POPULATION FACTS AND MYTHS
Population facts and myths - a series of 9 electronic fact sheets
countering media misinformation about population issues.
Notice on rights of distribution:
Published on the Internet by the National Association of Catholic Families
in the UK. This electronic form copyright (c) NACF 1994
Based (with permission) on the Population Information Pack published by The
Committee on Population and the Economy, 13 Norfolk House, Courtlands,
Sheen Road, Richmond, Surrey TW10 5AT, UK.
The information in these fact sheets can be freely distributed in
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Fact sheet 1 - Population and 'unmet needs'
Those who agitate for population control like to claim that they only want
to provide birth control to meet the "unmet need" for family planning of
millions of couples who want no more children. It is currently claimed that
120 million women worldwide suffer from this "unmet need" This claim has
been debunked by Lant Pritchett, a senior economist at the World Bank.
Writing in Population and Development Review (March 1994) he points out
that the surveys from which the figures for "unmet need" are drawn include
every married woman who says she does not want another child immediately
but is not using contraception. However some of these women may be
infertile, some may not be very sexually active, and some may have
religious scruples which would prevent them from using contraceptive drugs
or devices even if they were available. This brings down the figures for
"unmet need". For example in Uganda 27% of married women are supposed to
have "unmet need" - but only 5% of the fertile ones both wanted fewer
children and were not using contraception.
Mr Pritchett claims that "Desired levels of fertility account for 90% of
differences across countries in total fertility rates" - in other words,
people in developing countries have large families because they want large
families. They live in cultures in which it may very well make sense for
them to do so. For example, in an agricultural community many children are
an asset, as they help on the farm.
To claim otherwise is to treat third world parents with an unwarranted
degree of condescension and contempt, as if they will "breed like rabbits"
unless an elite corps of Western pressure group activists teach them to be
"responsible". As Paul Demeny, the editor of Population and Development
Review, puts it, it is to assume that "two billion people in the past 30
years were added to the world's population because their parents were too
stupid to figure out what to do"
However many women (or men) have a need for family planning, meeting it
would be both cheap and easy to arrange through primary health care
programmes, and the population issue would not be controversial if it went
no further than this.
However there is a big question mark over who actually decides what these
"needs" amount to. An article on the Indian population programme in People,
the magazine of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, quoted the
project manager for the Family Planning Association of India as saying of
"They don't always perceive their needs. The welfare worker has to point
He was only echoing the sentiments of the powerful elites at the top of the
movement. According to the World Bank report Population Change and Economic
"To some extent family planning programmes do more than simply satisfy
unmet need; they actually generate and then fill such need"
What sort of "need" is it which has to be generated by the same agency
which intends to meet it? Not one which afflicts the "sufferers" in any
very significant way, clearly.
American economist Jacqueline Kasun summed it up in her book The War
Against Population when she wrote that the "unmet needs" which population
planners speak of "are not those of the poor for more birth control, but
their own for further control over the lives of people".
Fact sheet 2 - Population and the Economy Does population growth cause
The obvious answer would be yes, because the more people you have sharing
the wealth of a nation, the less there is for each person. This view
assumes that wealth is finite, like a cake which can only be divided
amongst larger numbers by cutting it into smaller and smaller slices.
However the wealth of a nation is not finite: it is created by the
productive activities of its working population. The process of wealth
creation is dependent on many factors, but it is not hindered by population
Until the end of the 1960s the assumption that population growth was linked
with poverty was so widespread that no one actually looked for empirical
proof. Then, in 1967, Nobel Prize winning economist Simon Kuznets published
his study which compared population growth rates and economic growth rates
of a group of countries for which data was available for the last hundred
years, to see it countries with high rates of population growth had low
rates of economic growth. He found that there was no connection.
Subsequently Kuznets and, separately, Richard Easterlin, looked at the much
larger group of countries for which data was available from World War II
and again found no connection between rates of population growth and rates
of economic growth. Other studies which have come to the same conclusion.
In reviewing the literature for the International Union for the Scientific
Study of Population in 1983 Ronald Lee wrote:
"Dozens of studies, starting with Kuznets', have found no association
between the population growth rate and per-capita income growth rate...
These studies control for other factors such as trade, aid and investment
to varying degrees."
Although there is no connection between population growth and economic
growth, there is a connection, demonstrated by several studies, between
population density and economic growth. This illustrates the truth of
Danish economist Ester Boserup's theory that populations must grow beyond a
certain minimum level before they can get into the process of economic
development. Population growth makes possible the development of towns and
the concomitant development of specialised crafts and skills as more and
more people do not have to live off the land. This in turn is the result of
pressures on farmers, caused by population growth, to produce more food
using more advanced techniques to meet the growing demand. Indeed Boserup
has defined a town as "a major population centre, the inhabitants of which
do not themselves produce the food they consume". She also points out, in a
chapter for the book The Ends of the Earth (Cambridge University Press,
1988) that the earliest civilisations were the result of high population
"Egypt and some 'circumscribed areas' in Asia reached fairly high
population densities many centuries before the Western Hemisphere or Africa
(as far as we know) and this may help to explain why we have found the
oldest urban civilisations in the Near East or Asia."
