Since 1996 I have been involved with Audubon's Population and Habitat Campaign - an international effort to call attention to disappearing habitats for birds and other wildlife due to human expansion. And so it was that in November 2007 a group of 10 grass-roots advocates (including myself) from the National Audubon Society and the Sierra Club were selected to participate in a 10 day study tour of Ethiopia – one of the poorest and most over-populated countries in Africa and the world. During the tour we attended a three day conference on Population, Health, and the Environment (PHE) held at the United Nations Conference Center in Addis Ababa. A journalist and photographer from Sierra magazine also accompanied us to document the trip (see the July-Aug 2008 issue of Sierra magazine).
Study tour participants represented at least 8 different states and for many it was their first time in Africa. For me it was my 12th visit to Africa – but first to Ethiopia – a country that has always fascinated me. I had heard about the PHE issues facing Ethiopia, but now I had the opportunity to see things for myself.
After settling into our hotel, we spent the first week visiting a variety of community projects in and around Addis Ababa. All of the projects we visited provided some sort of family planning services (education, counseling, contraceptives, etc.) and some included basic health care and hygiene (one even had a public health clinic). Special emphasis was put on AIDS, which is prevalent in East Africa although declining somewhat in Ethiopia.
We also heard stories of female empowerment and testimonies from young women who no longer practice female circumcision. Opportunities for young girls to attend school were being provided through scholarships, and micro-credit schemes combined with basic computer skills were helping women supplement their income. In one particular project women were weaving used plastic bags into colorful earrings, purses, trivets, etc. to sell in a shop in town. Traditional pottery was being made from recycled clay. These women are literally turning trash into treasure! We bought as much as we could carry.
Still other women we met were being taught basic gardening skills including the use of drip irrigation to water an urban farm, composting, bee-keeping, and diversified gardening to provide a healthier, balanced diet for their families. Tree planting (desperately needed in Ethiopia – where over 90% of the country is deforested) was also being encouraged with seeds and seedlings that were provided to get things started.
Most of the projects we visited were funded by USAID (your tax dollars at work) or by other non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) working with USAID such as the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and the David and Lucille Packard Foundation. As we learned at the PHE conference there are countless other NGO’s hard at work in Ethiopia and in East Africa in general. The scientists, researchers, staff and volunteers working for these NGO’s are involved in a variety of projects that are benefiting communities of people and the surrounding environment – including habitat for declining wildlife. The idea of PHE brings all the interested parties together in a synergistic way that individual projects (addressing only one issue at a time), cannot.
Ultimately the goal of each PHE project is to become self-sustaining (= “capacity building”) an/or have the Ethiopian government take over any necessary funding and management in order to free up donor funds for other, much-needed endeavors in the region. Unfortunately, funding for foreign aid programs such as these that support family planning, reproductive health, and PHE is being severely reduced (or cut altogether in the case of President Bush’s annual blockage of UNFPA funds). This is occurring at a time when even more help is desperately needed. Through awareness of the issues of overpopulation and its effects on people’s health and the environment, we can reverse this trend and help the PHE message spread to other parts of the world. Action is needed and your efforts can make a difference.