“We have to take stock of our people and natural resources,” says Felipe Hilan Nava, a physician and mayor of the municipality of Jordan in central Philippines. “If we don’t strike a balance now, we lose eventually.” Thanks to an integrated program that addresses population growth, public health, and environmental conservation, Nava’s neighbors are taking stock—and working to strike a better balance.
Just a 15-minute boat ride off the coast of the Philippines province of Iloilo, Nava’s town is located on the island of Guimaras. Guimaras is among the twenty poorest provinces in the country. Many people here live beyond the ambit of modern technology—without even electricity. These are men who toil on the land and seas in earnest; women with limited access, if any, to economic opportunities; and children who trek 2 miles of dirt road to school every day. The children are observant: They notice that their fathers have been catching fewer fish. The town has also lost some of its mangroves and seagrasses, which provide breeding grounds for fish and economic opportunities for the residents. And every year, the island’s resources must be shared among more people: Guimaras’ population has doubled in the last thirty years, and a youthful population ensures continued growth.
But here in Guimaras, a quiet revolution is taking place: People are taking matters into their own hands, testing new approaches to staving off poverty, sustaining nature’s bounty, and minimizing a growing population’s demands on resources.
In 2001, Save the Children launched an innovative “population-health-environment” (PHE) project in Guimaras and Iloilo that combined reproductive health service delivery and environmental management. Save the Children worked with local government officials and fishing families to provide assistance and training in coastal resource management and fish-catch monitoring. Activities included designating and monitoring marine protected areas, replanting mangroves, and delivering improved reproductive health services—efforts that are helping communities achieve their long-term goals of poverty reduction and economic well-being.
The project has had an impact: “There is a certain awareness now in the barangay [village] about coastal resource management,” says Barangay Captain Fernando Balidiong, of Alegria in Guimaras. “Residents take care of the mangroves and monitor them, and we have also become more alert in looking out for illegal fishing activities.”
There is also a new awareness about the importance of family planning. Mayor Nava and Dr. Esteban Magalona, municipal health officer of Sibugnay, both believe that linking human population issues to the environment accounts for an increase in family planning usage in their community. Nava says the project “fine-tuned” the government’s family planning program through regular information sessions and skills development training for family planning trainers.
The residents of Guimaras are not alone in their efforts to strike a better balance between people and resources. Since the late 1990s, a number of communities in developing countries have initiated PHE programs in a variety of settings, including environmentally fragile biodiversity “hot spots,” cities, and coastal areas. The key objective of PHE efforts is to simultaneously help communities manage natural resources in ways that improve health and livelihoods, conserve the critical ecosystems on which they depend, and improve access to family planning and other health services. The list of issues addressed by these projects is long, including family planning, food security, basic health, nutrition, income generation, conservation, disease prevention, and access to safe water and sanitation.
PHE programs can offer cost-effective approaches to meeting community needs. Many project managers report that integrated PHE approaches have lower operating costs and greater overall project efficiency (economies of scale in terms of staff time and effort) than single-sector approaches. Efficiency is also measured in terms of pooling expertise from different fields, leveraging efforts across programs, and merging funds from different funding streams.
From “Taking Stock: Linking Population, Health, and the Environment,” by Roger-Mark De Souza, in A Pivotal Moment