SAN JOSE, Costa Rica--By no stretch of the imagination could Costa Rica be described as overcrowded: According to recent figures, it has a population density of only 163 people per square mile, or 63 per square kilometer. Vast areas of the country are under cultivation, growing coffee, bananas, oranges and many other crops, and some 25 percent of its land has been set aside as wilderness conservation areas.
And yet, population remains a concern. The reason: Although Costa Rica's fertility rate has declined sharply from 7.3 births per women to its present level of 3.1 births, the country's population is still expected to double in less than forty years. (The best estimates put the population growth rate at 2.4 percent.)
Another factor adding to population concerns is immigration, much of it illegal. Costa Rica's minister for natural resources, Rene Castro, told The Earth Times that hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants have fled political and economic problems--worsened by a five-year drought that has destroyed subsistence crops--in neighboring Nicaragua and El Salvador. Those immigrants, he said, now constitute 10 per cent of Costa Rica's population.
"And," he added, in a jibe at California's latest referendum, "we don't kick them out of the schools."
Education has long been one of this country's greatest strengths. But ironically it is precisely because of those strengths that some observers are concerned about the future. They worry that the fertility rate seems to have stopped declining, even though Costa Ricans do not fit the profile of a high-fertility country: They enjoy remarkably high standards of health care and education--the literacy rate among women is 93 percent--and are less troubled than their neighbors by widespread poverty.
Another ironic cause for concern is the high level of families using family planning: 75 percent. That's the highest rate in Central America, more than three times the contraception rate in neighboring Guatemala. Add to that the fact that the government of Costa Rica has been actively addressing its population problems, with the help of the UN Population Fund (Unfpa), since 1970--and the country's relatively high fertility rate becomes even more difficult to understand.
Along with their concern over excessive population growth, government planners are also troubled by the trend toward urbanization. Costa Rican cities are expanding at an annual rate of 3.6 percent. And roughly two-thirds of the country's population is crowded into the Central Region (the area surrounding this capital city of San Jose), which occupies only 20 percent of the country's land.
To deal with the overcrowding of its cities, Costa Rica has begun promoting the development of small rural population centers and has decentralized some of its services. It is also encouraging people in rural areas to participate in local government, as a way of inducing them to stay where they are and not pull up stakes and head for the cities. To promote family planning, the government has tried advertising on radio and television, with special emphasis on reducing the rate of teenage pregnancies.
Costa Rica's government is also trying to address regional differences in social conditions and access to family planning services. With Unfpa's assistance, it has embarked on a program of trying to improve the condition of women in the Caribbean coastal province of Limon, bordering Panama, which is one of the country's least developed regions. Reports suggest that among the young women of Limon (age 15 to 24), the rate of contraceptive use in only 5 percent. The fertility rate is among the highest in the country.