Colombia Table of Contents

Population Trends

At the outset of the twentieth century, Colombia's population was approximately 4 million. By 1951 it had grown to more than 12 million. In mid-1988 it had reached an estimated 28 million. Population growth rose from 2 percent annually in the 1940s to a peak of 3.4 percent in the 1950s. It then slowed to the 2 percent rate by the mid-1970s and appeared to have stabilized at that level through the 1980s. Even at this lower rate of growth, however, the population was projected to reach 38 million by the year 2000.

When modern methods of disease control were adopted by an expanding public health system and average income growth began to rise in the late 1940s, the death rate fell rapidly. The birth rate remained at high levels until the early 1970s.

Life expectancy at birth was estimated to have grown steadily from forty-five years in 1951 to fifty-eight years in 1970, whereas the fertility rate remained nearly seven children per woman until the mid-1960s. The resulting rate of natural population increase between the late 1950s and the late 1960s was more than 3 percent annually, one of the highest rates in the world. Despite a net emigration during the 1960s, total population growth remained close to 3 percent through the end of the decade. Fertility began declining sharply in the mid-1960s to about four children per woman in the mid-1970s. The corresponding drop in the birth rate over the same period was among the most dramatic declines experienced in any country. Taking into account net emigration, the World Bank calculated the actual population growth rate at about 2 percent annually in the mid-1970s.

Since 1966 total fertility had fallen by about 45 percent. At the same time, life expectancy at birth had been extended by about 9 percent, whereas the infant mortality rate had dipped by 27 percent. A sharp decline in the dependency ratio also occurred over the same period, primarily the result of the steep decline in the birth rate.

The Colombian experience is remarkable in the abruptness and magnitude of the declines in mortality and fertility, particularly given the absence of radical changes in the social, political, or economic order. Similar declines have taken place in Cuba and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), but only under conditions of drastic regime change.

A variety of factors combined to produce the fertility decline in Colombia. As in most countries, fertility patterns varied widely among Colombian socioeconomic groups. In the late 1960s, for example, Colombian women living in rural areas who had not completed primary education had a total fertility rate of 8 children, compared with 3.4 children for urban women with at least a full primary education. Since the beginning of the steep fertility decline in the early 1960s, substantial shifts have occurred in the socioeconomic composition of Colombia's population. Typically, low-fertility groups, such as better-educated urban women, have increased their share of the population at the expense of high-fertility groups. Thus, even if reproductive patterns within different socioeconomic groups had not changed, the average fertility rate would have declined.

Family planning programs did not initiate the fertility decline because such programs did not begin until after the onset of the rapid fertility decline. Nevertheless, Colombia's well-organized family planning programs helped to keep the growth rate down. Information about and use of contraceptives increased rapidly after 1969, when the government began its support of family planning. In that year, the Liberal Party (Partido Liberal--PL) administration of President Carlos Lleras Restrepo (1966-70) began providing subsidized family planning services in local health centers through the maternal and child health program of the Ministry of Public Health. In 1972 and 1973, the Conservative Party (Partido Conservador--PC) government of Misael Pastrana Borrero (1970-74) extended services to postpartum cases in about ninety hospitals throughout the country. Family planning services were substantially more accessible in urban than rural areas and more widely available through the private sector in urban areas; as much as 50 percent of the services were probably obtained from private entities. The government also subsidized consumers of contraceptives. Between 1969 and 1976, the proportion of women with knowledge of contraceptives rose from 51 percent to 72 percent. By 1976 about 95 percent of married women had this knowledge; 59 percent of married women had put this knowledge to use in 1976--a large jump from 34 percent in 1969.

Despite the dramatic fertility decline, the World Bank emphasized that a considerable gap remained in the 1980s between existing fertility levels and those prevailing in modern industrial societies. Thus, the demographic transition in Colombia was far from complete. The experience of more industrialized countries suggested that eventually fertility would decline to the twochildren level. Whether this occurred quickly (by 2000) or slowly (by 2020) would greatly affect the eventual size of the country's population, the expansion rate of the labor force in the 1990s and beyond, and thus the social overhead investment and fiscal burden that the society would have to underwrite.

Urbanization, Migration, and Immigration

For more recent population estimates, see Facts about Colombia.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress