CAREER: Political Ecologies of Health: Coupling Livelihood and Environment Responses to HIV/AIDS

Project: Research project

Project Details


This research project draws upon the geographic subfield of political ecology to examine the ways that livelihood systems are transformed in response to HIV/AIDS. Intensive research utilizing quantitative and qualitative methods will be completed in the communities of Mzinti, Schoemansdal, and Ntunda in South Africa to evaluate livelihood responses to HIV/AIDS. This research theorizes that a specific livelihood response is the intensification of natural resources, which will be measured as the increasing collection, use and dependency upon wood, medicinal plants, livestock, thatch grasses/reeds, and food (small scale agriculture, fish, collected vegetation, and insects). It is expected that natural resource intensification varies within households and communities, and is shaped by a number of factors, specifically existing household assets, resource availability, access patterns, gender dynamics, and the institutional relationships governing natural resources. This research project asserts that attending to the coupled relationships between livelihoods and the environment is needed to understand how disease results in transformations to social and environmental systems, and how these systems in turn shape the trajectories of disease and the possibilities for sustainable management. South Africa has been particularly hard hit and continues to have one of the largest estimated infected populations in the world. While HIV/AIDS has transformed social and environmental systems, research has tended to rely upon national data sets and concentrated upon the impacts of the disease on income and agricultural production. This has reduced attention to local-level dynamics that shape the impacts of HIV/AIDS and the specific ways that households respond to disease transmission and adult mortality. These analyses are particularly needed given that, unlike other health crises, the effects of HIV/AIDS have been shown to occur over a longer time period, are gradual and incremental, and are generally uneven within communities and regions.

This research project is designed to produce an integrative program that examines the relationships between health and livelihood decision-making. It will do so by conducting intensive research in South Africa over five years to specifically examine how livelihood systems adjust in response to HIV/AIDS, how livelihood responses to HIV/AIDS rework access patterns and the rules governing resource use, and whether variations in intra-household and intra-community livelihood responses to HIV/AIDS. In addition to its research objectives, this program will promote integrated educational and outreach activities at Penn State University, in the state of Pennsylvania, and in South Africa. The educational objectives of this project are to establish a research and teaching working group at Penn State University, mentor undergraduate and graduate students in research and teaching, and develop new undergraduate and graduate courses on health geographies. The project also includes several outreach objectives, specifically the development of educational units for the international My Community, Our Earth (MyCOE) project, create an online resource center for the dissemination of educational materials to secondary schools in Pennsylvania, and establish research and policy linkages with South African institutions that produce policy recommendations to improve service delivery to households suffering from HIV/AIDS. This project is jointly supported by the NSF Geography and Spatial Sciences Program and the NSF Office of International Science and Engineering.

Effective start/end date7/15/1112/31/19


  • National Science Foundation: $500,172.00


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