This story also appeared on PBS NEWSHOUR. A related story can be found on American Public Media’s Marketplace.

The Philippines’ swelling population is causing fishing villages to embrace birth control for the first time, and not just as a means to plan their families. They also see it as a path to long-term food security, ensuring that future generations enjoy the same abundance of fish.

YouTube video


Reporter Sam Eaton: The Danajon Double Barrier Reef off of Bohol Island in the southern Philippines is one of the richest marine biodiversity hot spots in the world. 

But just a short boat ride away, more than a million people depend on these fishing grounds for their food and livelihoods. Rice may be the staple food of the Philippines, but fish provide most of the protein in daily diets. And as the population of communities like this one soar, nearly tripling in the last three decades, the effect on the reef has been devastating. Fishermen are resorting to extreme tactics to boost their declining catch.

Nazario Avenido: We capture one boat this morning.

Eaton: Nazario Avenido and his group of volunteers operate 24-hour patrols, trying to protect their local fishing grounds. Illegal fishing has become rampant.  Many use dynamite or cyanide, indiscriminately killing everything within their reach. Avenido has confiscated more than 50 boats and hundreds of illegal nets in recent years.

Today, he seized this boat. Its owner, who escaped capture, was using a banned net that wreaks havoc on spawning grounds and sensitive corals. Avenido says the violators aren’t bad people. They’re just hungry.

Avenido: Because there is no other solution, especially when they are very poor family.

Eaton: Poor, in a country that has one of the highest population growth rates in all of Southeast Asia, every year adding about 2 million more mouths to feed.

Walden Bello: It’s a hell of a problem. I think you just need to look at the statistics.

Eaton: Congressman Walden Bello says the Philippines is already beyond its carrying capacity. And that’s today, with a population just shy of 100 million people.

Bello: And so the demographers are really worried because they feel that most likely, at the earliest, we’ll be stabilizing at 200 million in 2080.

Eaton: That eventual doubling of the population presents an existential threat to the Philippines, especially for the people who depend on its natural resources for food. 

I traveled to a rural fishing village, called Humayhumay, to see how the issues of population growth, food and the environment are connected. And what I found was surprising. 

Jason Bostero and his wife, Crisna, both grew up in large families typical of this area. But unlike the generations before them, the Bosteros made a deliberate choice to have only two children: James and Cyril Jean, ages 6 and 9. 

Jason Bostero: My income is just right to feed us three times a day. It’s really, really different when you have a small family.

Eaton: That choice to have a smaller family was motivated by memories of going hungry as young children. 

Crisna Bostero: In my case, we were really hard up before. Sometimes, we would only eat once a day because we were so poor. We couldn’t go to school. I did not finish my school because there were just so many of us. 

Eaton: The reason the Bosteros were able to have a smaller family is because they could choose to. A community-based family planning program has made birth control options like the pill accessible and affordable – at about 70 cents a month ­– for the first time in their village.

Joan Castro: In villages, we train and identify community-based distributors like this to be able to sell pills and condoms anytime.

Eaton: Dr. Joan Castro started the program here. 

Castro: And this becomes as easy as buying soft drinks or matches.

Eaton: She’s with the PATH Foundation Philippines, a group funded mostly through USAID. What makes her program unique is its emphasis on local partners.

Castro (talking with storeowner): Which brand of birth control pills are you selling more of?

Storeowner: They like the yellow one because it’s cheaper.

Castro (talking with storeowner): How much is it?

Castro: The idea is to be able to bring access to the people.

Eaton: Access that in remote villages like Humayhumay was nonexistent before the PATH Foundation came in. In just six years since the program was first established here, family sizes have plummeted from as many as 12 children to a maximum of about four today.

This village is one of the PATH Foundation’s longest-running case studies. And what it’s showing is how closely tied family planning is with environmental conservation and putting food on the table.

Out on the Danajon Double Barrier Reef, where Jason Bostero fishes every morning, the shift to smaller families is already paying dividends. He and his neighbors have created a marine preserve to help revive fish stocks. And it’s working. With smaller families, thinking about future generations is a luxury fishermen like Bostero can afford.

