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The Planet

FIRST PERSON: To Cairo and Back -- An Activist's Report

by Tanya Henrich Sierra Club California Population Chair

The Sierra Club was highly visible at Cairo, sending one of the largest delegations from a non-governmental organization. Population activist Tanya Henrich, who was part of the Sierra Club delegation, filed this report.

Despite threats to the lives of participants, Egypt bravely rolled out the welcome mat in September for more than 20,000 people attending the U.N. International Conference on Population and Development. From the moment we arrived, it was obvious the Egyptian government had taken extraordinary steps to protect the lives of conference delegates. It was an honor to see the level of importance the Egyptian government attached to the success of this critical conference.

As Sierra Club California Population Chair, I wanted to go to Cairo to work for change. I found myself in a desert city rich in history well beyond the boundaries of my imagination. It was great fun to be on a mission of hope where there was so much to learn. My greatest pleasure was to have the opportunity to make my mark on this blueprint for change.

In my hometown of Chico, a small city at the base of the Sierra Nevada in Northern California, I've worked on environmental issues --sustainability, protection of wildlife habitat --for 10 years. Increasingly, I've come to realize the need to address overpopulation, the root cause of many local and global problems.

But despite the dictum, "Think globally, act locally," working locally on population is not enough. Cairo presented the opportunity to come up with global solutions and I wanted to participate.

Unfortunately, I didn't have enough money to make the 12,000-mile trip. One day, while I was being interviewed on a local radio station, another disc jockey heard my story and began to appeal to listeners for donations. That sparked a flurry of generosity from Chico residents. This outpouring of community support --more than $1,600 was raised in just three weeks-- was heartwarming. It reaffirmed that I was representing a larger group of people who are as concerned as I am about the future.

I joined a Sierra Club party of six --four volunteers and two staff members. Our numbers allowed us to cover many of the workshops, press conferences and main negotiation sessions --a presence that afforded us an opportunity to make some wonderful new friends, like-minded individuals representing non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, from many other places in the world. This was the opportunity of a lifetime to meet folks who are dedicated, as we are, to preserve and protect the Earth. Hundreds of NGOs worked to bolster the positions taken by their respective government delegations.

Tim Wirth, who led the U.S. delegation to Cairo, acknowledged our contribution when he made special mention, during a briefing, of the Sierra Club and its leadership on population funding. The Clinton administration has the right instincts on population, but I think we helped strengthen its resolve.

The Sierra Club hosted a workshop on funding the unmet need for family planning that drew a standing-room-only crowd. Other NGOs quickly adopted our equitable formula that asks each donor country to take a percentage of its gross national product and devote it to international family planning.

It's a long way from a Chico, a city of 90,000, to a metropolis of 14 million. One of the conference's many pleasures, however, was discovering that the same concerns are shared all over the world.

I came back from Cairo energized and invigorated by the experience. But I was quickly brought down to Earth by a front-page story in the local paper. A local politician had joined with the Chamber of Commerce and the building industry to demand the weakening of the Endangered Species Act and referring to environmentalists as "wackos." Obviously, there's a lot of work to do before the wisdom of Cairo filters down to the local level.

SOURCE: Tanya Henrich, Sierra Club Population Chair, published in The Planet, November 1994
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