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HIV/AIDS Mortality and the Role of Woodland Resources in the Maintenance of Household Food Security in a Rural District of South Africa
Research Report
November 2008
Wayne Twine, Lori Hunter


This study examined food security among HIV/AIDS-impacted households (compared to non-HIV/AIDS-impacted households) in rural South Africa, with a particular focus on the role of savanna woodland resources (e.g. wild foods) in shaping household resilience following the death of a prime-age adult. The study was conducted in the Agincourt health and demographic surveillance site in the rural north-east of South Africa. A cross-sectional survey was conducted in 290 rural households in May and June 2006. Households were stratified by their experience of an HIV-related death of a prime-age adult in the previous two years as follows: HIV death (n=109), quick non-HIV death (n=71) and no adult death (control) (n=110). Experience of a mortality, as well as household socio-demographic data, were provided by the Agincourt Health and Demographic Surveillance System which is run by the University of the Witwatersrand/Medical Research Council’s Rural Public Health and Health Transitions Research Unit (Agincourt Unit). A survey questionnaire was used to quantify household food security, livelihoods, use of woodland resources, and impacts of the experience of an adult death on the household. Food security was assessed in terms dietary diversity, experience of hunger, short-term coping strategies, and longer term adaptive strategies. Survey interviews were conducted in the local language by experienced local fieldworkers from the Agincourt Unit. Detailed qualitative interviews were also conducted by the researchers, with assistance from local interpreters, in 17 mortality-impacted households. Satellite imagery was used to quantify woodland cover around each of the study villages.

HIV-impacted households tended to be poorer than those impacted by a non-HIV death, although their socio-economic status, indexed by wealth ranking, did not decline during the two years subsequent to the adult HIV death. Dietary diversity was significantly lower in HIVimpacted households than in control households with no death. However, this pattern largely disappeared when socio-economic status was factored into the analysis. Mortality-impacted households were more likely than households in the control group to have experienced hunger in the last 30 days. However, this was more pronounced in households which had experienced a quick non-HIV adult death. Similarly, although both categories of mortalityimpacted households were more likely to have engaged in coping strategies in response to food shortages in the last seven days, this was more prevalent in ‘non-HIV death’ households. Both experience of hunger and engaging in coping strategies were also positively related to poverty. The deceased household member among mortality-impacted households had more often contributed income or had been engaged in tending food gardens or fields in ‘non-HIV mortality’ households, while they had more often been involved in resource collecting in HIV-impacted households.

The use of woodland resources, such as indigenous wild vegetables, wild fruit, edible insects, and firewood, was very widespread, and did not differ between mortality categories, although HIV-impacted households were less likely to use wild vegetables on a regular basis. This was possibly due to labor constraints. However, in many cases, mortality impacted households had become more reliant on wild vegetables since the death of the adult member. A striking result was the widespread use of woodland resources to save money among mortality-impacted households compared to the control households. However, we did not detect a unique HIV impact in this regard. Few households sold resources to earn income, but most of those which did, had experienced a recent adult death.

The use of wild foods made a positive contribution to household dietary diversity, but only the use of edible insects, and to a lesser degree, the use of wild vegetables, mitigated against running out of food. Relying more on wild vegetables after the death of the adult household member did not diminish experiences of hunger, such as worrying about food, running out of food or going hungry. Households were not more likely to use natural resources at home if their village had better woodland cover in the immediate vicinity, although such households were more likely to use at least one resource to save money.

Overall, we conclude that while adult mortality can have a serious impact on household food security, HIV/AIDS is not unique in this regard. Furthermore, we found that poverty had a very important negative effect on food security, often more pronounced than the ‘mortality effect’. We note that while the use of woodland resources certainly plays an important supplementary ‘safety net’ function with regard to food security, especially in terms of dietary diversity and cost savings, it alone does not adequately mitigate the impacts of poverty and adult mortality. Based on these insights, we recommend that food security policy and interventions should not focus exclusively on households impacted by HIV/AIDS, but should target vulnerable households more generally. Poverty reduction should be at the core of such strategies. Given the centrality of woodland resources in rural livelihoods, greater support should be given to local communities to manage their natural resources and use them sustainably. This should include building capacity of local institutions and exploring low-input intensification of wild food production.

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