HIV/AIDS: a threat to sustainable agriculture and rural development

Jacques du Guerny, FAO Focal Point for HIV/Aids, explains in an interview why AIDS is increasingly spreading in rural areas of developing countries.

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Formerly believed to be mainly an urban phenomenon, HIV/AIDS now threatens the lives and livelihoods of millions of rural dwellers throughout the developing world. By the end of 1998, a staggering 95 percent of the 33.4 million people living with HIV/AIDS were in developing countries.

Africa, with its predominantly rural population, remains the global epicentre of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, with 83 percent of all deaths to date and 9 out of 10 new infections. In nine countries in sub-Saharan Africa, adult HIV prevalence rates exceed 10 percent and in Botswana, Namibia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe in Southern Africa, between 20 percent and 26 percent of the population aged 15-49 is living with HIV or AIDS.

Despite the comparatively low seropositivity rates in Asia, India - with 4 million people affected by HIV/AIDS - is the country with the largest single number of infected people. And in Latin America and the Caribbean, several Caribbean countries have among the highest incidence of the disease in the world, although the spread of the epidemic in Latin America has been slower than in other regions.

As the HIV epidemic undermines the hard-earned gains of development achieved in the last 40 years, the implications of this for agriculture and rural development pose a new challenge to governments and the international community. The disease is no longer just a health problem but has become a development issue as well.

Besides the human suffering, AIDS threatens sustainable agriculture and rural development. At the household level this translates into loss of adult farm labour, as adults fall sick and die, resulting in a decline in productivity, loss of assets and income, increase in household expenditures to meet medical bills and funeral expenses, and a rise in the number of dependents relying on a smaller number of productive family members.

HIV/AIDS negatively affects agricultural production by reducing the labour force and disrupting traditional social security mechanisms. It results in the forced disposal of productive assets, the loss of indigenous farming methods, and may necessitate a switch to less labour-intensive crop production - often leading in turn to declining levels of nutrition.

According to some estimates in a recently published FAO/UNAIDS study - Sustainable Agricultural/Rural Development and Vulnerability to the AIDS Epidemic, in Zimbabwe for example, agricultural output of small farmers could have been slashed in the past five years by as much as 50 percent, mainly because of the effect of HIV/AIDS. Just over 50 percent of all deaths reported in communal areas were AIDS-related, with 78 percent of those succumbing to the disease being male. One result is that the widows of these men - who are also likely to suffer increasing sickness - will become a key group of agricultural producers.

It has been argued that in countries with high HIV/AIDS prevalence, conventional approaches to agriculture and rural development have to be reassessed, and traditional projects and programmes could well become obsolete.

In the 1980s, AIDS responses focused primarily on risk and risk reduction - risk being the probability that a person may acquire HIV infection. Recently, the focus of attention has shifted from individual risk to vulnerability factors. Individual risk is perceived to be influenced by societal factors that increase and perpetuate the vulnerability to HIV of certain individuals and sections of society more than others. Vulnerability includes both vulnerability to the spread of HIV and to the impact of the epidemic.

Two types of rural area are particularly vulnerable to HIV - those situated along truck routes and those that are sources of migrant labour to urban areas. The spread of HIV along trade routes, a factor likely to be of significance in the spread of the epidemic to agricultural surplus regions, is well established, whereas traditional subsistence regions have been perceived to be less vulnerable to HIV. However, the fact that many subsistence agricultural regions are also sources of migrant labour in the agricultural lean season may make them similarly vulnerable.

Nomadic pastoralists are at increased risk of contracting HIV due to their mobility, marginalization and limited access to social services. Women remaining on farms with seasonal migrant husbands are also vulnerable to HIV infection if their husbands bring the disease back with them.

Poverty makes people increasingly vulnerable to aids by increasing migrant labour, family break up, landlessness, overcrowding and homelessness. This places people at greater risk of having multiple casual partners. The poor are also less likely to take seriously an infection that is fatal in years to come, if they are struggling with daily survival. The incubation period of HIV is likely to be shortened by poor standards of nutrition and repeated infections, while access to medical care is lowest among the poor.

Poverty also makes AIDS education difficult, as there are high levels of illiteracy and little access to mass media, health and education services, particularly in rural areas. Poor women are especially vulnerable as they are not likely to be able to protect themselves from infected husbands. They tend to be ill informed on health matters and have little power to control any aspect of sexual relations.

The Joint FAO/UNAIDS study "Sustainable Agricultural/Rural Development and Vulnerability to the AIDS Epidemic" is available free of charge from UNAIDS.

22 June 2000

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