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Due to the gender differentiation in woodland activities within households, the types of woodland activities and extent to which these activities are affected and/or relied upon to mitigate the impacts of morbidity and mortality will depend on who in the household is ill and/or deceased. This effect is illustrated in Table 12.

Table 12: Gender effect of adult morbidity or mortality on woodland livelihood activities

Woodland Activities




Commercial, labour intensive (timber)



Commercial, less laborious (non-timber)






M = Male; F = Female

Female household members who are coincidentally the primary caregivers and whose labour is typically re-allocated for caregiving predominantly carry out subsistence woodland activities. Thus, regardless of who in the household is ill, subsistence collection activities decrease during illness of a household member (i.e. excluding medicinal plants).

In terms of commercial woodland activities, the effect of gender of adult morbidity/mortality is more complex. While men and women both engage in woodland activities for income, those activities demanding heavy labour usually related to wood (e.g. pit-sawing, charcoal production, sale of poles, furniture construction, curios) are typically carried out by men. These activities can also be the most remunerative. Thus, illness or the death of an adult male will lead to a reduction in this income as women and children are not likely to take up these activities. Inversely, this income may become more important if the female household head is ill or deceased and subsistence activities are reduced (e.g. to purchase firewood). Product labour requirements

In either case, less laborious commercial activities remain a viable option for income generation during illness. These include products for which value can be added through home-based work, and are less gender differentiated such as reed mats, baskets and processing of food. These activities can be carried out when time and labour permit, while attending to other duties in the household such as caregiving. The value of such commercial activities to cope with expenses and productivity losses related to illness is supported by evidence from the case studies. Reed mat production was considered to be a coping strategy in response to illness in Ndaje and Chimaliro. Labour requirements for woodland activities are a function of travel distance to the resource from which products are collected. Products obtained from within community agriculture lands in addition to forests (e.g. reeds, thatch grass, firewood) are less labour intensive. Household composition

Household engagement in commercial and subsistence woodland activities during adult illness and following mortality is a function of household composition. In polygamous households, for example, the effect of adult illness on subsistence woodland activities such as firewood collection will be less pronounced than in households with only one female head. Households in which children are old enough to engage in woodland activities also offset the labour reductions due to adult morbidity. Twenty-three of households in all sites reported that firewood collection duties have changed from the adult female to girls and boys, the main reason being ill health of the adult.

Figure 10

Forest product collected by the youth across the study areas

In those households for which the importance of woodland activities increased following adult mortality, children were often involved in the collection and sale of forest products. The types of forest products that households reported selling are also products that are typically collected by children (Figure 10) and women. Interviews with traditional healers suggested that widows and orphans are more likely to depend on woodlands. Wealth

Commercial woodland activities in response to adult morbidity and mortality are likely to be more important for those households who are asset poor to begin with. In the case studies, the households that did not engage in woodland activities as a coping strategy in response to expenses related to illness cited the availability of other assets, including savings, crop sales, remittances, the sale of small livestock and assistance from relatives and neighbours (as a social safety net). Reliance on woodlands to cope with adult morbidity and following adult mortality suggests that households lack these other assets. Access to markets

A key determinant in the ability of commercial woodland activities to serve as a coping strategy in response to illness, and as a more consistent livelihood strategy following adult mortality, is access to markets. For example, in Chimaliro, where focus groups claimed that commercial woodland activities were limited due to poorer access to markets, 67 percent of household respondents disagreed that forest products were important sources of cash to cover medical expenses, contrary to findings from Ndaje where 64 percent agreed. This suggests that the potential for commercial woodland activities to cope with the immediate impacts of HIV/AIDS (i.e. medical expenses, productivity losses) is limited to those areas with access to markets. Access to forest resources

The negative effect of illness on household forest product collection labour is likely to be more pronounced in communities with less access to forest resources. For example, in Nkula, where access to forest resources is less than in Ndaje and Chimaliro, three households reported skipping a meal because of lack of firewood, compared to one in Ndaje and none in Chimaliro.

3.3 HIV/AIDS and woodland resources

3.3.1 Woodland degradation

Change in the household's source of firewood collection over the last five years was measured as an indicator of change in woodland resources. While 86 percent of the households in Ndaje responded that they now travel further to collect firewood, only 38 per cent of those households in Chimaliro responded travelling further to collect firewood (Figure 11).

Figure 11

Percentage households indicating the changes in sources of firewood collection

between different land tenure systems between sites

Both Ndaje and Nkula, in which 73 percent of households reported increased distance to firewood resources, are communities estimated to have high HIV prevalence relative to Chimaliro. Ndaje also has relatively better market access than Chimaliro. The only reason for which community members in Ndaje explained the change in firewood resources was the commercialization of firewood, while in Chimaliro the community did not cite the sale of firewood, but other reasons.

