The Connection Between Forests and HIV/AIDS in Developing Countries

There is a known, though understudied, link between HIV/AIDS and forest resources in which a positive feedback loop can occur. A feedback loop is a process in which an initial change brings additional changes.

The graphic below represents this five-step feedback loop. The direction (up/down) of the arrows is in relation to whether, for instance, the availability is decreasing or the dependence is increasing.

HIV/AIDS and Forests, A Positive Feedback Loop

1 – Impoverished smallholder farmers living with HIV/AIDS have been found to increasingly depend on forest resources for their lives and livelihoods (such as firewood, bushmeat and medicinal plants).

2 – This increased dependence can lead to decreased availability of these important forest resources through forest degradation and deforestation.

2a – Reduced forest cover has also been linked to an increased risk of transmission of other diseases, such as malaria (Keesing et al. 2010), to which HIV/AIDS-affected people are particularly susceptible.

3 – The social and economic impacts of HIV/AIDS means that affected people are less able to work and to collect important forest resources such as firewood and bushmeat, compromising their abilities to meet these critical livelihoods needs. Family members of affected people are also likely to have to take time off from work to care for the ill.

4 – With less financial security, HIV/AIDS-affected households face more desperation and may opt to pursue riskier livelihood choices, such as transactional sex (prostitution) which can put them at greater risk of contracting HIV, thus increasing the prevalence of the disease in a region.

5 – The feedback loop thus continues with more affected people becoming increasingly dependent upon forest resources.

The red ‘x’ between (3) and (4) indicates an excellent point for forest-based interventions that could break the positive feedback cycle and alleviate the disease burden within HIV/AIDS-affected households.

For example, we can directly provide affected households with firewood and medicinal plants and other forest resources, assist communities to plant medicinal plant herbaria and woodlots for firewood trees, train traditional healers to harvest medicinal plants sustainably, and encourage the use of agroforestry (‘trees on farms’) to meet the forest and food-related needs of smallholder farmers in developing countries.

This interdisciplinary course explores the complex interactions between poverty, rural livelihoods, and forest resources in the tropics and sub tropics. This particular feedback loop will be discussed in the module on forests and human health, where we will explore some of the services and disservices that forests play in human health.

I hope that learners will develop a deeper understanding of the importance of forests to the developing world, and ultimately all of us.

Dr. Joleen Timko, Lecturer in International Forestry, University of British Columbia