In rural areas of Malawi, where poverty is widespread and the rates of HIV/AIDS infection are high, one UBC researcher is looking at how the forest is helping to support people.
People living in remote villages in Malawi rely heavily on forest biodiversity for survival. They burn wood for cooking, gather food from the forest and collect medicinal plants. And in times of crisis, these resources become a safety net for poorer communities.
Joleen Timko, a research associate in the Faculty of Forestry at UBC, wants to identify how the role of forests change for people affected by HIV/AIDS. There has been little research on how HIV-affected households use forest resources differently than unaffected households.
“We already know that in general, forest resources play a larger role in poorer households than they do in richer households,” says Timko, who is running her study out of the Africa Forests Research Initiative on Conservation and Development (AFRICAD) at UBC. “Since HIV can further impoverish those already poor, we expect HIV-affected households to depend more on forests.”
Between six and 17 per cent of Malawi’s rural population is infected with HIV or AIDS. This exceeds the five per cent infection rate, identified by other researchers in the field, that marks a threshold where a population will undergo massive societal change.
The government of Malawi understands the importance of forests for its rural population, says Timko, and has developed an HIV and forest strategy. But with almost no other research on the issue, Timko’s study could help inform policy decisions as the government considers how forests are protected and communities are supported as they deal with HIV.
“HIV primarily affects people in the prime age group, those between 18 and 49 years of age, who are the main economic drivers of a nation,” says Timko, who is also the director of AFRICAD.
When families lose a father to HIV/AIDS, they lose their main economic provider, explains Timko. These families might turn to the forests to provide more resources that can no longer be purchased. Families without mothers, who tend to collect more resources, may need to purchase things that could once be collected, or they may go without. Timko wants to know how households are compensating for these changes.
The people of Malawi are also facing another obstacle: there is widespread deforestation and degradation of forest resources. Wood is the primary source of energy for people in rural Malawi, and as the population has increased, there has been unsustainable harvesting.
“As the availability of forest resources decreases in Malawi, it becomes even more important to understand what role forests play for people who are sick and for people who have been affected by HIV.”
The project looks at four communities ranging from the North, where forest cover is higher and the population and HIV/AIDS rates are lower, to the south, where there is less forest but the population and HIV/AIDS rates are higher. This study could help identify how to foster innovation around forest resources across the country, says Timko.
If Timko’s research reveals that HIV households depend on the forest to provide more fuel wood, governments could provide these households with alternative fuel sources or new technology, such as stoves that burn wood much slower. If Timko’s research reveals that HIV households depend on the forest to provide more medicines, governments could provide seedlings of medicinal species to be grown on individual homesteads.
“There is a lot of capacity in Sub-Saharan Africa and a lot of development opportunities,” says the researcher, noting that people are beginning to burn alternative fuel sources like pigeon pea stems or maize stalks, which save on the labour associated with collecting fuel wood.
“We can learn from these examples, test them for their effectiveness, and ideally apply them elsewhere under similar conditions.”
Timko hopes to replicate this study in three other African countries with different rates of HIV infection and different forest densities. By expanding the study, Timko wants to provide a deeper understanding of which forest products are important throughout the disease cycle.