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Household characteristics in rural South Africa : implications for natural resources and development

Conclusions and policy implications

With regard to mortality, both quantitative and qualitative data reveal that adult mortality experience influences natural resource selection and collection strategies. Specifically, interview data suggest that wages lost due to the death of an adult member further reduce the likelihood that a household will be in a position to afford electricity for cooking, and hence climb the “energy ladder”. In this case, mortality exacerbates poverty, with poverty being the factor most shaping natural resource use strategies. Regarding natural resource collection, the analyses reveal shifts in time allocation of the remaining household members to cover the collection tasks previously undertaken by the deceased, especially with regard to the participation of the male household head in collection duties.

What emerges from our data is a picture of the role that natural resources play in buffering households against some of the economic shocks associated with the loss of a productive adult. First, by using natural resources such as fuelwood and wild foods, households are able to save much needed financial resources. Similarly, harvesting resources such as fuelwood instead of buying them, or paying for costlier alternatives, enables financial savings. Clearly, environmental degradation erodes this buffering effect of resource use. Importantly though, resource collection entails opportunity costs, and loss of household human capital to mortality may render harvesting of resources impractical, further stressing the household financially as it is forced to purchase resources. Second, the qualitative data suggest that increased dietary use of wild foods in response to the loss of a breadwinner, and thus the inability to buy food, may make a positive contribution to food security in such households.

The evidence from this study suggests that adult mortality and environmental scarcity are indeed colliding to shape and re-shape household strategies with regard to natural resource use and collection strategies. Importantly, the survey data reveal associations between SES and village resource context reflecting the interaction between poverty and location in determining household coping strategies. Combined with the interview data, the results reveal subtle and complex shifts at the household level. Based on this work, we argue that better understanding the role of natural resources in coping strategies is central to the design of effective policy aimed at supporting impoverished, adult mortality-impacted rural households.