SA takes small steps to fight Aids on farms

South Africa is taking small steps to stop Aids from wreaking havoc on its key farming sector in a nation with one of the world’s heaviest caseloads.

A few NGOs and farmers have launched testing programmes, but the government has no specific policy for the sector that is emerging as one of hardest-hit by the pandemic.

A pioneer project launched in four farms by AgriAids, an organisation that has been testing workers and providing them with free anti-retrovirals, has thrown up startling figures.

In the past two years, 26% of a total of 638 people tested on farms in northern and central South Africa were found to have HIV.

Of those who are HIV-positive, 173 are getting food supplements while 46 are receiving anti-retroviral (ARV) treatment. Five people have died.

Jill Axten, the owner of Green’s Greens—one of the country’s leading vegetable farms—said there had been significant progress after she launched a testing programme on her farm, which supplies to leading retailers.

“Two of the workers who tested positive are now counsellors. People on the farm talk about the disease openly and without shame.
It has made a tremendous difference in morale as well,” she said.

The United Nations Aids agency said in its recently released annual report that South Africa’s agricultural workforce could decline by more than 15% by 2020 due to HIV/Aids, citing estimates from the International Labour Organisation.

Gretha Kostwinder, agricultural counsellor at the Dutch embassy, who is involved in HIV/Aids projects, said more could be done on South African farms to tackle HIV/Aids.

“The farmers have not yet realised the cost of the pandemic. Training people is expensive and there is a significant impact on productivity. Many people believe that replacement workers keep queueing up around the corner for jobs,” she said.

“Life in the farms is very cloistered. People live near each other. And lack of awareness and high levels of stigma are problems.”

Marianne van der Laarse, who works on HIV/Aids intervention projects for producer SA Veg, added: “The infection rate in some farms can be as high as up to 55%, especially in the remote rural areas bordering Zimbabwe and Mozambique.”

She added that big business had to be roped in to make a difference in the sector that accounts for 7,5% of South Africa’s total workforce of 12-million.

“Leading retailers, for instance, can be encouraged to source their goods from farms that have launched some kind of HIV/Aids programme,” she said, adding: “Farmers also have to see absenteeism in monetary terms to realise the impact.”

The main farmers’ organisation, AgriSA, is, meanwhile, mulling a comprehensive strategy to tackle HIV/Aids.

“There are a number of individual projects by non-governmental bodies and some individual farmers. We are looking at coordinating the efforts and building up synergies,” said AgriSA official Kobus Kleynhans.

Analyst Russell Lamberti, who has researched the impact of HIV/Aids on the economy, said the scenario was bleak for farm workers.

“As HIV begins to impact more and more, farmers will increasingly shift to capital intensive agriculture and replace men with machines to ensure productivity,” he said.

South Africa has one of the world’s biggest HIV/Aids caseloads, with about six million people infected with the virus, according to the health ministry.

About 130 000 people are receiving free ARV treatment under a scheme launched by the government at the end of 2003.—Sapa-AFP

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