mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

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Still ticking …

The first thing the girls in the boat wanted to know was whether I was
married. There were three of them, in their late teens, and they
giggled as they crowded around Father Ronaldo, the young Canadian who
had been their priest for the last five years. We were deep in the
Brazilian rain forest, some twenty hours from the nearest airport,
motoring down the Amazon to the otherwise inaccessible village of
Urucara, where Ronaldo would celebrate a mass for St. Peter that
evening.

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Eyes twinkling, Ronaldo announced that I was single, and a chorus of
Ahhs went up, followed by a flurry of chatter. The oldest girl was
apparently looking for a husband, and, despite my protestations,
everyone agreed that she and I would make a lovely couple. Everyone,
that is, except her sister’s friend, who leaned languidly against the
railing, her flirtatious gaze leaving no doubt that, were we alone….

Joao and Margarita, the boat’s pilots, were parents of the would-be
bride. Eight of their nine children, all of whom were on board, were
girls; the youngest, a toddler, almost went overboard when she slipped
from the grasp of the five-year-old and made a dash for the foamy
water. After corralling the tot, Margarita good-naturedly shrugged at
me before turning back to her brood. Judging by the lines on her round
brown face, she couldn’t have been more than forty. For a woman who
had given birth approximately every other year for two decades, she
looked remarkable: fit, unharried, and wearing the most enchanting
smile I’ve ever seen.

Two weeks earlier, I had attended the United Nations Conference on
Environment and Development (UNCED)—the Earth Summit—in Rio de
Janeiro. As I smiled back at Margarita, I found myself recalling the
conference’s disappointing treatment of the population issue. Joao,
Margarita, and their nine children are members of a global family that
currently numbers five and a half billion. Sheer momentum will add
another three billion people by the year 2025, further burdening
ecosystems already exploited beyond sustainability. The human family
increases by ninety-seven million a year, with 90 percent of the
growth occurring in the economically and ecologically impoverished
places least able to absorb it. Places like Urucara.

When we landed, I was first off the boat. Ron, as I called him, told
the girls I was in a hurry to telephone my girlfriend, but not to
worry, there was more than enough of him to go around. Everyone
laughed. In Brazil, sexual play and teasing are as common as
breathing. Even priests like Ron join in, within limits, for
Brazilians see no contradiction between the love of God and the love
of pleasure. Indeed, during and after the outdoor mass that night,
there was a big community party with beer, liquor, food, a live band,
and a disco that lasted from midnight to dawn. The lambada was the
dance of choice. Everyone was doing it, from seven-year-old kids to
seventy-year-old grandmothers, their wrinkled faces impassive but
their bottoms twitching furiously as they stutter-stepped across the
floor.

The first thing a couple here do if there is mutual attraction is
screw, Ron complained as we biked through town the next day. As a
liberation theology priest, Ron harbored no reflexive loyalty to
Vatican dogma, and though on the boat he’d laughed as much as the
girls, he was sobered by the real-life consequences of his
parishioners’ unbridled sexuality. There’s no affection, no
courtship. So we have lots of unwed mothers, and lots of fathers who
actually boast about having one child with this woman, another child
with that woman, and so on. They end up having lots of kids they can’t
support.

It is these kids who fare worst during October and November, when
temperatures in the Amazon linger above 120 degrees Fahrenheit. In
Urucara alone, with a population of only four thousand, Ron sometimes
buries as many as three or four children a week in the dry season. The
leading cause of death is dehydration, otherwise known as poverty.

Under the circumstances, Ron has no qualms about telling his
parishioners to use contraceptives. If they ask me, I tell them it is
better to have three or four children you can support properly than
many children who end up getting sick all the time.

Ron is hardly the only Catholic priest in the world to address the
need for birth control, but like all the others, he does so without
sanction from Rome. At UNCED in June 1992, the Vatican successfully
concluded a quiet campaign to block official endorsement of
unnatural methods of birth control, and not for the first time. In
1984, at the World Conference on Population in Mexico City, the
Vatican scored a major coup when the Reagan administration announced
that it was withdrawing funding from the world’s two largest family-
planning organizations, the United Nations Fund for Population
Activities (UNFPA) and the International Planned Parenthood
Federation.

