Letter: Catholic church coercion that denies choice over the size of the family

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Sir: Richard Dowden must be flying across a very different Africa from the one that I regularly cross if he looks down 'on virgin bush and forest almost devoid of human habitation. Doze off and wake up an hour later (that's 900km), and you are still flying across the same landscape. Africa is an empty continent.'

Try Air Zaire's bus-stop route from Dakar, via Abidjan, Lome and Libreville to Kinshasa and you fly over vast areas where less than 5 per cent of the original forest cover remains, and where more than half of all agricultural pursuits are non-sustainable. Or take Ethiopian Airlines' flight from Dakar via Bamako, Niamey and NDjamena to Addis Ababa and you can literally see the Sahara desert advancing towards the world's most impoverished societies.

Then fly on from Addis to Nairobi on a Kenya Airways flight and watch the millions of tons of topsoil being eroded from the deforested mountain country around Addis. When landing in Nairobi, it is worth reflecting on how quarrels over land-use are beginning to stoke the embers of ethnic conflict. And then on with Air Zimbabwe to Harare, watching the plumes of fire all around as yet more forest meets its death. And from Harare on Air Namibia, crossing a Kalahari which is increasingly being trampled by a cattle population that is at least twice the size it ought to be, using up fossil water from boreholes, till it is culled by the next severe drought.

Population is only one part of the complex matrix of Africa's problems, but more than 80 per cent of all Africans live in places where population increases at the present rate can provide no conceivable benefits. And that is one reason why well-planned family planning programmes in Africa are showing increasing success.

Yours sincerely,


London, SW9

5 September