In the modern world, too, we find many examples of great wealth
accompanying high population densities, for example the Netherlands and
much of Western Europe. Indeed, the great economic success stories since
World War II have come from countries like Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore,
Hong Kong and Japan, which have all experienced rapid population growth and
have some of the highest population densities in the world. In Hong Kong,
for example, there are over 5,000 people per square kilometer of land.
Western nations have found the challenge from these new tigers of the
global economy so intense that they have been reduced to erecting trade
barriers to keep out "unfair competition"
If there is no link between population growth (as distinct from population
density) and economic growth, there most certainly is a link between
economic growth and the political economy of the country concerned.
Briefly, market economies produce economic growth, while socialist or
planned economies are less successful.
To demonstrate the point, American economist Julian Simon carried out
research, which was published by the Cato Institute in 1987, based on
comparisons between the separated halves of countries which had been
artificially divided: China and Taiwan, North Korea and South Korea, and
East and West Germany. Each set of "twins" contained a free market and a
socialist partner. The market partners were more densely populated to start
with, and experienced more rapid population growth. By the end of the
period surveyed (1950-83) West Germany was 60% more densely populated than
East Germany, South Korea was two and a half times as densely populated as
North Korea, and Taiwan was five times more densely populated than China.
However the market partners had experienced rates of economic growth and
rises in per capita income which dwarfed those of the socialist partners.
The argument that poverty is the result of population growth is so
manifestly out of keeping with our own perceptions of the world that it is
seldom advanced now, even by advocates of population control. In November
1989 Barber Conable, President of the World Bank, told a meeting of the
International Planned Parenthood Federation that:
"The evidence is clear that economic growth rates in excess of population
growth rates can be achieved and maintained by both developed and
Fact sheet 3 - Population and Fertility Rates
There are two sorts of alarmist stories concerning birthrates. The first
focus on a "population explosion", with high birthrates being blamed for
poverty, famine and other problems. The second warn of a "birth dearth,
"with populations having so few children that they are unable even to
replace themselves. The concerns here are different, focusing on "race
suicide, the lack of vitality and entrepreneurial risk-taking skills in an
aging workforce, and the problem of paying for pensions and health care for
a large elderly population, when the younger, working-age population is
The "population explosion" is associated with the developing countries; the
"birth dearth" with the rich countries. In reality, there has been such a
dramatic drop in fertility worldwide within the last generation that the
prospect of a "population explosion" seems scarcely realistic.
Total Period Fertility Rate
The Total Period Fertility Rate (TPFR) tells us the average completed
family size at a given time. In order for the population to replace itself,
women in developed countries need to have an average of 2.1 children - 2 to
replace the woman and her partner, and the 0.1 to cover people who, for
various reasons, do not reproduce.
In developing countries the replacement level of fertility will be higher,
owing to higher rates of mortality, especially infant mortality. In other
words, women need to have more children to ensure that a sufficient number
grow to adulthood and reproduce to replace their parent's generation.
There are still very large differences between rich and poor countries. For
example, it is still usual in many African countries for women to have an
average of six children or more, while in the European Union the TPFR is
below replacement level for every country except Ireland. However the
worldwide trend is down, in all continents.
In Europe nearly all countries are significantly below replacement level.
The French and the British have fertility rates which have been stable at
around 1.8 for more than ten years. In Italy - a country reputed to love
children - the TPFR is 1.25 children per woman. This is the lowest in the
world. In Eastern Europe some countries have tried to raise the birthrate,
with limited success.
The African birthrate remains high, but with urbanisation and modernisation
proceeding it is estimated that there may be a substantial drop. Nigeria,
the most populous country in Africa with nearly 90 million people, has an
estimated TPFR of 6.9 children. Whilst fertility rates are higher in
Africa, so is replacement level owing to high rates of mortality. The
replacement level would probably be about 2.8 children per woman, rather
than 2.1. Because Africa only accounts for about 12% of the world
population the high birthrate has little impact on global trends.
America - USA and Canada
The North American birthrate has been rising in recent years, and appears
to have now reached replacement level of 2.1. In the USA and Canada there
is a tradition of early marriage and higher fertility than in Europe. The
influence of the USA through TV and films on world culture makes it an
important indicator of world trends in some respects, but there is as yet
no sign that other countries in the Western world are following the USA
towards replacement fertility.
America - Latin America and the Caribbean
Here there have been steep falls in fertility rates. The two most populous
countries are Brazil (150 million people) and Mexico (90 million people).
Between the early 1970s and 1985/6 the TPFR in Mexico fell from 6.1 to 3.8
children per woman, and in Brazil from 5.7 to 3.0.
The pattern is similar to that for Europe and most other developed nations,
with fertility rates below replacement level. The population is too small
to influence world trends. Asia
The majority of the world's people live in Asia. (3.1 billion out of a
total of 5.3 billion in 1990.) Population trends in Asia therefore largely
determine global trends. Some Asian countries, like Japan and South Korea,
have highly developed industrial economies and tend to imitate Western
patterns of below-replacement fertility. The TPFR in Hong Kong fell from
2.7 in the mid 1 970s to 1.4 in the mid 1 980s - the lowest in Asia.
