A Clear Connection

Empowering Women Results in Smaller Populations That Preserve Biodiversity

In and around the Kiunga National Marine Reserve on Kenya’s northern coast, basic services such as running water, electricity and health care are hard to come by. Post-primary education, especially for girls, is scarce. Pushed by poverty and the decline of marine ecosystems further down the coast, local residents and migrants are intensifying their use of resources. Fish, crustaceans, ocean-dwelling coral and turtles are showing signs of stress.

This WWF scholarship student attends a special school on Tanzania"s Mafia Island.© WWF-Canon / Meg Gawler

In Kiunga, as in several other priority biodiversity conservation regions where girls rarely complete high school, fertility rates remain high and women’s roles in resource use and protection are often ignored, the World Wildlife Fund is supporting a small number of girls" scholarships. These are paired with environmental education, including in-school activities and a week-long conservation camp.

One result is a change in attitude. Swabra, 16, a scholarship recipient, has become an advocate of marine conservation. "In our area, people were eating turtles," she says. "Now I know the importance of conserving them. I’ve educated the whole community by telling them it is not good to eat turtles." At weekly community meetings, teachers urge parents to send girls to school and keep them there.

World population is now more than 6.2 billion and growing by 77 million a year, equivalent to the combined 2001 populations of Mozambique, Paraguay, Poland, Portugal and Singapore. The rate of growth is slowing, however: Globally, women now have about half as many children as their mothers did (an average of just under three children each). Still, the United Nations suggests that by 2050 about 8.9 billion people will be sharing the planet—nearly 50 percent more than today.

The numbers are still shockingly high, but lower than previous estimates. New UN projections foresee about 400 million fewer people by 2050 than expected just two years ago, the result of a heavier toll of AIDS deaths combined with dropping fertility rates.

In the 1990s, professionals both in and out of government began to see and act on the connections between population, biodiversity and gender, often taking their cues from agreements reached at UN conferences in Rio, Cairo and Beijing. These usually small initiatives (which include the WWF scholarship program) provide fertile ground for nurturing larger-scale, more robust actions.

The potential impacts are considerable. "Many biodiversity-rich areas are among the last places on Earth for average fertility to fall from its historic high levels," observes Robert Engelman of Population Action International, "probably because such places tend to be farthest from the reach of cities, services and the electronic media. But these also are often the places where fertility is falling fastest, precisely because the modern world is just reaching them, and traditional ideas of childbearing and women’s roles are changing rapidly."

The poorest, least-developed countries tend to combine rapid population growth, low status for women and rich biodiversity. The global community now accepts that where women are free to determine when and whether they will have children, fertility rates fall. Researchers have also shown repeatedly that the more education a woman receives, the fewer children she has and the healthier and better educated those children are. Other studies suggest that if women have the right and ability to manage childbearing, they can manage other areas of their life more effectively, too, including available resources.

While women are gaining power to determine the direction of their lives, large gaps remain. Sixty percent of the world’s hundred million children not attending primary school are girls. Two-thirds of the world’s illiterate people are women, and at least 350 million women lack access to a full range of contraceptive services.

Throughout the developing world, gender plays a strong role in how resources are used, controlled and developed and in how people respond to environmental challenges. Women rely heavily on natural resources in their daily lives—everything from firewood for cooking to fibers for making clothes and a variety of plants for medicine. Yet by some estimates, women hold title to less than two percent of the world’s private land. "Since rights to natural resources are so heavily biased against women," reasons Agnes Quisumbing of the International Food Policy Research Institute, "equalizing these rights will lead to more efficient and equitable resource use."

Lorena Aguilar, senior gender advisor at the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), sees gender equity as the "unavoidable current" determining the impact of conservation policies and programs. Awareness of this is lacking in the upper reaches of government, but community programs that address these links have been launched, often through conservation and development agencies.

In the state of Chiapas, Mexico, Conservation International has begun working with a family planning group, Mexfam, and the Mexican Social Security Institute to expand access to reproductive health care, including family planning, and to halt the clearing of forests in and around the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve. In the mountainous provinces of central Ecuador, World Neighbors, a development organization, has joined with the locally based Center for Medical Guidance and Family Planning to deliver reproductive health care and to promote improvements in local management of natural resources to more than 4,000 families.

And in Tanzania, in response to serious deforestation outside the borders of the Gombe National Park, the Jane Goodall Institute established the Lake Tanganyika Catchment Reforestation and Education (TACARE) program in 1994. TACARE now works in 30 villages on soil erosion and deforestation issues, combining them with economic development.

Programs like this come none too soon. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen points out, "The population problem is integrally linked with justice for women in particular. Advancing gender equity, through reversing the various social and economic handicaps that make women voiceless and powerless, may also be one of the best ways of saving the environment, working against global warming and countering the dangers of overcrowding and other adversities associated with population pressure. The voice of women is critically important for the world’s future—not just for women’s future."

Adapted from "Linking Population, Women and Biodiversity" in State of the World 2003, published by the Worldwatch Institute.