The Danajon reef
is the only double barrier reef in the Philippines, “one of the richest marine biodiversity hot spots in the world,” and it’s being devastated as the country’s exploding population depends on its waters for their food and livelihoods, reported Sam Eaton in a recent two-part series on population, health, and environment
issues in the Philippines broadcast last month for American Public Media’s Marketplace
and the PBS NewsHour
The report is part of joint project called Food for 9 Billion, with Homelands Productions, the Center for Investigative Reporting, APM, and PBS. Previous reports examined food security in East Africa and Egypt.
The Philippines “import more rice than any other country on the planet,” said Eaton. The “highest population growth rates in all of Southeast Asia” as well as dwindling natural resources – nearly 100 million people live in a land area the size of Arizona – have created a cycle of poverty. The first step to breaking that cycle, he said, is improving access to family planning.
Growing Families, Growing Poverty
The Canayong family, living on the edge of a garbage dump in a Manila slum, offers a vivid example of what poverty means in the Philippines. Clarissa Canayong has had 14 children – 4 died from measles and dengue fever, the remaining 10 spend their days alongside Clarissa, sifting through the dump for things they need and things they can sell. At the end of a good day, the family has earned around $7 to survive on. All in all, Clarissa’s “inability to provide enough food, and to pay for her children’s education, all but guarantees she and her family will remain poor,” said Eaton.
The archipelago adds about two million people every year, putting population on track to double in size sometime around 2080. “And that’s only if something is done to close the birth control gap,” said Eaton, as those projections build in an expectation that growth will slow.
“As cities all across the country expand, the displaced often end up migrating to urban slums,” he said. “Population growth among poor Filipinos is twice the national average,” meaning that once a family enters poverty, they end up in a cycle “that’s nearly impossible to break.”
The Difference Family Planning Can Make
If Clarissa had had access to family planning, she told Eaton, she would have wanted to have only two children. In Humayhumay, where residents have access to a community-based family planning distribution program started by PATH Foundation Philippines, Inc., families have that luxury of choice.
Working through local partners, the PATH Foundation identifies and trains community-based vendors to sell contraception – both pills and condoms, said Dr. Joan Castro, who began the program in Humayhumay. The idea is to make buying contraceptives “as easy as buying soft drinks or matches.”
Both Jason Bostero, a farmer and fisherman in Humayhuay, and his wife, Crisna, grew up in large families – so large, in Crisna’s case, that “sometimes, we would only eat once a day because we were so poor. We couldn’t go to school. I did not finish school because there were just so many of us,” she told Eaton.
Now that they have access to contraceptives, a smaller family size means their income is “just right” to feed everyone three times a day. For the community as a whole, smaller family sizes mean that the nearby fish stocks that provide the community with food and income have a chance to replenish themselves in the absence of overfishing.
“In just six years since the program was first established here,” reported Eaton, “family sizes have plummeted from as many as 12 children to a maximum of about 4 today.”
Exception to the Rule
Humayhumay is an exception to the rule in the Philippines. There is no state funding for birth control in the country, and over the past few years, major international donors like USAID and the United Nations have ended their family planning work in the country. More than a quarter of poor Filipinos have no access to any type of family planning service, and more than half of all pregnancies are unintended, said Eaton.
Family planning has long been a contentious issue in the country. Eaton spoke to Congressman Walden Bello, who has spent more than a decade trying to pass legislation to establish universal access to birth control and improve other family planning and reproductive services. The Catholic Church, said Bello, is a powerful (80 percent of Filipinos are Catholic) and consistent opponent. In October 2010, the Church went so far as to threaten President Benigno Aquino with excommunication after he voiced support for access to contraception.
Rather than limit population growth, the Church argues the country should increase food production. But land is limited, rice imports are already the highest in the world, and, “according to the World Bank, every major species of fish here shows signs of severe overfishing,” said Eaton.
Looking Forward and Abroad
Eaton pointed to the Philippines’ neighbors as examples to emulate: “A long history of government-supported family planning has…paved the way for Thailand to become one of the world’s biggest rice exporters” and helped to cut back poverty in the country, said Eaton.
Indonesia too, he pointed out, has largely avoided the population growth-resource depletion-poverty cycle, thanks in part to a state- and faith-backed family planning program. (As Elizabeth Leahy Madsen wrote in a recent New Security Beat post, the decision of Indonesia’s religious leaders to throw their support behind family planning in the 1960s was a key factor in success there.)
Considering the obstacles, the Philippines face an uphill battle before family planning services become similarly universal. But the political tides may already be turning: last April, the President said he would support the reproductive health legislation even if it meant excommunication.
Meanwhile, PATH Foundation’s Castro is hopeful that Humayhumay’s success story will lay the seeds for widespread public support for family planning. “The vision of the project is in this community you see more children educated who are able to become leaders and speak out for themselves in the future and be able to become stewards of their own sexuality and the future environment,” said Castro. “This is the legacy.”
Sources: BBC, Bloomberg News, Catholic News Agency, The Guardian, Population Reference Bureau, TIME Magazine, US Agency for International Development, U.S. Catholic.