The fact that social issues such as HIV and AIDS, gender and poverty were only incorporated into the activities of Botswana’s Okavango Delta Management Plan (ODMP) two years after the plan’s inception is something that aggrieves rural sociologist Ramogaupi “Ramjii” Gaborekwe.

The ODMP is a project as much about people as it is biodiversity,” says Gaborekwe. “It is, after all, a plan aiming to bring about behavioural and attitude change in all areas and activities within the Delta.”

The signs for good sociological work are clear to see. The prevalence of HIV and AIDS in the Okavango Delta increased from 35 to 41 per cent between 2001 and 2003. Inhabitants between the ages of 15-29 are the most vulnerable, and the link to gender and poverty is not difficult to make. Most of those infected with HIV are women and, according to the UNDP (2003), 44 per cent of people living in the Delta do so below the official poverty datum line.

Diminutive yet filled with energy, Gaborekwe is under no illusions that poor and bed-ridden populations will be a social and economic expense to the region. He is adamant that, if ignored, the likely result will be the over-harvesting of resources as communities erode the natural wealth of the Delta in a desperate attempt at survival.

With funding from the IUCN, Gaborekwe has embarked on a drive to mainstream HIV and AIDS, gender and poverty into the ODMP with the ultimate goal of “up-scaling” to a basin-wide level through the Permanent Okavango River Basin Commission (Okacom) initiative.

Gaborekwe’s approach was purposefully strategic. First, he launched a one-year awareness programme among the various working components on the ODMP. This, he followed with the development of tools and guidelines that could be used by the specialists to mainstream the key issues into all aspects of their work.

These guys are environmentalists. The ODMP had to make them understand what this mainstreaming was about,” chuckles Gaborekwe, with a glint in his eye. “It’s really about ensuring that the social issues cross-cut and are part and parcel of the core business of each other’s operations,” he says more seriously.

The need for in-depth baseline information, forced Gaborekwe to undertake a Situational Analysis on HIV and AIDS, gender and poverty within the ODMP operation’s and, also, the entire Delta area.

In a nutshell, the results were worrying. The ODMP was heavily natural resource focussed, while HIV and AIDS were considered by many managers working in the Delta as an “add-on” to their core business focus. They felt it was outside of their mandates, being a responsibility of the Ministry of Health’s primary health care department.

It made me realise that we (the ODMP) weren’t doing even the minimum in raising awareness about HIV and AIDS,” recalls Gaborekwe. “If we don’t mainstream the pandemic and the associated gender and poverty issues into everything we do, we will fail to achieve the overriding aim of the ODMP. We will conserve the Okavango Delta but without people, as most will have perished.”

Gaborekwe is now in the monitoring and evaluation phase of his mainstreaming project, and is cautiously optimistic. He believes awareness levels have been raised, especially around the prevention of HIV and AIDS, and the availability of anti-retroviral medications (ARVs), but he is still witnessing the need for meaningful behaviour change.

The prevalence rate of HIV and AIDS remains high, both in Botswana and the Delta, and cultural and social perceptions are not easily broken. This is especially the case in a region where education among certain population groups is restricted and high levels of unemployment remain.

These are issues you can’t run away from, but my gut feel is that change is happening. It will, however, take time to bear fruit,” he concludes.
Written by Alex Hetherington