The Vatican began its lobbying even before the Mexico City conference.
In a series of meetings with the World Muslim League and other
religious groups that began in 1982, the Vatican pushed to take
overpopulation off the international agenda. What really needed to be
discussed, the Vatican proposed, is overconsumption and the better
distribution of wealth. By the time the Earth Summit took place, the
Vatican’s coalition was strong enough to get the term family
planning deleted from Agenda 21 (the document finally approved at the
Earth Summit), and to derail a recommendation for the development of
safe contraceptives.

By any objective measure, population is an issue that cannot be
ignored. The medium-range forecast of the UNFPA estimates that world
population will reach a staggering ten billion by the year 2050; if
fertility declines more slowly than is hoped, the total will be
higher. In recognition of these ominous trends, the U.S. National
Academy of Sciences and the British Royal Society issued their first
joint report ever in January 1992. Its introduction warned: If
current predictions of population growth prove accurate and patterns
of human activity on the planet remain unchanged, science and
technology may not be able to prevent either irreversible degradation
of the environment or continued poverty for much of the world.

Nevertheless, the population issue was all but invisible at Rio.
Governments tiptoed around it as though it were a rhinoceros asleep on
the living room floor, one they hoped would somehow go away.

The sun had set behind the dome of St. Peter’s by the time Father
Bernard Przewozny emerged from the bowels of the Vatican to meet me.
At a nearby cafe, the short fifty-year-old ordered a gin and tonic and
described himself as the president of the Franciscan Center of
Environmental Studies and a consultant to the Pontifical Academy of
Sciences, forty of whose eighty members, he claimed, are Nobel
laureates. Without irony, he added that he was also a professor of
dogmatic theology.

Father Przewozny did not attend the Earth Summit, but he confirmed
that the Vatican regarded the deletion of family planning from
Agenda 21 as a victory. Still, he was careful to point out, when
people were saying in Rio that the Vatican wasn’t interested in
population, they were talking through their hats. The Holy See
understands there are problems with demography. But the solutions
being proposed are not the best solutions, and very often they are
immoral, because they lead to greater control by the 20 percent of the
world who live in industrial societies over the 80 percent who live in
non-industrial societies. What causes population pressure? It’s social
problems. But rather than solve these problems—poverty, lack of
education, lack of health care—the Northern countries want to reduce
the number of people. Let them practice social justice before they
start practicing birth control.

Southern governments have long made a similar argument, which explains
why many of them supported the Vatican during the summit. And
Przewozny is right: excessive population is rooted in social factors.
Because one of every seven Third World children dies before the age of
five, poor and hungry people have an economic incentive to have as
many children as possible to ensure that some survive to support them
in old age.

The problem is that just as poverty stimulates population growth, so
population growth makes it harder to climb out of poverty. The
youthful age structure of developing countries, noted one summit
briefing paper, means that, the South must create a minimum of thirty
million new jobs yearly throughout the 1990s—ten million in sub-
Saharan Africa alone—just to avoid deepening unemployment.
Population growth also encourages the runaway migration that has
turned many Third World cities into unlivable monstrosities, ringed by
vast shanty- towns where jobs, sanitation, and education are all but
nonexistent. Poverty-stricken farmers, faced with threats to their
survival, exploit limited natural resources, leading to overcropping,
overgrazing, and overcutting. These in turn lead to desertification,
which now threatens one-third of the world’s arable land and some 850
million people.

The desertification problem is especially acute in Africa, where a
harsh climate, poor soil, staggering population growth, and lopsided
property division combine to produce barren wastelands. Traveling
through Kenya and Sudan last year, I passed through many villages that
must have fed themselves at one time but are now surrounded by sand
and dust.

