by Tom Valtin
Want to be a Sierra Club activist and travel to exotic, faraway lands? The Club’s Global Population and Environment Program may be just the ticket. The program advocates on the local and national level for improved policies and increased funding for family planning programs, initiatives that advance the rights of women and girls, and reducing individual consumption.
In truth, most of the work done by Club population activists is right here at home, helping educate the public about population-environment connections and motivating citizens to take action. But every other year the program sponsors a trip abroad to spread the word about the benefits of family planning. In 2003, activists traveled to the Andean highlands of Ecuador to promote family planning and sustainable agriculture and help local organizations set up basic healthcare for the poorest of the poor.
According to population experts, a billion people will be added to the planet between 2000 and 2015, exacerbating biodiversity loss, deforestation, pollution, and global warming. “The health of the planet is directly linked to the health of families,” says former program director Annette Souder, now the Club’s Associate Director for Washington Operations. “Voluntary family planning programs are one of the best and most comprehensive ways to ensure a more sustainable environmental future.”
Club population activists recently undertook two trips, to Madagascar last November and the Phillipines this March. The Madagascar trip included seven Club volunteers, two staffers, and a journalist, Marilyn Berlin Snell from Sierra magazine. (Read Snell’s story in the July/Aug issue of Sierra: sierraclub.org/sierra/200607/ flora.asp.) The group met with international and local officials and visited three villages to see first-hand the positive impact their tax dollars make in health, population, and environment programs.
But Madagascar’s population is growing exponentially, placing enormous strain on the environment. Slash-and-burn practices are destroying forests at an alarming rate and most of the population lacks access to basic needs like healthcare and clean water. “When you walk 20 minutes in 95-degree heat to the local water source where cattle are cooling off and young boys are filling up their water containers,” says Souder, “you see very clearly the impact of increased human demand on natural resources.”
Participants on these trips are tasked with doing public education and garnering media when they come home. Salopek, whose day job is with the wildlife organization SOS Rhino, is working with the Club’s Illinois Chapter to make the global population and environment connection locally. “Teen pregnancy rates are higher in the United States than in most other ‘developed’ countries,” she says. “We’re advocating policies and programs to address this, like the Responsible Sex Education bill now before the Illinois legislature.”
In March, two Club volunteers joined Souder on another trip, to the Phillipines, along with representatives from other environmental organizations. The group visited three sites and attended a conference on population and environmental health that attracted 300 participants from 17 countries. Souder joined high-level government officials as a plenary speaker at the conference, explaining how grassroots advocacy is done in the United States.
“The Phillipines has one of the highest rates of population growth in the world,” says Oregon Chapter Population Coordinator Ramona Rex, one of the volunteers on the trip. But she says a growing number of Filipino legislators—including some who helped convene the conference—recognize the environmental benefits of slowing population growth.
The first site visit was to Gilutongan Island, whose population has doubled in 30 years, resulting in declining fish harvests and stress to the local reef system. Now, a marine reserve has been created, and as reef health improves, tourists and divers are bringing in revenue. Family planning supplies are now sold at an island convenience store. Locals are also growing seaweed for harvest, which they sell to a processor on a larger island who turns it into food.
A second visit was to an upland village on the island of Bohol that had been badly deforested. But one-third of the village was recently set aside as a nature preserve, an ecotourism program is now in the works, villagers have formed a co-op that integrates improved agricultural methods, family planning, and healthcare. The final visit was to Manila, where locals are working to clean up the Pasig River. Rural residents have been moving to the city in droves, and conservation groups are introducing family planning to newcomers from the countryside.
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