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The Planet
Family Planning Yields Results In Ecuador

Pioneering Program Combines Family Planning With Community Assistance

By Tom Valtin.

"Guinea pigs are a good source of protein, and they take up very little room to raise," explains Annette Souder.

Souder, Sierra Club Global Population and Environment Program director, who doesn’t rank guinea pig high on her personal list of food preferences, was joined last August by a dozen Sierra Club population activists on a 10-day trip to Ecuador, including a visit to Bolivar Province, where a pioneering family planning program has been established in several rural Andean villages.

The program is a joint venture of World Neighbors, an Oklahoma-based organization that promotes sustainable agriculture, and CEMOPLAF, an Ecuadoran organization that provides health care and agricultural assistance to rural communities. It combines family planning with agricultural and health care assistance to the poorest-of-the-poor.

One of the major problems afflicting rural Andean communities is chronic malnutrition—hence the recommendation that guinea pigs (for protein) and swiss chard (for vitamin A) be incorporated into people’s diets. Many villagers are learning for the first time that some vegetables provide more nutrition than others.

Past efforts to promote family planning in the region had largely failed. When family planning was offered by itself, people tended to be suspicious of it and stay away. But when family planning services are combined with other community assistance, people are much more likely to participate.

"The way we’ve been able to get the confidence of the community is in agriculture and animal husbandry, because that’s where their income is," says Julio Beingolea, an Ecuadoran who works for World Neighbors. "I talk about the need to space the corn for a healthy crop and can use that same metaphor with regard to children."

Birth rates in Ecuador remain high—the country’s population density is the highest in Latin America—and extreme poverty is the norm in the Andean highlands, where more than three-quarters of indigenous children ages 3 to 5 years suffer from malnutrition. In Bolivar Province, widespread deforestation is a bleak reminder of the indigenous population’s impoverishment.

"Still," says trip participant Gayle Loeffler, "it was clear that the integrated approach is reducing starvation and alleviating pressures on the environment through reduced birth rates and the use of sustainable agriculture. I told Annette early in the trip that even if we went home tomorrow, what I’ve seen here has changed my life forever."

"It really demonstrates the wisdom of John Muir’s words when he described how everything in the universe is hitched together," says Todd Daniel, another Sierran on the expedition. "This program provides a total package for the well-being of the women, the children, the family, and the community."

Ned Grossnickle

The Sierra Club group traveled by bus to several of the communities where the integrated program is in place, accompanied by World Neighbors’ executive director Ron Burkhardt and a local leader of CEMOPLAF. "We were able to observe first-hand what works and what doesn’t work." says Ned Grossnickle, chair of the Sierra Club’s Global Population and Environment Program Committee. "The results were striking."

Grossnickle says the simple act of communicating with people and asking what their needs are establishes a strong level of trust that makes a world of difference. "The integrated approach has resulted in smaller families, greater crop yield per acre, reduced poverty, and less environmental degradation than in the program that offered just health care," he says. "And spacing the births of children and having fewer children per family isn’t just healthier for the mothers, it allows families to raise enough food to sell at market rather than struggle just feed their own families."

"Plus," adds Ramona Rex, another Club activist on the trip, "the program has been set up so that local volunteers get the skills to continue the health and agriculture programs that are so beneficial to their communities."

Unfortunately, the Bush administration has eliminated badly needed funding for the United Nations Population Fund, and imposed restrictions on the U.S. Agency for International Development, resulting in less funding for critically needed programs. The Sierra Club is uniting in a major effort to make the Bush administration more responsive to environmental challenges.

"Our job as Sierra Club population activists is to educate others about the dangers of overpopulation and advocate for the programs that can reduce the human ‘footprint’ on the earth," Ramona Rex says. "There’s no question that one of the most effective ways to slow population growth is to provide family planning services to all who want them."

"This trip showed all of us the extreme importance of international family planning," says Todd Daniel. "Coming back to the U.S. and educating our elected officials and the public about what we saw in Ecuador is really what this trip was all about."

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