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The colonization of humid tropical areas is a difficult, and frequently unsuccessful, activity. Although some short-term goals can be achieved through colonization, such as relief of population pressure in older agricultural areas, new lands fairly quickly become unproductive, resulting in the replication of the original problem: a relative excess of labour and an inability of the land to absorb this labour economically. While the conversion of these lands to pastures does offer some income to the country, it displaces labour and leads to a degeneration of land quality and a very low equilibrium level of agricultural productivity. Having made this caveat, it must also be recognized that colonization is a near universal process. While governments actively promote it in some cases, the majority of colonization takes place with a minimum of government motivation. Humid tropical lands are being continuously occupied by ill-prepared agriculturalists, who try to manage these lands with the agricultural technologies which were reasonably successful (although in many cases destructive) in their places of origin. The conclusions and recommendations made here derive from this second point and represent an attempt to suggest how the process of colonization in humid tropical lands might be improved and its deleterious effects on the environment ameliorated.

Colonization tends to be a force for continuity in the structure of the national economy. With the opening of new frontiers and the sudden access to resources, there is a general tendency on the part of farmers, land developers, and governments to fall back on "tested" methods of land management and economic development. This general, conservative tendency of colonization is sometimes obscured by the publicly declared ambitions and plans developed for new lands, but the set of social, legal, economic, and political conditions which have defined the structure of a national economy tend to reproduce themselves in new areas, leaving innovative colonization plans an uphill battle. Scarcities of funds, errors in planning and administration, and the lack of trained personnel all favour the establishment of traditional social and economic structures in new areas, and only through exceptionally successful execution are projects likely to overcome the culturally based factors which recreate traditional structures through the combination of activities of the hundreds, or thousands, or new inhabitants.

One overriding conclusion of the investigation of colonization is the importance of understanding individual decision-making processes with regard to land use (this conclusion closely parallels that of DAI 1984). The breakdowns in colonization project management, the ineffectiveness of government agencies in enforcing landuse legislation, the lack of funds for carrying out necessary extension and investigation activities-all combine to make individual farmers the real decision makers with regard to new lands. While this may not be the most desirable state of affairs, it is a reality which will persist until levels of funding and institutional capacities of responsible institutions in each country dramatically improve. Pragmatically, policy must be oriented toward the decision-making processes and criteria of individual farmers to have a broad impact on the environmental questions associated with colonization.

The conclusions presented here are not completely compatible with those presented by Nelson (1977). One reason for this may be the difference in underlying objectives of the two studies. For Nelson's study, it was necessary to differentiate levels of government support, so his framework implied (i) an either-or situation, where governments either directly support colonization or they do not, and (ii) that colonization takes place in unoccupied areas where new structures of land use can be imposed without regard to existing patterns. This report found that "directed" projects were hard to discern on the ground and differentiate from undirected projects; this is because similar sets of government services exist in both directed and non-directed colonization, even though these might be supplied under different administrative authorities. Since colonization is introduced into inhabited areas, projects come to be just one of many institutions which act in the area, so the importance and influence of the projects is diluted.

Nevertheless, there is a strong coincidence in the conclusions of this report with those of Nelson, if the question of terminology can be overlooked. Nelson concluded that the least directed projects were those which were likely to be most successful. This conclusion is valid for Central America, although it may be for different reasons than those observed by Nelson. In Central America, colonization tends to be directed, when directed, toward inappropriate goals (substitution for land reform) by institutions which have a limited scope of authority for the generalized development of an area. Colonization of new lands suffers with the increased imposition of skewed and inappropriate technical criteria. In areas of weak institutional control of colonization, the demands of local communities and of individual farmers on specific national institutions direct attention to factors important for human settlement, so the government support structure addresses empirically felt needs. Directed projects tend to rely on more theoretical definitions of needs or administrative criteria when proposing programme adjustments or policy amendments. In the face of the lack of information with regard to how best to use tropical lands for small farms, the lack of strong institutional control over the colonization process may actually be a positive factor for the long-term development of the new community.

The conclusions presented here should be seen as complementary to those presented by Scudder (1981). Scudder's focus is basically organizational, centring on the interaction of colonization agencies and local community groups, with emphasis on recommendations to improve communications and overcome the problems negatively affecting organized colonization activities. The observations made in this report are more related to questions of land use and technical problems of agriculture in colonization areas. It would be valuable to test some of the recommendations suggested by Scudder for the improvement of the colonization process through the observation of ongoing or completed projects in the Central American area.

The lack of systematic information as to the outcome of implemented projects is a major shortcoming of past colonization efforts. The funds spent in promoting projects have not contributed to a development of improved practices since the practices have not been evaluated in a form which is impartial or replicable and thereby the funds do not contribute to improved planning and implementation for future projects. The danger of this pattern should be clear: partial evaluations by interested agencies produce selfserving conclusions rather than hard analysis. A great deal of information exists within these agencies which has not been used for serious evaluations or which has been completely ignored.

The special conditions of humid areas require special attention to improve the quality and longevity of humid-land colonization efforts. Humid lands are "difficult" because agricultural research has tended to concentrate in more temperate and less humid areas. This should not obscure the fact that the humid areas offer certain competitive advantages in the production of certain crops. Colonization programmes should orient themselves toward the development of organizational strategies, crops, and production techniques which allow the competitive advantage of the tropics to be enhanced for the benefit of developing countries in general.


1. The information presented here is the product of a research project entitled "Land Colonization in Central America," funded by the United Nations University in 1984 and executed through CATIE (Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Ensenanza) in Turrialba, Costa Rica. This paper is based on the final report of that investigation, and data not otherwise cited are taken from the original project report (Jones n.d.). Field-work was carried out between June and October of 1984.

In the course of the investigation, a great number of individuals helped in the definition of project areas, the collection of information in the field, the analysis of information collected, and the revision of report drafts. It implies a certain injustice to single out any individuals since so many gave so much time and attention. Lists of individuals contacted in each country are included as an appendix in the original report. In CATIE as well there were a great number of individuals who assisted in various ways. Craig MacFarland and Jim Barborak were especially helpful in the initial definition of investigation areas and the establishment of contacts within the countries who would have access to information and personal knowledge which would be helpful. Gerardo Budowski counselled all phases of the research and reviewed completed manuscripts. Buford Briscoe supervised this project and dedicated a great deal of time to both technical aspects of the investigation and general support of project activities. None of these people has been able to keep me from committing numerous errors of judgement and interpretation, for which they should not be held responsible, but their support is greatly appreciated for what errors they were able to correct.
2. El Salvador was not considered in this study because virtually no tropical forest areas remain for colonization. What land reform is taking place concerns the conversion of large farms to peasant owned farms and, as such, is not relevant to this investigation.
3. Holdridge (1979) distinguishes more than a dozen life zones in Central America, but a differentiation to this level is not necessary for the present discussion.
4. Population pressure and land hunger have also led to a more intensive use of marginal highland areas (CSUCA 1978), but these will not be considered for this study.
5. Darien is not the only colonization area in Panama, but it is the site of the longest occurring colonization process and is the largest contiguous area of colonization.


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