Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Rio Reminder: Population Is Not an Isolated Issue

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Rio Reminder: Population Is Not an Isolated Issue

Article excerpt

IN her address to the opening session of the recent "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro, Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway stressed that "poverty, environment, and population can no longer be dealt with - or even thought of - as separate issues."

And yet population, the key link between global environmental protection and sustainable development, was confronted only obliquely by the 178 nations gathered in Brazil.

The "Rio Declaration" says only that "states should ... promote appropriate demographic policies." Agenda 21, the action plan to carry out the broad goals in the declaration, does not mention family planning, nor are there any commitments (financial or otherwise) to controlling population growth.

In fact, the Rio documents are weaker than drafts prepared in pre-summit meetings. "The language is somewhat of a retreat," says Sally Ethelston of the Population Crisis Committee in Washington, one of many nongovernment organizations taking part at the summit. "It was about as mild as it could get."

There are fundamental ideological and religious reasons for this. Developing countries of the South (Latin America, Africa, and South Asia, where most population growth is occurring) resist being blamed for global environmental damage as long as rich Northerners continue to consume far more resources and produce far more pollution on a per-capita basis.

Says Seeiso Liphuko, a senior delegate from Botswana, "We believe that the problems with climate change are caused primarily by those countries with millions of vehicles on the road."

A related attitude has to do with the need to address the grinding poverty that affects 1 billion people as a means of relieving population pressure and hence environmental degradation. "It's all very well talking about population," says Kamal Nath, India's environment minister. "But we can't treat it in isolation without talking about literacy or health."

In sum, says Mark Valentine of the nongovernment summit group United States Citizens Network in San Francisco, "Population highlighted unresolved North-South tensions.... It was a battlefield for North-South perspectives."

Religious attitudes also affected the extent to which the Rio conference could deal with population, particularly because of the concensual nature of the process. "The final documents reflect the tinkering of the Holy See and of those governments that saw fit to collaborate with it," Mr. Valentine says.

Still, the modest results at Rio have moved nations a bit further toward controlling population growth. "People now realize that demographic issues are important when you talk about the environment," Ms. Ethelston says. Women now are recognized as a "major group" in international discussions on environment and development, which means that such population-related concerns as prenatal health care and female literacy take on greater importance. …

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