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How to Tell the Biggest Stories of Our Times

Huama farmers harvest their crop. Half the population lived as subsistence peasants in the year 2012, according to the World Bank. Credit: Milagros Salazar/IPS

CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee, U.S., Oct 5 2013 (IPS) - What does gorilla conservation have in common with the provision of contraceptives to women? How does rural-urban migration contribute to global warming? What does city planning in Kenya have to do with coastal erosion in the Philippines?

Such are the topics of conversation at the 23rd annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), running from Oct. 2-6 in what was, until 1960, referred to as “the dirtiest city in America”: Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Besides exploring an urban centre that has made the impressive about-turn from a highly polluted landscape into a model of sustainability, the nearly 300 journalists convened here are looking past their many differences to answer some fundamental questions about the profession.

What is the role of the media in an era of rapid climate change? How do we tell the interconnected stories of population, development and environmental crisis? And, more, importantly, is anyone listening?

Speaking at a pre-conference workshop entitled ‘From Chattanooga to Chennai: reporting on population and sustainability in an urbanising world’, Meaghan Parker, of the Woodrow Wilson Centre and associate board member of SEJ, pointed out that the global urban population is expected to nearly double from its 2009 total of 3.4 billion people to 6.4 billion by 2050.

Citing World Bank statistics, she added that in the decade between 1995 and 2005, cities in developing countries welcomed 165,000 newcomers every single day. By the middle of the century, seven out of 10 people will live in an urban area.

These numbers have long had population experts on red alert but seldom made it into dinner table conversations, let alone onto front-page headlines.

But as the planet gets hotter – with the U.N.’s latest comprehensive climate change report predicting an “ice-free” Arctic by 2050, much sooner than previously anticipated –more voices are sounding the alarm that densely-packed cities are disasters waiting to happen.

Others are finding ways to link rural flight with erratic temperatures, a combination that is altering the basic composition of the earth’s human population, 50 percent of which lived as subsistence peasants in the year 2012, according to the World Bank.

Yet at every turn, journalists attempting to thread together the umpteen strands of this crisis say they are thwarted by a global media industry reluctant to accept stories that fail to fit into established paradigms.

“If we pitch a story on how climate change and natural disasters affect women from poor communities in the U.S., we’re told it’s a ‘human interest story’. If we pitch on the weather hazards of the construction industry, we’re told it’s a ‘labour story’,” a reporter from a prominent U.S. news outlet told IPS under condition of anonymity.

“If we talk about climate refugees lacking access to health services, we’re told it’s a ‘human rights’ piece – it’s almost impossible to connect the science of climate change with the human impacts of those changes.”

Forced to think outside the box, journalists are stretching the narrow limits of the profession by working closely with researchers and grassroots activists for whom the links between environmental justice and population are inseparable.

In southwestern Uganda, a small NGO known as Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) has teamed up with communities on the fringes of the secluded Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (BINP) to achieve the twin goals of gorilla conservation and improved access to family planning.

With a wild population of just 880, mountain gorillas are one of the most critically endangered species on earth, according to Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, founder and CEO of CTPH.

Nearly half of those gorillas live in BINP, whose outlying areas are among the most densely populated in all of Africa, housing some 200 people per square kilometre.

This is partly a result of Uganda’s massive population boom – which took the country from 6.5 million people in 1959 to 28.5 million in 2008 – and a high-fertility rate in the region: the average family size is 10 people in Bwindi, well above the already high national average of seven.

Speaking at a panel at the Chattanooga Convention Centre Friday, Kalema-Zikusoka said the gorillas enter human settlements where people live in squalid conditions, 20 miles from the nearest health centre. In such close quarters, gorillas frequently lay waste to farmers’ crops, and pick up and transmit diseases like scabies and tuberculosis (TB).

With one of the top 22 TB infection rates in the world, Uganda is already in the middle of a veritable health crisis, lacking the resources to reach remote communities and stop the outbreak, which is exacerbated by the country’s high HIV/AIDS rate.

Inspired by the emerging field of “conservation medicine”, Kalema-Zikusoka launched CTPH in 2003. Today the initiative reaches some 40,000 people, teaching them how to prevent the spread of diseases from ape to human and vice versa, and recruiting them into conservation efforts that double up as economic opportunities.

In addition, the programme deploys ‘couple peer educators’ to deliver information about family planning services to combat the region’s high infant and maternal morbidity, and reduce overpopulation.

“Now, 60 percent of women in the two parishes where the programme was piloted use some form of contraception and we’ve seen an 11-percent increase in TB suspect referrals,” said Kalema-Zikusoka, adding that scientists are also recording fewer signs of sickness among gorillas.

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