By Robert Lalasz

Population growth directly and indirectly impacts on natural resources, particularly in environmentally fragile areas. Yet the integration of reproductive-health services into the programs of conservation organizations (and vice-versa) is still new, and often faces obstacles because of the very different cultures and missions of these organizations.

In a Wilson Center meeting sponsored by the Environmental Change and Security Project, Clare Ginger discussed her case-study research on integrated population-environment (P-E) projects in conservation organizations. John Williams followed by detailing Conservation International's (CI) P-E projects in four developing countries.

How Organizations Approach P-E

Ginger, who studied P-E efforts at both CI and The Nature Conservancy (TNC), said that conservation organizations adopt P-E projects for a number of reasons—-not only to counter human impacts on biodiversity, but also to capitalize on partnership and funding opportunities as well as to broaden their legitimacy and authority as scientific organizations.

Ginger said that groups incorporating P-E projects need to link these efforts to their missions as well as making them understandable and appealing to all organizational levels—-from field offices to boards of directors. Advocacy within the orgainzation for P-E is critical, she argued.

"Are people taking up the cause?" she asked rhetorically. "What are their roles in the organization? Are the efforts being connected to technologies, skills, and routines that the organization already uses?"

Budgeting, planning, and staffing routines are also factors that must incorporate the new initiative, she added. Ginger cited CI's "Zero Biodiversity Loss" as well as TNC's "Conservation by Design" as organizing statements that allow these groups to pursue P-E efforts systematically across their organizational layers. The key, she said, is to implement P-E on all levels—in community-based projects, regional mapping and planning initiatives, and central-office efforts to transfer successful field experiments into group-wide routines.

P-E also has to be connected to an organization's internal culture in order to succeed, Ginger said. One interesting aspect of P-E projects, Ginger said, is how different organizations define P-E differently: they often have stable definitions of their core activities (such as "conservation" or "reproductive health") but ambiguously define the other half of the P-E effort, which can lead to incoherence. She added that an "entrepreneurial" organizational culture, in which experimentation and learning are prized, might also determine how easily a group will incorporate and pursue P-E efforts.

Capacity, Mission, and Following Through

P-E initiatives, Ginger said, often prompt questions of "mission drift" and capacity as well as funding, skill-building, and partnering. "Conservation organizations often question whether they can address the root causes of biodiversity loss versus its proximate causes," Ginger said. "They ask: 'Is it within our arena of influence and activities to do anything about migration dynamics, reproductive health, or internal cultural distribution and dynamics during a civil war?'"

The move to P-E might also be subject to charges of opportunism. "An organization might ask: 'Is this something to help us achieve our conservation mission and that we'll work hard at over the long-term, or are we just chasing after funding?'" Ginger said. But she added that organizations that are changing in response to globalization might have opportunities for the insertion of a P-E program.

Ginger concluded by outlining four elements to make P-E efforts operational in conservation organizations:

  • Prioritize advocacy and internal education;
  • Garner resources;
  • Develop partnerships; and
  • Incorporate P-E into conservation routines.

In addition, she said that defining success in organizational terms is important to sustaining a P-E initiative. "What are your expectations?" she asked. "Is P-E a tool for your organization with some application, or is P-E part of a broad-scale institutional change." In either case, Ginger said, clarifying the initiative's link to organizational mission, developing frameworks for action at varied scales (both spatial and temporal), and tailoring action for local conditions were keys to success.

P-E in Hotspots

John Williams next outlined CI's P-E program, which he called "very much a work in progress." CI works, he said, in biodiversity "hotspots"—-areas of concentrated biodiversity that are threatened by surrounding human population growth. "The cause of this demographic pressure," Williams said, "is invariably natural growth and high fertility rates."

He showed a human population pyramid for the Selva region of Chiapas, which contains the largest remaining tropical forest in Central America. Most people in Selva are under 18, prompting Williams to remark: "The boom is coming." Migration into hotspots is also a serious concern: for example, Philippine farmers are leaving lands ruined by slash-and-burn and immigrating to Palawan Island, a biodiverse rich region which does not have the capacity to absorb this human influx.

Williams outlined a four-part rationale for conservation organizations to adopt P-E programs:

  • Hotspots (which are generally rural and remote) are underserved both by governments and NGOs;
  • The expansion of agricultural frontiers that threatens hotspots is linked to poverty and population growth;
  • P-E projects reach both men and women, as opposed to the traditional male focus of conservation programs;
  • P-E is a win-win both for families and conservation: smaller families have more control over their resources, and are thus less likely to continue unsustainable practices such as slash-and-burn or overfishing.

CI's approach, said Williams, includes a participatory approach with the community and all stakeholders; alternate economics activities (such as microenterprise and ecotourism), and integrated programs that not only lower environmental impact but increase access to primary education and comprehensive health care. "We're interested not just in reproductive health," said Williams, "but also vaccines and diarrheal disease. You want to generate the perception that you're concerned about [clients'] overall welfare."

Approaches and Challenges

In addition to Chiapas, CI has P-E initiatives in Petén, Guatemala, eastern Madagascar, and Sierra Madre, the Philippines. In starting a P-E field project, Williams said, CI assesses local capacity as well as local CI interest. ("Part of my job is being a salesperson for the concept within CI so we can get the program going," Williams said.) After identifying interventions that are tailored to local needs as well as CI's existing strategies, CI forges partnerships with both government and other area NGOs.

"The idea is not to highlight the shortcomings of the government," Williams said, "but to complement their efforts and get them to fill in later." He said that CI's reproductive health and family planning efforts strive to complement existing services by training midwives and local health promoters. They involve men through integrated activities and also work with adolescents.

Williams said that his biggest challenges include trying to convince field CI offices to become interested in the issue (overcoming the "not my job" complex, as he put it) as well as monitoring and evaluation, struggling with limited time horizons, making an impact on a regional level, and the political instability of host countries.

"Changing fertility rates is not something done overnight," he said. "Even access to contraceptives might not get you results in a three-year grant period." He said the next steps for CI's P-E program are integrating population statistics into their data-collection and analysis as well as developing a sense of urgency about P-E in CI's field support division.

Other links:

Plan and Conserve: A Source Linking Population and Environment Services in Community

Forging the Link: Emerging Accounts of Population and Environment in Communities