However, it is in the large Asian countries, especially in China (1990 pop.
1.2 billion) and India (1991 pop. 843 million), which between them account
for more than a third of the world's population, that the steep fall in
fertility rates in recent years is most apparent. This is partly owing to
the strong preference for sons in these countries, which has led to the
widespread use of ultrasonic scanning equipment to detect the sex of unborn
babies, with a view to aborting females. The fertility rate (TPFR) which is
required to achieve replacement level of the population is affected by the
ratio of males to females in the population. If steps are taken which
interfere with the natural balance of males and females in live births,
this alters the level of fertility needed to replace the population.
China's Missing Million
The shortage of female births is at its most extreme in China. China
operates the world's largest and most coercive population programme - the
famous one-child-per-couple policy. This has led to a resurgence of the
traditional Chinese practice of female infanticide, as "son preference" is
very strong in Chinese culture. Many parents are unwilling to accept a
daughter as an only child. The shortfall of female births is so extreme
that the ratio of male/female births has been estimated at 1.6 to 1.0, and
it appears that birth statistics are a million females "light" each year.
Taking into account Chinese levels of mortality and infant mortality, which
are good by the standards of developing countries, this gives a replacement
fertility level of 2.8 children per woman.
The one-child policy is more strictly enforced in the towns (where the TPFR
is given as 1.5) than in the countryside (where it is 2.8). Speaking at the
London School of Economics in November 1993, Dr X.-Z. Peng, Director of
Population Studies in Shanghai University, said that the one-child policy
should really be called the 1.6 child policy, as he believed this to be the
true TPFR. (It had been 5.4 in 1971 - an unprecedented drop.) This means
that fertility levels in China are running at only 57% of what is required
to replace the population - a more extreme shortfall than anything
experienced by Western European nations. The demographic problems facing
China will soon be more like those associated with the "birth death" than
the "population explosion".
Fact sheet 4 - Population and Food
Ever since the population control movement got into its stride in the 1
960s one of the most frequently used scare stories has been the prospect of
starvation and famine as a result of population growth. Paul Ehrlich began
his famous book The Population Bomb (1968) with the words: "The battle to
feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and l980s hundreds of millions
of people will starve to death". This fear went right back to the famous
Essay on Population by Rev Thomas Malthus in 1798, in which he had
predicted famine as the inevitable consequence of population growth.
Malthus believed that population grew geometrically (2-4-8-16 etc) while
food production grew arithmetically(1-2-3-4 etc).
Malthus was quite wrong on this key point: food production is quite capable
of keeping ahead of population growth. In 1965 Danish economist Ester
Boserup published her landmark study The Conditions of Agricultural Growth,
in which she argued that it is not increases in food production which cause
population growth it is the other way around. Population growth is
necessary to force communities to abandon very primitive means of getting
food, such as the hunter/gatherer lifestyle or inefficient farming
practices like forest fallow, and take up more intensive methods like
ploughing with livestock. As growing populations become more specialised
(in other words, people do not all live off the land) farmers have a
greater incentive to increase food production, as they will have larger
markets to sell into. Population growth is a good thing as it propels
communities forward, from primitive to developed lifestyles.
Events have proved Boserup to be right. Since the first publication of her
book the population of the world has nearly doubled, but food production
has kept well ahead., based on figures from the United Nations Food and
Agriculture Organisation. United Nations figures show there has been a rise
of over 30% in the period 1951-92 in food production per capita, that is to
say the amount of food which would be available to each person in the world
if it were divided equally. This has occurred in spite of the fact that
Western farmers are paid millions of dollars a year to keep land out of
production. If these European and American farmers were to produce to their
capacity, food prices would collapse as a result of the glut.
In November 1993 the World Bank produced The World Food Outlook which
anticipated further improvements in the world food situation. Here are some
of its conclusions:
"World food production has more than kept pace with population growth and
rates of growth of food production show few signs of slowing. During the 1
980s, world cereals production increased by 2. 1% per annum while
population grew by 1.7%.. prospects are very good that the 20-year period
from 1990-2010 will see further gains.
"The World Bank's index of food commodity prices fell by 78% from 1950-1992
in constant 1990 prices.
"Both land and water are abundant according to most estimates... Only 11 %
of the world's land surface is currently used for agricultural crops, and
by one commonly accepted estimate, the world's land and water use for
agriculture could more than double.
"The proportion of the developing countries' population suffering from
chronic undernutrition has declined.. from 36% during the late 1960s to 20%
during the late 1980s."
The report concludes that "If Malthus is ultimately correct in his warning
that population growth will outstrip food production, then at least we can
say: Malthus Must Wait."
The problem of Africa
When we talk of increases in food per capita we are dealing in averages. In
reality food is not shared equally between the peoples of the world, and
when we break down the figures from the United Nations Food and Agriculture
Organisation we see great variations between continents.
