(September 2003) Around the world, a number of organizations are addressing population, health, and environmental concerns by incorporating reproductive health information and services into environmental protection efforts or adding environmental issues to reproductive health or population education programs.

Rural development programs in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as more recent integrated conservation and development projects (ICDPs), were the first to attempt integration on a large scale. ICDPs represent an approach that aims to meet social development priorities and conservation goals and therefore is based on the links between the social setting and natural environments.1

ICDPs were popular in the conservation community in the mid-1980s, following the creation of a large number of parks and protected areas in the 1970s. Initially, they were well-supported by conservation organizations and development agencies. But highly publicized evaluations and critiques of ICDPs and their outcomes surfaced in the 1990s, calling into question the effectiveness of the approach in meeting conservation goals. Some groups have been concerned that integration of population and conservation activities leads to “mission drift” — that the groups were straying too far from their key objectives and capabilities.2

Today, conservation organizations are exploring other ways to develop integrated programs. Newer projects tend to be smaller than ICDPs, and they build on partnerships between sectors instead of incorporating all functions into a single project.3

A new generation of integrated population, health, and environment programs is being implemented in a variety of countries, including Ecuador, Guatemala, Belize, Madagascar, Tanzania, and the Philippines. The synergy produced by integrating family planning and conservation activities into community-based projects can create more effective and sustainable programs.

In these smaller projects, ecologists, health specialists, and community development experts connect a number of factors, including environmental stress, fertility, migration, women’s health, women’s educational status, and economic decisions. Close to 50 of these projects have been documented, and many are being carried out in the world’s biodiversity hotspots and tropical wildernesses by local conservation groups, national governments, and international organizations.4

These projects use various strategies to incorporate activities within the population, health, and environment sectors in their programs. The “staggered approach” involves establishing a single-sector program and later incorporating activities from a second sector. Conservation International (CI), an international NGO, used a staggered approach strategy in the remote forests of the Petén region of Guatemala. CI’s project staff assessed an immediate need for reproductive health services among the small population living in the region. Because of a lack of immediate political and community support for conservation work, CI — a conservation, not health services, organization — adapted its plans and started delivering reproductive health services. While CI would ordinarily have partnered with established local experts in reproductive health, its direct involvement in the community’s health services provided an entry point for its conservation work. Once CI established the services, they were able to integrate their conservation activities.5

Other approaches include “simultaneous introduction,” which introduces a number of programs dealing with various issues at the same time, and the “bridge” approach, in which activities in one sector, for example, health or conservation, support activities in another.

A project managed by Save the Children-U.S. in the Philippines used a “symbiotic” approach to balance activities linked to population growth and environmental management in coastal areas. In this approach, activities depend on one another and are conducted by the same staff. Building on participatory research, community mobilization, and pilot projects, the Save the Children project used various approaches to understand how population dynamics were affecting fishing practices. An environmental site assessment investigated coastal environmental conditions, resource management practices, population dynamics, and community attitudes toward both population and environmental issues. Geographic information system maps compared population and land-use data from 50 years ago with recent trends. Local communities constructed three-dimensional maps highlighting current land-use patterns relative to environmental resources.6

These approaches allowed the project to develop baseline data and conduct focus-group discussions with communities and local decisionmakers on the relationship between population and land-use changes, the direction of these changes, and possible steps to address these trends. Once community members realized that population pressures, together with other factors, were increasing sedimentation along the coast and threatening corals and fish catch, they started planting family and community forests and voluntarily began to use family planning services offered at the local clinic.

As a result, the use of modern family planning methods among couples of reproductive age increased by 7 percent in less than two years, and communities decided to increase the size of protected marine areas from 12 to 203 hectares. While this is a small-scale and recent project, its initial success provides insight into how local communities and government units can design and implement integrated population, health, and environment programs for the protection and rehabilitation of the coastal environment.

Ecosystem models are also project management tools. These models allow the visual display of different scenarios, enabling local policymakers and scientists to evaluate various land-use strategies. One such model, the SAVANNA model, used in the Greater Serengeti Ecosystem, has been adapted for use for areas in the United States, including Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park, Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, and Montana’s Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range.7

Other efforts have focused on community empowerment and mobilization. In South Africa, a community-based environmental and reproductive health program in two rural districts was initiated in 1998 by the government, the UN Population Fund, the Planned Parenthood Association of South Africa, and the Working for Water Programme. The project was undertaken to restore original water flows to rivers and streams; created many jobs, especially for women; and was linked to the provision of reproductive health services.8



Roger-Mark De Souza is the technical director of the population, health, and environment program at the Population Reference Bureau. John S. Williams is a demographer at the Population Reference Bureau. Frederick A.B. Meyerson is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.


  1. S. Worah, “International History of ICDPs,” in Proceedings of Integrated Conservation and Development Projects Lessons Learned Workshop (Hanoi: UNDP/World Bank/World Wildlife Fund, 2000); and Ross Hughes and Fiona Flintan, Integrating Conservation and Development Experience: A Review and Bibliography of the ICDP Literature (London: International Institute for Environment and Development, 2001).
  2. Clare Ginger, “Organizational Action for Responding to Population-Environment Linkages” (paper presented at the Annual Global Health Council Conference, Washington, DC, May 30, 2003); and personal communication, July 2003.
  3. Kathleen Mogelgaard, Helping People, Saving Biodiversity (Washington, DC: Population Action International (PAI), March 2003); and Eckhard Kleinau and Jennifer Talbot, “When the Whole is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts: Integrated Indicators for Population-Environment Programs,” PECS News (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center, Environmental Change and Security Project, 2003).
  4. Jodie Riesenberger, Planting Seeds Meeting Needs: New Partnerships for Community-Based Resource Conservation and Reproductive Health (Washington, DC: PAI, 2002): 5; Robert Engelman, Plan and Conserve: A Source Book on Linking Population and Environment Services in Communities (Washington, DC: PAI, 1998); Carolyn Gibb Vogel and Robert Engelman, Forging the Link: Emerging Accounts of Population and Environment Work in Communities (Washington, DC: PAI, 1999); and UNFPA, State of World Population 2001: 50-51.
  5. John Williams, “Integrating Population Into Environmental Field Projects,” PECS News (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center, Environmental Change and Security Project, 2001); and Rainera L. Lucero and Robert Layng, “Understanding Reproductive Health/Natural Resource Management Integration in the Philippines,” World Neighbors 28, no. 2 (2002).
  6. Robert Layng, “Strengthening Formative Environmental Research Through the Inclusion of Population Variables,” Population-Environment Fellows Newsletter (Ann Arbor, MI: Winter 2002/2003).
  7. Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory, Colorado State University, “Saving African and North American Wildlife With the Savanna Model,” News Notes, no. 31 (2000), accessed online at www.nrel.colostate.edu/news/newsnotes/newsnotes31.html, on Aug. 22, 2003.
  8. UNFPA, “Population, Environment and Poverty Linkages: Operational Challenges,” Population and Development Strategies Series, no. 1 (2001).

This article is excerpted from PRB’s Population Bulletin, “Critical Links: Population, Health, and the Environment.”