"In the Name of Forests": Highlights of the History of Family Planning in Costa Rica

By Carranza, Maria | Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies, January 2010 | Go to article overview

"In the Name of Forests": Highlights of the History of Family Planning in Costa Rica


Carranza, Maria, Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies


Lo ideal era haber esperado eso de un gran cientifico en obstetricia o ... que se yo, en enfermedades sexuales de la mujer, por decirlo de alguna manera. Y no aparecio de ahi. Aparecio en ... trabajadores de la tierra. Que raro ...! [The logical thing was to have gotten that from a great scientist in obstetrics or, ... I don't know, in sexual diseases of women, so to speak. And it didn't originate there. It came from ... land workers. How strange ...!] (Dr. Alvaro Zuniga, interview, December 2008)

In most Latin American countries, the 1960s saw the emergence, with significant help from agencies interested in controlling population growth in third world countries, of private institutions aimed at the provision of contraception. Costa Rica was not an exception. The Asociacion Demografica Costarricense (Costa Rican Demographic Association [ADC]) was founded in 1966. La demografica, as it was commonly referred to, was the first institution in the country to offer contraceptives. It was the ADC that transformed population growth and family planning into matters that could be publicly addressed, and the one that created the necessary conditions to legitimize the legal provision of contraceptives in state institutions. (1)

There is almost no information regarding contraceptive practices (methods or provision) prior to the establishment of the ADC. Neither is there much information regarding the origins of this association. (2) The little information available indicates that the provision of "modern" contraceptives in Costa Rica started during the early 1960s in parallel form at two different places: the Clinica Biblica in the capital of San Jose and Turrialba, a little town 53 kilometres from San Jose. This contraceptive distribution, the story goes, was the one that gave rise to the ADC. In this way, Turrialba irrupted again as a pioneer in the field of contraception. Eight years before, while analyzing the use of contraceptive sterilization in Costa Rica at a time when that use was illegal, I had found that Turrialba--for me just an average little rural town--represented in women's imaginary a quasi-mythical place where one could gain access to sterilization without major problems. This study, which originated almost as a response to my precise interest in understanding Turrialba's standing in the field of family planning, soon showed itself to be a fascinating endeavour. The history I present here is exceptional and ordinary at the same time--exceptional to the extent that it defies all assumptions, ordinary because its conditions of possibility were similar to those that allowed the development of family planning activities in the rest of Latin America.

Contrary to what is commonly thought about the introduction of family planning, this is not a health history. Its main actors are environmentalists worried about the negative effects of population growth. The concern with the deterioration of the environment, mainly deforestation, was a fundamental motive for starting to provide contraceptives in Costa Rica. In this motivation, as well as in the conditions that made this story possible, the Instituto Interamericano de Ciencias Agricolas (Interamerican Institute of Agricultural Sciences [IICA]), dedicated to the teaching of agriculture and situated in Turrialba since 1942, played a central role. Finally, this story--one that, given its location, could well be considered peripheral--has also been shown to be central. In it, important figures of the era in the fields of conservation, demography, population control, and the reproductive sciences take part in direct or indirect ways.

As the word "highlights" in the subtitle indicates, this article does not aim to be exhaustive. On the contrary, it tackles a very precise aspect of the introduction of contraception in Costa Rica: the activities that took place in Turrialba. It puts particular emphasis on the role played by concern for the environment as a fundamental motive for the introduction of contraceptive activities, and the role played by the IICA in the creation of both a propitious environment for such activities and also a clearinghouse for the concerns related to population growth. …

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