Figures show that the disastrous performance of African countries is
clearly dragging world averages down, as well as causing most of the highly
publicised famines. However this has nothing to do with "overpopulation".
Asian countries have also experienced high rates of population growth and
have achieved some of the highest population densities in the world, whilst
still increasing food output per capita. Africa's problems stem from
government programmes of intervention in agriculture which have been
characterised by such crippling anti-market policies as the forced
collectivisation of land, the establishment of monopoly purchasing boards
for principal crops, the persistent underpayment of farmers and the
favouring of urban elites. These have been coupled with chronic political
instability in many countries, resulting in wars and civil wars. African
famine is a political, not a demographic, phenomenon.
Even in Africa it is not all gloom. Where market mechanisms are allowed to
operate, population growth and increased prosperity have gone hand in hand.
In 1994 scientists from the Overseas Development Institute published More
People, Less Erosion, a study of the Machakos district in Kenya between the
l930s and the present. Over the period population had increased by more
than five times, but agricultural output had increased by about three times
per head of population, and by ten times per hectare of land. The steepest
increase had occurred in the period since 1977, when population density was
increasing at its fastest rate with no new land available.
In the 1 950s and 1 960s agricultural economists used to try to calculate
the maximum number of people the world could support based on potential
food production. The numbers ranged between 30 and 50 billion - when the
global population now is less than 6 billion, and no one would seriously
envisage this sort of increase.
In fact, rates of population growth are projected to fall by some 40% by
the year 2025. At the same time, there is every chance that agricultural
yields will continue to rise thanks to advances in technology. The World
Bank report mentioned above looks forward to the transformation of the
former USSR and other Eastern European countries from net importers to net
exporters of food. Those who demand population control must look to other
arguments than food shortages.
Fact sheet 5 - Population and Resources
Ever since people began to worry about population growth, one of the
principal justifications for population control has been the fear
that natural resources would be exhausted by a combination of more
people and higher living standards. In 1972 The Club of Rome
published its famous tract "The Limits to Growth" which fixed the dates
at which known reserves of certain resources would run out. The
calculations included the following predictions of complete
exhaustion: Copper 1993; Gold 1981; Lead 1993; Mercury 1985; Natural
Gas 1994; Petroleum 1992; Silver 1985; Tin 1987. The authors then
made another set of calculations based on the assumption that total
reserves of these resources in the earth's crust would amount to five
times the reserves known at the time. The dates for exhaustion moved
on as follows: Copper 2020; Lead 2036; Mercury 2013; Natural Gas
2021; Petroleum 2022; Silver 2014; Tin 2033.
Some of these dates have now passed, or are very close, and the world is
much richer in these resources than it was in 1972.
Predictions of doom based on the exhaustion of resources are not new. In
1865 W. Stanley Jevons, a leading economist, predicted the end of
industrial development owing to the exhaustion of coal in his book The Coal
Question. "We cannot long continue our present rate of progress" he wrote,"
[This] check for our growing prosperity. . must render our population
excessive". Jevons illustrated his book with a graph showing coal
consumption rising from about 80 million tons a year in his own day to 2.6
billion tons a year by the 1960s. In fact, by the end of the 1980s, coal
consumption in Britain was running at about 120 million tons, and total
energy consumption in coal equivalent - in other words, if Britain had no
oil, gas etc - was only about 340 million tons a year.
Doomsday forecasts fail to take into account the fact that increasing
demand, whether it be due to population growth, rising living standards or
both, is beneficial to the supply of any resource. It stimulates the search
for further reserves; it encourages technical progress in extracting,
transporting and marketing it; and, most important, rising demand
encourages ingenious individuals to find alternative methods of doing
whatever it is we want to do.
For these reasons the availability of natural resources, as measured by
price, has been increasing and not decreasing for as far back as we can
trace. American economist Julian Simon has shown, in books like The
Ultimate Resource and Population Matters that, when measured against a
constant value like our labour, the price of all resources, including
minerals, food and energy, has fallen dramatically. For example the price
of copper compared with wages in the USA has dropped from ~8.0 in 1800 to
1.0 in 1900 and a stable 0.2 in the 1980s.
In order to prove the doomsayers wrong, Simon made a bet with Paul Ehrlich,
author of The Population Bomb, to show that resources are not becoming
scarce. The bet was based on the value of $1,000 worth of resources, with
the choice of resources and the timescale left to Ehrlich. If the prices
rose in real terms, that would prove scarcity; if they fell, that would
show increased availability. Ehrlich chose copper, chrome, nickel, tin and
tungsten, and a ten year span. The bet expired at the end of 1990, by which
stage the original $1,000 worth of resources were worth $423.93. Ehrlich
sent Simon a cheque for the balance.
