September 4, 2003

SOUTH AFRICA: Local agricultural knowledge key to fighting HIV/AIDS

The explosive impact of HIV/AIDS on food security in Africa is now well recognised. But little has been done to empower rural communities with local resources to cope with this crisis, a report has found. "The tendency is for donors and NGOs to merely assist by providing aid. While this is needed, people also have the capacities to cope, and their approaches are sometimes more tangible. Sometimes aid and [agricultural] policies don't reach the most vulnerable," Josep Gari, author of the report commissioned by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), told IRIN.

The rural poor have always relied on biological resources such as different crop varieties, medicinal plants and livestock to meet their basic needs. Their knowledge base of farming practices and resource conservation was also often the only asset they had available, the report, "Agrobiodiversity Strategies to Combat Food Insecurity and HIV/AIDS Impact in Rural Africa", noted. But agrobiodiversity and indigenous knowledge were "unique" grassroots responses to food insecurity and HIV/AIDS that were being neglected.

"Agrobiodiversity represents locally available and affordable resources with untapped potential for food security, HIV/AIDS mitigation and sustainable rural livelihoods," the report found. It suggested several strategies for creating more opportunities to improve nutrition, cope with labour constraints and ensure the economic security of the household in the face of HIV/AIDS. Traditional and neglected crops were a "relevant agricultural asset" that could enrich local diets and feed children and sick people, while contributing to soil conservation and fertilisation. Home gardens that included leafy vegetables, fruit, beans and spices were excellent sources of nutrients. "However, home gardens and their associated plant diversity tend to be neglected in agricultural development programmes," the report remarked. A seed system that would improve seed security at the community level by paying special attention to the poorest and most seed-insecure farmers was recommended. Community initiatives, for example, should develop seed banks, rural seed fairs and appropriate seed technology transfer.

Traditional healers had a role to play in strengthening community-based health care systems, as people could use affordable medicinal plants and herbal treatments to address opportunistic infections. Traditional healers also could raise awareness and provide advice on nutrition and health issues.

Nevertheless, these strategies were not designed to identify a 'miracle' crop or crop variety. "It is rather a new vision of agriculture, where the goal is for farmers to maintain, develop and exchange a broad crop genetic diversity to better meet their fundamental food, nutrition and livelihood needs," the study noted. "Efforts devoted to agrobiodiversity and indigenous knowledge ... will ensure that rural youth and children have steady access to the resources and knowledge required to become good farmers, to farm successfully, and to confront the many challenges ahead," the report concluded (for the report: www.geocities.com/rural_africa) (IRIN)

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