AIDS adds to African food crisis

International agencies are trying to feed the 8 million people on the edge of starvation.

Standing in front of her square mud home, Margaret Mapondi remembers the days when the annual harvest filled her silo. With this year's crop already in, the conical silo has only a thin layer of weak-looking corn. She wonders how she will feed her family of seven in the coming months.

It's a difficult time for many in Malawi, but for the Mapondi family the struggle is exacerbated by the deaths – some attributable to AIDS – of four of her children and two of her grandchildren. Mrs. Mapondi still has many mouths to feed, but fewer adult hands to help her with the work.

As Southern Africa struggles with its worst food crisis in at least a decade – some 8 million people currently need emergency food aid – relief workers say AIDS has added greatly to the problem. The loss of laborers and resources to AIDS has pushed many families to the edge of survival.

"Everyone believed that this [AIDS] epidemic was [just] a health issue. It's only later that we realized that it impacted every single sector of development," says Marcela Villarreal, chief of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) population and development service. "Food security is obviously the highest issue on rural people's agendas because they have to eat ... every day. Because they are impoverished and because they have HIV/AIDS, they are losing their ability to deal with this most basic of needs."

More than two-thirds of the population in the 25 most affected African countries live in rural areas. In Malawi, one of the region's poorest countries and one of the hardest hit by the current food crisis, some 80 percent of people make their living off the land.

Delegates are meeting in Rome this week for the UN World Food Summit. By 2015, the UN hopes to cut in half the 800 million people who currently do not have enough to eat.

On the most basic level, AIDS steals the youngest and most able-bodied, denying communities their agricultural labor force. The FAO estimates that since 1985, at least 7 million agricultural workers have died in the 25 most affected African countries. By 2020, the organization says Malawi will have lost 14 percent of its agricultural workers, South Africa 20 percent, and Namibia 26 percent.

So severe is the crisis in some communities that the FAO has begun to consider heavily stricken AIDS communities disaster areas.

Although infection rates in Malawi are somewhat lower than in neighboring countries, and the country has not yet been identified by the FAO as an AIDS disaster zone, the country depends almost entirely on subsistence agriculture. As a result, HIV's effect on the agricultural sector is particularly significant.

"Given that subsistence agriculture is by definition only at the subsistence level, the loss of a working adult is a major impact on agricultural production and often has broader implications for the community," says Chris Desmond, a researcher at the Health, Economics and HIV/AIDS Research Division at the University of Natal in South Africa. "Also, with sickness, you often have extreme pressure on household resources. This can result in the sale of assets, which can often be the sale of very key assets that diminish the ability to produce."

Take the Mapondi family, who live on a small plot outside the small community of Monkey Bay, and imagine their experience repeated in more than a million families across the country by 2020.

Two years ago, the Mapondis' harvest suffered because so much energy was put into taking care of the sick family members. This year, there was no money to buy seeds and fertilizer because the labor of the Mapondi children had helped purchase them.

"This year is the worst that I can ever remember, worse even than in 1949," she says, referring to the food crisis which is seared in Malawians' memories as the worst ever. "We are eating only a little once a day to make the maize [corn] last longer, but even then it will last only a short period. Then we are in trouble."

Sickness and the current food crisis have also forced the Mapondi family to sell nearly everything they own. Most of their livestock, which is kept by Southern African families to cushion them in times of hardship, is gone.

Organizations like Save the Children US, which operates in Mangochi, near Monkey Bay, is working with local communities in the province to try to protect the land rights of AIDS orphans, who often lose their claim to family land after the deaths of their parents.

Although the program is still in its early stages, the group has begun encouraging local chiefs to protect child land rights. Other nonprofits, as well as the Malawian government, are trying to encourage high-risk families to diversify their crops, trading high-yield, high-labor crops with lower-yield crops that can survive without intensive cultivation.

In most places, however, the impact of the AIDS crisis on rural agricultural communities has not yet been addressed.

At a feeding center run by the Roman Catholic Church in Mphako in central Malawi, 38 severely malnourished children and their families are receiving food. Many of the families here, who are among the most vulnerable in the country, are headed by widows and divorcees who have been stripped of their assets.

In this part of central Malawi, women move to their husbands' villages after marriage. In the old days, if a woman's husband died while she was still young, she would marry his brother. If she was old, she might be allowed to stay as a respected elder. These days, however, because of AIDS and scarce resources, most women are sent back, empty-handed, to the places where they were born. Like Dorothy Dembo, most find little help in their home villages.

After losing her husband last year, Dembo returned to her home village with nothing. Her family has a small plot, but she had no money for seeds or tools, so she survived by begging and scavenging. She has already lost one child to hunger. Tiny four-month-old Evelesi survived only because of the feeding center.

"My mother and father are here, but even they have nothing to share," she says.

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