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Cachoeirinha Part II: Success (and failure) with family planning in Brazil

RIO DE JANEIRO — More than a dozen or so adolescents arrived at the Cachoeirinha community centre for a sex-education class this week. They may have been outnumbered by adult visitors in town for Rio+20, many from far-away lands, with cameras, recorders, pens and notebooks, but the kids weren’t intimidated. Guided by a local educator, they talked freely about relationships and the usual suite of social pressures and youth anxieties, tinted by the realities of growing up in a favela apparently controlled by drug traffickers. Across their free programme T-shirts read the words, “How cool to know! Everybody has equal rights”.

As a result of a curious combination of factors, Brazil’s birth rate has declined from 6.5 children per woman to 1.9 since 1960, a feat that brought the nation in line with industrialized countries over the course of just two generations. But the sex-education programme focuses on youth precisely because this is where Brazil has not performed as well, says Carmen Barroso, a Brazilian who serves as regional director for the Americas at the International Planned Parenthood Federation in New York. Although women now tend to have fewer children, too often they start troublingly early. In their discussion, the adolescents universally said they had not had any sex education in schools, and many said they hadn’t even talked about these issues with their parents. Bemfam, a family-planning organization, is trying to fill that gap.

As discussed briefly in an earlier post, the visit was intended to draw attention to the issue of family planning, women’s rights and population, but it was too late to make a difference at the United Nations (UN) Conference on Sustainable Development. By the time the class met on Tuesday, the Vatican had already succeeded in removing language referencing “reproductive rights” for women, despite the fact that such rights have been affirmed in other forums dating back to 1994. It was an obvious blow for family-planning groups, but it was also a setback for a growing number of people trying to restore the link between environment and population.

The issue has been largely off the table in policy discussions since the 1970s, when scientists raised Malthusian fears about the limits to growth. As it happened, thanks to the Green Revolution, the world accommodated the booming population (although equitable distribution of said food remains a problem to this day), and talk of population control became taboo. At Rio+20, many tried to take advantage of renewed concern about global-resource limits (and planetary boundaries) to put population back on the table, says Peggy Clark, executive director for global health and development at the Aspen Institute in Washington DC. “This is really simple,” she says as she observes the class, “and it grounds things at the community level.”

The other factor affecting global resources is consumption (the purchase and production of stuff, including energy, food, services, televisions and, of course, all of the junk that proliferates at conferences such as Rio+20). The issue was also on the agenda this week, and as it happens, the Royal Society produced a report in April that ties consumption and population to the environment. The bottom lineis that population matters very little in a world in which the economy is quickly and thoroughly decarbonized (see this excellent graph). But the longer human beings remain dependent on carbon-based fuels (dirty consumption), the more the number of people matters. In the business-as-usual scenario, reducing the birth rate from the UN’s high-population scenario to its low-population scenario cuts carbon dioxide emissions by almost 20% by 2050 (equal to roughly two-thirds of current global CO2 emissions at today’s rates). This week, countries agreed to try to reduce consumption and laid out a process to investigate the establishment of a new economic indicator that takes into account things like carbon emissions and health and happiness (i.e. something that goes “beyond gross domestic product”).

The text of the agreement scheduled to be adopted by governments on Friday affirms the need to scale up investments in “reproductive health services”. “It would have been a far stronger outcome to have ‘reproductive rights’ referred to in the text,” says Sarah Fisher, who tracked the negotiations on behalf of the Population and Sustainability Network in London. Indeed, Fisher says this would have been the first time those two words made it into the formal decision from a sustainable development conference.

In Brazil, Barroso says most of the progress stemmed from laws granting women modern rights to divorce, to work and to be fully and financially independent in the 1960s; at the same time, she says, the family-planning movement took advantage of a neutral government stance early on that was due to a division on the issue within the military dictatorship. Some studies have also credited the country’s infatuation with telenovelas, which tend to portray strong and independent women, although Barroso says that may be a reflection of society as much as a model for society; President Dilma Rousseff, who challenged the dictatorship and found herself in prison and subject to torture, is a product of this generation.

Despite its trouble with teenage pregnancies, Brazil remains a model for tackling this issue in the developing world, she says. “Brazil shows that you can do this relatively quickly while respecting human rights.”

 Photo: Jeff Tollefson / Graphic: Royal Society

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