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.
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.
Mark Hertsgaard is the author of On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency. He has spent the last eighteen months traveling around the world to investigate the global ecological prospect, the subject of his next book. Kerry Lauerman, a research fellow at Mother Jones, contributed additional reporting to this story.