DifferenTakes #39: Population-Environment Programs: Problematic Assumptions Print E-mail


DifferenTakes is an investigative series of issue papers, published by the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College, providing alternative information and analysis on a wide range of reproductive rights, population, environment and social justice issues.

We are pleased to send you our latest issue, "Population-Environment Programs: Problematic Assumptions and Contradictory Approaches" by James Oldham.  This issue looks at how assumptions about the connection between population growth and environmental degradation can lead to the creation of programs that pose potential risks to the needs of local communities as well as women's health and autonomy.

This issue was based on a larger study titled, "Rethinking the Link: A Critical Review of Population-Environment Programs."  To read the full study, please go to http://popdev.hampshire.edu/news.php.

- Betsy Hartmann and Amy Oliver
Co-editors, DifferenTakes

* Available in pdf FORMAT

Population-Environment Programs: Problematic Assumptions and Contradictory Approaches

by James Oldham
A Publication of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College • No.39 • Spring 2006

Over the last ten to fifteen years a new type of integrated conservation project has evolved that links reproductive health and family planning services with natural resource management and biodiversity conservation. Such programs represent a small but significant trend in both the conservation and the population fields.

Although integrated approaches for addressing population and environment issues date back at least to the 1960s, the promotion of pre-planned Population-Environment (PE) projects is newer. PE linkages are being promoted by leading actors in the population field such as Population Action International and Population Reference Bureau. PE programs are being implemented by major conservation organizations including Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Conservation International (CI). Funding has come in large part from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and a few private foundations. The presence of funders committed to this specific form of integrated conservation and development work has led to the creation of projects explicitly designed around theories of natural linkages between these two sectors.

PE projects are promoted as an opportunity to provide reproductive health services to isolated rural populations[1] and as a people-friendly approach to conservation­an alternative to a “fences and fines” approach that excludes local people from the natural resources on which their livelihoods depend.[2] Integration of family planning with natural resource conservation activities is said to produce synergies that will increase programs’ effectiveness and sustainability both because “environmental factors and health consequences overlap directly” and because the linking of population and environmental work “provide[s] economies of scale and scope.”[3] Other advantages claimed for integrated PE projects include facilitated entry into communities, opportunities to address a range of needs of hard-to-reach populations, increased involvement of men in reproductive health and of women in natural resource management, improvements to women’s overall condition, reduced costs, and possibilities for reducing population pressures on the environment.[4]

Although the goal of extended access to reproductive health care and family planning and the goal of making conservation projects address human needs are both important, the current attempt to link the two in community-based projects raises important concerns. First, the assumptions made to justify these links tend to blame environmental degradation on poor communities and specifically on poor women’s fertility. Second, the narrow focus on reproductive health tends to obscure the broader health needs of rural populations in the global south.

Malthusian Narratives
Much of the PE literature tries to emphasize the social and human health benefits of integrated programs rather than focusing on environmental justifications. Yet many of the same authors and organizations also disseminate a vision of population threats to the environment on a global scale where the emphasis is on high and fast growing populations in and around biodiversity hotspots of the global south.[5] Most organizations carrying out community-based PE programs also acknowledge that one important objective is to reduce population pressure on the environment. For example, CI describes a global problem of population threatening key areas of ecological concern: “The regions of the planet undergoing the most severe environmental degradation are the same as those experiencing the most rapid human population growth.”[6] This concern is then addressed locally: “Since 2001, Conservation International (CI) has been working in the Selva Lacandona of Mexico­one of the richest biodiversity hotspots in the world­to reduce human population pressure on natural resources.”[7]

These generalized assumptions about population impacts on the natural environment are too simplistic. A significant body of research demonstrates that human populations can actually enrich biodiversity and ecological complexity through their interactions with the environment. In one example, banning local people from a bird sanctuary in Bharatpur, India led to the decline in populations of key bird species.[8] Studies in parts of Kenya[9] and Java[10] have documented that growing populations have increased capacity for environmental remediation, resulting in enhanced biodiversity. Similar trends have been found in countries as diverse as Nepal, Guinea, and China.[11] Although such outcomes depend on many variables, these examples highlight the unreliability of broad generalizations about linkages between population and environment.

Madagascar and the Philippines provide two important examples of the role Malthusian narratives play in the promotion of linked PE projects and of the limitations and dangers of such narratives. Conservationists value Madagascar for its biodiversity, unusual ecosystems, and large numbers of endemic animals and plants. It is the site of a number of PE programs due to the perception of close links between population growth, agricultural practices and deforestation. Advocates for population programs link the tripling of Madagascar’s population in the second half of the 20th century to the current environmental situation where the country’s forests are less than 20 percent of their original size. They describe a rapidly multiplying population of poor farmers who are burning Madagascar’s tropical forests and threatening the biodiversity that the forests support.[12]