It is important to remember that resources are not valuable to us in
themselves, but only for what they can do. The new technology means we are
less and less dependent on resources, as we keep finding new ways to do
things. For example, the silicon for silicon chips is found in sand, to
which there is no realistic limit. As Fred Smith, President of the
Competitive Enterprise Institute, has argued in Reason (September 1993) in
connection with communications technology:
"1,000 tons of copper can be replaced by as little as 25 kilograms of
silicon... Moreover, the fibre optics system has the ability to carry over
1,000 times the information of the old copper wire...It is the interaction
of man and science that creates resources: sand and knowledge become fibre
Even advocates of population control now recognise that the exhaustion of
resources is scarcely credible as a reason for reducing births. In 1986 the
US National Academy of Sciences produced a report entitled Population
Growth and Economic Development which reversed many of the Academy's former
alarmist claims about population growth, and included the statement that:
"There is little reason to be concerned about the rate at which population
growth is depleting the stock of exhaustible resources." (pp.15-16)
Fact sheet 6 - Population and the Environment.
The case for population control is increasingly based upon the assumption
that population growth is bad for the environment. To Western lobbyists it
seems almost self evident that more people make for a more polluted and
degraded environment. However, many of the dramatic claims of
desertification, deforestation and soil degradation are not supported by
research, and have more to do with pressure group politics than science.
Academics working in the field have increasingly come to recognise that the
relationship, if any, between population and the environment is a
complicated one, in which many factors interact. This view was expressed by
University of Michigan demographer Gay Ness in her article Population and
the Environment Framework for Analysis (1994):
"There is no simple and direct relationship between population and the
environment. Identifiable forms of technology and social organisation
mediate impacts in both directions. It is only through these that either
population or the environment affect one another."
In other words, population growth and environmental deterioration may occur
at the same time; they may be connected, or the environmental problems
could be caused by some other factor. On the other hand, population growth
can sometimes accompany improvements in the environment, and may even be
the cause of them.
In the Kano close-settled zone of Northern Nigeria soil surveys taken 20
years apart showed no significant signs soil degradation, in spite of the
fact that population had grown and crop yields had increased substantially
over the period. The explanation was that the population of sheep and goats
increased with the humans. These were tethered during the growing season,
then their dung was put out as manure specifically placed for each cereal
plant. Also, by careful examination of aerial photographs over 30 years it
is evident that tree densities have increased - largely to feed the growing
numbers of small livestock.
In the semi-arid Machakos district of Kenya there was great concern over
irreparable environmental degradation" in the 1930s and 1 940s, largely as
the result of the loss of topsoil following heavy rains after droughts. In
their book More People, Less Erosion (1993), which surveys the area from
1930 to the present day, Michael Mortimore and Mary Tiffen compared
photographs of the same landscapes taken 50 or 60 years apart which showed
dramatic improvements. Cultivated fields and increased tree cover had
replaced scarred landscapes of scrub cut through by gullies. This was in
spite of the fact that the population had increased by five times, and
agricultural output by ten times per hectare and by three times per head.
The explanation lay in the construction of terraces on the hillsides to
retain moisture, which also had the effect of stopping soil erosion. This
involved labour intensive technology, which only became possible with
population growth, coupled with access to a good market outlet for food
surpluses. A nationwide survey of Kenyan smallholder farmers indicated that
this is no local anomaly, for the same kinds of positive change were to be
found in all areas of high population density.
Desertification is the name given to the supposed process by which deserts
are spreading as the result of intensive and inappropriate farming methods
caused by population growth. However careful, long term studies like
Michael Mortimore's Adapting to Drought (Cambridge University Press, 1989)
suggest that both the landscapes and the people are tougher and more
adaptable than this model would suggest. In the zones d'attent around the
Mali inland delta drought and political problems concentrated livestock in
one area, causing extensive deforestation and sheet erosion. Herders
responded by increasing the ratio of sheep/goats to cattle. Goats browsed
the acacia pods and scarified the seeds during digestion. When the rains
improved in the early 1990s, much of the zones d'attent became re-
afforested with acacia.
In the densely populated Ethiopian Highlands per capita fuel consumption is
up to ten times less than in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa- a fact which
was unrecognised in a major study determining Ethiopia's past fuelwood
policy. Those who have stopped to look, rather than just making
assumptions, have noted a cooking technology in which the fermentation of
the staple t'ef cereal lessens the time required for cooking the wide
injera pancakes. Similar observations hold true when other cultures with
high population densities are examined: both India and China have developed
or taken up similar efficient fuel-saving techniques.
The idea that countries and districts have a certain "carrying capacity" of
population has been used as the basis for claims that tropical grasslands
have become over-cultivated and over-populated. However, the concept of a
fixed "carrying capacity" is inappropriate. "Over-grazed" waterholes
receive higher dung inputs and so produce more grass. "Over-cultivated"
areas precipitate the crises which lead to intensification and more
efficient resource recycling, which in turn increases the "carrying
capacity" of the land - sometimes by as much as ten times. Where cattle and
human population densities have increased there has been a move towards
agro-pastoralism (i.e. mixed farming involving crops and animals) and a
decrease in sleeping sickness due to the falling numbers of tsetse fly
which result. (see David Bourne and Stephen Wint, Nigerian Livestock
Rates of deforestation which threaten the very existence of rainforests
have been blamed on population growth and increased human use of forest
resources. However many of these estimates of forest clearance have been
exaggerated through failure to include the rates at which forests
regenerate themselves. There has been particular concern about the loss of
"pristine" Amazonian rainforest, which is supposed to have been never
previously disturbed by man. In fact much of this "pristine" rainforest was
cleared for maize cultivation prior to the 16th century. Paradoxically,
these areas which were farmed before returning to forest cover often have
greater bio-diversity (i.e. more species) than the primary forests.
