HIV/AIDS related impact of this increased dependence on natural resources is not clear, but there is concern for the sustainable use of at least part of these resources (FAO 2003e). It is however beyond the scope of this paper to enter into detail on how the pandemic affects the forest and other natural resources and how forests can be optimised as a safety net.
Trees as part of agrobiodiversity in HIV/AIDS mitigation
Farmers need to adapt their farming system to cope with their changing needs caused by HIV/AIDS. A careful mix of species can contribute to a more efficient adaptation to the changing farming system. History has taught that miracle crops or miracle trees do not exist (Ng 1996). Setting priorities among species mix for the mitigation of HIV/AIDS involves an integration of farmers', extension workers' and researchers' perspectives for choosing those species mixes that will give the greatest benefits. Farmers have fewer resources and have labour constraints to meet their livelihood goals of food security, medicine and income and they are also more in need of risk management. Depending on the specifics of farmers' needs and capacities, farmers need to decide what suits them best.
Most tree species provide several products and services at different times, but a considerable number of species and genotypes/cultivars are necessary to provide the multiple uses needed by individual farmers. There are many tree species that can be used to diversify the farming system. With careful species mixes, agroforestry systems in some localities may provide year-round production. PLWA need a balanced diet, which requires the use of various species, and also plant-based medicine, which is - per disease - based on more than one species (ATDAM personal communication; PC 2000; World Bank 2001a,b; Dery et al 1999). One of the defining attributes of agroforestry is its complexity and its various forms. A common presumption is that low adoption of agroforestry stems from the high knowledge required to follow the techniques. The complexity of agroforestry can however also be its major attraction (Swallow & Kwesiga 2003). The social isolation in which PLWA find themselves calls for self-help groups or active intervention in knowledge transfer and preservation (Gari & Villareal 2003; FAO 2005). Depending on a farmer's needs and capacities, s/he decides what mix of diversity to aim for, in terms of species (or variety) numbers, species composition, location and in evenness of distribution.
Although diversity is often equated with species richness, diversity is a function of the number of species and the evenness in distribution of species' abundances (Magurran 1988; Purvis & Hector 2000). Ecological experiments and models have shown that diversification of species composition could lead to enhancements of the stability and productivity of ecosystems (e.g. Chapin et al. 2000; Cottingham et al. 2001; Loreau et al. 2001; Norberg et al. 2001; Tilman et al. 2001). Diversification could also reduce risks in an uncertain market environment, or if there are potential pest and disease problems with a particular species. Increasing the stability and productivity of agroecosystems is one of the objectives to assist PLWA. Diversifying the composition of tree species on farms appears to be a means of reaching this objective.
Example of a diverse production farm niche: the home garden
Home gardening differs from commercially oriented agriculture. Crops are grown because of their food and nutritional value rather than their market value. It concentrates on smaller-sized family (or community group-run) gardens and - with careful species mixes - produces year-round. It focuses on diversity, including traditional, neglected and under-utilised crops, and fruit trees are an important component of home gardens (Overstory 147). Home gardens tend to appeal most strongly to women, who are often in charge of selecting, cooking and growing the family's food needs. Being in charge of production of food and medicinal plant products enables women greater control over their family's welfare. Overall, experience indicates that increasing local diversified production strategies improves nutrition more than efforts to increase incomes. Nevertheless, in practice, home garden projects must work hard to promote diversity.
Most tree species are not labour intensive nor require timely labour, something PLWA may lack to provide. Apart from some watering after (trans)planting the tree species, most tree species require minimum maintenance. Some species even regenerate themselves without intervention. The little maintenance needed generally does not require timely interventions. For example in Meru, Kenya, a 15-year-old orphan managed to survive because his parents had planted macadamia trees. The nuts of the species provided him with a low-labour steady income that helped him keep going. Now, at the age of 18, he has started to cultivate parts of his land that he had abandoned and his future looks bright (Author - personal interview).
In agriculture, high-yielding varieties or breeds may have a higher potential yield, but it appears more beneficial for PLWA to rely on the more diverse traditional varieties (landraces), because of risk management and a more reliably constant yield.
Trees as service-providers
Farmers are conscious of the micro-climatic variations within their plots and adapt accordingly. By focusing on critical areas, they immediately both address the problem before it gets out of control, and use it to their productive advantage. Trees in agroforestry farming systems can provide many services: they can affect the farm microclimate (cooling and moisture retention), they are more drought resistant, control soil erosion, improve soil fertility (N-fixing, source of compost, tapping into subsoil minerals and aerating soils), provide shade, function as a windbreak, control weeds (through shading or natural repellence) and can serve as a water catchment. For example, research from Rwanda showed that soil fertility was a major result from changed practices due to HIV/AIDS (Gillespie 1989). Trees are therefore vital to increasing stability and resilience of the farming system, particularly important as PLWA suffer from farm degradation. Further, the wider range of farm niches created provides options to diversify and helps to reduce risks, thus contributing to food security as well as nutritional benefits.
