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There are two Latin Americas according to demographers. In one of the most urbanized regions of the world, the population of some countries remains highly rural. While countries like Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay are close to 90 percent urbanized, much of Central America, as well as Ecuador, Paraguay, and Bolivia, are only about 50-60 percent urban.

Across the continent, Latin America's total fertility rate has fallen from almost six children per woman in the 1960s to 2.2 children in 2005. Population growth rates are projected to continue to decline from 1.5 percent in 2010 to roughly 0.75 percent by 2020. But less-urbanized countries continue to experience high population growth in their rural areas, particularly among their large indigenous populations, who are not experiencing the same shifts from high to low fertility.

For example, since 1990, communities surrounding Guatemala's Sierra de Lacandon National Park have grown by 10 percent each year, with birthrates averaging eight children per woman. These larger communities and households have led to agricultural expansion into the park, which has lost 10 percent of its forest canopy since 1990.

Rural-to-rural migration is also a key, but often overlooked, dynamic as migrants move to other rural areas in search of new land to farm. Between 1961 and 2001, Central America's rural population increased by 59 percent. This increased population was accompanied by a 15 percent increase in deforestation, totaling some 13 million hectares.

Although many rural areas of Latin America have high fertility rates and expanding populations, they also have a high unmet demand for contraception. Indigenous populations are particularly underserved by health providers for many reasons, including cultural barriers, language, and accessibility.

According to the Population Reference Bureau, an estimated 50 percent of indigenous women in the Ecuadorian Amazon do not want another child, yet 98 percent of them do not have access to a modern contraceptive method.

While reaching historically disadvantaged populations in rural communities is not easy, some programs have had considerable success—and saved money—by combining environmental and health efforts. For example, the Guatemalan NGO ProPeten trained more than 80 midwives and health promoters and developed a radio soap opera in both Spanish and Q'eqchi' to deliver health services and environmental education to the communities living near the Maya Biosphere Reserve.

Given links between rural population growth and agricultural expansion, expanding access to family planning may not only be a cost-effective way to help women reach their desired family size, but also a smart investment in forest conservation and climate mitigation—and perhaps a down-payment on a more secure future for all.

By Kayly Ober, Program Assistant, Environmental Change and Security Program

Related Program

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more