A paper presented to a preparatory meeting of the United Nations Conference
on Environment and Development (UNCED) by the Overseas Development
Administration in 1991 warned that, as the links between population and the
environment are so complex, "any policy conclusions have therefore to
reflect this lack of a firm empirical foundation". In other words, we need
to tread carefully if we are hoping to persuade people to have fewer
children for the sake of the environment. They may be living at a time and
place at which larger families would actually help
Fact sheet 7 - Population and the Feminist Movement.
In 1974 the National Security Council of the United States presented to the
President a study on The Implications of Worldwide Population Growth for US
Security and Overseas Interests. It warned that population growth in the
third world might present "political or even national security problems for
the US", but that efforts by the US to control it might be seen as
imperialism. It therefore recommended that all such efforts be couched in
terms of "the right of the individual to determine freely and responsibly
the number and spacing of children.. .and the fundamental social and
economic development of poor countries."
The linking of population control with demands for reproductive rights was
crucial to the progress of the movement. It enabled population controllers
to "tap in" to the growing feminist movement, with its demands for freedom
of choice in matters of childbearing. The population controllers
effectively high-jacked the language and agenda of the feminist movement.
Regrettably, many Western feminists were willing to lend it support, on the
basis that it made contraception and abortion available to third world
women. They did not reflect that the use of these technologies might not be
voluntary. Nor did they question the assumption, so common amongst Western
lobby groups, that the interests of white, Western, middle class activists
might not be the same as those of poor, third world people.
We have seen in recent years the emergence of a major feminist backlash
against population control, with the formation of groups like Health Action
International in Amsterdam and FlNNRAGE (Feminist International Network for
Resistance Against Reproductive Technologies and Genetic Engineering).
Women involved with these groups have insisted that women's interests are
not served by population programmes which put the achievement of
demographic targets above women's health needs. According to the HAI
publication A Question of Control (1992):
"There are many problems in the way contraceptives are provided in third
world countries. Many women only have access to services which try to limit
population growth. This affects the kind of choice they are given and the
type of health care they receive... Governments that aim to reduce
population growth by imposing targets for the number of acceptors of
contraception and by introducing incentives and disincentives to encourage
use often fail to fully acknowledge women's reproductive rights."
In publications like Norplant: Under Her Skin (1993: Women's Health Action
Foundation) and Vaccination against Pregnancy (1993: Health Action
International) feminist writers from around the world give examples of the
ways in which women's rights are violated by population programmes, when
they are pressured to have fewer children to meet government targets. Third
world women are often not told of the side effects of the different methods
of birth control, which may be more severe for malnourished and poor women
than they would be for rich Western women. There is also a worrying move
towards "provider dependent" methods, which can only be controlled by
medical staff and not by the woman herself. Implants like Norplant and Depo
Provera may render a woman infertile for years. If she changes her mind and
wants a child, she may not be able to have them removed in a country in
which the doctors are under pressure from central government to reduce
In Vaccination against Pregnancy Judith Richter writes of fears that any
vaccination which can render the woman's immune system dysfunctional in a
way which would prevent pregnancy occurring is open to serious abuse,
particularly as vaccination is welcomed in third world countries as a means
of warding off fatal diseases:
"These fears arise in part from the goals of the organisations who are
carrying out or are funding the research. Many of the... statements
indicate that the development of immunological contraceptives is at least
partially motivated by the search for more effective controls over
population growth... National governments are under pressure from
industrialised countries and international organisations to implement
population control programmes as a precondition for loans or foreign aid.
As a result, coercive use of contraceptives is likely to occur."
Bangladeshi feminist Farida Akhter has exposed the racist, eugenicist and
elitist nature of population programmes in the third world in her book
Depopulating Bangladesh (1992), in which she repeats this story which she
heard the Family Planning Officer of Upazilla in Bangladesh telling a
"There are only nine cabins in the steamer launch which comes from Dhaka to
Patuakhali. In the nine cabins only 18 people can travel. The ticket is
expensive, so only rich people travel in the cabins. The rest of the common
passengers travel in the deck. The latrine facility is provided only for
the cabin passengers. But sometimes the passengers from the deck want to
use the latrines. The cabin passengers allow them to use the latrines
because they are afraid that if the poor deck passengers get angry then
they might go down and make a hole in the launch. And so, my dear sisters,
do not give birth to more children as they cause problems for the cabin
Although population groups claim to liberate women from patriarchal
oppression, Farida Akhter quotes Bangladeshi women who say: "Before our
husbands made the decisions, now the government does." She was one of the
principal organisers of a symposium on population held in Comilla,
Bangladesh in December 1993 which produced a Declaration complaining that:
"These (population control) agencies are now attempting to set the agenda
for women's movements and organisations by co-opting their language to
legitimise population control policies... many women around the world are
resisting this... Meeting women 's needs should be de-linked from
population policy including those expressed as apparent humanitarian
concerns for women... For all these reasons we state again that there
cannot be a feminist population control policy and our voices cannot be
used to legitimise anti-women, anti- poor and anti-nature population
The feminist challenge
Population activists had high hopes of promoting population control at the
Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992, but they were disappointed. Publicly
they found it convenient to blame the Catholic church, but privately they
admitted the real threat to their aims from feminist opposition. An article
in People and the Planet, the magazine of the International Planned
Parenthood Federation, warned that:
"Radical feminists.. assaulted... foreign-funded projects as a mechanistic
attempt to control population growth at the expense of women.. .As the LDC
(less developed countries) feminist movement grows, so may its ability to
challenge foreign-supported operations in their respective countries."
