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15.Colonization in Central America

Objectives and dangers of colonization in the humid tropics
Ecological regions Of Central America
The process of colonization In Central America
Country situations
The process of land conversion
Research and implementation needs

Jeffrey R. Jones

Objectives and dangers of colonization in the humid tropics

Although at one time the history of the colonization of Central America presented no major conflicts due to the abundance of forested land, this is no longer the case. The process of colonization is increasingly directed toward public lands which have been, or should be, set aside for environmental reasons. The protection of water supplies, the control of erosion, the maintenance of forest reserves, and the conservation of natural resources are needs which are coming into conflict with farmers' needs for new agricultural land. The conflict of public welfare and individual welfare is repeated in innumerable ways through the process of colonization; the value of farmers' welfare and of agricultural production must be balanced with the welfare of urban dwellers needing fresh water and protection from floods; the value of short term economic production must be balanced with the value of longer term income generation from forest resources; the international importance of natural scenic and genetic resources must be balanced with the immediate needs of the local population.

Modern colonists are now forced to occupy humid and very humid tropical forest areas, since these are the only remaining forest lands. These areas had been avoided in the past, due to problems inherent in their use. Heavy rains make overland transport difficult, in addition to causing agricultural problems such as fungal disease, waterlogging, and soil erosion.

What little success can be observed has been achieved through the application of knowledge gained from rudimentary empirical investigations on the part of farmers who find themselves in new environmental conditions. These farmers have developed new agricultural techniques, experimented with new crops, and tested production strategies to tune them to local environmental and socio-economic conditions (such as soil, markets, land tenure). These relatively successful techniques constitute a pool of "indigenous technical knowledge" (Brokensha et al. 1980) which forms one of the most important resources for the development of humid areas.

It should be emphasized that the use of what are now termed "fragile" lands for agricultural purposes is possible on a sustained basis. Indigenous populations occupied these areas quite successfully (Nations and Nigh [1980] give an example for southern Mexico and Carter [1969] for Guatemala), but the pressures of increased population and attempts to introduce new crops and intensified production methods either ignore more appropriate traditional strategies or simply push them past their capacities. Even with crops suited to humid tropical environments, care must be taken to maintain a balance between productivity and sustainability. A negative example is the persistent use of chemical fungicides in banana plantations in Central America to control the black sigatoka disease; many years are required before soil toxicity drops to levels which will permit cultivation.

It is possible to dwell on the environmental problems of the use of humid tropical lands and to overlook some of the positive examples and possibilities for the use of these areas. Cacao and coffee have been very successful, both environmentally and economically, in Central America. On a much larger scale, the comparative advantage for forestry in humid tropical areas has yet to be completely exploited. Permanent woody crops are most appropriate ecologically for humid areas (IUCN 1975, 1976), since any production strategy which requires disturbing precious topsoil and exposing it to more intensive sunlight and erosion action, as in the case of monocropping of cereals, is highly unlikely to be sustainable over long periods of time (except in the case of wetland rice). Fortunately, there is at present a relatively large number of permanent crops of potential commercial value which are alternatives to annual cropping in these areas.

Population and political pressures have made tropical land colonization a permanent reality. The identification of improved land-use practices for these areas can slow the spiral of continual deforestation to replace exhausted farm lands. The only real solution to the problem is the development of the political will to implement long term solutions and the mobilization of human and financial resources to design and manage these solutions. From a pragmatic perspective, it seems inevitable that large expanses of humid tropical lands will continue to be used for agricultural purposes in the foreseeable future, despite potential ecological problems.

This article is a concept paper, which identifies and discusses problems and solutions on the basis of institutional and field investigations carried out during 1984.1 More detailed information is presented in the final report of that investigation (Jones n.d.). The purpose of the present discussion is to briefly indicate colonization conditions in each Central American country and to discuss the policy and research implications of the observed conditions.

Ecological regions Of Central America

The Central American isthmus is divided into seven countries: Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama.2 Its total population was more than 22 million in 1984, on a land area of some 516,000 km2.

The area can be divided into three simple climatic zones (fig. 1).3 The most extensive climatic area is in the Atlantic lowlands of the isthmus, covered with remnants of dense broad-leaf forest and, in some areas, open pine savannah. In general, precipitation ranges from 2,000 to 6,000 mm, with a short or no dry season (Dulin 1984). The area is low, generally below 600 m in elevation, with average annual temperatures greater than 20°C.

