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The miombo1 woodlands, recognized for their floristic richness and widespread occurrence of the genera Brachystegia, Julbernadia, Isoberlinia and their associates (Malaisse, 1978), form the dominant natural woodland type in southern Africa. They extend across about 2.7 million km2 of the African sub-humid tropical zone from Tanzania and Democratic Republic of Congo in the north, through Zambia, Malawi and eastern Angola, to Mozambique and Zimbabwe, even extending roughly to the Zimbabwe-Botswana border. Comprising up to 8500 vascular plant species, the miombo ecozone belongs to one of the floristically richest areas in Africa (Tuite and Gardiner, 1994). Although the composition and structure of miombo varies with soil quality, rainfall, altitude and land use (Endean, 1967), the trees are distinguished by the shape of the dominant trees which are short, slender boles with markedly ascending branches and light, shallow, flat-topped or umbrella-shaped crowns (White, 1983).

It is estimated that over 75 million people live within the miombo biome and that the woodlands directly support the livelihood of over 40 million people in this African region. A further 15 million people living in towns and cities throughout the miombo ecozone also depend on food, fibre, fuelwood and charcoal from miombo woodlands (Bradley and McNamara, 1993; Dewees, 1994). For most rural communities, the woodlands are a primary source of energy, in the form of firewood and charcoal, and a crucial source of essential subsistence goods (Dewees, 1994; Morris, 1995). Important products include poles and construction products, timber, materials for tool handles and household utensils, foods, medicines, leaf litter, grazing and browse. In addition, woodlands have a service role in controlling soil erosion, providing shade, modifying hydrological cycles and maintaining soil fertility. Religious and cultural customs, which relate to designated woodland areas and certain tree species, are vital to the spiritual well-being and effective functioning of rural communities.

However, due to the intensive use to which the woodlands have been subjected, it is widely accepted that there is very little unmodified woodland remaining. For instance, over 95 percent of existing woodland cover in Malawi has been heavily modified while mature miombo woodland in Tabora region in Tanzania is mostly secondary (Dewees, 1994). It is estimated that about 600,000 hectares are cleared every year for other land uses and that the rate of deforestation is increasing every year. The various causes of deforestation are mainly agricultural expansion, shifting cultivation, commercial timber harvesting, overexploitation for fuelwood and poles, overgrazing, excessive burning and general industrial development including general urban development.

Although the miombo woodlands have been described many times (Malaisse, 1978; Kayambazinthu, 1988; Lowore, 1993; Frost, 1996), their ecology, silviculture and management potential are still not well understood. It has therefore become increasingly recognized that the technical capacity to manage these forests in southern Africa is inadequate and is preventing them from being managed sustainably in the region, in spite of the intensive use to which they are subjected. Further, land tenure systems and land-related cultural values are critical factors in the sustainable management of forests and in the adoption of any long-term technologies especially in southern Africa, in which culture is highly regarded. The history of land tenure and its governing cultural values in the southern African countries dates back to pre-colonial rule and, like most African countries, the regime of land tenure systems and related cultural values can be traced back to the late nineteenth century. Land was initially under the customary tenure system until the coming in of colonial governments. The colonial era introduced the system of individualized private and public tenure parallel to the pre-existing system of customary tenure.

In much of sub-Saharan Africa, particularly the southern African region, natural resources (i.e. forests, woodland savannas, coastal mangroves, etc.) serve as a safety-net for rural households coping with agricultural shortfalls, consistently provide income and food security for the rural poor, and supply medicinal plants on which traditional healthcare systems depend (FAO, 2003). The miombo woodlands of southern Africa, held in a variety of tenurial and management regimes, form such an integral part of the livelihood and farming systems, and it is apparent that poor rural households, particularly those affected by HIV/AIDS, appear to rely more and more on miombo resources as their capacity to farm the land and engage in other livelihood coping strategies declines. HIV/AIDS has become the world's most devastating epidemic with over 40 million people infected by the end of 2001, of which at least 28 million people were in sub-Saharan Africa where it has caused the greatest burden by threatening human development and survival. This figure represents approximately 71 percent of all people living with HIV/AIDS in the world. About 81 percent of all HIV infected women and 79 percent of all HIV/AIDS orphans live in sub-Saharan Africa. In this region, more than half of new infections are occurring in young people aged 15 to 24 years, with teenage girls more likely to be HIV infected than boys of similar age (GoM, 2003).

Although it would appear that woodlands are therefore an essential safety net for HIV/AIDS affected households, these are only anecdotal observations. Further, though it is generally established that HIV/AIDS constrains agricultural productivity, reduces household wealth and food security, and increases demand for healthcare, relationships between these impacts and natural resources have thus far been overlooked in the analysis of HIV/AIDS (FAO, 2003).

To the extent that households and communities affected or afflicted by HIV/AIDS depend on natural resources, overlooking these relationships limits the development of multisectoral interventions that build on and support local responses to HIV/AIDS and the ability of the natural resource sector to plan and manage for the sustainability of these responses. The paucity of, and need for, empirical evidence regarding the relationships between HIV/AIDS and natural resources has been a common consensus at recent government and non-governmental HIV/AIDS planning meetings (ABCG, 2002; USAID, 2002). This study was therefore designed to generate information on the current and potential responses of the miombo woodlands as a safety net and the likely impact on the sustainability of the resource. Such information would then help in the design and development of appropriate multisectoral interventions and in planning for sustainable management of the resources and their responses.

The objectives of the study in trying to obtain some indication of the extent of the interface of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and miombo woodlands are as follows:

1 Miombo being a vernacular word that has been adopted by ecologists to describe the dry deciduous woodland ecosystem

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