Health and Environmental Interactions of Forest-Dependent HIV/AIDS-Affected Households in Malawi

Dr. Joleen Timko

The majority of people in Sub-Saharan Africa rely on forest products for subsistence and to supplement their cash incomes. Sub-Saharan Africa also has the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the world. While the role of forest biodiversity as a safety net for the rural poor during times of crisis has been noted in studies across the developing world, the links between HIV/AIDS, poverty, and forests are not well understood. In particular, scholarly inquiry into the death of a productive household member due to HIV/AIDS, and the environmental ramifications of such an event on household livelihoods, has been lacking. This is an important research gap given the extent of prime-age adult mortality attributable to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa (Hunter et al. 2008).

Based on qualitative data obtained through focus groups and interviews in four regions of Malawi, we seek to address the following questions: (1) How does household dependence on forest biodiversity change from the onset of HIV/AIDS through morbidity and mortality? (2) Is there evidence to suggest that level of dependence varies according to the role of the deceased within the household economy (e.g., wage earner, resource collector)? (3) What changes in the availability of local forest resources have been observed in the case study sites? (4) What innovations (e.g., new or adapted technologies, changing gender roles) have emerged to enable HIV/AIDS-affected households to deal with a decreased availability of important forest resources? Preliminary results indicate that: HIV/AIDS-related morbidity and mortality appear to increase an affected household’s dependence on forest biodiversity; the loss of forest biodiversity can threaten livelihood sustainability (e.g., by reducing the availability of important medicinal plants, forcing people to skip meals to compensate for a lack of firewood for cooking); and that households are innovating to adapt to reduced availability of forest resources (e.g., replacing firewood with agricultural by-products, changing gender roles).

Funded by: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Research Development Initiative