Fact sheet 8 - Population and the Freedom of Choice.
The most critical point to comprehend in the debate surrounding population
is the difference between family planning and population control.
Family PLANNING represents the decisions taken by couples, in the light of
their own beliefs and circumstances, as to the number and spacing of their
POPULATI0N C0NTR0L represents decisions by governments and international
agencies as to the number of children couples ought to have, followed by
measures to bring this about.
These two concepts are fundamentally different. Family planning increases
freedom of choice: population control restricts it.
Population activists claim that they are only interested in providing
couples with family planning. They portray those who disagree with them as
being against "women's rights", as if opponents of population programmes
want to force people to have more children than they want.
In reality, these programmes almost always involve elements of coercion
which infringe the principle of freedom of choice. The real defenders of
women's rights and the freedom to choose are those who oppose population
control, and insist that couples are left to make their own choices in this
most intimate area of their private lives.
Types of coercion
They are different types of coercion built into population programmes. At
the simplest level is the anti-natalist propaganda using advertising
campaigns and third world broadcast media outlets to promote the ideal of
the small family and to portray parents of large families as irresponsible
The next stage is the manipulation of tax and welfare structures to bribe
people to have small families and to punish those who dare to exceed the
limits. For example the 1984 World Bank report Population Change and
Economic Development contained the following examples:
TANZANIA Working women in the government service are allowed paid maternity
leave only once every three years.
Children from smaller families given priority in school admissions.
KOREA Free medical care and education allowances to two-child families
providing one of the parents has been sterilised.
THAILAND Technical assistance in farm production made available to
contraceptive users. Participants in the programme provided with the
services of a "family planning bull" to impregnate their cattle.
The World Bank's World Development Report 1980 described the so-called
"village system of family planning" developed in Indonesia. Monthly village
council meetings would begin with a roll call at which every man would have
to announce the form of birth control which he and his wife were using.
When the village reached a certain target percentage of "acceptors" of
family planning, the government would reward them with food supplements,
health services, road repairs or a clean water supply. It can easily be
imagined that couples who did not want to participate would soon come under
intolerable pressure, as they would be the ones holding their neighbours
back from obtaining these valuable benefits.
The 1993 publication Norplant Under Her Skin from the Women's Health Action
Foundation in The Netherlands reveals that these coercive measures are not
a thing of the past. According to Jannemieke Hanhart, author of the chapter
"A new policy... is that couples of reproductive age need to have a family
planning card if they want an official letter from the government. An
official letter is needed if a person wants to sell or buy land, to get a
bank loan, to get permission to organised circumcision, hair cutting
rituals and important events".
Family planning workers are set targets by the government which have to be
met. According to one:
"If the target is still high and has not yet been reached and the people
are difficult to reach, the army makes them a little bit afraid so that
they are willing to come together for a family planning session"
Every international conference on population produces grandiloquent
statements claiming to support reproductive rights and the freedom to
choose. How, then, can population lobbyists support programmes which
clearly violate both principles? The answer lies in the wording of the
The 1974 UN Population Conference in Bucharest produced a declaration which
has been the basis for every subsequent one stating that:
"All couples and individuals have the basic right to decide freely and
responsibly the number and spacing of their children... the responsibility
of couples and individuals in the exercise of this right takes into account
the needs of their living and future children and their responsibilities
towards the community."
The weasel word here is "responsibility". Who is to decide what constitutes
"responsible" reproductive behaviour, particularly vis-- vis future
generations? The government? The United Nations? The World Bank? And
suppose couples are "irresponsible" enough to want more children than their
government's population target allows? Are they still "free" to make that
It is clear from the way in which population programmes have operated that
the freedom to choose means, in effect, the freedom to choose a small
family but not a large one. For this reason, declarations on human rights
emerging from international population conferences are worthless.
Fact sheet 9 - Population and the Chinese.
by Steven W. Mosher
Since 1979 the Chinese state has aggressively used birth targets to curb
China's population growth. Millions of Chinese couples have seen their
desire for children thwarted by the state. Those living in the cities have
been limited to one child, while those in the countryside have been allowed
no more than two.
