The burden of Sub-Saharan Africa: Aids, poverty and natural resource degradation

Over the last few decades, the isolated villages of Tanzania’s northern coast have been transformed into a highly competitive market economy based on the marine fish trade. Many young men have been lured to the region by the prospect of seasonal employment.
By Melissa Thaxton, policy analyst for the Population Reference Bureau

The arrival of a highly mobile male population – ill-informed about condom use and HIV-Aids generally – in a region, where poverty is chronic and women enjoy very low status, has generated a culture of high-risk sexual behaviour and soaring HIV prevalence rates. Indeed Aids is now an important part of poverty, natural resource degradation, and ill health in these communities.

This vicious circle is hardly confined to coastal Tanzania. In sub-Saharan Africa, where HIV-Aids is most prevalent, the links between Aids, poverty, gender roles and natural resource degradation are just beginning to be understood. The integrated nature of these issues will require creative solutions that combine sustainable and appropriate community- level interventions, with district- and national-level policies and practices based on good governance principles.

Women in northern coastal Tanzania – who have always had primary responsibility for rearing children and securing adequate household resources – have been particularly hard hit both by a declining economy and a degraded environment. Fish catches and agricultural productivity are dropping, and their husbands are spending more on alcohol and sex, driving many of these women to seek cash income.

But such opportunities have been dwindling. Increased shoreline and near-shore ocean water temperatures have killed off large portions of the area’s seaweed farms. Disease and marauding wildlife have decimated cashew and fruit crops. Women in Tanzania also have severely limited access to education, employment, credit and transportation. As a result they are increasingly turning to sex work, running a high risk of HIV infection.

Because Aids often affects people in their prime working ages – between 25 and 45 – the poverty that the epidemic precipitates can severely degrade natural resources and agricultural productivity. These impacts can be particularly severe in regions and communities where livelihoods depend a great deal on forests, agriculture or fishing.

As men and women with Aids die or become too ill to work, their family members are often forced to find new income sources – which can ultimately lead to more intense and less sustainable use and extraction of resources. In eastern and southern Africa such practices often include the unsustainable harvesting and sale of forest products such as wild foods and medicinal plants. Woodcutting is on the increase to produce charcoal for sale, especially when families face severe food shortages. In coastal areas widowed women and their children, desperate to make a living from declining shallow water fish stocks, are increasingly using small-mesh fishing nets fuelling the vicious circle of resource depletion.

In Malawi poaching has increased over the past two decades in forested areas near communities where HIV-Aids rates are particularly high. Local forest managers and community members responsible for law-enforcement connect the two developments. Poaching has apparently provided a lucrative source of income for Aids sufferers or their families.

Increased demand for coffins because of high death rates from Aids has contributed to unsustainable harvesting of some forests in southern Africa. Along the Limpopo watershed – which crosses the boundaries of Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa – surveys show increased timber extraction from community and national forests to make coffins. Firewood is also being cut to cook food and provide warmth at a seemingly endless succession of funerals. Finally such events keep working adults away from their jobs, lowering productivity and increasing poverty.

Governance plays a crucial role in the long-term fight against environmental degradation, particularly when it is brought on by poverty and ill health. Governments must start by engaging participatory decision-making processes at all levels. They must then deliver good quality public services, especially health (including voluntary counselling and testing) and education (including access to information about nutrition and Aids).

In many developing countries reasonable, profitable use of forests and coastal resources will require increasing local organisational and enterprise-management capacity to stem corruption and favour transparent, collaborative participation by local communities. A number of specific actions may be required. The level of environmental advocacy can be increased and robust policies adopted to promote gender equality. Laws must be framed and enforced guaranteeing women’s right to land and property inheritance. District and local authorities need greater capacity to set priorities and manage budgets, particularly for Aids0 activities. Lastly it is urgent to improve access to and control of natural resources by communities and other local organizations.

Sources: The Population, Equity, Aids, and Coastal Ecosystems Project (PEACE) implemented by the University of Rhode Island/Coastal Resources Centre, Tanzania Coastal Resource Management Project (TCMP), Population Reference Bureau (PRB), and IUCN; and the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi.

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