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Reaching Out at Rio: Explaining Population Growth and Family Planning to Environmentalists [Dakar]

While recognition of the connections between population growth and environmental impacts is growing, they are still poorly understood by both the environmental and family planning communities, said a panel of experts at the 2011 International Conference on Family Planning in Dakar, Senegal.

Date & Time

Nov. 30, 2011
9:30am – 11:00am ET
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“There is a growing recognition that population is a key driver of environmental, development, governance, and security challenges; however, family planning is not a traditional tool, nor is it often considered an ‘appropriate’ one, for responding to food, water, climate, or conflict,” said Roger-Mark De Souza at a November 30 panel discussion at the 2011 International Conference on Family Planning in Dakar, Senegal. “This presents a challenge for us: How can we change perceptions of family planning so that it becomes part of the solution to wider problems, including natural resource scarcity, lack of economic development, gender inequity, and instability?”


De Souza, vice president of research and director of the climate program at Population Action International (PAI), was joined by Sandeep Bathala, program associate with the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program; Robert Engelman, president of Worldwatch Institute; and Daisy Magaña, fellow with the GoJoven Program, for a session on Reaching Out at Rio: Explaining Population Growth and Family Planning to Environmentalists

Population Dynamics Part of Climate Vulnerability

“Advocates…need to communicate that empowering women to make their own reproductive choices will improve both their individual well-being and our collective environment,” said Engelman. According to research conducted on behalf of Americans for UNFPA, messages that focus on women – their health or empowerment – resonate well with American environmentalists, as they do with broader audiences. 

PAI’s interactive mapping website shows that high levels of unmet need for family planning and rapid population growth rates are common in countries with low levels of resilience to climate change and high levels of projected decline in agricultural production, said De Souza. “Family planning services can be one element of a multi-pronged strategy to reduce especially women’s vulnerability to these interlocking vulnerabilities,” he said. 

“Currently, population growth is viewed as a challenge to addressing climate change-related vulnerabilities, but family planning services are commonly left out of conversations about ways to reduce these vulnerabilities.” This is a lost opportunity, said De Souza: “We can integrate family planning into wider environmental, development, and peace-building efforts.” 

At the recent UN Climate Change Conference in Durban, a side event on reproductive health and climate was well-attended. However, as panelist Esther Agbarakwe of the Africa Youth Initiative on Climate Changenoted, population was not part of the conference‘s official discussion, due to lack of knowledge and fears of population control. PAI is currently working with UNFPA to produce a series of training modules on population and climate change that will help environmentalists, climate change activists, and researchers better understand and explore these connections. 

Tapping the Youth Base 

Bathala, formerly the Sierra Club’s Global Population and Environment Program director, discussed how the Sierra Club, one of the only major grassroots conservation organizations with a population program, uses youth outreach to raise awareness on the links between the environment, reproductive health, and women’s rights. 

Because young people constitute over half of the world’s population, the Sierra Club focuses on empowering youth leaders to make the connection between environmental issues and sexual and reproductive health and rights. The Population and Environment Program reaches youth directly by organizing summits and multi-state campus tours featuring young people from around the world sharing compelling stories with their peers. 

“The program provides youth and adult activists with materials, communication strategies, and leadership training,” Bathala said. “With these tools, the activists then educate their community members, campus, and decision-makers about the need for measures that increase access to family planning while addressing poverty, women’s empowerment, and environmental protection.” 

In April, fellow panel member and Belize-native Daisy Magaña joined one of the Sierra Club’s U.S. tours to discuss the GoJoven program, which convenes and support youth reproductive health champions throughout Latin America. Through GoJoven, Magaña has worked to expand adolescent reproductive and sexual health choices, services, policies, and programs in Belize. 

In a blog post, Magaña discussed how her message was simple: Don’t give up. “If you think being active on environmental and sexual rights issues is hard to do here, imagine doing it in a deeply conservative [Catholic] country like mine,” she told U.S. students. 

Sierra Club also leads story tours to functioning population, health, and environment programs in the field, including a 2009 trip to Guatemala and Belize in conjunction with GoJoven. Through visits to 10 project sites, two U.S.-based youth advocates witnessed first-hand the challenges and opportunities associated with community-based sexual and reproductive health programs, significantly enhancing their ability to be pro-active messengers in their own communities. The tour helped the Sierra Club build an international network of young people committed to social and policy change in their countries. 

Looking Forward: Finding Ways To Highlight Integration 

While recognition of the connections between population growth and environmental impacts is growing, the experience of the panelists shows that it takes innovative methods to reach both the environmental and family planning communities. A similar panel later this winter at the Wilson Center will include representatives of Americans for UNFPA discussing their research on talking to environmentalists about reproductive health and population growth. 

With the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) coming in June of next year, highlighting successful strategies is crucial in order to pave the way for better integration in the future.

Drafted by Sandeep Bathala and edited by Schuyler Null and Meaghan Parker.


Hosted By

Environmental Change and Security Program

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

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