Published online 4 July 2007 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news070702-10


AIDS harms the environment

Families turn to natural resources after losing key bread-winners.

Families affected by HIV tend to rely more on the local land for food and fuel.Families affected by HIV tend to rely more on the local land for food and fuel.Narelle Towie

The high level of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa is taking its toll on the landscape, say conservationists.

The disease is acting on communities in a multitude of ways. Some game wardens and other conservation workers have died, while others are missing work to care for their loved ones. Families who lose their primary wage earners are turning to the land for food and fuel. And in some places, timber harvesting for coffins is causing deforestation.

Ecologist Wayne Twine of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, and his colleagues went looking for data to back up what many people were seeing in rural Africa — that families impoverished by death and disease would switch from electricity to cheaper wood fuel, and forage for herbs, insects and the like to supplement their food.

“Locusts are now our beef”

Study subject

Twine surveyed several hundred families in the rural northeast of South Africa, where about one in four people are HIV positive. The team compared intact families to those who had lost an adult, and those that had suffered a death specifically due to AIDS.

There was a strong correlation between adult mortality and the use of wood as an energy source. Bereaved families were also more likely to collect and eat edible herbs or insects. "Locusts are now our beef," one family-member told the team.

Natural loss

Speaking at the annual meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, conservationists from many nations shared information about how AIDS affects the natural world.


"Within my organization we lost ten staff members from 1995 to 2006," said Daulos D. C. Mauambeta, executive director of the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi in Limbe. "If you go to most of the offices you see files marked 'deceased'." The parks of Malawi are losing about 2% of their personnel each year, he says. His organization is working on developing industry and promoting alternative coffin materials, such as bamboo and reeds.

The news seems grim, but Twine sees a silver lining. "This lends weight to an already increasing call to conserve common-property resources," he says. If those touched by AIDS must turn to the land to sustain themselves, it increases the pressure to ensure that the land is healthy.

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