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Colombian peasants wooed with land to adopt family planning

Think of the 10 women who just had their fallopian tubes tied at a clinic in northern Colombia as foot soldiers in Erwin Goggel’s lonely war on overpopulation and poverty.

A film producer and heir to a dairy fortune, Goggel is offering nine-acre plots rent-free to poor men and women who agree to have vasectomies and tubal ligations. He pays for all the surgical procedures, including the 10 operations performed late last month in Monteria, the capital of Cordoba state, about 30 miles south of here.

Goggel, a 61-year-old father of two who had a vasectomy 10 years ago, says his offer is aimed at alleviating Colombia’s grinding poverty, which he insists is directly proportional to the size of peasant families. If population growth trends persist, he predicts an apocalyptic future for Colombia and the planet.

“The middle-class lifestyle as we know it, with a car, a refrigerator and a good education for the kids, is out of the question for these people,” said Goggel, whose shock of gray curly hair hints at his hippie past. “They are in a vicious cycle that a high rate of reproduction perpetuates. Big, poor families are in an economic hole that they can’t see out of.”

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So far about 46 couples, the majority with three or four children, have taken him up on the offer. Most are landless sharecroppers or day laborers native to the region who have settled in this village and grow subsistence crops of plantain, beans and sesame seeds. Goggel is distributing 25 more parcels this month.

“It was not a hard decision at all. Before Erwin, every day was a struggle to survive. Now I can live on what I produce,” said Anibal Del Rio, 34, father of four. “More than one guy has made fun of me, saying I’ve been castrated, that I’ll leave women behind. But I don’t mind. What matters is what I think, not what others say.”

Goggel acknowledges that the response has been less than overwhelming to the offer he first made in 2002. He blames “machismo and ignorance” about vasectomies and the fact that he doesn’t give the peasants who take up his offer title to the land, allowing instead “sanctioned squatting.”

Vasectomies and tubal ligations are legal in Colombia, but the Roman Catholic Church, a powerful social force, frowns upon them. So far, however, Goggel said, the church hasn’t put any obstacles in his way.

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“We are still very small scale,” he said. “The church probably figures, why make a fuss?”

Public health professor Gloria Garay agrees with Goggel to a point, but worries that focusing on reproductive habits deflects attention from the responsibilities of the state to provide for its poorest citizens.

“It’s not just individual behavior but also social policy that sometimes keeps us from maintaining conditions of human dignity,” said Garay, who is with the National University of Colombia in the capital, Bogota. “Keep in mind that as much as we’ve reduced the birthrate in recent decades, half the country still lives in poverty.”

Goggel’s hopes that other landowners and even the Colombian government would embrace his idea have so far come to nothing. Ricardo Gonzalez, the director of Goggel’s House and Land Foundation, said one neighboring landowner responded to Goggel’s request that he give land to the poor by saying: “The only thing I’ll give you is a bullet in the head.”

Still, Goggel, who has spent more than $500,000 to buy 900 acres for the program, says he will press on. He will not change his current practice of not transferring deeds to the families, fearing some would sell the property and revert to the rootless lifestyles many led.

That would defeat one purpose of his program: to provide a stable environment for the children of the poor couples, Goggel said. So, instead his foundation holds the title to the parcels.

“We’re trying to give the country an idea how to approach the problem, hoping for a snowball effect,” Goggel said. “But most people don’t see the planet is doomed. They are face down in their own bowl of soup and can’t see any farther.”

Even those who do not share Goggel’s apocalyptic view of the future agree that Colombia’s birthrate is high and contributes to the poverty rate.

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According to a United Nations survey, Colombia has a birthrate of 20.6 annual births per 1,000 inhabitants, above the relatively high Latin American average of 19.1 births, and 50% higher than the United States’ rate of 13.83.

More distressing, said Garay, the public health professor, is the surge in teenage pregnancies to 90 births per 1,000 girls in 2005 from 70 in 1985.

“This is causing alarm, above all because the girls are getting pregnant despite knowing all the consequences that early maternity brings,” said Garay, who maintains that sex education has improved in recent years.

Goggel’s late father, Walter, emigrated from Switzerland and founded the Alpina dairy company near Bogota in 1945. The company since has grown into one of Latin America’s largest dairy producers. But Erwin showed little interest in business. He pursued social causes and a career in theater and film production.

A self-described former Maoist, Goggel said it was his effort to establish an ecological reserve near here that opened his eyes to the region’s grinding poverty. When wild animals such as armadillos, iguanas and herons kept disappearing, he discovered that peasants were capturing and eating them to survive.

Further investigation showed that peasant families, often with six, seven or eight children, “were living in terrifying misery and that their vision of the future extended no farther than avoiding hunger for a day.”

Each generation was worse off. “It was the exception to come across sons who were better off than their fathers.”

Asked how she and her husband had made out since accepting Goggel’s offer last June, Marta Acosta, a 26-year-old mother of two, said life had improved.

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“Even with the two children we have, it’s still a battle against hunger. But I didn’t want to reach the point of choosing which child to give Christmas presents to,” she said.

“How many more children does the world need, or must God send?”

Kraul is a special correspondent.


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