A second climatic zone appears in the central mountain range which runs through most of the isthmus and is characterized in general by a relatively heavy rainfall, but with lower temperatures than in the lowland areas. Two major highland areas can be identified. A northern highland area stretches from Mexico through Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, and ends in northern Nicaragua; a southern highland area runs from the north of Costa Rica to central Panama.

FIG. 1. Simplified climatic map of Central America (Map by Emilio Ortiz C.)

Generally speaking, the northern highlands are drier than comparable areas in the south and have a longer dry season. They are characterized by pine forests interspersed with smaller areas of broad-leaf forest, while the southern highlands have only broadleaf forests.

A third zone, with a relatively extended dry season, is found in the Pacific lowlands of the isthmus, from the north of Costa Rica to the Guatemala-Mexico border. Smaller areas with similar climates can be found in the north and east of Guatemala, the north of Honduras, and in parts of the Pacific coast of Panama. The dry season in these areas may extend up to eight months, with annual precipitation averages of 1,000-1,500 mm. In terms of altitude and temperature, this zone is similar to the rainy Atlantic zone, although maximum temperatures are higher.

The population of Central America is concentrated mainly in the highland areas of Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica and in the Pacific lowlands of all countries. Agriculture as well is concentrated in the highland and the relatively dry Pacific regions, where the existence of even a short dry season permits the use of fire in the clearing and maintenance of farm land. Except in ports and major banana-producing areas (which in most cases are contiguous), the humid Atlantic coast is sparsely populated and is the focus of most of the colonization activity in Central America.

The process of colonization In Central America

Historical and Policy Factors

The greater part of Central America has been colonized in the last 50 years. The economic focus of Central American countries has traditionally been quite restricted; for example, to the Canal Zone and the Azuero Peninsula in Panama, to the highland coffee and dairy production areas in Costa Rica, to the fertile Pacific coastal plain in Nicaragua, and to the northern valleys and central corridor of Honduras. This situation has given rise to generalized policy orientation favouring colonization of forest areas. Costa Rica's first president, Juan Mora Fernandez, outlined this policy orientation in an 1828 message to the assembly of that country; the policy included awards of land and monetary compensation to individuals who either colonized or established transitable roads into forest areas (Gómez 1973). The development of the market for bananas encouraged the occupation of the best alluvial soils in low-lying tropical forest lands during the early part of the twentieth century, but the linkage of these enclaves to the national economies was weak.4 Not until the 1930s and 1940s, when the appearance of uncontrollable diseases led to the abandonment of banana plantations, did these areas experience large scale colonization by independent farmers (see, for example, Stouse's [1965] discussion of the occupation of abandoned banana lands in Costa Rica).

Sandner (1962, 1-7) documents the process of colonization in detail for Costa Rica, differentiating six forms of colonization, which vary from scattered individual efforts at colonization to large scale, government or privately organized projects for occupying new lands. Unfortunately, it is quite difficult to differentiate these categories on the ground, which, in fact, is a reflection of the diversity of the process and the lack of a clear differentiation in the methods and inspiration among different instances of colonization. Planned colonizations inevitably have their spontaneous adherents, while spontaneous activities will also include organized groups or pockets of "planning" by specific agencies.

In general, the process of colonization in all Central America has been a spontaneous process where farmers inform themselves of available lands and occupy these lands through their own initiative with the passive support of the government. As implied in Fernandez's address, the development of access roads has been the key to the occupation of new areas. As transportation improves to permit access to markets for the sale of agricultural products and the provision of basic products such as clothes and tools, forest areas come under cultivation.

Major colonization "projects" for tropical forest areas have been rare; many "colonizations" have in fact been the appropriation of farm lands for small farmers (Minkel [1967] presents a number of examples, and Salazar [1962] discusses some specific cases from Costa Rica). The abandonment of areas affected by Panama disease and black sigatoka gave rise to "colonization" efforts in the Valle de Aguan in Honduras and the Caribbean coastal plain in Costa Rica (Nelson 1977). The expropriation of German farms during World War II provided land for resettlement in the Pacific coastal and northern tropical areas of Guatemala. More recently, the process of land invasion and expropriation has become common in much of Central America (Downing and Matteson 1965). These activities generally do not affect tropical forest areas, since they require mainly the repartition of established farms among other owners.