These grim realities have led Southern leaders to realize that
limiting population growth is in their national interests. As recently
as a generation ago, few Third World countries had population
policies; today 123 do. Only 7 countries oppose such policies
outright.

At the same time, the South recognizes that the North is responsible
for the overwhelming majority of the global ecological burden. With
less than one-quarter of the world’s population, the North produces
half of the world’s greenhouse gases. The United States generates
twice as much garbage as any other single country. Indeed, on the
basis of environmental impact, the U.S. is the most overpopulated
nation in the world, according to Stanford University Professor Paul
Ehrlich, coauthor of the classic The Population Bomb.

Under these circumstances, the North’s pressure for limiting
population growth strikes many in the South as a hypocritical attempt
to evade moral responsibility and maintain the global status quo.
Fearing that the issue would divert attention from the North’s
contribution to global environmental problems, the South kept
population off the docket until the third of the summit’s four
preparatory committee meetings, or PrepComms. Even then, Southern
leaders insisted that reforming the global economic system, curbing
Northern consumption, and providing resources to fight poverty and
promote sustainable development in the Third World remain the primary
focus of the conference. At the fourth and final PrepComm, the
developed countries, led by the United States, made it clear that they
were unwilling to satisfy the South, by refusing to approve the
consumption chapter of Agenda 21. The Group of 77, the diplomatic
alliance of Southern governments, then removed the chapter on
population. This may have been retaliation, a senior UNFPA official
said, but it also gave the Group of 77 a bargaining chip.

A working committee was established to look at Chapter 5, the
demography chapter, the official continued. At least a couple dozen
nations were included, and it was there that attempts were made to
reintroduce text referring to family planning and contraception. This
got stranded because of, among other things, the opposition of the
Vatican. The chair of that working committee appeared to want a
unanimous recommendation, so in the end, they bowed to the Vatican
position, which was no mention of ‘family planning.’

Officials at the UNFPA and the U.S. State Department later scoffed
that the controversy over the deletion of family planning was a
semantic squabble only the Vatican cared about. And it’s true that
Agenda 21 did endorse the reasonable planning of family size, as
well as a number of measures designed to promote the emancipation and
empowerment of women, a policy goal increasingly recognized as the key
component in any effort to limit population growth.

But the deletion of family planning was not the Vatican’s only
success. At the final PrepComm, Colombia, Argentina, and the
Philippines (all widely perceived to be acting on behalf of the
Vatican) were able to kill a recommendation encouraging the
development of safe contraceptives. Backed by Southern governments,
the Holy See also managed to modify demography provisions urging
governments to develop reproductive health programs to reduce maternal
and infant mortality; to assure people access to the information,
education, and means necessary to decide the number and spacing of
their children; and to establish women-centered health-care
programs for the responsible planning of family size. Thanks to the
Vatican, these recommendations now include the passage, in keeping
with freedom, dignity and personally held values and taking into
account ethical and cultural considerations. These additions, which a
signatory government could conceivably invoke to justify its failure
to implement the recommendations, were opposed by the United States,
Japan, and most European nations.

The Vatican got help in its crusade against family planning from a
surprising source. When people were pointing the finger at the
Vatican at Rio, no one was noticing that most of the people opposing
mention of population were Muslims, Father Przewozny said.

Many Muslim countries are strongly pronatalist, but Nancy Wallace, a
population expert at the Sierra Club, argued that the Muslim countries
were motivated less by religious convictions than by a desire to
retaliate against Northern intransigence. The population issue became
part of the fight to make the North confront its own consumption,
Wallace said. It was essentially happenstance that the Vatican got
support from so many other countries. Many Muslim countries like
Turkey, Egypt, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iran, and Tunisia are actually
strong supporters of family planning.

