Ladies and Gentlemen
On behalf of the Director-General of FAO, and on my own behalf, I would like to welcome all of you to the Africa-Asia Agriculture Against AIDS consultation, organized jointly by FAO and the UNDP here in Bangkok, the beautiful capital city of Thailand.
Twenty years ago, when it was first detected, HIV was seen as a worrying health issue. Today it is a major development problem, touching upon every area of human existence in the most affected countries. In particular, it poses a serious threat to the food security of the millions who are infected and their families, both in terms of their capacity to produce and to purchase their food.
As the world enters its third decade of the AIDS epidemic, the evidence of its impact is undeniable. The most affected countries are those where the majority of the population lives in rural areas and whose livelihood largely depends on agriculture. The devastating consequences on these communities have been enormous. Here the epidemic is plunging poor, rural communities further into destitution as their labour capacity weakens, incomes dwindle and assets are depleted. The sustained and long-term impact of the epidemic erodes food security, damages rural livelihoods and exacerbates poverty.
Rural communities bear a higher share of the cost of HIV/AIDS, as many urban dwellers and migrant labourers naturally return to their home villages when they become sick. So, at the same time as remittances from these former migrant members of the household dry up, expenditures to meet medical bills and funeral expenses rises. As the number of productive family members declines, the number of dependants grows.
Poverty, widespread in rural areas, leads to poor nutrition and poor health, which make people more vulnerable to HIV infection. Poor nutrition can also shorten the incubation period of the virus, causing symptoms to appear sooner. This situation is especially severe for the rural poor, who have the least access to medical care.
Armed conflict, typically fought in rural areas, also increases vulnerability to HIV/AIDS because of sexual violence, displacement of people and destitution. A vicious circle is forming, linking HIV/AIDS, poverty and food insecurity. And it is of particular concern in the rural areas, where most of the world’s poor live.
Gender inequality is one of the driving forces behind the spread of HIV. Access to productive resources including land, credit, knowledge, training and technology is strongly determined along gender lines, with men frequently having more access to all of these than women. With the death of her husband, a widow may be left without the access she had gained through him or his clan, and her livelihood, and that of her children, is immediately threatened. AIDS is thus worsening existing gender imbalances. In many places HIV infection rates are three to five times higher among young women than young men. Effective interventions to mitigate the spread of the epidemic must therefore target both men and women, based on a gender perspective that seeks to understand the complex set of socially ascribed roles and relations between them.
It is estimated that by the end of this decade there will be 40 million AIDS orphans. The resulting dramatic increase in child-headed households also contributes to food insecurity. Many children are losing their parents before acquiring basic agricultural skills, or knowledge about nutrition and health. A study in Kenya showed that only seven percent of agricultural households headed by orphans had adequate knowledge of the most basic agricultural tasks. Not surprisingly, severe food insecurity among orphans is already reported in the worst affected areas.
In spite of its devastating effect on agricultural production and rural livelihoods, and in spite of the fact that up to 80 percent of the people in the most affected countries depend on agriculture for their subsistence, most of the response to the epidemic has come from the health sector. Effective solutions for rural areas must rely on the agricultural sector and its capacity to reduce people’s vulnerability to acquire the disease. The agricultural sector is in a strong position to assist in both the prevention and mitigation of the consequences of HIV/AIDS. Moreover, it has a responsibility to those people who depend on agriculture for subsistence. For over a decade, FAO has been working with its partners to develop an agriculture sector strategy to mitigate the impact of the disease on rural livelihoods.
We are confident that this meeting will be an excellent opportunity to move ahead in formulating responses within the agriculture sector to alleviate the effects of the epidemic. This is a time for learning from each other and for jointly devising better and more efficient ways of combating a disease that can undermine all development achievements to date and create unprecedented misery and hopelessness. Africa-Asia Agricultures Against AIDS assembles people from ministries of agriculture, rural development and poverty, national AIDS commissions and the like, non-governmental organizations, donors and the United Nations with the objective of devising innovative approaches to face the challenge posed by the epidemic, as well as to generate stronger communication links among those who are addressing the problem and to move together towards avoiding potentially disastrous consequences.
Before I conclude, I would like to thank you all for taking part in this event. I wish you fruitful deliberations. I am sure that the outcome of your work will contribute to improving the livelihoods of the rural people facing the dramatic consequences of the worst disease of our times.