Example: tree fodder
One tree product that needs specific mention is fodder: the protein levels in pods and leaves of fodder trees complement those of most grass species, and these can boost livestock weight as well as milk production (Roothaert 1999). During dry periods, tree fodder is often the only source of food. Raising a cow or even small livestock - poultry, sheep, goats and pigs, can make a substantial contribution to food security by providing protein-rich foodstuffs (particularly important for PLWA), income, draught power, fertiliser and fuel. Animal breeds adapted to the local environment and local feed sources are more persistent. In addition, trees also provide a good source of bee fodder.
Improving the use of existing plants
Many of the plants on and around farms have unknown food and medicinal values, and therefore remain unused, or hardly so. Hedges and wild areas around farms in particular are considered to be "centres of biodiversity" (van Oijen 2002; Kindt 2002; Backes 2001). Many tree, shrub and liana species can be found in hedges. Some of these species are rare and threatened by local extinction, whereas others can be classified as weeds.
More knowledge on species can increase the use of what is readily available. Many trees are already on farm, but their full potential has not yet been realised. For instance, Prunus africana in Meru is locally used for timber and medicine but the bark also has an important international cash value (Hall et al 2000). HIV/AIDS requires a change of diet; eating these fruits, for instance, would assist greatly. Some species already grow on farms, either on wasteland or in the hedges, but farmers have never used them, and this especially applies to some medicinal values about which many farmers are unaware. Exchange of knowledge among farmers, traditional medicinal practitioners and elders, as well as providing the community with external knowledge, may also improve the use of these already existing resources. Exchange between regions or countries also improves the use of local resources.
Better use of remote land
PLWA sometimes need to abandon land because they cannot maintain the farm. Instead of leaving the land to waste, they can plant trees to increase their benefits over the coming years, for their children, and to protect or increase soil fertility in the meantime (if the extra labour of seeding/planting and removing the trees is feasible for the farmer). Additionally, farmers who are about to lose their partner to AIDS, can use tree planting as a good low-capital and low-labour "investment". This is also an option for children who will lose or have lost both parents, and more so for remote abandoned fields. In some locations, tree planting on remote land will ensure ownership of the land but this is not valid throughout SSA; in other locations theft will prevent tree planting on remote land.
HIV/AIDS has a devastating effect in SSA. With most people living in the rural areas it is unlikely that the epidemic can be controlled without the effective support of agriculture. Expanding agrobiodiversity and local knowledge can be one way to mitigate the effects of HIV/AIDS through enhancing rural livelihoods. Agrobiodiversity can be used to adapt the farming system to meet this challenge, enabling more people to eke out an existence during these periods of extreme hardship.
Tree species are part of the available agrobiodiversity on African farms. A greater focus on trees within agricultural systems - agroforestry - can help to promote food security and nutrition, medicinal relief, and income generation including the use of labour-, cost- and time-efficient provisioning strategies. Trees also increase the stability and resilience of farming systems. Making more efficient use of tree species can be a valuable part of mainstreaming HIV/AIDS in agriculture, and allow PLWA to live longer and have healthier and more meaningful lives.
Due to the large number of reference citations, readers are directed to the original article with a complete reference list available for free download at: agroforestry.net/pubs/index.html.
This edition of The Overstory was adapted from the complete original article:
Lengkeek, A. 2004. Trees on farm to mitigate the effects of HIV/AIDS in SSA. url: agroforestry.net/pubs/index.html. Banana Hill, Randwijk, The Netherlands.
The author acknowledges Mundie Salm, Julia Wright, Yohannes Gebre Michael, and Wim Tolkamp, whose comments greatly influenced this article.
About the author
Ard Lengkeek has an MSc in plant genetics and PhD in participatory tree diversity management from Wageningen University. He has worked twelve years in international research including six in Africa. He is currently a team leader in Banana Hill, an organization that supports farmer-led development worldwide. Ard specializes in issues related to (agro)biodiversity, genetic resource management, ethnobotany, participatory research and project management. He has recently been working on a project for FAO Rome entitled, "Access to Agrobiodiversity and Local Knowledge to mitigate effects of HIV/AIDS." Ard can be reached at: Banana Hill, Bredeweg 31, 6668 AR Randwijk, The Netherlands; Tel: +31 (0)488 491880; Fax +31 (0)847 364153; E-mail: Ard.Lengkeek@zonnet.nl; Web site: bananahill.net .
Related editions to The Overstory
- The Overstory #147--Major Themes of Tropical Homegardens
- The Overstory #141--Edible Leaves
- The Overstory #139--"Hungry season" food from the forests
- The Overstory #136--Underutilised Indigenous Fruit Trees
- The Overstory #128--Wild Foods in Agricultural Systems
- The Overstory #127--Food Security
- The Overstory #117--Between Wildcrafting and Monocultures
- The Overstory #109--Cultural Landscapes
- The Overstory #106--Hidden Bounty of the Urban Forest
- The Overstory #76--Ethnoforestry
- The Overstory #46--Human Health and Agroecosystems
- The Overstory #24--Sustaining Physical Health