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Part 1 - Environment, women and population: an integrated reality

Part 1 - Environment, women and population: an integrated reality

As caring women, we speak on behalf of those who could not be with us, the millions of women who experience daily the violence of environmental degradation, poverty and exploitation of their work and bodies As long as Nature and women are abused by so-called 'free market" ideology and wrong concepts of "economic growth" there can be no environmental security.

Preamble to the Women's Action Agenda 21

The Asia-Pacific Region has already reached the safe limits of horizontal expansion of agriculture. This means future needs for a growing population can only be met by intensification an option which will not be easy since yields are already showing signs of stagnation on some soils caused by widespread land degradation. A major cause of degradations is erosion caused by water and wind. Only a limited and shrinking area is free from soil-related constraints on agricultural production. These constraints include steeply sloping land, severe soil fertility limitations, and the mining of soil nutrients.

FAO/Netherlands Conference on Agriculture and Environment: "Sustainable Agriculture and Development in Asia and the Pacific" (Regional Document No. 2, 'S-Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands, 15-19 April, 1991)

Escalating population growth, intensified cropping, widespread land degradation and shrinking agricultural land are all leading to an ecological crisis. It is now necessary to consider alternative strategies to arrest this process and promote ecological sustainability, particularly at the rural community level. A key approach here is to integrate issues pertaining to environment, women and population in all policy planning and implementation processes. Policy makers and programmers should, therefore, address the environment-women-population trilogy for what it is - an integrated reality that profoundly affects entire communities. A vital part of the solution is greater attention to women's needs and rights. Policies also have to be designed to remedy gender biases in social, economic and technological conditions in agricultural and rural development This calls for replacing single-sector approaches with cross-sectoral ones that link environment, women and population in all development policies and programmes.

These guidelines provide a framework and suggestions for achieving such an integration. This sort of pragmatic integration is already practiced by many women farmers in their own decision-making.

The developing countries' populations are still largely rural - over 60 percent in developing countries as a whole, and some 70 percent in Southeast Asia. The majority will undoubtedly still be rural in 2015, the target year for the recommendations of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), held in Cairo in 1994.

Population problems are deeply rooted in the rural and agricultural sectors of society. Virtually everywhere rural fertility is higher than urban fertility. Rural migration also is often the prime cause of excessively rapid urbanisation. The majority of births in the developing countries, including those of Southeast Asia, will continue to take place in rural areas for another quarter century or so. Throughout that period and beyond, maternal and child mortality and other health issues will remain predominantly rural ones. For these few significant but obvious reasons, population dynamics in rural areas deserve much more attention in development policy and programmes than they have so far received.

Lack of explicit population, environment and gender considerations in development policy inevitably has serious social and demographic consequences. Policy planners therefore should, at the very least, make sure their programmes and strategies do not further worsen population dynamics, social status and environmental sustainability. Very often however, just such negative consequences do further afflict rural women. Policies that assist large farmers only, for example, or development focussed on mechanisation to increase export crops, too often push the poorer farmers off the land altogether Once landless, they must seek work in other sectors, usually in urban areas, thus fuelling ever greater migration to towns and cities and creating labour shortages on the farms, especially at planting and harvest times. This in turn often frustrates such vital national goals as increased food production, improved nutrition, and enhanced general well-being.

Table I Rural and Urban Poverty in Selected Countries in the 1980s


Rural population (as a percentage of total)

Rural poor(as a percentage of total)

Infant mortality (per 1,000 live births)

Access to safe water(percentage of population)


































Source: UN, 1991.

As natural resource managers, rural women provide food and oversee overall family welfare. More often than not, women are the backbone of smallholder agricultural production. They often hold the key to changes in fertility levels. Ultimately they are responsible for population structure, growth, size and distribution. Population growth and pressure on a limited and increasingly degraded natural resource base, however, can undermine a woman's role as a major resource user and manager. The amount of women's time and energy required in their farm- and home-based work is increasing. Yet women continue to cope with deeply-rooted gender biases, often reinforced through development policies and programmes that constrain their social, economic and legal rights, plus their access to modern technology.

If runaway environmental degradation and ever-increasing poverty are to be overcome, the social and economic conditions under which most rural women live and their access to technology must be greatly improved. Without the needed and missing technology, they will become less and less able to deal with the increasing range of on-farm and off-farm tasks that make up the bulk of their work.

Any reduction in the daily drudgery that is the lot of poor farmers would, in itself, be a big step forward in breaking the endless cycle of rural poverty. All these needed improvements would, at the same time, give women greater choice and motivation to limit family size to numbers more in balance with the realities of availability of land and other natural resources and enhance their access to these assets. But if these improvements continue to be withheld, very little can be accomplished, either for the women or for rural development in general.

To provide such improvements, on the other hand, would at once constitute a starting point for meeting the needs of the rural poor and the launching of a more rational and more just strategy for food policy and agricultural development. To understand the smallholders' needs and their ways of deciding how to ensure family survival is, in fact, a precondition for drafting such a saner and juster strategy.

All this has a direct bearing on rural population growth. The poorer and more wretched a rural woman's life, ironically, the more children she is likely to bear and rear, or attempt to, in poverty. The more improvement, and even hope if you like, that is put into her life, the more likely she is to have fewer, and healthier, children and a more balanced family size. Surely this is to be desired, not only for the rural poor themselves, but for the nation as a whole.

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