On a recent trip to Ethiopia, Billings Audubon activist Kayhan Ostovar saw firsthand the problems of rapid population growth. Communities struggle to have adequate water, the land is deforested, and access to health care is limited.
"In a country whose population is projected to double in the next 50 years, these trends are alarming," Ostovar said. "In Ethiopia, as in many countries in Africa and around the world, population growth is a serious obstacle to sustainable development."
Ostovar, president of the Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society, attended a sustainable development conference in the country's capital, Addis Ababa, as part of a delegation representing the National Audubon Society and the Sierra Club. The four-day conference in November drew several hundred participants, including people from Rwanda, Uganda, Madagascar, the Philippians and international conservation groups.
Ostovar was chosen as one of five Aububon delegates to work for improved family-planning programs.
The Audubon delegation studied the links between the environment, population and development and returned to urge changes in U.S. policies. Audubon supports family-planning information and services provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.N. Population Fund.
This was Ostovar's second trip to Ethiopia. In 2005, Ostovar, a wildlife biologist, was the science director on a multinational scientific expedition on a tributary of the Blue Nile. He has worked for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and this year organized Montana's first BioBlitz, a community project to inventory species in Riverfront Park and to raise awareness of species diversity. He teaches environmental sciences at Rocky Mountain College.
To have successful sustainable development, the connections between population growth, development and the environment need to be strengthened, he said.
"In Ethiopia and around the world, millions of women would like to plan their families but lack adequate health services. We had the opportunity to visit small-scale development projects in which communities are working to address the related challenges of population, growth, health and environmental protection," he said. "But these programs need resources."
The United Nations has warned that the world's population is growing so fast that the planet does not have the resources to sustain it, Audubon said. The United Nations advocates slowing population growth to reduce the human impact on the environment.
Scientists also predict bird extinctions will increase by a factor of 10 in this century at the current rate of resource consumption. Birds are a way to asses the environment's health, and studying them can help determine the impact people have on the environment, Ostovar said.
"We did do a little bit of birding, but not much," he said. Ostovar went bird watching at a monastery, which had some of the country's last intact forest. Much of Ethiopia's forests have been turned over to agriculture and to farming eucalyptus, a non-native tree that grows fast and is used for firewood, he said.
He also toured a wetlands area that is protected because of a species of bird that has only 600 remainders.
Historically, the United States has been a world leader in providing family-planning programs, Ostovar said. But since 1995, U.S. funding for such programs has declined 41 percent, while the number of women of reproductive age in developing countries had increased by about 275 million.
"We need to ask our congressional delegation to do more to meet this threat," Ostovar said. "We can't put on blinders and ignore the issue."
While Ethiopia faces serious economic development challenges, Ostovar said he is impressed by the ability of the people, roughly half of whom are Christian and half Muslim, to live in mutual respect.
"This provides a good example for the rest of the world that has seen heightened conflict between these two religious groups. It gives me hope that they can work together to address the environmental and health challenges they face, too," he said.