Burundi, Overpopulation and Pope Francis

    By Edd Doerr | 14 October 2015
    Americans for Religious Liberty journal

    A young woman cultivates her land in Kayanza province.

    Burundi and Rwanda are two very small countries in central Africa, each about the size of Maryland. Both became German colonies in the late 19th century, then Belgian colonies in 1916, and won independence in the early 1960s. The Germans and Belgians favored the Tutsi minorities over the Hutu majorities. Both countries suffered Tutsi/Hutu civil wars and massacres after independence, due largely to their being the most crowded, overpopulated, and rapidly growing populations in the world. Both are about 2/3 Roman Catholic, thanks to nearly a century of German and Belgian missionary activity.

    Burundi’s overpopulation crisis is spelled out in Jillian Keenan’s excellent feature article in the October 2015 issue of Population Connection, from which I quote relevant portions:

    “The Catholic Church was among the institutions that benefitted from the colonial approach to land. Missionaries, known as the ‘White Fathers’, began arriving in the late 19th century, and over several decades, the king gave them large tracts of land, which they used to establish churches, schools, hospitals, and farms. After colonialism ended, the self-sufficiency that land provided the church helped it retain influence, even as its influence with the newly independent government grew fraught.” Despite opposition from military leader Jean-Baptiste Bagaza in the 1970s, “The church retained millions of Burundian followers, along with plenty of land, though no one, it seems knew exactly how much.”

    “The Catholic Church was also complicit in nurturing Burundi’s ethnic divisions; Catholic schools, for instance, were largely reserved for ‘elite’ children, meaning Tutsis. Intensifying schisms led to various outbreaks of ethnic violence, and in 1972, the Tutsi-dominated military launched a series of pogroms targeting Hutus.”

    Beginning in 2011 the Dutch and German governments began supporting “programs promoting sexual and reproductive health, among other human rights.” But, Keenan continues, “It’s an uphill battle. According to the United Nations, modern contraceptive use among females between the ages of 15 and 49 was just 18.9% in 2010. … Then there is the Catholic Church: In addition to claiming an estimated 60% of Burundians as followers, the church has affiliations with roughly 30% of national health clinics, which are forbidden from distributing or discussing condoms, the pill, and other contraceptives. ‘Catholic teachings against birth control are very resonant with Burundian culture, which says that children are wealth,’ explains Longman of Boston University. ‘Because the Catholic Church is so powerful and controls so much of the health sector, it creates a huge stumbling block for family-planning practice’.”

    “In 2012, the Ministry of Public Health launched a series of ‘secondary health posts,’ which offer medical contraceptives; sometimes these clinics … are built right next  door to existing Catholic ones. … There is also tension over a variable with unknown dimensions: how much of the land the Catholic Church held onto after colonialism it still owns today. ‘The Catholic Church can’t keep owning all the land while Christians are starving,’ says a regional government employee in Kayanza, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for his safety. … ‘National politics don’t allow us to focus on the Catholic Church,’ he says, referring to the fact that the church’s followers are also voters’.”

    Many Burundians “fear that support for family planning is too little too late.”

    A great many Catholics worldwide are concerned about overpopulation and climate change, and most ignore the Vatican’s regressive policies on contraception, abortion and other matters, but far too many politicians, especially in the US, are afraid to stand up to what they fear might be church pressure. Gutsy politicians would call out, “The king – er, bishops – have no clothes!” Relevant is what I wrote in the National Catholic Reporter in February 2015:

    Pope Francis [is] to be commended for [his] forward push on climate change. Many of us are hoping that Francis will do the one thing that he and he alone can do about climate change: rescind Paul VI’s 1968 Humanae Vitae encyclical, promulgated in defiance of the vast majority of his own advisers. Since 1968 there have been 1.5 billion abortions worldwide, 50 million in the US alone. Vacating Humanae Vitae would seriously lower the abortion rate, save women’s lives, and contribute to reducing overpopulation  and such concomitants of climate change as resource depletion, environmental degradation, deforestation, soil erosion and nutrient loss, biodiversity shrinkage, rising sea levels (40% of world population lives in coastal areas), and increasing sociopolitical instability and violence.

    If Pope Francis is serious about social justice and climate change, the mess his church has helped create in Burundi and Rwanda would be good places to put action where his mouth is.

    Bertrand Russell wrote about overpopulation in his Marriage and Morals, the year before I was born (1930), when world population was 1/4 what it is today. Harrison Brown and other scientists were writing about it when I was in college. Before my kids were out of college the Ford administration finished the National Security Study Memorandum 200 report on overpopulation, which was immediately “classified” and deep-sixed until shortly before the 1994 UN Cairo population conference and is still virtually unknown. I am apparently one of the very few writers who published reviews of it. And today, with world population well over 7 billion, even a great many of the scientists, writers and politicians who are on the front lines on climate change are reluctant to say we need universal access to contraception, abortion and sexuality education, not to mention equal rights for all women.

    Edd Doerr was president of the American Humanist Association from 1995 to 2003, serving previously as vice-president and board chair under Isaac Asimov from 1985 to 1991. He has been executive director and then president of Americans for Religious Liberty since 1982. A former teacher of history and Spanish, he is the author, co-author, editor, or translator of twenty books, mostly on religious liberty and reproductive rights. He served on the governing body of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice from 1973 until 2004 and on the boards of NARAL, the ACLU of Maryland, and the National Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty. More than 3,000 of his articles, columns, reviews, and letters have been published in The Humanist and many other publications. For over ten years he has been writing a column in the journal Free Inquiry from the Council for Secular Humanism.


    What happened to American political will to deal with the overpopulation problem?
    Infallibility and the Population Problem
    NSSM 200, the Vatican, and the World Population Explosion
    The Vatican’s Role in the World Population Crisis: The Untold Story

    Professor Milton Siegel, who for 24 years was the Assistant Director-General of the World Health Organization, speaks to Dr. Stephen Mumford in 1992 to reveal that although there was a consensus that overpopulation was a grave public health threat and would be a major cause of preventable death not too far in the future, the Vatican successfully fought off the incorporation of family planning and birth control into official WHO policy. This video is available for public viewing for the first time. Read the full transcript of the interview here.

    Lester R. Brown interview with Rob Stewart

    Professor Paul Ehrlich: Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?

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    1. The very day after my article (above) was written and posted, Nicholas Kristoff’s column in the New York Times (“Half these kids are stunted,” Oct 15) discussed the fact that 39% of the kids in India “are stunted from poor nutrition”, over half of the kids in populous Uttar Pradesh state are stunted “physically and mentally.” Kristof adds that the only country where children are worse off than in Uttar Pradesh is BURUNDI. So, if Pope Francis really gives a damn about social justice and climate change, he will — he must — take action in the one place where he can do so right now. — Edd Doerr


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