From: Reuters
Published April 17, 2008 05:27 AM

Philippines population climbs, food problems loom

By Raju Gopalakrishnan

MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines' population has grown over two percent each year since 2000, the government said on Thursday, but experts said Asia's biggest Catholic nation was unlikely to change policies to slow the increase.

The country has one of the highest population growth rates in the region, with at least three babies born every minute. Its population reached 88.57 million at a census in August last year, up from 76.5 million in 2000, the government said on Thursday.

The figures come as the government grapples with soaring prices of rice, due at least partly to the inability of the country to grow enough of the staple to feed its rapidly growing population.

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As a measure of the seriousness of the problem, Manila has temporarily halted conversion of agricultural land for property development, hoping to ring-fence paddy fields to meet the food needs of the country.

Soldiers armed with M-16 automatic rifles guard the sale of subsidized rice and hoarders are being prosecuted.

The country's top economic planner said population control policies needed to be reviewed, but promoting artificial birth control, anathema to the Church, is not a likely option.

"The population is increasing and it means that government has to more vigorously implement its population policy, which is responsible parenthood and the advocacy for natural family planning," Economic Planning Secretary Augusto Santos told Reuters. "I think the population commission will have to review its policies," he added. "We really need greater efforts. It means we have to work harder to make the economy function more properly and more smoothly."

At least one-third of the country's population are poor and the number of poor is growing faster than the population.

Last month, government data showed that 28 million people were subsisting on less than $1 per day in 2006, up 16 percent from 2003.

But Santos said artificial birth control remained a sensitive issue.

In a nod to the Church, the government emphasizes natural family planning over artificial methods, and experts said there was not likely to be any change in this in the immediate future.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who came to power in 2001 with the backing of the Church, has consistently emphasized natural family planning. Government booklets on responsible parenting make no mention of condoms, pills or intrauterine devices.

MADE IT CLEAR

"She has made it very clear she will not purchase contraceptives, she will not promote any other method except what the Church approves and she has very strong links with the most conservative elements of the Church," said Alberto Romualdez, a former health secretary.

Still, the National Statistics Office said the annual population growth rate was 2.04 percent between 2000 and 2007.

Although that fell short of the aim of bringing the growth rate below 2 percent, it was a drop from the average annual growth of 2.34 percent between 1990 and 2000, officials said.

Romualdez said it was not good enough.

"For me, 2.04 percent is well within the normal variation of population growth rates with or without intervention by government. For me, 2.04 means that the government has not done anything."

Other experts, however, said it was a beginning.

"I think it is a significant drop," said Benjamin de Leon, President of the Forum for Family Planning and Development Inc. "But I still have to see in this administration a policy that informs people of the need to space their children, the need to plan their families."

According to the United Nations Population Fund, the average population growth rate in Asia is 1.1 percent.

Solita Monsod, professor of economics at the University of the Philippines, said the problem did not lie with the Church.

She said most Filipinos wanted to regulate their families and providing access to information and funding for civil service groups involved in family planning was key.

"Survey after survey has shown that when it comes to family planning, the Church does not make a difference," Monsod said. "The people don't have access. Give them what they want and then the population problem will take care of itself."

(Additional reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Valerie Lee)

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