The elephant left the room quite some time ago; let’s follow

September 3, 2018


On 3 September 2018, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) featured an article written by David Johnson, Chief Executive, Margaret Pyke Trust, coordinator of the Population & Sustainability Network on population growth and the resulting pressure on the environment. You can read the original article on the IUCN’s website here, or alternatively below.

One side effect of running an organisation with population in the name is that every week or so a friend will send me an article or video about population. Almost invariably there is mention of population being a “taboo” topic, or “the elephant in the room”. This is in spite of the fact that I can’t honestly recall ever speaking to a conservationist who disagreed that global population is a critical conservation issue, or was shy to say so. There is no taboo.

Given the United Nations projects that the global population will rise from 7.6 billion today to over 9.7 billion by 2050, this is hardly surprising. But there is something glib about merely stating the challenge. What needs to happen is that we move to consider the actions which form part of the effective response.

Considering health sector data

Evidence-based conservation has become standard practice. This includes the systematic assessment of information when designing conservation projects and determining policy. There is also a growing understanding of the need for cross-sector collaboration. So to move on from the mythical elephant in the room, the first step is to consider relevant health data.

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) did exactly that in their 2015 joint report “Connecting global priorities: biodiversity and human health: a state of knowledge review”. They acknowledge that population growth places increased demands on healthcare systems and can greatly increase pressures on natural resources. Most importantly, they acknowledge that population growth could be moderated by greater investments in family planning programmes.

They also explain that greater investment in the education of girls and women and improved access to and awareness of contraception would “not only improve human health and well-being directly, it would also help slow and reverse trends among countries with the highest projected growth rates and concomitant pressures on ecosystems”.

In reaching their conclusions the CBD, UNEP and WHO relied on fertility and other reproductive health data. In the health sector that is elementary. It needs to become standard in conservation too. At the Trust I lead, we are working with an increasing number of conservation organisations which are considering not only population data, but also the evidence of how small improvements in family planning have significant changes on fertility rates, and consequently long-term population size and environmental pressures.

Accepting that barriers to family planning are conservation issues

At the national policy level, there is often acceptance that population is a key conservation challenge. Nigeria’s National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP), for instance, highlights high population growth as the first cause of biodiversity loss. Tanzania’s NBSAP states, “Human activities due to rapidly growing population have been one of the major causes of habitat loss and degradation resulting into biodiversity decline in Tanzania.” Nigeria and Tanzania are not alone in making such statements. Many developing nations, with relatively poor healthcare provision and higher fertility rates as a result, make this connection in their NBSAPs.

Poor rural communities often depend most directly on natural resources for their livelihoods, food, water, shelter and cultural practices. When localised human pressures on ecosystems exceed critical tipping points, both community health and environmental health suffer. Poor rural communities in developing nations also face the greatest barriers to the use of and access to reproductive health services.

This is why these areas are such a focus for health advocates. Barriers to family planning 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. These are issues which also directly impact on conservation, and there is often an overlap in areas with the greatest need for better reproductive health services and for conservation. Supporting policy developments that will improve reproductive health services is therefore something conservation organisations should consider including in their strategic priorities.

Conservation organisations can’t provide clinical services. Similarly, family planning nurses can’t implement conservation activities. But this does not mean family planning should be seen as solely a health issue. Conservationists are familiar with overlapping concerns. For example, we are confident to promote renewable energy as part of the response to the environmental threats of climate change, or to advocate for better public transport to improve air quality. These are not merely “energy” or “transport” issues. Conservation organisations do not need to run windfarms or provide train services to promote them as relevant to the environment.

Barriers to family planning increase pressures on ecosystems as well as families. Therefore, as a sector, we should find it as easy to promote universal access to family planning as we do renewable energy. After all, the Sustainable Development Goals call for both.

Moving ahead

Some conservation and reproductive health organisations have already successfully joined forces. There is a growing movement of community-based Population, Health and Environment programmes which take a holistic approach to interconnected issues of poor health, family planning needs, food insecurity, poverty, and unsustainable use of natural resources. Project data shows this approach leads to greater uptake of family planning, better health and gender relations, and increased support for and participation in conservation activities by local communities. Such a multisector approach can also be more cost-effective, and generate more sustainable results.

The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change affirmed in a 2014 report that family planning can play a role in reducing climate change vulnerability and is a potential adaptation strategy. The book Drawdown: the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming, details the top 100 solutions that have the greatest potential to reduce emissions or sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Educating girls ranks sixth and family planning ranks seventh. The integration of family planning into conservation and climate change thinking has begun; we need this to become the norm.

The Margaret Pyke Trust has, from its inception, been at the forefront of developments in contraception. In the 1960s that meant opening and running what soon became the world’s busiest family planning clinic. Today, the Trust is likely the only IUCN Member to have 50 years’ family planning expertise. One of our strategic priorities is working with conservation organisations in developing countries to integrate family planning into conservation programmes. We do this because we believe all girls and women have the right to choose freely whether and when to have children, and how many. We also do this because we question whether many traditional conservation projects can have long term sustainable results if they don’t.

On World Population Day in July 2019 we will be promoting the growing collective of visionary conservation organisations which are integrating family planning into their conservation activities by making appropriate partnerships, or supporting policy changes which will make this easier. The Trust is keen to work with other IUCN Members, as well as other conservation organisations worldwide, who understand that it is time we stopped talking about population growth and started to take action to remove barriers to family planning as an integral part of conservation policy.