A few major colonization projects designed to occupy tropical forest lands can be identified. The Rio Guayape project in east central Honduras was to include, from its inception, more than 78,000 ha. The Rigoberto Cabezas project in eastern Nicaragua was designed to encompass more than 4,000,000 ha. Guatemala's Franja Transversal del Norte (FTN) has been a major area for colonization: the first designated projects were for a total of 50,000 ha, but the area ultimately considered for colonization is over 880,000 ha. The area of colonization is much larger still if the Petén is considered, since this is Guatemala's largest department and borders the FTN. On the other hand, the province of Darien in Panama has been the focus of largely spontaneous colonization, especially since the extension of the PanAmerican highway.5 Costa Rica's northern lowland plain has been colonized with government support, and in some restricted areas under government supervision, but for the most part colonizers have been individually motivated and financed.

A crucial question in colonization is the kind of control exercised by government agencies within colonization areas. A broad range of authority is necessary to confront the different situations faced in the process of colonization. A major pressure in colonization areas is the tendency to establish large farms, generally by wealthy individuals for the purpose of cattle ranching. It has been well documented that this pattern of land use causes both social and ecological problems, in spite of the income it generates (see Heckadon's [1983] account of colonization in Tonosí, Panama; see also Parsons 1976). The decision to permit or prohibit this sort of activity implies decisions on an economic, political, and ecological level, and it is often the case that agencies operating in colonization areas do not have sufficient jurisdictional authority to make these decisions. Similarly, questions of type of land use, the establishment of protected areas, or the establishment of agricultural research and development initiatives may require a much broader authority than colonization agencies possess, even though this authority is necessary to define the most appropriate land use and management practices, both economically and ecologically.

Technical and Ecological Aspects of Humid Tropical Land Colonization

Tropical deforestation and soil erosion are the most obvious ecological impacts and problems of colonization. While these are very important problems, they are epiphenomena of the ecological and technical problems of these areas.

The maintenance of soil fertility and physical quality is closely tied to the presence of organic material in the soil under humid tropical conditions. Decomposing organic material releases nutrients for use by living organisms over a long period of time and is an important component of "natural" soil fertility. This material also releases a broader range of nutrients than do chemical fertilizers, which may substitute for the application of minor elements and reduce the need for the application of major elements such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Land under forest cover maintains its fertility through a complex cycle of rapid decomposition and efficient root mat collection which recycles nutrients between soil and plants. When the forest overstorey, which created and maintained the soil, is removed, all the processes of degradation-such as leaching and precipitation, and, ultimately, the depletion of nutrients-soil compaction, and erosion take place (Sanchez 1981).

A more subtle problem of tropical soils is that of chemical composition, specifically the soil acidity and aluminium content, both of which are ameliorated in soils under forest cover or of recently cleared forest areas. These two factors impede the availability of nutrients to plants and make the soil toxic to many plants. While these are not insuperable problems, their prevalence in tropical soils means that the appropriate techniques for achieving maximum productivity in tropical soils will be significantly different from those of other soil (Sanchez 1981).

Once forest cover is removed, the maintenance of productivity depends on a rapidly escalating use of fertilizers, fire, and herbicides to maintain the necessary chemical and ecological balances. The low productivity of cleared lands and the costs of their management are a major factor in farmers' decisions to clear more land, to re-initiate the "production" cycle.

Population Density

Central American countries display a range of population densities, as well as distinctive colonization situations (table 1). El Salvador has by far the highest population density, and colonization has ceased because almost all forest lands have been occupied; only 5 per cent of the land surface remains in forest, and this is limited to steep slopes or mangrove swamps. Guatemala and Costa Rica have the next highest population densities, and in both countries the areas still available for colonization are becoming increasingly limited. Honduras, Panama, and Nicaragua have the lowest densities and are the countries for which large scale colonization is seen by decision makers to be physically possible.