But the widespread support for Rome’s position was more than
happenstance. The Vatican’s efforts to divert attention from the
population issue began at least as far back as a 1982 conference in
Gubbio, Italy. These meetings, held again in 1987 and twice in 1991,
were dubbed the International Terra Mater Seminar. Christian, Hindu,
Buddhist, Jewish, and various environmentalist leaders attended the
conferences, along with representatives from the Saudi-controlled
World Muslim League, who most definitely gave the conference its
diplomatic strength, according to Father Przewozny.

Przewozny, who attended the Terra Mater, claimed that it was organized
by the Italian orders of Franciscan priests—not the Vatican. But to
World Muslim League representative Abou Bakr Ahmed Gadar, the Vatican
was clearly the force behind the meetings. And, Gadar confirmed, it
was the Vatican that introduced and pushed the argument that
consumption and the better distribution of wealth—not
overpopulation—should be the world’s top environmental priorities. As
the first 1982 Terra Mater statement asserted, It is urgent to change
man’s present orientation of domination and exploitation, especially
as practiced by humanity’s industrialized minority.

Muslim nations do, however, have their own reasons for opposing
liberal access to birth control. At bottom, birth control is an issue
of the relative freedom of women, and Muslim societies are
overwhelmingly male-dominated. The role of women in Muslim society, as
in most Third World societies, is to serve and obey men and bear them
children.

No one recognizes this better than Nafis Sadik, the UNFPA executive
director. Sitting in her New York office four months after the Earth
Summit, Sadik recalled her experiences as a young physician in the
rural villages of her native Pakistan in the mid-1950s: I once
delivered a child from a woman who was anemic, and I told her, ‘Now
you mustn’t have another child for at least two years.’ She said, ‘Oh,
no, my husband won’t allow that.’ So I asked the local military
commander to get me some condoms, and I told him I wanted to see all
the husbands of these women. I made the husbands sign a document
saying they would [use condoms and] not get their wives pregnant.

When I talk to the Vatican, I tell them that when they call for
abstinence, I don’t know what kind of world they are living in, Sadik
said. How many women can tell their husbands that, when they have no
power? We have to realize that in many parts of the world, women want
[birth control] methods they can hide from their husbands and
families. Many of them are desperate, saying, ‘Can’t you give me an
injection, or a pill, because I don’t want to be pregnant again.’

Women in developing countries have lives that are so pre-decided,
she added. Their role is to be married off. Anyone who says the
reproductive role of women isn’t the most important in the
emancipation of women doesn’t know what really goes on in our
countries.

According to both Sadik and Paul Ehrlich, the Vatican’s moves during
the Earth Summit were unhelpful but unimportant. People are going to
do what they’re going to do, said Ehrlich. In so-called Catholic
countries like Italy and Spain, people don’t have lots of children.
But the problem is, we’ve lacked leadership on this issue. We need a
pope who stands up and says, ‘People who can afford to limit their
family size should do so.’

Nowhere is the need more obvious than in Brazil, an overwhelmingly
Catholic country. At first glance, Brazil seems a sparkling
demographic success story. Just before the Earth Summit, the Los
Angeles Times reported that widespread adoption of birth control has
helped reduce birthrates considerably in Brazil, where the average
number of children per woman of reproductive age fell from 5.8 in 1970
to 3.3 in 1990. Astonishingly, contraceptive use in Brazil doubled
between 1970 and 1986, from 32 percent of all women of reproductive
age to 65 percent. But deeper investigation reveals that the most
prevalent form of contraception used by Brazilian women is
sterilization, usually performed while a woman undergoes a cesarean-
section delivery. At least half of the total reduction [in fertility]
came from sterilizations, said Kerstin Trone, the head of UNFPA’s
Latin American division.

This is entirely a problem created by the Church’s own ideology, the
Sierra Club’s Nancy Wallace argued. Brazilian women have been forced
into this draconian choice between forced pregnancy or sterilization,
because the Catholic hierarchy will only allow the government to
reimburse for cesareans, not for simple birth control. So the women
end up paying doctors under the table to get their tubes tied while
they’re opened up. As a result, Brazilian women have the highest rate
of cesarean deliveries in the world.

