Fighting AIDS: the challenges for FAO


Marcela Villarreal, FAO's focal point for HIV/AIDS (FAO/G.Diana)

AIDS is having a devastating impact on rural communities particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. It has undermined the hard-earned development achievements of the last 40 years and is affecting all aspects of rural well being, agricultural production and possibilities for future sustainable development.

"HIV/AIDS is no longer just a health issue," says Marcela Villarreal, FAO's focal point for HIV/AIDS. "It is having a devastating effect on food security and rural development. Agricultural labour is being lost at a rapid rate, and mechanisms for transmitting knowledge and know-how are being undermined."

FAO has to rethink the way it provides many of its services -- such as agricultural extension -- to respond to the emerging needs of affected rural areas, Ms Villarreal adds. "We have to undertake a major exercise in rethinking the epidemic's implications for agricultural policy and modify our work accordingly."

Ms Villarreal points out that the struggle against HIV/AIDS must be approached from every angle in a coordinated way: agriculture, medicine, culture, socioeconomics and so forth. "Migration and urbanization, for example, have a lot of influence on the spread of the virus, just as land inheritance customs have," she says. "These can be affected by agricultural policy."

In 1999, FAO and the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) signed a cooperation framework. It commits the two agencies to a broad-based response to HIV/AIDS on issues relating to agricultural development and food security.

FAO's commitment to address the disease was also emphasized at the September 2000 meeting of the Committee on World Food Security, where FAO was asked to "report on the incidence of HIV/AIDS and monitor its impact on food security".

FAO's technical departments are working to incorporate HIV/AIDS into their existing programmes. Activities are focusing on two main areas:

  • assessing and understanding the impact of HIV/AIDS on agricultural development, food security, sustainable livelihoods and nutrition of affected households and communities;
  • assisting rural people and local, national and international institutions to cope with the pandemic.

"FAO's activities are motivated by increasing evidence that HIV/AIDS -- especially in Africa -- intensifies existing labour bottlenecks in agriculture and increases household food insecurity and malnutrition," says Ms Villarreal. "It also adds to rural women's workload, for they are the traditional care-givers when people are sick."

AIDS also exacerbates existing gender-based differences in terms of access to productive resources, such as land. "For instance, widows often lose the land access they had gained through their husband, thus losing their means of survival," she adds.

Field studies and analysis
FAO is currently assessing the situation in rural areas. One field study is looking at the consequences of HIV/AIDS for long-term food security -- such as the impact of livestock being killed for funerals or sold to buy medicine. Another study is addressing the consequences on agricultural yields if important tasks such as sowing or weeding are missed or postponed because people are caring for the sick, mourning or attending funerals.

A third focuses on the impact of HIV/AIDS on agriculture extension organization and field operations in selected countries of sub-Saharan Africa. FAO is also working to increase recognition of the importance of good nutrition for people living with HIV/AIDS and to help households improve nutrition levels.

The AIDS epidemic tends to follow an exponential curve. "After a certain threshold of prevalence, about five percent, exponential growth makes it difficult and very expensive to deal with its consequences," says Ms Villarreal. "It is therefore crucial to develop interventions before a full-fledged epidemic develops in a country."

Under current FAO projections, the hardest hit countries could lose up to 26 percent of their agricultural labour force within two decades. Lessons need to be learned from the countries in which the epidemic is advanced so others can act quickly to prevent the same devastation.

Prevention is complex and goes beyond the use of condoms, she says. "I am talking about education, agricultural policy that takes into account the possible impact on the spread of the epidemic, addressing the economic roots of cultural customs such as wife-sharing, and addressing unequal gender relations linked with the dissemination of the virus."

And success is not a one-time achievement. "Recent studies show that when a country thinks that it has the epidemic under control -- as was the case in Thailand and Uganda -- they start slacking and giving fewer resources to information and prevention programmes," Ms Villarreal says. "Then the epidemic rises quickly again. AIDS is not something you 'get over'. It is a problem that needs a long-term, integrated strategy addressing all sectors of society, with a strong political commitment."



The future
Regarding the future, FAO is seeking more resources to mitigate the impact of AIDS on food security and rural development. Ms Villarreal points out that FAO needs to concentrate on documenting the effect of the disease on rural people and implementing agriculture-related prevention initiatives.

Ms Villarreal believes that the UN agencies should undertake a coordinated assessment of the impact of sectoral policies on the pandemic. " FAO should address issues connected to agriculture, while other agencies should look at their own domains," she says. "This way we can fight the disease from many angles."

AIDS and agriculture in Africa: can agricultural policy make a difference? (click here for the PDF version)
Study: HIV/AIDS in Namibia: The impact on the livestock sector
FAO studies/activities on the socio-economic impact of HIV/AIDS on agriculture and rural development
For more information contact Marcela Villarreal, FAO's focal point for HIV/AIDS ([email protected])
Focus Archive