Swaziland: The impact of HIV/AIDS on agriculture

News and Press Release
Originally published
MBABANE, 19 February (PLUSNEWS) - A new study has established the link between AIDS and Swaziland's current food crisis, demonstrating that the epidemic is as damaging to agricultural production as drought and outmoded land policies.
"The Swaziland household farming systems are vulnerable to the negative economic impact of HIV/AIDS because of the reliance on remittances (from family members at work at jobs elsewhere), in the face of poor soils and erratic rainfall," said the report's author, Fred Tusuubira Mawanga, from the Department of Epidemiology of the Graduate School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh, in the United States.

Mawanga was commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture and Co-Operatives and the United Nations country team to determine the impact of HIV/AIDS on the agriculture and private business, and on the nation's food supply.

"There's no question that AIDS is negatively impacting our ability to feed ourselves as a nation, and hindering individual families' ability to sustain themselves. What we need to know is where the problems lie and what to do about them," agriculture minister Roy Fanourakis told PlusNews.

Although the private sector accounts for 70 percent of Swaziland's formal labour force, with commercial agriculture employing 19 percent of all workers, 80 percent of the population resides on communal Swazi Nation Land, under the supervision of chiefs, and are not part of the formal sector labour pool. They survive on what they can grow.

Swaziland has one of the highest incidences of HIV, with 38.6 percent of the adult population HIV positive.

A vicious cycle commences when a household head dies of AIDS, with the final result an overall lessening of national farming output, exacerbating the country's chronic food shortages. With loss of the breadwinner's income, "deepening poverty and increased orphaning has led to children dropping out of school and worsening food insecurity," the report found.

"Whereas increased mortality amongst the workforce in the private sector has increased absenteeism and costs on funerals, there is no evidence that HIV/AIDS has affected the profitability and productivity of Swazi businesses. The response by Swazi business to the epidemic has focused mainly on avoidance of costs associated with the epidemic. However, these costs avoidance strategies have passed over the burden of HIV/AIDS to households," the report stated.

The burden on families increases as diminishing financial resources are used on healthcare. The loss of a household head means less labour in the fields, and other family members are withdrawn from crop tending to nurse sick relatives. Smaller areas are cultivated. Although drought has been officially blamed, this has been a contributing factor to this year's food shortage, which finds about a third of the population dependant on international donor assistance for food.

The survey, for the first time, quantifies the financial disaster AIDS has brought to Swazi homesteads. Some 38.5 percent of households that suffered AIDS-related deaths reported a lessening of the field area under cultivation, a drop in crop yield, and children leaving school due to lack of money for fees.

The average household production per year for a family where there were no AIDS-related deaths was 35 bags of maize. Production dropped a hefty 54 percent to 16 bags of maize in households where the family head died of AIDS.

Where AIDS strikes a household, cultivation can drop to 50 percent of a farm's available land, compared to the 84 percent of farmland under cultivation on average by households that have been spared AIDS deaths.

In Swaziland, cattle are the traditional currency, and are of inestimable value to a family. A household where AIDS has yet to claim a life has on average 13.5 head of cattle. Where AIDS deaths have occurred, the kraal of those households contains on average 9.6 cows, a reduction of 29 percent. The cows are sold to pay for health costs and funerals.

"For Swazis, the fact that our cattle are diminishing because of AIDS adds to the tragedy," former health minister, Dr Samuel Hynd, told PlusNews. "This cut in the Swazi national cattle herd is the worst since the rinderpest epidemic of the 1890s."

The study confirmed earlier AIDS reports that found tuberculosis to be the most common opportunistic disease to hit people living with AIDS. Just over 57 percent of AIDS-related deaths are from tuberculosis.

The average age for Swazi mortality today is 33.7 years for AIDS-related deaths and 41.6 years for deaths from other causes.

The study compilers expected the early deaths from AIDS, which is depriving the workforce of some of its most vital young workers, but admitted they were surprised by the lower than expected age of non-AIDS deaths. The reason, they believe, is that children under five are also dying of AIDS transmitted by their mothers, but these are not reported as AIDS-related deaths.

The report urged the government to recognise the impact of AIDS on rural families, and through them the nation's food security, and target these families with AIDS prevention messages.

Due to a lack of labour, the agriculture ministry should introduce disease-resistance crop varieties, labour saving technologies such as intercropping to reduce time spent weeding fields, and introduce crop varieties that are not labour intensive, but which are high yielding or mature early, like cassava.

Because more rural farms are now headed by women and orphans - "the most vulnerable groups in society" - the report recommended that women be given the right to own property. New laws are needed to protect the inheritance rights of widows and orphans. Assistance is also required for orphans to continue their education, and education programmes to teach women how to run their farms as businesses.


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