I was an eyewitness to that programme in its opening stages. In the spring
of 1979, Chinese officials first announced their ambitious plan to limit
China's population to 1.2 billion by the year 2000. Not surprisingly given
the recent history of the Peoples Republic of China the tone of the
programme was coercive from the first. "Socialism should make it possible
to regulate the reproduction of human beings," explained the head of the
State Family Planning Council, Chen Muhua, implying that the full
organisational might of the Communist Party would be brought to bear to
regulate this most intimate of family matters. And so it was.
Living in a Chinese village during 1979 - 80, I saw women in the second and
third trimesters of pregnancy taken away from their homes and families to a
town many miles distant. There they were incarcerated and told that they
would not be allowed to return until they had submitted to an abortion.
Abortions were performed up to the very point of parturition on women whose
consent had been given for the operation only under extreme duress. Not
only incarceration, but heavy fines, lengthy "study" sessions, and threats
of infanticide had been used to break their will to resist.
The demands of China's family planners escalated as the Eighties unfolded.
The one-child policy, first adumbrated by Deng Xiaoping in a 1979 speech,
was in place nationwide by 1981. The "technical policy on family planning"
followed two years later. Still in force today, the technical policy
requires IUDs for women of child bearing age with one child, sterilisation
for couples with two children (usually performed on the women, although the
law is not specific as to sex), and abortions for women pregnant without
authorisation. By the mid-eighties, according to Chinese government
statistics, birth control surgeries - abortions, sterilisations, and IUD
insertions - were averaging more than 30 million a year. Many if not most
of these procedures were performed on women who submitted only under
There are those who violate the one child policy, although they pay a heavy
price for doing so. Among these were the Chens, who live in Zhuhai, a
Special Economic Zone in Guangdong Province designated for foreign
investment. Chen's wife wanted another baby. With her only child, a boy,
set to enter primary school the following year, and Chen himself, a truck
driver, on the road much of the time, she was home alone.
Her husband at first tried to dissuade her, reminding her of the fines,
meetings, and other pressures to which they would be subjected if she
conceived a second child. "For a worker in a state factory, their are no
exceptions to the one child rule allowed", Chen explained, "I told her I
could be fired from my job but she would not listen"
Chen's wife found a midwife who, for a fee of twenty dollars, stiff by
Chinese standards, was willing to perform an illegal procedure: remove the
Intrauterine device (IUD) that had been automatically inserted following
the birth of her first child. After an anxious wait of several months, she
By staying at home most of the time, Chen's wife was able to hide her
pregnancy from the population control workers for several months. Her
growing reclusiveness eventually made them suspicious, however, and they
ordered her to go in for a pelvic examination.
Chen bluntly explained what that meant. "If they discovered that she was
pregnant they would order her to have an abortion. " By this time fully
supportive of his wife, he would not accept this outcome.
Like millions of Chinese whose plans for a second child have aroused
official ire Chen opted for "child birth on the run ". His wife would go to
live with a cousin in a neighbouring county until she gave birth.
Though Chen was expecting censure, he was taken aback by its intensity.
Each day at work he was required to report to the vice director of his
factory who badgered him for information about his wife's whereabouts. Each
evening at home he was visited by a birth control delegation, the members
of which tirelessly insisted that "For the sake of the nation, the
community, the factory, and the modernisation programme, your wife's
pregnancy must be terminated". And each week at political meetings he was
publicly singled out as a bad example to the rest of the workers, whereupon
even his friends were obliged to criticise him.
Chen, an angular faced man with a shock of unruly black hair, refused to
buckle under this pressure. She has left me, he said of his wife, because I
would not allow her to keep the child. I do not know where she has gone. He
was not believed, and the campaign against him continued.
It took two months for the factory director to conclude that Chen could not
be broken. Taking another tack, he ordered the factory's dozen purchasing
agents and sales representatives to fan out and make enquiries in the towns
and villages of the surrounding district, promising a bonus to the one who
located the missing wife. It was one of their number who, discovering that
Chen frequently detoured to a certain village on his runs, contacted the
authorities there. Chen's wife was found and brought back in February of
this year, seven months pregnant.
Knowing that she would escape again given the chance, the factory director
ordered her confined to the factory dormitory. At least one member of the
birth control committee was with her at all times, badgering her to accept
an abortion, hinting that she had no choice. Separated from her husband,
so distraught that she was not able to eat or sleep, she was no match for
this relentless "thought work" Going into the ninth month of pregnancy, she
accepted the inevitable.
She was immediately taken to the local medical clinic and given an
injection of an abortifacient drug. This shot, universally called a "poison
shot" in China, causes the fetus to be born dead or dying 24 - 48 hours
later. "They didn't even tell me she was in the clinic until they had
already given her the injection", Chen ended ruefully.
China scholar Steven Mosher is the Director of the Asian Studies Centre at
the Claremont Institute, California. His books include "Broken Earth: The
Rural Chinese" and "A Mother's Ordeal One Woman's Fight Against China's
Editor's Note: The Chinese population programme is partly funded by British
taxpayers' money, which is channeled by the Overseas Development
Administration through the United Nations Population Fund and the
International Planned Parenthood Federation.