Natural Resources Research Helps HIV/AIDS Victims

BLACKSBURG, Va., May 30, 2003 – Virginia Tech associate professor A.L. "Tom" Hammett and research associate Marc Barany are studying the role of natural resources, specifically forests and non-timber forest products, in the strategies of rural communities and households coping with the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa.

Those suffering from HIV/AIDS cope with the disease through the use of natural resources as a source of nutrition, income, and medicine. Barany explains, "At the household level, families afflicted by the disease have a difficult time producing the food and money necessary to meet household needs and healthcare expenses. Family breadwinners become sick and die, time needed spent farming or making money by those who are healthy is instead spent caring for ill family members, and productive assets such as farmland and cattle are sold. Ultimately, HIV/AIDS leads to deeper poverty and food insecurity. In such situations, we see that forests and non-timber forest products become an important component in household coping strategies, providing alternative sources of income and food security at low cost. At the same time, HIV/AIDS increases the demand for certain forest products, such as medicinal plants, which are an important component of affordable healthcare in Africa."

Hammett and Barany's research findings will help shape responses to the AIDS crisis. "To help others rebuild their lives after disasters such as HIV/AIDS, it's necessary to first identify what building blocks are available to work with," Hammett says. For example, to improve the strength of their immune system, rural Africans may not be able to go to a convenient store and buy a jar of multivitamins, but they may have access to an array of vitamin-rich local foods such as fruits, nuts, and game. These foods need to be part of the nutritional guidelines being established for HIV/AIDS patients in Africa.

"It's a similar situation for medicine. Drugs that can drastically improve and prolong the life of HIV/AIDS patients are simply not accessible for the majority of HIV/AIDS patients in Africa. What are available are medicinal plants that are being used to treat many of the conditions and illnesses related to HIV/AIDS. "These plants need to be a priority of natural resource conservation and management efforts, so that they remain a viable response to the HIV/AIDS crisis, which is still in its early stages." Barany stresses.

By understanding how those in regions most heavily impacted by the HIV/AIDS crisis cope, and how natural resources play into these coping strategies, Hammett and Barany hope their research will help shape aid programs assisting people suffering from the disease. Unraveling the public health benefits of forests will also draw attention to the social costs of global deforestation and the continued need for sustainable-use programs and policies, especially in the poorer regions of the world.

With support from the Africa Biodiversity Collaborative Group, Barany and Hammett have already worked toward these goals, presenting their preliminary findings in several government and international agency HIV/AIDS planning meetings and cooperating with aid programs in Africa to improve the lives of people affected by the disease.

Their efforts to put natural resources on the public health radar and represent the interests of people dependent on natural resources are taking hold as the research team has have been invited to present its work at the upcoming gathering of world health leaders for the Global Health Council's conference on "Health and the Environment."

While the program has attracted widespread interest, Hammett admits that "the HIV/AIDS-natural resource connection has been relatively uncharted territory up to now, and this has limited our ability to continue on with our research. Funding has been difficult along with the traditional mindset of institutional separation between health and natural resource sectors. Despite working towards the same goals, the health and natural resource sectors often remain separated." This is unfortunate for people whose lives are inseparable from the environment around them," laments Barany. Hammett and Barany hope to continue their research with the Tanga AIDS Working Group in Tanzania, East Africa.

Written by Hilary Fussell, Public RelationsAssistant