Opinion

Indonesian population
growth must be controlled
to save the environment

Several decades ago, the Indonesian government was praised for its successful family planning program. The program was intense as well as extensive.

Every Indonesian child remembers the slogan: Two children is enough. It also introduced the notion of a small, happy and prosperous family, equating it with a picture of a family with two children.

All layers of society including religious leaders were involved in the family planning program, with Muslim scholars ensuring that family planning was lawful in Islamic law.

Since the collapse of the New Order, the family planning program has been neglected as the central government is no longer campaigning intensively for birth control. The program is now in the hands of local governments, and not many regents and mayors attach much importance to controlling the birth rate in their communities.

Indonesia's population is growing fast and has doubled in 50 years. If Indonesia's does not make a conscious effort to rein in the birth rate, the country's population may reach an alarming 400 million in the year 2060.

An optimistic person might see the country's large population as a potential for economic growth, as it would signify bigger markets for products and a significantly larger labor force to make those products. But for individuals concerned with the environment, large populations represent a serious threat, as over-population is the root of environmental problems, causing unsanitary living conditions, the depletion of resources, environmental pollution and poverty.

Assuming people's lifestyle does not change, if the population size doubles, then twice the amount of natural resources will be needed, twice as much as rice will have to be produced and twice as many as houses will have to be built.

However, to produce more rice we need to have twice as many rice fields. How can this be sustainable when existing rice fields are continuously shrinking to make room for settlements as the need for housing increases?

Our demand for clothes, electricity and transportation will also increase. More minerals will have to be mined, more forest felled, more fish caught. Our natural resources will soon be depleted.

A large population not only depletes resources, but also increases pollution. Our waste will double. Our rivers will receive more garbage. Our air will be contaminated with more dangerous gases. The quality of our environment will be deteriorated and our health will be jeopardized. More money will have to be spent on health care.

The situation will be worse if people increase their standard of living. As more people want to buy cars and air conditioners, more resources will be consumed and more waste will be produced. Even with people's current lifestyle and today's population level, our natural resource use is not sustainable and our waste treatment and disposal in big cities are serious problems.

To avoid environmental disasters and other problems associated with over-population, the central government must focus on stopping population growth.

By doing so, the government can spend the money that would otherwise be used to feed a larger group of people to improve people's quality of life and the quality of its people instead. Our labor force will be of a higher standard.

The family planning program must be revived with the same enthusiasm as in the New Order regime. It must not be left in the hands of local governments as many heads of districts and mayors have little knowledge about the disastrous impact of over-population.

Incentives must be given to families with two children or fewer, and disincentives to those with more than two children. For example, the government could make state education for a family's first two children free, and charge higher tuition fees for all other children.

The government must launch a massive awareness campaign so that every Indonesian understands that small size families are ultimately better for the country as well as for the family unit itself. Parents with many children will feel guilty about, and even ashamed of their family's size. We also need to discuss in more detail the religious and human rights aspects of population control. Some people may think all parents have the right to decide how many children they want and that it is a violation of human rights to impose restrictions on family size.

Religious leaders must be convinced that controlling population growth is good for the planet and the people living on it. It is therefore a religious duty to keep the human population at a level the planet can cope with.

Letting the population grow beyond the Earth's capacity to provide for it will trigger not only an environmental disaster, but also a human calamity. It is imperative that we all do our share in bringing population growth under control.

The writer is the head of the Forestry Department at the University of Bengkulu.

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