Every conservationist I’ve met, during two years’ research on human population impacts, has agreed population growth to be one of the most significant threats to biodiversity. Finding a major regional or international conservation NGO which was prepared to say this was, until now, somewhat harder.
This week the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) became the newest member of the Population and Sustainability Network (PSN). Based in London, PSN is an independent body which also coordinates an international network of organisations recognising the importance of population and consumption impacts as significant factors in sustainable development. PSN raises support for, and investment in, sexual and reproductive health services which respect and protect rights. In becoming a member of PSN the EWT joins founder members including the United Nations Population Fund, the UK government’s Department for International Development, the International Planned Parenthood Federation and several smaller conservation organisations promoting the integrated approach to development known as “Population, Health and Environment”.
Biodiversity is not just a luxury for the rich, many poor rural communities rely on healthy ecosystems for their food, water and livelihoods. When population growth threatens those ecosystems, the local communities suffer too. Population, Health and Environment programmes respond to this by integrating improved sexual and reproductive health services with conservation actions and the creation of alternative and sustainable livelihoods. This integrated approach has been proven to lead to greater conservation and health outcomes than single sector actions but there are no Population, Health and Environment programmes in continental southern Africa. This is something I am seeking to change, with the EWT and others.
PSN is a global leader in advancing the understanding of the relationships between people, their health, the environment and development but they are not the only new partner for the EWT. Another partner is women’s rights NGO the Thohoyandou Victim Empowerment Programme (TVEP). Based in Limpopo, TVEP’s work generates an attitude of zero tolerance towards all forms of sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse and HIV/AIDS stigma. TVEP passionately advocates for increasing women’s “agency” – that is women’s capacity to act. Access to voluntary family planning services is one thing, but male partners must also allow female partners to use the contraceptives of their choice and this is not always the case. TVEP’s programmes seek to eradicate abuse and discrimination and by increasing women’s agency ensure women can exercise their rights to make their own contraceptive and other decisions. TVEP’s Fiona Nicholson smiled when she told me about how one village chief in Venda, after TVEP had implemented its programmes in his village, proudly demonstrated to other villagers how to use a female condom, an inconceivable event before TVEP’s arrival.
The human population of Africa is anticipated to double by 2050, a reality which successful conservation cannot ignore. A woman empowered to choose the number and timing of her pregnancies, with access to contraception and who is able to implement her contraceptive choice is likely to have fewer, healthier children. With fewer children to support, fewer natural resources need be harvested, benefiting food security and the environment. This is the result if the EWT and TVEP collaborate.
The EWT and TVEP are seeking funding for a pilot project to be implemented at a site in KwaZulu-Natal where human settlements are encroaching on remaining habitats and where an absence of alternative livelihoods means some locals have little choice but to turn to bush meat to support their families. Sometimes the bush meat includes the endangered species the EWT is seeking to conserve. One potential funder is the Hivos Social Innovation Award, an award where the public vote for the top 20 entries to progress to the semi-finals. You can read about the EWT / TVEP application on the Hivos website by clicking here and can support their application by voting for them to reach the semi-finals.
Although some people feel uncomfortable talking about population growth, there should be no need if the conversation is rooted in empowerment, women’s rights and education. This is the approach of the EWT, TVEP and PSN. Implementing southern Africa’s first Population, Health and Environment programme will not only help poor rural communities and species conservation but also develop the way we talk about population.
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