Good for women, and good for gorillas

September 26, 2013

“It dawned on me, in that moment, that what was good for this woman and her family, on a deeply personal level, was also good for the forest and good for gorillas.”

Journalist Ken Weiss told this story to set the stage for a unique webinar for environmentalists this week. Ken visited communities near the habitat of the endangered mountain gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, as he researched his compelling Los Angeles Times series, Beyond 7 Billion.

For this webinar, Ken pulled together experts to share perspectives on new research linking population dynamics, reproductive health needs, and environmental concerns. Talking about these issues together can be tough. But the panel had a lot to say on the subjects.

Jeffrey McKee of Ohio State University investigates the factors that lead to species extinctions. His latest research provides compelling new evidence that population growth—even more than income growth and agricultural land use—is at the core of extinction threats to mammals and birds. So if we’re not thinking about population, conservation success will just get harder. “When it comes to addressing population growth,” Jeff said, “we need to do a better job with three pillars: education, the empowerment of women, and the availability of contraception.”

These three pillars are also relevant to another sustainability challenge: adapting to the impacts of climate change. Karen Hardee of the Futures Group shared her work in Ethiopia to learn how communities there are thinking about climate change, and how to cope with its impacts. “We wanted to know if communities felt that population growth was making it more difficult to adapt,” Karen said. “But before we even asked the question, people were bringing it up.” Farmers, ranchers and urban dwellers all identified family planning as one tool that could help build their resilience in the face of climate threats.

Resilience is at the center of the sustainability agenda. Suzanne Ehlers, president and CEO of Population Action International, reminded the audience that meeting women’s needs for family planning is a basic human right, and at the foundation of people’s ability to be resilient in a changing world. “With the important role that family planning has played in our own lives, it’s startling that we continue to overlook it for so many women around the world,” she said.

Globally, more than 222 million women would like to delay the birth of their next child or end childbearing all together, but aren’t using contraception. The woman in Ken’s story, living at the edge of gorilla habitat in Uganda, was one of these women.

She told Ken that with six children already, she wasn’t sure she had the energy to cut down more jungle to create a bigger garden to feed her family. She didn’t know about contraception until a basic health clinic providing family planning was set up in her community as part of an integrated health and conservation project. Once that door was opened, she seized the chance to take control of her future. This deeply personal action has been good for her and her family.

And over time, such actions will also be good for the forest—and for the gorillas.

Watch the webinar:

And check the previous webinar in this occasional series.

Cat Lazaroff