Freedom to multiply

February 23, 1996

The opinions expressed by your panel of experts on the problem of population growth in the third world (THES, February 16) all rather missed the point. To argue that population growth induces environmental degradation, and exacerbates the difficulties of education and health service provision by third-world governments, is to confuse cause with effect. Environmental degradation and government budget deficits, together with rapid population growth itself, are all symptoms of political and economic processes ignored by your contributors.

Land use in fertile areas responds to the dictates of the world market, often with the aid of World Bank funding. Thus precious mangrove swamps in Honduras become shrimp fisheries, and subsistence crop farming throughout Latin American is replaced by capital-intensive sugar plantations and cattle ranches, at the signal of global price shifts. In the process common lands are privatised or nationalised, wetlands are drained, forests cut down, and the land drenched with poisonous pesticides and fertilisers. Poor tenants are evicted, and head for the nearest mountains and forests, to cultivate marginal areas, thereby devastating fragile eco-systems.

The debt-repayment conditionalities of the International Monetary Fund, so-called "structural adjustment", demand further stress on export at the expense of food self-sufficiency, thereby escalating environmental degradation, and the marginalisation of the world's poor. The plea of the International Conference for Population and Development at Cairo for reproductive rights will have little meaning for these people, living in over-crowded and insanitary urban slums, or scratching at the near-vertical slopes of barren land for their livelihood.

They will not exercise their freedom to deprive themselves of their children, their sole remaining comfort and hope. Population growth is the inevitable result, and will only be effectively tackled by a global retreat from the insanity of free trade and structural adjustment.

Neil Thomas

Lecturer in population and development

Department of city and regional planning

University of Wales Cardiff

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