To what extent woodland resource depletion is associated with an increase in woodland dependence by households afflicted by HIV/AIDS, or markets, or an interaction of the two factors, is irrelevant. Quality of woodland resources appears to be negatively associated with high prevalence areas, and this has a negative impact on afflicted households. At the same time that household labour for subsistence collection of firewood is reduced in households suffering adult illness, households experiencing adult mortality appear to increase dependence. Implications of firewood scarcity as noted by focus groups include the loss of income, increase in labour spent collecting and inability to cook certain foods (e.g. beans). Six percent of households in the survey skipped a meal due to the lack of firewood.

3.3.2 Species scarcity Opportunistic infections, traditional medicine and woodland resources2

Key findings:

In all the study sites, herbalists reported ten illnesses and symptoms related to HIV/AIDS that are treated by use of medicinal plants (Table 13).

Table 13: HIV/AIDS-related illnesses treated by use of medicinal plants


Herbalists (n=13)



Mouth and throat sores


Skin rashes








Other STDs apart from HIV/AIDS








The majority of herbalists (93 percent) claim that the availability of medicinal plants in general has decreased over the last ten years (Figure 12), making it difficult to access them (Table 14). The most important reasons for this change (expressed by 63 percent of herbalists) relate to over-exploitation of medicinal plants. This is, in the main, due to increased number of people collecting medicines to capitalize on more frequent and increased number of illnesses and poor, hurried methods of collection such as digging up roots that frequently leads to the death of trees. None of the herbalists reported an increase in the availability of medicinal plants and two (7 percent) said that availability is the same. One herbalist in Machinga travels to Mozambique to collect most of the medicinal plants he uses because of the relative abundance of medicinal plants there. The variation in medicinal plant availability between the communities in Malawi is most likely associated with factors such as population density, proximity to major urban centres and the amount of forest cover.

Figure 12

Change in the availability of medicinal plants in Chimaliro and the Machinga study sites

Resource areas from which plants are collected include forests, riparian forests (i.e. stream banks, rivers) and farmland, and some are increasingly cultivated at homesteads. The majority of herbalists collect the plants themselves (77 percent), while three (23 percent) reported purchasing them in addition to collecting (all in Chimaliro). For the Ndaje and Nkula sites, all herbalists themselves collect and no purchases are made. Excluding the herbalist at the Nkula site who travels to Mozambique, mainly due to his specialization in witchcraft, collection distances range from less than 100 meters to 20 km (the latter distance requiring travel by bus). Herbalists purchasing plants travelled on average 80 km to markets.

Many of these resource areas, and the populations of medicinal species within these areas, have been converted to other land uses or become degraded (i.e. depletion of species). Thirty-two species of medicinal plants classified broadly as improving general strength, promoting healing and reducing pain3 were identified as vulnerable to overexploitation. Of these 32 species, 25 were further investigated for change in their availability. Sixty percent were identified by herbalists as becoming more costly to collect within the last five years - that is to say, distances to collection sites have increased, and those purchasing plants reported significant increases in price4. Of those species not becoming more scarce (in terms of distance and collection time) reasons cited were coppice species, only leaves used, cultivated at homestead, trees in farms, occurring naturally in farmlands, not good for fuelwood.

Just as there is variation between communities and sites, there is inter-species variation in the availability within districts. For example, one herbalist in Chimaliro reported an average collection distance of 4 km for Fagara cholybea (Zobara), while another purchases the same species in a market 70 km away. Some herbalists reported Pericopsis angolensis (Muwanga) as becoming more costly to collect, while others reported no change. Factors contributing to this variation could be knowledge of sites, but more likely an issue of access to those sites. For example, the herbalist collecting Fagara cholybea locally has only been a resident for one year, whereas the herbalist buying has resided in the community 30 years. This suggests that access is the primary issue, not knowledge.

Table 14: Species that have become more difficult to source in the communities surveyed

Species Name

Common Name

Azanza garkeana


Pterocarpus angolensis


Flacourtia indica 5


Markhamia acuminata


Burkea africana


Erythrina abyssinica


Faidherbia albida 6


Afzelia quanzensis 7


Pseudolachnostylis maprouneifolia 8


Dichrostachys cinerea


Strychnos innocua


Antidesma vernosum


Cassia abbreviata


Pericopsis angolensis


When asked whether there had been a change in who is collecting medicinal plants in the community over the last five years, 77 percent of the respondents (10) claimed that there had been an increase in the number of people collecting. More people are entering the trade for income generation, particularly for those species that are scarce. Citing reasons for this increase, 40 percent of the respondents said that there was more demand for traditional medicine because there is more illness in the community. Supply-side reasons were also reported - e.g. more people are collecting medicinal plants for sale due to hunger, poverty and/or decline in agricultural productivity. Only 15 percent reported a reduction in numbers of patients/users because of hospitals (both in Chimaliro).

