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Fishing for Families: Reporting on Population, Environment, and Food Security in the Philippines

January 28, 2013 // 12:15pm2:00pm
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Global Sustainability and Resilience Program
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“My income is just right to feed us three times a day,” Jason Bostero told Sam Eaton in the rural Philippine village of Humayhumay. “It’s really, really different when you have a small family.” Eaton traveled to the Philippines to report on the connections between food security and population for Homelands Productions, creating a short film and radio piece that ran on NewsHour and Marketplace as part the Food for Nine Billion series last year.

At the Wilson Center on January 28, Eaton spoke about the process of creating the story and was joined by Imelda Abano, a journalist for Eco-Business, who discussed the film and the challenges of reporting on population and the environment in the Philippines.

Seeing Is Believing

As an environmental journalist, Eaton said he has wanted to cover population for some time. “It’s a really difficult subject to do in a thorough way,” he said, adding that he “felt a lot of pressure” to “strike the right balance” in producing these pieces.

In the Philippines, Eaton connected with PATH Foundation Philippines, Inc., whose pilot program in Humayhumay had “all the elements of a good story.” For more than a decade PATH has operated programs that combine conservation interventions with reproductive health services. By meeting unmet demand for family planning, such population, health, and environment (PHE) projects can help reduce population pressures that are impacting the environment, health, and food security of these communities.

The Philippines is an ideal target for such programs. Not only is it a biological hotspot, but it also is experiencing population pressure that puts the livelihoods of its inhabitants at risk. And there is a clear need for contraceptive services; according to the most recent Demographic and Health Survey, 22 percent of Filipino women have an unmet need for family planning, which means they don’t wish to have children immediately but are not using contraception.

Initially, Eaton was hesitant to tackle such an “abstract concept” as PHE, one that would likely be difficult to explore on television or the radio. But the evidence from the project in Humayhumay was convincing. Although members of the community were mostly poor subsistence farmers, Eaton noticed that “these people, unlike so many I had met, felt very much in control of their future, they were very empowered by this process. They spoke very articulately about future generations and about the reef and the problems that they were facing with overfishing.”

“When you have a community like this that’s so small, tight-knit, and very much living off the land and from the land, all of these things make sense,” said Eaton. PHE programs aren’t just about conservation or reducing population pressure; “it’s putting food on the table. It’s making sure that your kids have three meals a day so they can concentrate in school, so that they can go to school.”

“It’s hard to have opportunities for your children when there are so many,” he said, noting that community members “also understood the connection to conservation with these choices. If you have children that are hungry, you’re not going to think about the future of fishing tomorrow or the next day or three years from now.”

Eaton has kept his experiences in mind as he prepares for his next series about the future of food, to be aired on Public Radio International’s The World in April or May. He recalled the struggle villagers faced between putting food on the table today and protecting the environment for future generations.

Since “it’s the poorest and the most climate-sensitive countries that have the highest population growth,” Eaton said, people in developing countries will face this choice for generations to come. And as the global population heads towards nine billion people by 2050, “how do you produce more food with less in a way that doesn’t completely jeopardize the planet and its ecosystems in the process?”

The Contraception Controversy

As a journalist in the Philippines, Abano has covered “development, poverty issues, environment issues, [and] of course climate change disasters.”

“The issues of population growth, diminishing food, and the environment are all interconnected,” Abano said. “Population growth has long been a stumbling block for the country and its economic potential. So even before the problems [of] diminishing food supply hogged the headlines, the country’s population has long been pointed out as a factor for setting back growth.”

The Philippines is one of the most densely populated and fastest growing countries in the world. “We are beyond the carrying capacity of the country with almost 100 million [people] in a very tiny, low-lying area,” said Abano.

Poverty, the decentralized nature of the country, and a strong Catholic Church presence have hindered attempts to make contraceptives and reproductive health services more widely available.

But there have been recent changes. A major reproductive health bill granting access to family planning for the poorest women in the country was passed by Congress in December after a furious national debate. Abano hopes this may be a sign of things to come.

“For how many years, we’ve been relying on international donors, international aid, from USAID, from the PATH Foundation, from the United Nations?” she said. “With the passage of this RH bill, I think we can do something for ourselves, for our country.”

Raising Awareness of the Integrated Approach

“It’s a very good thing that we’re getting international attention for this problem,” said Abano. Since covering environment and health issues can mean criticizing politicians, church officials, or powerful corporations, she said journalists in the Philippines often face threats. Instead of risking their careers or their safety, some will self-censor. It’s a “very tough job for us to be reporting on these issues, but we have the responsibility to raise awareness of such problems in the Philippines.”

Eaton was gratified by the response to his reporting. “When these stories came out…I was holding my breath and waiting for the slew of hate mail to come in, and it didn’t happen,” he said. “I feel like the conversation may be changing…I think people really see that there is resource scarcity,” and that it is difficult to address scarcity without meeting reproductive health demands around the world. In fact, after his story aired, PATH Foundation Philippines, Inc., received an influx of donations, which were used to deliver contraceptive kits to convenience stores across Bohol Island.

“Personally, I think that…[a] single-minded approach to aid, to programs that address this, aren’t going to work given the extreme challenges that we’re facing on this planet,” Eaton said. “An integrated approach is going to be essential.”

Drafted by Carolyn Lamere, edited by Schuyler Null and Meaghan Parker

 
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