Although both population growth and agricultural practices are implicated in the deforestation of Madagascar, the omission of other key facts contributes to a tendency to blame the growing numbers, and the behaviors, of poor subsistence farmers for forest loss. The major period of deforestation in Madagascar began with colonization at the end of the 19th century. Forest loss in the first half of 20th century was equal to or higher than that during the latter half of the century, yet it took place when population density was low and population growth limited by malnutrition and famine, disease, and labor conscription. In fact, government policies and economic and political inequalities, rather than human fertility, were the major causes of forest destruction, through the promotion of coffee and other export crops; colonial tax policies that stimulated migration and land clearing; and privatization of common lands for extractive concessions.[13]

The Philippines, another island nation with rapid population growth and internationally recognized biodiversity hotspots, is also held up as an example of the challenges human populations pose for environmental and natural resource management. Save the Children’s PESCO-Dev project[14] and PATH Foundation Philippines’ IPOPCORM initiative[15] are PE initiatives that combine reproductive health with coastal management. Both projects began with the premise that population growth is an important cause of environmental degradation, so they have emphasized family planning as a complement to natural resource management. In contrast, the Center for Empowerment and Resource Development (CERD)’s coastal management efforts began not with a particular vision of the links between population and environment, but rather a commitment to coastal communities’ “control, use and management of the sea and its resources.”[16]

CERD’s research highlighted a series of complex, interlocking issues influencing both environmental and human health. These included the privatization of public lands and eviction of fishing communities; illegal quarrying of coral and sand; the cutting of mangroves to make way for private resorts and fishponds; the intrusion of large corporate fishing vessels into areas previously reserved for subsistence fishing; and the lack of political and economic power of subsistence fisherfolk.[17] This rights-based approach gives a fuller understanding of the interlocking environmental and social challenges and provides local people more options for addressing them. It also frees women to make reproductive health and family planning decisions solely on the basis of personal health and individual needs rather than as part of a conservation strategy.

Women’s Health
Advocates for linking family planning services to conservation or development projects make the argument that such linkages are developed in response to community health needs.[18] It is not clear, however, that the majority of current projects are really responding to locally perceived needs. Whereas earlier conservation projects incorporated health care as a motivator to engage communities,[19] now PE projects are being initiated according to a vision that prioritizes reproductive health and family planning from the outset.

When NGOs arrive with predetermined agendas, the danger is that these will be imposed on local communities, irrespective of local interest. An example of this is a PE project carried out in Manicoré, Brazil by Management Sciences for Health, where reproductive health classes, rather than responding to local demand, were actually a requirement for participation in a handicraft project aimed at women’s economic empowerment.[20]

Although the Manicoré example may be an exception, as long as Malthusian narratives are part of program visions they are likely to be communicated to, and potentially imposed upon, target communities. PE programs frequently use “information, education, and communication” (IEC) campaigns and “social marketing” practices that have the potential to create pressures within the target community for individuals to participate in family planning and other activities. One example is the “Champion Community Voahary Salama competition” in Madagascar, where communities identify goals for vaccination, family planning, and the adoption of agricultural techniques[21] and “participatory monitoring” is used to determine whether a community has reached “champion status.”[22] CI[23] and other NGOs have also adopted this model, described as “community target setting, monitoring and celebration.”[24] This mix of externally supplied education and information with “community” goal setting for, and monitoring of, individual behaviors, raises important questions about the nature of participatory PE programs and even the concept of voluntary family planning.

A related concern regarding PE projects in remote rural areas is that the implementing organizations’ population agenda, combined with limited resources, may lead to services being offered based on what’s doable and effective rather than on what’s most appropriate for women’s health. Evidence from some projects suggests that the drive to get some family planning services to remote areas has indeed led to choices regarding birth control technologies based on logistical and budgetary factors rather than on the needs, desires, and medical situation of the women and men involved.

Health concerns are raised by an emphasis in some PE projects on long-acting contraceptives. As a description of one project explains, “Depo-Provera is offered as a simple, secure, long-term, easily reversible, culturally acceptable method of family planning.”[25] However, the health risks of long-acting contraceptives such as Depo-Provera,[26] and the need for proper screening and follow-up of users, raise questions about the appropriateness of these contraceptives in remote rural areas.

Finally, although “healthy communities” and “healthy families” are part of the titles and language of many PE projects, contributions to health care frequently are limited to narrow family planning services. For example, although an objective of the CI project in Mexico’s Lacandona Forest included the provision of “information and training to improve maternal and child health, and reduce associated mortality rates,” activities carried out under this heading appear to have been much more limited: classes for medical workers in reproductive health and family planning, and provision of contraceptives.[27] Voahary Salama’s integrated PHE program in Madagascar has addressed a wider range of health issues including family planning, immunization, maternal and child nutrition, diarrheal disease prevention, and prevention of malaria and other infectious diseases in conjunction with work to promote reforestation and introduce new agricultural techniques.[28] Yet even this broader focus emphasizes health of mothers and children under five rather than all members of a community.

While integrated approaches to conservation offer real opportunities to treat local people as partners and meet human needs and conservation goals simultaneously, the specific and narrow focus on links between population and environment undercuts many of the benefits of the integrated approach and creates its own problems. PE programs promote the idea that strengthening and empowering local communities are key to both improving lives and meeting conservation goals, yet this urge to take a pro-human approach is undermined by the Malthusian narratives that underpin PE projects. The provision of reproductive health and family planning services in remote rural areas needs to be rights-based, not justified through dubious linkages between population and environmental degradation.