Jason Bostero: Family planning is helpful because if you control the number of your children, you don’t need as many fish to support your family. If you have many children, it’s difficult to support them.

Eaton: Outside of Humayhumay, where birth control remains largely out of reach, the struggle to put food on the table from one day to the next dominates life.

Down the road, the gymnasium in the region’s main town, Ubay, was filled recently with people waiting to collect government assistance checks for food. Many stood in line for up to 12 hours. 

Man on microphone: Let’s be quick because we don’t have enough time …

Eaton: For the families gathered here, these checks are a lifeline, making up for the declining catch from the sea.

This scene is one that neighboring countrieslike Thailand and Indonesia have largely avoided, thanks to state-sponsored family planning programs. But Congressman Walden Bello says in the Philippines, any efforts to do the same have faced stiff resistance.

Bello: What’s happening is a hard-line, scorched-earth opposition on the part of the Catholic church hierarchy to any form of artificial contraception.

Eaton: And in a country that’s 80 percent Catholic, that opposition means something. For more than a decade, the church’s leadership has rallied against a reproductive health bill in Congress that would guarantee universal access to birth control. Recently, it even threatened the president with excommunication for supporting the bill.

Oscar Cruz: That’s why I say, “Don’t fool with the church.” Because she will bury you.

Eaton: Filipino Archbishop Emeritus Oscar Cruz says the key to everyone having enough food to eat is a question of development, not population control.

Cruz: Once, I was asked, “Which would you prefer: to have less mouths to feed or to have more food to eat?” And I said, “Is there a choice there?” (I think the more practical and immediate answer is that) come on, if you have more mouths to feed, then produce more food to eat! Not the other way around.

Eaton: But that challenge, to produce more food, is already testing the limits of ecosystems, both on land and sea. Today, the Philippines imports more rice than any other nation on the planet. And according to the World Bank, every major species of fish here shows signs of severe overfishing. Technological advances have helped boost the food supply, but they’ve failed to keep pace with the Philippine’s surging population growth. 

Maternity wards like this one, at a Manila hospital, are overwhelmed. Dr. Esmeraldo Ilem heads the hospital’s family planning unit, but spends most of his time these days with new mothers.

Esmeraldo Ilem: She’s only 29 years old. This is her seventh child.

Eaton: According to the Guttmacher Institute, more than half of all pregnancies in the Philippines are unintended. It’s the poor who come here for maternity care.  But if they want to prevent pregnancies, they’re out of luck. Absent any state funding for birth control, Dr. Ilem has little to offer.

That’s a stark contrast to the Bohol Island fishing village, Humayhumay, where family planning is as close as the corner store. Here, the PATH Foundation Philippines program has taken on a life of its own. The project is now fully integrated with the local government’s rural health unit. 

Castro: The vision of the project is in this community. You see more children who are able to become leaders and speak out for themselves in the future and be able to become stewards of their own sexuality and the future of the environment. This is the legacy.

Eaton: Dr. Castro says success stories like this one can help overcome traditional attitudes about birth control. Jason and Crisna Bostero, both practicing Catholics, don’t see a conflict between their religious beliefs and family planning. For them, it’s about something much more immediate, like what kind of future they’re going to pass on to their two children.

Crisna Bostero: I don’t want them to be like us, just to fish the sea, just to farm the land. This is not an easy way to earn a living. You are exposed to the sun.  It’s better if they can finish their courses so they can have comfortable lives.

Eaton: With both of their children in school, the Bosteros are hopeful about their future. But it’s a future that could easily be overwhelmed by outside forces. After all, this is only one village in a country still deadlocked over a family planning law, in a world that’s projected to have 9 billion mouths to feed by the middle of the century.

Reporter/Producer: Sam Eaton
Camera: Sam Eaton
Editor: Charlotte Buchen
Local fixer: Carlos Conde
Additional field translation: Mercy Butawan
Consulting Producer: Stephen Talbot
Series producer: Cassandra Herrman
Executive producer, Food for 9 Billion: Sharon Tiller

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Sam Eaton

Sam Eaton is an independent radio and television journalist based in Los Angeles.  His reporting on complex environmental issues from climate change to population growth has taken him all over the United States and the world.