By Laura Kuhl, PhD candidate, The Fletcher School
Since leaving Rio, I’ve had several interesting conversations with people about the conference and one issue which emerged during the negotiations is particularly interesting. I was waiting in the Rio airport in the early morning to take a flight to Colombia. In a painfully characteristic fashion a man (clearly American) walked over and asked me, “do you speak English?, and “can you get any wireless?” I wasn’t particularly interested in complaining about the lack of wireless in the airport (sidenote- both the Addis Ababa and Bogota airports DO have remarkably good free wireless service), but it turns out that the man was an environmental reporter for the New York Times and was finishing up a piece on hydropower dams in the Amazon. He had attended the Rio+20 conference to round out his research. He shared some fascinating opinions of Brazil’s environmental policies and I learned a lot about dam impacts that I didn’t know before.
With this background, I was very surprised when he asked me, “I heard people talking about reproductive rights at Rio- what does that have to do with environment?” Reproductive rights was a somewhat unexpectedly hot topic at the conference, and many parties left disappointed because the final version of the text removed almost all mention of reproductive rights or population. This omission, particularly disappointing because it was originally in the text, is critical for sustainable development.
Population growth has for years been an elephant in the room in both the environment and development communities, but it is an essential component of sustainable development. In terms of traditional economic development, GDP growth only leads to growth in GDP per capita if the “per capitas” stay the same, or at least don’t increase faster than the GDP. From an environmental perspective, we live in a planet with fixed resources, and even though through innovation and efficiency we can try to make those fixed resources go further, more people place more stress on these limited resources.
Even though critical, population growth, and the reproductive rights that go hand-in-hand with reducing population growth, is a very unpopular topic. Some view it as an attempt to deflect blame from the high consumption patterns of the West, and blame developing countries for their high populations instead. Others are wary due to concerns of offending cultural or religious beliefs and practices. The negative historical experiences with China’s One Child policy and India’s population control under Indira Gandhi, where rights were clearly violated in the name of population control don’t help either.
During the negotiations, the Holy See (or the Vatican) consistently objected to any references to population or reproductive rights in the text. The Holy See is not a member state of the UN; it has observer status (like Palestine) and thus the Chair is under no obligation to take its concerns into consideration. However, Brazil, as the President, consistently acquiesced to the Holy See and all mentions were stricken. In the final plenary of the technical negotiations, which I had the opportunity to watch, this was the main issue that the United States raised with the text. Norway also echoed deep disappointment in this failure. It was amazing to watch how an actor, without even an official role in the negotiations, could so strongly influence the outcome, and highlighted for me, the highly sensitive nature of this topic.
The issue of population growth reappeared during my research in Colombia, although I was not expecting it. I was in Colombia studying a Global Environment Facility (GEF)-funded World Bank project on climate change adaptation. It is a fascinating project, and very important because it represents the first on-the-ground adaptation project funded by the GEF globally, and one of the first adaptation projects in the world. The project has many components, and one of them was to develop adaptation measures for the remote island archipelago of San Andres. The local institution (CORALINA) implemented a staggering number of pilot adaptation measures considering the small number of funds for this component of the project.
One of the most controversial components, and the one that multiple stakeholders agreed was the most difficult, was the development of a population plan. San Andres is a small island located in the middle of the Caribbean, a 2 hour flight away from mainland Colombia. The island is one of the most densely populated islands in the world, with a population density of 2500 people per sq km. The population is also growing rapidly, with trends suggesting a doubling of the population in 16 years. CORALINA was able to link this issue to climate change adaptation due to a recent report by the National University that suggests that 17% of the island is vulnerable to loss from sea level rise. How can the island support a rapidly growing population on a shrinking area? Drastic measures such as relocation, and much stricter immigration policies are likely to be necessary.
Although CORALINA has no authority to implement a population plan, they view this component as a success because it succeeded in bringing the issue out from the closet, and people became openly engaged in discussing it. Perhaps linking it to something less political, like adaptation, was a smart strategy and provided an opportunity to address a topic that was otherwise off limits. CORALINA recognizes that this is an uphill battle though, and will take years to become fully integrated into policy if it is at all.
After the dire predictions of Limits to Growth (the famous 1972 book that brought population growth to the forefront) failed to materialize, the focus on population has died back, in large part, I think because there are no easy answers. While female education and access to birth control have been proven to help reduce growth rates significantly, a large question remains whether it is possible to support all the people on the planet. Climate change adds an additional challenge to an already complicated picture. Its unfortunate that Rio+20 was not able to acknowledge this important link, and continued the trend of ignoring the issue.