Community Action Addresses Population Impacts on the Environment

(February 2007) Many developing countries possess abundant natural resources, but these resources can be threatened by population pressures and poverty, among other factors. A young population age structure, in-migration, and high fertility contribute to rapid population growth in many communities, exerting pressure on local resources. But the experience of two villages in the Philippines demonstrates that even poor communities can cope with the impacts of these population changes on the environment by collecting information about demographic and environmental change and using that information to plan sustainable population growth and natural resource management.

The participatory population appraisal process employed by these communities involved collecting information about population-environment interactions using a village census, focus group sessions, participatory mapping exercises, and local population projections. Information collected is analyzed, verified, reviewed by local demographers and incorporated into local management plans. This article highlights how these two rural villages used population appraisals to devise and implement community-driven plans to manage their population growth and resource use.

Environmental Instability

Santa Margarita and Hacienda Intal are two small villages of roughly 1,000 households each, situated in a natural habitat in the northern Philippines called the Sierra Madre biological corridor. This corridor contains the highest number of protected areas in the Philippines, with 68 national parks and reserves and rich plant and animal diversity.

Population pressures threaten this biodiversity through encroachment into and the exploitation of biologically important areas. The lack of economic options forces many people to move into these areas and to cut down forest reserves to obtain wood and materials. Since these activities are largely fragmented and located in remote places, they are difficult to monitor without community assistance and support.

Local Population Dynamics

The area occupied by Santa Margarita and Hacienda Intal was sparsely populated until the 1960s, when the government issued land grants of about four hectares each to some 60 families in these communities. As residents settled, they invited other family members to move to the area. Migrants also came from other provinces and neighboring towns. Finally, the villages grew rapidly with the arrival of additional landless migrants from upland areas who settled in the area in return for promised government land grants.

These factors contributed to local population growth. Santa Margarita, for example, grew from 65 families to about 1,000 families (approximately 4,600 people) in the last 40 years. About half of this new population is under age 18 and is in the process of forming their own household unions. These additional households are projected to be a key factor in the population growth and resource use in these small communities.

In Hacienda Intal, child and maternal health conditions are improving, despite its growing population. In the last three years, an active family planning program was established with support from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). This and other efforts contributed to better reproductive health. In this period, there was only one maternal death, and among the 692 married women of reproductive age, 60 percent were using a family planning method and satisfied with it, while 27 percent indicated that they were interested in so doing.

Addressing Community Concerns

Community leaders in both Hacienda Intal and Santa Margarita have been troubled by the loss of forest as new households cleared ever more land for growing corn, the predominant crop. The area around Santa Margarita was marked by steep terrain, and recent clearing had caused erosion and siltation of streams and rivers. About one-third of the villagers did not own their farmland. Many were looking beyond farming for ways to earn a livelihood, or were searching for affordable land in more remote areas. As the migrants cleared forested land for farms and homesteads, erosion problems were exacerbated.

With support from the US Agency for International Development and the International Development Research Center, the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) initiated a participatory population appraisal process to help these communities better manage their resources, given these ongoing population and social pressures.

The Appraisal Process

PRB and its local partners, including World Wildlife Fund, Save the Children. and Conservation International, guided the appraisal exercise and supported the community in implementing its plans and projects. Working with community members, two Filipino demographers helped prepare population and household projections for the most populated areas of the communities. The field teams worked with community members to take a quick participatory census, which became the basis for the projections. Information needed to make such projections at the local level is not generally available in published sources, such as census data.

Community members, in focus groups, discussed the interplay between population changes and the health and well-being of their communities. At the conclusion of these discussions, each community reported what they had learned. The mayors of both communities noted that they had a new perspective on the dynamic effects of population change on their communities. These insights formed the basis for some immediate steps that the community leaders needed to take to manage the expected growth of their communities.

The Way Forward

Each community incorporated their insights into short-term action plans addressing population growth, environmental management, and alternative livelihood strategies. For Santa Margarita, the Plan of Action called for several steps to be taken within six months. These included: a continuation of the population appraisal and census-mapping of outlying areas of Santa Margarita to better support community planning; passing legislation to better regulate or restrict illegal in-migration; and enforcing and monitoring the established forest protection plan.

Meanwhile, Hacienda Intal identified actions to be taken over 10 months, which involved the improvement of irrigation in the area, community mapping, backyard gardening and solid waste management. The community also specified a number of additional issues they would like to address including gender differences in access to natural resource use and inadequate solid waste management.

Challenges and Benefits of Approach

The population appraisal process is not without challenges. It is sometimes difficult for community members to discuss sensitive population issues related to gender and family planning. In addition, addressing the root causes of population dynamics such as livelihood opportunities may call for longer-term solutions than those identified in the action plans. If properly facilitated, however, the process helps communities examine the local effects of population change on the environment, provides them with empirically based demographic projections of their future population, and initiates a local planning process to take immediate steps to conserve local resources and improve local livelihoods.

The population appraisal in the Philippines followed similar projects in Indonesia and Madagascar that were conducted under the leadership of PRB. A follow-up of two communities in Indonesia showed important steps taken by both communities to protect water resources in the year following the appraisal. Forest lands surrounding water sources were safeguarded, and water distribution systems were improved.

The participatory population appraisal process in all three countries illustrates the capability of local community members to analyze how past population growth had directly impacted land use, cutting of trees, and the quality of water and other resources. The experience has shown that communities are willing to take a hard look at data and use it for planning purposes. Data that communities themselves collect on self-generated maps and through participation in the process are believable, useful, and meaningful to them. As a result they are willing to use that information and make it relevant for local policies.

John S. Williams is an independent demographer who specializes in population, environment, and community programs. Roger-Mark De Souza is the technical director of the Population, Health, and Environment (PHE) Program at the Population Reference Bureau (PRB). PRB’s PHE Program works to improve people’s lives around the world by helping program managers and decisionmakers understand and address the consequences of population and environment interactions. For more information on the PHE program, please write to