Population density is not the only factor which contributes to the colonization of tropical lands. The development or the expansion of commercial enterprises such as cattle or cotton is a major motor of colonization. The appearance of cash crops with international markets raises the value of land used for semi-commercial agriculture (subsistence agriculture), displacing small farmers. While some of these farmers are incorporated into the work forces for the new cash crop activities, many are not; or by preference they set out to find new land to farm. Subsistence farming is a refuge for independent individuals in unpredictable economies and a way to avoid the abuses of individual rights or worth which are generally found in the highly competitive and largely uncontrolled market-place for wage labour. The appearance of large-scale commercial coffee plantations in the Guatemalan highlands has been a driving force for colonization since the 1940s (Carter 1969). More recently, the development of the market for cotton in Nicaragua and Honduras has been cited as the cause for migration to forested areas (CSUCA 1978). At the present time, beef production has become the major force for displacing farmers to new tropical lands (Heckadon and McKay 1982; DeWalt 1982; Partridge 1984; Parsons 1976).

TABLE 1. Land area, population, and dense forest cover in Central American countries

Country Area( Populat.(1,000) Density(inhab./sq. km) Date Dense forest 1980(1,000 ha) % forest
Costa Rica 50,899 2,111 41 1978 1,638 31.8
El Salvador 20,865 4,255 204 1977 141 6.6
Guatemala 108,888 6,621 61 1978 4,442 40.8
Honduras 112,087 2,831 25 1976 3.797 33.9
Nicaragua 148,005 2,395 16 1978 4,496 26.2
Panama 75,648 1,826 24 1978 4,165 54.0
Total 516,392 20.039 39   18,679 34.4

Incursions by Farmers on Forest Resources

Three major categories of forest can be recognized with reference to colonization:

(i) virgin forest,
(ii) exploited forests, and
(iii) remnant forests or low-density forests integrated into agricultural landscapes.

Table 2 presents a breakdown of forest cover in Central America. Unfarmed dense forests are the remaining virgin forests of the area. Protected dense forest is land which is legally preserved, for example for logging operations, parks, Indian reserves, or watershed management. The estimate of how disturbed these areas are depends on how optimistic one is with regard to the efficacy of forest protection efforts. There are many known cases of incursions on forest reserves, but there are no data as to how extensive these incursions are. Dense forests with access are those which have been high graded (selective extraction of most valuable species) and which now have at least moderately serviceable logging roads (evidenced by the ability to take out lumber). The categories of "open forest," "disturbed forest," and "brush" are remnant forests. Open forests are generally grazing lands with occasional trees; disturbed forests and brush are different types of secondary growth, which may be incorporated into either long or short fallow systems (although in some cases this category overlaps with "brushy" agricultural crops such as coffee).

Forest lands constitute 51 per cent of the total land area of Central America, according to the FAO data (FAO 1981). One-quarter of this land is remnant forest integrated into farm lands in some form. Nearly one-third is still in virgin forest, and nearly another third is exploited forest, with road access for colonists. The remaining 14 per cent of protected land is of indeterminate status, although some part of it is now being deforested for agricultural purposes.

Colonization is taking place principally in lands categorized as "dense forest with access." These are areas which are accessible for colonization and which have begun to establish some basic services for the lumbering operations which are continuing in many cases.

TABLE 2. Forest cover in Central America (in '000s of ha)


Dense forest

Country Unfarmeda Protected W/access Open forest Disturbed Brush Total
Costa Rica 548 320 770 160 120 120 2,038
El Salvador 116 0 25 0 22 293 456  
Guatemala 2,220 400 1,822 100 360 1,505 6,407
Honduras 873 759 2,165 200 680 1,220 5,897
Panama 2,125 1,222 818 0 124 0 4,289
Total 5,882 2,701 5,600 460 1,306 3,138 19,087
Percentage 31 14 29 2 7 16 100
Percentage of C.Am. land area 16 7 15 1 4 8 51

Source: FAO 1981

aThe FAO equivalents of the column labels are: Unfarmed = NHCfluv + NHCflm; Protected = NHCf2; W/access = NHCfluc; Open Forest = NHc/NHO; Disturbed = NHCa; Brush = nH.

Unfarmed dense forests tend to be in inaccessible areas which are not congenial to any kind of human activity due to their isolation or topographical characteristics. Protected dense forest areas and remnant forest areas are legally unavailable for colonization, since they are either on private farms or are part of national parks or forest reserves. These lands are not uncontested; land invasions are constantly occurring on both private and public lands, although the affected area is probably much smaller than the unprotected forest lands. Colonization directly affects some 5.6 million ha of dense forest land with access, approximately one-third of the forested area of Central America, and one-sixth of the total land area of the isthmus.

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