Emancipate women. Educate them. Help them space their pregnancies.
Give their children health care. Allow them options beyond motherhood.
For much of the world, these are revolutionary prescriptions, but
experts agree that they are all essential components of any strategy
to reduce population growth.

Traditional demographic theory has held that economics are the key: As
families or nations grow richer, fertility de-clines because economic
incentives for having large families diminish. But there are important
exceptions to this theory. The Arab states, for example, are among the
richest in the world, yet they also have some of the highest
birthrates, largely because of the low status and lack of independence
of women in those societies.

But in countries where the status of women rises, birthrates
consistently decline. Thailand, Mexico, and Indonesia are three of the
best examples. Over the past two decades, these countries have cut
their population growth rates by 53, 38, and 25 percent, respectively.
According to Jyoti Shankar Singh, the director of the Technical and
Evaluation Division of the UNFPA, all three countries pursued a
similar strategy: increasing access to child health and family
planning services; supporting literacy and education programs,
particularly among women; and implementing measures to enhance the
role of women.

Indonesia’s female literacy rate is 62 percent, while the country’s
population—the fourth largest in the world—is growing annually by
only 1.8 percent. In Arab states, where female literacy is a dismal 38
percent, the population expands by 2.6 percent annually.

Now that a new administration has come to Washington, there is a good
chance that a women-centered approach to demography will become
official American policy. In his book Earth in the Balance, Vice
President Al Gore pointed out that the simultaneous promotion of
education among women, lower infant and child mortality rates, and
free access to birth control has been shown to lower population
growth. President Clinton has already reversed the Reagan-Bush ban on
population efforts established in Mexico City, and is likely to resume
funding for the UNFPA and the International Planned Parenthood
Federation. Now the United States can become a leader in population
policy in the 1990s, and the 1994 World Conference on Population and
Development could serve as a catalyst for real change.

Is there still time to make a difference? Ecosystems are already
crumbling beneath the weight of human numbers, even though the
majority of the world’s people live in conditions ranging from
deprivation to outright misery. Extending to the downtrodden some of
the comforts common in affluent societies will only increase the
overall ecological burden.

To hit even the UNFPA’s target of a stable world population of ten
billion in the year 2050 will require extraordinary breakthroughs.
Fertility in the Third World must drop by one-third in the next thirty
years. The number of women using family-planning services must rise
from around 51 percent today to 71 percent by the year 2025; for sub-
Saharan Africa, this would be a sevenfold increase. Funding of
family-planning programs must increase by nine billion dollars every
year. And all that will still leave the earth with nearly twice as
many people as it has today.

The immediate threat, however, is not to the survival of human life on
the planet. The real victims of overpopulation are the families and
communities and countries whose numbers have already grown beyond the
point of sustainability. Sensible population policies can, for
example, make a real difference in the lives of people like Father
Ronaldo’s boat pilots Joao and Margarita, and an even greater
difference in the lives of their eight daughters. Moreover, without
such policies, there is no hope of solving the population problem on a
global level.

I last saw Joao and Margarita the day I left the Amazon. Traveling by
themselves, they picked me up well before dawn and ferried me upriver
to the town of Itacoatiara, where I boarded a bus back to Manaus, a
rubber-era boomtown whose airport is the closest contact to the
outside world. For ten steamy hours, the boat’s belching engine
propelled us past the dense low growth of the rain forest.

We finally nudged ashore at 2:30 in the afternoon. In my rudimentary
Portuguese, I invited Joao and Margarita to join me for lunch before
heading back downriver. Smiling warmly, they declined, and when I
tried to insist, they explained that two of their children were sick.
Making a cradling motion with her arms, Margarita indicated that one
of them was the baby. Joao said that even with the current in their
favor on the way back, they still wouldn’t reach home until midnight,
making it a twenty-two-hour round-trip for them. So they pushed off,
Joao at the helm, Margarita beside him waving farewell, her smile of
calm joy and infinite patience luminescent beneath the equatorial sun.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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