Campaigners describe it as the world’s most important yet most ignored environmental action: family planning.
Thriving Together: Environmental Conservation and Family Planning, a new UN-backed campaign, was launched on World Population Day on Thursday. It recognises that “improving access to family planning services is critically important for the environment and biodiversity”.
The campaign, spearheaded by the Margaret Pyke Trust, has been endorsed by over 150 reproductive health and conservation organisations, including the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s conservation planning specialist group, the Centre for Biological Diversity, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) and Friends of the Earth. Successful biodiversity conservation “requires taking people, our health, and our interactions with the natural world into account”, say the organisations.
“The UN considers it likely that the world population will rise from 7.7billion today to 9.8 billion by 2050. Most of this growth will be in low- and middle-income nations.”
Poor rural communities in developing nations face the greatest barriers to the use of and access to reproductive health services, including family planning.
“These barriers prevent women from choosing freely when and whether to have children, threaten family health, create challenges for girls who want to complete their education, and lead to higher levels of fertility and more rapid rates of population growth.
“Poor rural communities often depend most directly on natural resources for their livelihoods, food, water, shelter and cultural practices. When localised, or combined local and global human pressures on ecosystems intensify, both community health and environmental health suffer.”
Family planning contributes to women’s empowerment, improves family and general health, advances education and life opportunities and, by slowing population growth, eases pressures on wildlife and ecosystems.
Sustaining functional, biodiverse environments becomes less plausible in some areas if population growth follows average UN projections.
“Increasing human pressures are among the many challenges facing planetary health. By harming ecosystems we undermine food and water security and human health, and we threaten habitats and species. Ensuring family planning is available to all who seek it is among the positive actions we must take to lessen these pressures.”
David Johnson, the chief executive of the Margaret Pyke Trust, said it launched the campaign to encourage cross-sectoral support between health and environmental conservation organisations.
“We have done this because we know that barriers to family planning are not only relevant to those who are passionate about improving health, gender equality, empowerment and economic development, but also to those who are passionate about the conservation of biodiversity, the environment and sustainability.”
Robin Witt, founder of Chase Africa, which works in primary health care in rural areas of Uganda and Kenya, said: “Our work enables parents to choose the size and spacing of their family, and gives them a much better chance of being able to afford to send their children to secondary school, a very significant factor in giving people a brighter future and reducing fertility rates. A slower rate of population growth will reduce pressure on the natural environment giving nature a chance to thrive.”
The EWT has endorsed the campaign because it sees from its work in rural areas that human and environmental health are connected.
“By partnering with health organisations, we believe conservation organisations can do more,” said Dr Harriet Davies-Mostert, its head of conservation. “We are confident that this campaign will provide the necessary impetus to influence policy and drive the adoption of more integrated approaches.”
Mike Childs, the head of science, policy and research at Friends of the Earth, said systemic change was needed across society if a more sustainable and fairer society was to be achieved. “This includes providing all girls with education, including with opportunities to progress to tertiary level, delivering gender equality, and ensuring women have full sexual and reproductive rights. Biodiversity loss and climate breakdown cannot be stopped unless these are secured.”
“It is a stark fact that while the world’s human population continues to grow, the loss of other species with which we share this planet is occurring at an alarming rate,” said Onnie Byers, the chairperson of the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s conservation planning specialist group.
“Conspicuously absent in the discussion of human population growth’s effects on our planet is the voice of the conservation community, the very people and organisations deeply invested in issues around biodiversity. If we have any hope of passing a viable planet to future generations, this needs to change.”
Kelley Dennings, population campaigner at the Centre for Biological Diversity, said: “Human population growth and overconsumption are at the root of our most pressing environmental problems, including the wildlife extinction crisis, habitat loss and climate change, and it is only by recognising the link between human rights, health and nature that we can find solutions that benefit people and the planet.”
Some experts have pointed out how overconsumption in the richest countries, not overpopulation in the poorest, is the biggest culprit for environmental problems. Corporations, spurred by profit, rather than households and individuals, cause massive environmental devastation, they say.
Jamie McCallum, the UK and EU director of the Peace Parks Foundation, said: “The core purpose of Peace Parks Foundation is to enable a balance between conservation and consumption, between man and nature.”