In Nkula, where access to the forest reserve is limited by decree, 47 percent of the households have shifted their firewood collection activities from the customary lands to the forest reserve. This suggests the existence of a potential conflict over forest reserve access between those households in Nkula and the authorities, as well as between Nkula and communities included in the co-management of the forest reserve. The main reason cited for this shift in collection sites over the last five years was because the customary woodlands surrounding the community have been depleted.
HIV/AIDS could be a latent causal factor aggravating this problem. Households suffering from adult illness, and with less availability of labour for subsistence woodland activities, adapt by cutting trees for firewood nearer to the homestead. In communities where access to forest resources is physically and legally restricted, and labour requirements for the collection of subsistence forest products are greater, it could be expected that households suffering adult illness would be more likely to rely on firewood resources in and around the homestead. Evidence of this effect of access on subsistence forest product collection is reflected in Figure 11, where slightly more households in Nkula reported shifting their firewood collection activities closer to the homesteads.
What households afflicted by prime-age adult mortality are more likely to become dependent on for income may also be a contributing factor to natural resource conflict.
Given the high dependence on the woodland resources for daily livelihoods shown in this study, particularly for HIV/AIDS-affected households, the type of management and utilization to which the resource is put may have an impact on the level of vulnerability of communities to the pandemic. As one of the countries in a region where forest policies have evolved and continue to evolve from a top-to-bottom approach to a more consultative approach, embracing many stakeholders, the impact of HIV/AIDS may seem to be yet another factor that is shaping forest policy objectives and therefore the forest condition, as well as changing focus in forest management.
However, in implementing the policy to safeguard the sustained availability of natural resources, the current forest policy of Malawi gives considerable emphasis to the decentralization of forest management, effectively involving local communities at various levels of management, including participation in co-management of forest reserves. The challenge, however, is how the resource can be effectively used as a safety net to cope with the impact of HIV/AIDS, in communities already suffering from the combined impact of widespread poverty, dependency on subsistence agriculture and wood-based energy. In these respects, the forest policy of Malawi has not been fully tested and, as happened in many cases in the past, the forest sector has lagged behind other sectors in responding to many socio-economic and political developments. Policies driving such developments have for quite some time taken precedence over forest policies with far-reaching consequences for forestry.
Given the enabling policy environment towards woodland management in Malawi, what may be crucial at this point in time would be to support the effective implementation of some of the strategies, as suggested in Table 4, and approaches, outlined in Table 15, and hence mitigate the future vulnerability of households to food insecurity and HIV/AIDS.
Key informant interviews of community leaders, representatives of non-governmental organizations and government agencies supporting communities in forestry resource management in the study sites (Appendix II) revealed that HIV/AIDS-related illnesses had a negative impact on their institutions. Illnesses and deaths were reported to be on the increase, with the non-governmental organization, Greenline Movement, in Machinga and the District Forestry Office in Kasungu, respectively, losing six and two members of staff in the past year. Although the community leaders did not report any deaths of village committee members in the past year, except for other villagers, they were in total agreement with representatives of non-governmental organizations and government agencies on the loss of time and capacity for forestry activities as a result of illnesses and deaths.
The loss of time for forestry activities was expressed as time taken to look after the sick and attending funerals, reduction in man-hours of production and low attendance at committee meetings. These, in turn, effectively resulted in loss of revenue, reduced or non-delivery of extension services, reduced monitoring of forestry practices and enforcement of forestry rules, which gave way to overexploitation of the forest resources. Further, both the key informants from the District Forestry Office and the non-governmental organization, Greenline Movement, indicated that limited financial resources intended for forestry management get diverted to crisis management of illnesses and deaths and their attendant logistic problems. In addition, community leaders stated that there was a gradual depletion of forest resources, such as firewood, timber and medicines, as well as livestock and stored food, due to extended illnesses and deaths. These also tend to contribute to the flight of household incomes especially when contributions for funerals are called for or when there is need to buy a coffin.
In general, every key informant felt that the ability of institutions to carry out planned forestry activities was affected by the loss of time. This was observed to manifest itself in having planned activities either delayed or postponed, thereby not carrying out planned activities according to a given time schedule. In other cases staff or community committee members were overworked in trying to make up for the absence of a member affected. This can become prolonged in the case of a member dying and vacant posts cannot be filled immediately, as is the case with government. Thus the key informants from the two District Forestry Offices indicated that posts are not filled immediately or are sometimes not filled at all, due to the lengthy procedures in recruiting staff. This is different, though, with the non-governmental organization, Greenline Movement, and the community committees, where posts are filled immediately or only take a short time to be filled. Overall, forestry and related programmes for the development of forest resources and community livelihoods are usually disturbed and sometimes targets are not achieved.
Programmes designed to mitigate the impacts of HIV/AIDS have largely come through awareness campaigns in all the study sites. These involve sensitization of staff members, including shows by drama clubs and nursery school children. Such programmes are mostly conducted by non-governmental organizations, the Catholic Mission and the village committee members themselves, as well as the Ministry of Health and Population Services. The Forestry Department did not have a single programme on HIV/AIDS in all the sites, which perhaps is surprising given the negative impact the scourge has on capacity, productivity and general livelihoods. Subsequently, there have been no funds allocated by anyone towards the fight against HIV/AIDS and most of the sensitization activities so far have been done on a voluntary basis. This is with the exception of PLAN International, which while operating in the Chimaliro area has tried to mainstream HIV/AIDS sensitization activities.