The major threats to the availability of medicinal plants in the community woodlands are presented in Figure 13. Eighty-five percent of the respondents reported that the main threat is destructive harvesting methods, followed by increasing demand for trade (77 percent), commercial harvesters from outside the community (69 percent), conversion of forest land (54 percent), policies that prohibit collection (23 percent) and finally overpopulation and competing uses (15 percent).

Figure 13

Threats to the availability of medicinal plants in community woodlands at the three study sites

Irrespective of the study site from which herbalists were found, there was general agreement on the approaches that could be adopted in order to increase the availability of medicinal plants (Table 15). These included the introduction of training programmes on better harvesting methods, restrictions on outsiders who have no part in managing the resources, enforcing rules on collection, empowering local communities with greater control over the resources, allowing ex situ cultivation in homesteads and gardens, and in situ planting in the existing natural forests. The strengths associated with each approach strongly suggest that the success of these approaches lies in community involvement, co-management and ownership of the resources, as well as in traditional leadership and authority. The weaknesses linked to these approaches, e.g. uncontrolled exploitation of medicinal plants, would largely prevail in the absence of organized community-based management.

The indications by herbalists of a more pluralistic approach is counter to the individualistic approach for which they have so far been known, largely for reasons of protecting their knowledge on medicinal plants. This perhaps shows that the threats to the availability of medicinal plants, particularly under the growing demand for treating HIV/AIDS-related illnesses, highlighted in this report, have in real terms decimated most medicinal plants. It therefore becomes unnecessary to protect knowledge that is no longer in physical existence (and therefore cannot be used) but to seek community approaches that would promote, rejuvenate and sustain the remaining medicinal plants. In fact, this realization (of conservation) is what has given way to the creation of the Herbalists Association of Malawi and to linkages between the Association and government medical practitioners of the Ministry of Health. Effective measures to implement some, if not all, of the suggested approaches could best be done through this linkage between herbalists and government to promote the availability of medicinal plants, starting with those known to treat HIV/AIDS-related illnesses.

Table 15: Approaches for increasing availability of medicinal plants and their strengths and weaknesses




Training on better harvesting methods: To protect available resources, reduce the cutting habit among community members

Effective for neighbouring communities

Only possible with community and not outsiders, commercial harvesters

Practical for immediate community

Not all people can be trained

Prohibiting outsiders from collection


Hunger and poverty will defeat the efforts and destruction will persist


Most of the communities are busy with domestic activities


Forest resource too big to be patrolled effectively

Enforcing current rules for collection: One of the rules would be to allow those trained in harvesting methods to collect medicinal plants

Involving communities recognizes their dependence on the reserve

Inadequate staff

Only those who have permits should be allowed

People will always evade licensing and outsiders should be given transfer certificates for them to be allowed to collect medicine


Introduction of collection fees; most commercial harvesters evade fee paying


Co-management between the community and the government should be strengthened

Giving greater control over local resources to community: Joint government control with community; to set up monitoring mechanisms

Chiefs be given greater authority because the villagers respect the decisions made by local leaders

The problem is the misinterpretation of democracy by some individuals

Cultivation of plants outside of forest: Includes advising communities to conserve medicinal plants in their gardens

This is best because the medicine will be within reach and free to use the product without fear

Planting material not available

Lessen travel time but cultivated medicinal plant as effective as natural one

Not possible to have all species planted because of different combinations of the concoction

Easy access; prevent wind effect; easily dug up at night if one falls sick

Not knowing propagation methods

Near home, saves time

Propagation methods difficult to access


Propagation material not available


Active ingredients may be weakened because of fertilizer/manure application and may lose strength

Planting in the forest: Seedlings raised by the co-management committee and the villagers assist in patch planting in the woodland/blocks


People will still cut down planted trees


The planted trees would be stolen


Others might still sneak in and dig up the medicinal plant


Lack of fast-growing seedlings


Hampered by poor community participation

2 The sample sizes for the herbalist interviewed may be considered small (i.e. n = 13) but in reality it represented all or almost all herbalists in the areas.

3 Herbalists usually use a mixture of these plants, which in themselves can treat a number of ailments and not just one. For example, "Chitimbe" Bauhinia thonningii bark infusion can act as a contraceptive, relieve inflammation, cure venereal diseases, rheumatism, etc.

4 "Zobara" (Fagara cholybea) and "Muwawani" (Cassia abbreviata) increased from 5-100MK and 40-100MK, respectively within the last 5 years.

5 Pneumonia

6 Diarrhoea

7 Bilharzias; eye diseases

8 Diarrhoea

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