3 Signs of Hope for Slowing Population Growth

Girl in the Democratic Republic of Congo

A girl in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (© CI/photo by Hari Balasubramanian)

Sifting through the post-mortem coverage of the Rio+20 discussions, I was discouraged to see that global population growth issues were largely ignored in the final outcome document. Yet in recent months, I have seen clear signs of hope for expanded collaboration across the health, development and conservation sectors.

Advocates from these fields are working to better link solutions for meeting the health needs of the world’s 7 billion current inhabitants — including improvements in family planning, family health and women’s empowerment — directly to sustainable development. This World Population Day, I am more optimistic than ever that population growth issues are not being forgotten. Here are a few reasons why.

1. Population growth is decreasing overall.

When the world’s population reached 7 billion last October, we heard muted media coverage of what this milestone meant for our planet’s natural resources and future development. However, the good news is that the overall annual population growth rate has fallen from 2.1 percent per year in the late 1960s to 1.2 percent in 2011.

According to the Population Reference Bureau, the world population is still growing by about 83 million annually. Much of that growth is in biodiversity hotspots, where 1.5 billion people (roughly 20 percent of the global population) currently dwell in close proximity and rely heavily on extremely threatened plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth. However, the population growth rate in these areas has slowed from 1.6 percent in 2000 to 1.3 percent in 2011, a significant drop.

2. Conservation organizations are addressing population growth.

Recognizing that population growth is an issue that concerns all sectors, many conservation organizations including CI, WWF, the Jane Goodall Institute, Blue Ventures and the Greenbelt Movement have played important roles in slowing population growth rates while protecting biodiversity and ecosystems.

These groups have partnered with health and development groups to meet the need for voluntary family planning and reproductive health (FP/RH) services voiced by families in rural communities across sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. These Population, Health and Environment (PHE) projects help to improve access to family planning and reproductive health services in vulnerable populations in rural, high biodiversity areas, while also helping communities manage natural resources in ways to improve health and livelihoods. These types of projects have provided concrete examples of how multisectoral approaches can increase access to FP/RH services, improve family health and build capacity for improved resource management, ultimately resulting in healthier families and ecosystems.

For example, in the Philippines’ Verde Island Passage, CI is working with our local partner PATH Foundation Philippines and the University of Rhode Island Coastal Resources Center (URI CRC) to combine family planning services with improved coastal resources management.

Most people think the Philippines is a tough country in which to promote FP/RH services, considering the Catholic Church’s stereotypical opposition to family planning. However, the truth is that while Catholic leadership in the country opposes family planning, at the local level church leadership clearly sees the benefits of increasing birth spacing and improving family health and livelihoods. One provincial government marine and fisheries officer government in the Verde Island Passage recently told us she has garnered local bishop support for the PHE project through open dialogue and evidence that these approaches are critical to improving the quality of life for local people.

3. Increased awareness of the impacts of population growth is spurring action.

In June, I served as co-trainer for the first “PHE and Climate Change” course, hosted by URI CRC and CI, in Rhode Island. During the three-week training, 17 coastal managers and fisheries experts from the Gambia, Ghana, Indonesia, the Philippines, Tanzania, Senegal, Uganda and the U.S. increased their technical and leadership skills, For many, this was the first time they had learned about global population dynamics; by the end of the course, I was happy to see them transforming into PHE champions.

During the session on population growth, I was struck by a very powerful message from our colleague from the Gambia. As he peered down at a list of population statistics, his face registered shock as he realized his country’s population (1.8 million in 2001) is expected to double to more than 4 million by 2060. “Where are we going to put these people?” he asked. “We are a small country, and we are already crowded with limited fisheries resources.”

This example reminded me that global population issues may seem complex and daunting, but at the local level there are always small actions that can make a profound difference. According to a recent study, more than 215 million women and their husbands wish to space their births or delay pregnancies. Promoting access to family planning for women and men in countries like the Gambia can make significant impacts on the lives of people in these vulnerable communities.

Globally, conservation organizations can do more to advocate for increases in family planning. We can continue to serve as effective partners to help slow the expected growth in world population to 8 billion in 2050, instead of the 9 billion that some United Nations experts have predicted. We can continue to address population growth as a root cause of biodiversity loss. And most importantly, we can — and must — build on our efforts to ensure lasting improvements for human well-being in tandem with biodiversity conservation.

Janet Edmond is the director of CI’s Population Environment program.

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  1. Pingback: 5 Ways Nature Can Help Us Meet the Population Challenge | Human Nature - Conservation International Blog

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