7 March 2003, BANGKOK, Thailand - African and Asian government officials, aid workers and UN specialists attending a recent workshop swapped strategies for encouraging farmers on both continents to use their agricultural know-how and traditional knowledge to help their communities survive the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS.

Common factors fuel the epidemic

HIV/AIDS is killing many Africans before they can teach their children farming skills, cutting food production and forcing the elderly back to the fields so they can feed their grandchildren. Hence the virus is exacerbating southern Africa's famine.

Asia's farmers don't yet face this nightmare. Change could come rapidly though, due to the crowded continent's steady economic growth and good transport links, which facilitate the spread of the disease.

In order to help Africa and Asia learn from each other, FAO and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) sponsored the three-day workshop.

Lee Nah Hsu, UNDP's South East Asia HIV and Development Programme manager, fears Asia's infection rates could top Africa's in just a few years if HIV infection spreads beyond injecting drug users, sex workers and their clients.

Africa and Asia share many conditions that fuel the epidemic, including discrimination against those infected due to lack of knowledge about the virus and how it is spread, and cultural attitudes and practices that leave women particularly at risk of infection. These problems are compounded by others such as poor planning, lack of appropriate technology and poor farming methods, to list but a few.

"Most of the people in the most affected countries depend on agriculture for their living," says Marcela Villarreal, HIV/AIDS focal point at FAO. "Yet, the agricultural sector has been slow to respond to the epidemic. In this workshop we have discussed activities that ministries of agriculture can initiate to make it easier for AIDS-devastated communities to continue farming." Simple solutions like adopting drought-resistant varieties or crops that need less care or labour can make a big difference, she says.

Sharing home-grown solutions

Other solutions, many devised and used in the developing world, are also at hand.

Many participants, such as Lingalireni Mihowa, Oxfam's HIV/AIDS and gender officer in Malawi, are keen to copy Cambodia's Farmer Life Schools, an FAO/UNDP initiative that encourages farmers to look at all the factors affecting their lives and their communities and work out what they can do and what they need from outside to tackle their problems. The methodology is based on Farmer Field Schools, a highly successful method by which farmers, together with a trainer, observe field ecology throughout a growing season in order to learn how to control pests naturally. The central idea in both initiatives is to utilize the farmers' expertise and knowledge.

"We learn from the way the Farmer Life Schools are designed in Asia, and maybe they could learn from us," says Ms Mihowa.

The schools strengthen communities by helping farmers learn to analyse how their behaviour exposes them to the AIDS virus. They learn to farm more wisely and use for both food and medicinal purposes the plants and herbs around them, which may have been forgotten with the introduction of modern seeds and chemicals.

"We need to combine these issues - agriculture and HIV training - together," says Chomchuan Boonrahong, director of northern Thailand's Institute for Sustainable Agriculture Community (ISAC).

ISAC's efforts to promote medicinal plants that relieve symptoms in people with HIV/AIDS are also likely to be replicated across both continents. The efficacy of such plants has been confirmed by UNDP testing.

"The current medicine is too expensive," says Samuel Otieno, coordinator of the HIV/AIDS programme in Kenya's Agriculture Ministry.

Impressed by the benefits local flora can offer both people and their livestock, workshop delegates vowed to start researching their uses with the support of local universities and botanic gardens.

The attendees were also committed to preserving farmers' knowledge by laying it down in books, audio and video so that future generations can maintain their traditional agricultural practices, history and even myths. An e-mail network will be created to spread this knowledge throughout the developing world. Another workshop outcome was the decision to start a database for medicinal plants that alleviate AIDS symptoms.

Making fewer hands more productive

Farmers may even be able to grow more crops - new and traditional - using less labour. "There are better ways of farming that people need to know if AIDS-affected communities with fewer hands available are to survive," explains Jacques du Guerny, an FAO HIV/AIDS and agriculture consultant.

"Connecting labour-saving technology ideas with alleviating the impact of HIV/AIDS was something I was not aware of before," says Charles Matabwa, controller of agricultural extension and technical services in Malawi's Agriculture Ministry.

In fact, before the workshop, few attendees considered HIV/AIDS an agricultural problem. "Action is all health focused. We've been lacking the agricultural link in HIV/AIDS intervention," says Jennifer Bielman, a technical adviser in Ethiopia with the development organization ACDI/VOCA.

Robert Bowen, of VETAID, a non-governmental organization in Mozambique, says his group is promoting use of small livestock, which are easy to care for, to rebuild assets in households hit by AIDS.

While these and a raft of other ideas discussed at the workshop can have a huge impact, a shortage of cash could make putting them to work challenging, notes Dr Matabwa.

Among the workshop's greatest benefits are the relationships participants formed there. A Web site will soon be launched by the UN to keep people informed and in touch.

According to Yene Assegid, HIV/AIDS specialist with UNDP's central and east Africa regional office in Addis Ababa, the workshop could be a turning point. "Maybe it will establish the grounds for South-South cooperation between Africa and Asia," she says. "This meeting has proved agriculture's role, but only if people accept they can cooperate. We must support each other, we must work with each other."


Peter Lowrey
Information Officer, FAO
+39 06 570 52762