One of the justifications for PE projects is that they respond to the needs of women in the communities being served. However, a priori assumptions can lead to narrow interpretations of local health needs and a bias in favor of particular interventions. Local health needs will only be met if projects are guided by genuine participatory processes not limited by the population or conservation agendas of funders or implementing organizations.

This issue of DifferenTakes is based on a larger study titled “Rethinking the Link: A Critical Review of Population-Environment Programs,” which can be found at

James Oldham is founder and director of Las Lianas Resource Center, an organization that partners with indigenous communities in the Amazon region of South America in work for cultural autonomy and environmental protection.


[1] Vogel, C.G., and Engelman, R. (1999). Forging the Link: Emerging accounts of population and environment work in communities. Washington, DC: Population Action International. p.22.

[2] Zinn, F. and MacKie-Mason, J. (1999, Fall). “University of Michigan Population Fellows Programs.” PECS News. 1(1), 4-5. (Woodrow Wilson Center, Environmental Change and Security Project).

[3] Kleinau, E. and Talbot, J. (2003, Spring). “When the whole is greater than the sum of its parts: Integrated indicators for population-environment programs.” PECS News. Issue 8. (Woodrow Wilson Center, Environmental Change and Security Project). p.10.

[4] Vogel and Engelman. op. cit. pp.5-6.

[5] See, for example, Cincotta, R. P. and Engelman, R. (2000). Nature’s Place. Washington, DC: Population Action International.

[6] Conservation International (CI). (2005). Conservation programs: Population and environment. Retrieved 11 September, 2005, from http://www.conservation.org/xp/CIWEB/programs/population/.

[7] Conservation International (CI). (2005). Meeting population and conservation needs in Mexico’s Selva Lacandona: Interim report to the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Grant #2003-25653. May 1- December 31, 2004. p.1.

[8] Guha, R. (1997). “The authoritarian biologist and the arrogance of anti-humanism: wildlife conservation in the Third World.” The Ecologist 27(1), 14-20.

[9] Tiffen, M., Mortimore, M., and Gichuki, F. (1993). More people, less erosion: environmental recovery in Kenya. Chichester: John Wiley.

[10] Sayer, J.A. (1995). Science and international nature conservation. Jakarta: Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) Occasional Paper No. 4.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Cincotta and Engelman. op. cit. p.66.

[13] Jarosz, L. (1993). “Defining and explaining tropical deforestation: shifting cultivation and population growth in colonial Madagascar (1896-1940).” Economic Geography. 69 (4), 366-379.

[14] Layng, R. (2002/2003, Winter). “Strengthening formative environmental research through the inclusion of population variables.” Population-Environment Fellows Newsletter. (Population-Environment Fellows Program, University of Michigan.)

[15] Path Foundation Philippines, Inc. (2005). Integrated population and coastal resource management (IPOPCORM). Retrieved 11 September, 2005, from http://www.pfpi.org/ipopcorm.html.

[16] Melgar, M & Rodriguez, M. (1995) Formation of CRM council for the CBCRM of Pagapas Bay, Western Batangas. Rome: UN FAO. Retrieved 11 September, 2005, from http://www.geocities.com/cbcrm_rc/CBCRMLibrary/CaseStudies/melgar.htm.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Vogel and Engelman. op. cit. p.9.

[19] Margoluis, R., Myers, S., Allen, J., Roca, J., Melnyk, M., & Swanson, J. (2001). An ounce of prevention: Making the link between health and conservation. Washington, DC: Biodiversity Support Program. p.6.

[20] Feldacker, C. (2004, Spring). “Serving the stewards: Improving reproductive health and protecting the Amazon rainforest.” PECS News. Issue 9. (Woodrow Wilson Center, Environmental Change and Security Project).

[21] Kleinau and Talbot. op. cit. p.12.

[22] Kleinau, E., Randriamananjara, O., & Rosensweig, F. (2005). Healthy people in a healthy environment: Impact of an integrated population, health, environment program in Madagascar. Final Report (Draft). p.36.

[23] Conservation International (CI). (2004). Healthy families, healthy forests: Combining reproductive health with biodiversity protection for effective programming. Year 2 (FY04) annual results report. Associate Grant No. GPH-G-00-02 under Leader Associates Cooperative Agreement No. LAG-A-00-00-00046-00. p.14.

[24] Kleinau et al. op. cit. p.7.

[25] Population Action International (PAI). (2005). Community-based population and environment: CBPE Projects Database. Retrieved 7 April, 2005, from http://www.populationaction.org/resources/data_and_graphs/cbpe/index.php

[26] For an overview of the health risks of Depo-Provera see Oliver, A. & Dukhanova, D. (2005, Spring). “Depo-Provera: Old concerns, new risks.” DifferenTakes 38. (Population and Development Program, Hampshire College). http://popdev.hampshire.edu/projects/dt/dt32.php.

[27] Conservation International (CI). (2004a). Meeting population and conservation needs in Mexico’s Selva Lacandona: Final report to the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Grant #2000-13045.

[28] Kleinau et al. op. cit.df