Just think...: Unintended consequences

The Quetzaltenango farm highlands in Guatemala were photographed in 2009. A high birth rate coupled with better medical care mean that Guatemala is approaching a crisis in terms of its ability to feed its people.

Jim and Emily have known each other since she was 11 and he was the archery instructor at her Girl Scout camp. Emily loved writing letters and maintained a correspondence with almost everyone she met at camp, including Jim. They were pen pals for roughly a decade while Jim got his degree, worked and lived in various places, married and divorced.

Occasionally Jim would visit Emily, ensconced in her big Catholic family; he’d become a family friend because he had a pilot’s license and shared a love of flying with Emily’s father. When Jim’s marriage was long over, their friendship turned to dating and then marriage. Emily had set her heart on the Peace Corps while she was a teenager, so she drew Jim with her into a 27-month commitment in Guatemala.

Over dinner, Emily and Jim regaled us with stories about their high mountain life. They said the United Nations says Guatemala has little hope of eradicating the corruption that operates at all levels. One example was a local person who went to the community asking for money to help Jim and Emily and then pocketed the money ... money that wasn’t needed anyway because the Peace Corps covers all the volunteers’ expenses.

Guatemala was long a Spanish colony; that may have contributed to the extreme poverty that Emily and Jim experienced there, but the isolation of each community may be an even bigger factor now. Villages are isolated in drainages, separated by rugged mountain ranges. The topography makes a town a mere 12 miles away (if you could fly like a bird) an eight-hour bus trip down one drainage and then up the next to reach the second town. This isolation also means that there are over 21 indigenous languages, and people from different regions may not be able to communicate. Spanish is the official language, but not all people are conversant, much less fluent. It would be as if people in the Bear River drainage couldn’t communicate with people along the Naselle.

Jim and Emily’s task was to teach very basic health practices that had to do with sanitation and spreading germs. The concept of germs was exotic in itself, so that idea had to be taught first: “Something you can’t see can make you sick.” Then there was the issue of family planning. It wasn’t unusual for a couple to have eight, 10 or 12 children and the living conditions (10,000 feet elevation and wet and rainy nine months of the year) meant food and shelter for that many children, much less education, was an overwhelming task. Typical education was third grade for men and less for women (who rarely even knew Spanish).

The people are devout Catholics and so, of course, the idea of birth control is not only a foreign concept, but in this case, inexplicable. Jim and Emily were often queried, “You’re married? Where are your children? Your children must be with your parents so you can come here.” It took careful explaining, according to Emily. “Yes, we’re married, but no, we have no children.” The response was puzzlement: “Here in Guatemala, we get married and then have a child a year later.”

Birth control measures are almost totally inaccessible, economically and geographically, given that routine family planning services exist only in the cities. Add to this the continuing machismo of the culture that says lots of children prove a man’s virility, putting his perceived masculinity at stake. Still, one man came to Jim privately to say, “I’m doing all I can to provide for my wife and five children. I don’t want any more children. What can I do?”

Ironically, better health leads to unintended consequences. A medical doctor working in Guatemala told Emily and Jim that in the past a couple would have 10 children, but only three would live to adulthood to have their own children. Now, seven of those 10 will survive. The doctor said, “A crisis is approaching.”

To put this in perspective, think about this: China is roughly the size of the U.S. in terms of land mass, but to have the same population (1.3 billion) we’d have to add all the people who live in Canada, Central and South America, Japan, and Nigeria to the people currently living here. Imagine how different that would be. With that population impact, I can understand why the Chinese government imposed a one-child maximum — harsh, authoritarian, but perhaps realistic in order to create higher quality of life for individuals, families and society as a whole.


Victoria Stoppiello is a freelance writer whose maternal great-grandparents had 16 children in Clark County; her maternal grandparents had four. You can reach her at anthonyvictoria1@gmail.com.

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