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1. The Process of Colonization in Central America

Land Settlement and Land Reform
The Dynamics of Land Settlement and Land Use
Patterns of Land Clearance
Ecological Regions of Central America
People and Land

A major part of the history of Central America has been the occupation of forest lands after the indigenous depopulation and reforestation which followed the Spanish conquest (Sauer 1966). The human population was concentrated around production areas for successive "booms" of cacao, dyes, wood, coffee, sugar, and bananas through the coming centuries (MacLeod 1973), slowly advancing into previously abandoned areas as population growth and new products created both a need for vegetation and commercial opportunities in those areas.

The continual process of colonization makes it difficult to clearly distinguish the often cited categories of "directed" and "spontaneous" colonization (Nelson 1977). Colonization of new lands became an element of Central American culture, where men were expected to clear land and produce timber (see esp. Heckadon Moreno 1981a and Hennessey 1978). Given the development of new social and economic conditions, this tradition presents serious problems. Cultural traditions adapted to an unending forest frontier have become ecological hazards as forest resources have been cleared for human use and the institutional framework which supported, and to some extent fostered, these traditions has come under close scrutiny.

The greater part of Central American colonization has occurred 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, the coffee and dairy production areas in Costa Rica, the fertile Pacific coastal plain in Nicaragua, and the central highlands and Pacific lowlands of Honduras. This situation of small populations in restricted areas surrounded by seemingly endless forests has given rise to generalized policy orientations 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 for individuals who colonized or who 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 (Hall 1982; Seligson 1980). Not until the 1930s and 1940s did most of these areas experience a large-scale colonization by independent farmers, after the appearance of uncontrolable diseases led to the abandonment of many banana plantations (see, for example, Stouse's [1965] discussion of the occupation of abandoned banana lands in Costa Rica).

Sandner (1962: 1-7) documents in detail the process of colonization for Costa Rica, differentiating six forms of colonization, which vary from scattered individual efforts at colonization to large-scale, governmentally or privately organized projects for occupying new lands. Sandner's characterization of a virtual continuum of land settlement strategies, as opposed to the "planned-spontaneous" dichotomy, is a more realistic appreciation of the process, since "planned" colonizations inevitably have their spontaneous adherents, while spontaneous activities will also include eventual planning by government agencies as they attempt to address the basic needs of growing populations in remote areas.

Colonization in Central America has been for the most part a spontaneous process, in which farmers inform themselves of available lands and occupy them through their own initiative with the passive support of the government (see esp. Sandner 1962). As implied in President Mora's address, the development of access roads has been the key to the occupation of new areas. As transportation has improved to permit access to markets for the sale of agricultural products and for the provision of basic goods such as clothes and tools, former forest areas have come under cultivation. In the policy realm, the corollary to the national colonization efforts was the recognition of usufruct as a primary element of land use claims, to give colonists added security even in the face of legal, but inactive, ownership.

Major colonization projects for tropical forest areas have been rare; many "colonizations" have in fact been the appropriation of existing farm lands for small farmers (C.W. Minkel 1967 refers to several examples, and Salazar 1962 mentions specific cases from Costa Rica). The abandonment of banana areas affected by disease gave rise to the colonization of the Valle de Aguán in Honduras and the Caribbean coastal plain in Costa Rica (Nelson 1977). The expropriation of German farms during World War 11 provided land for resettlement in the Pacific coastal areas and in the northern tropical areas of Guatemala. The process of land invasion and expropriation is common in much of Central America (Downing and Matteson 1965). These sorts of activities do not always affect tropical forest areas, since they may consist in the partitioning among new owners of established farms.

A few major colonization projects designed to occupy tropical forest lands can be identified. The Río Guayape Project in east-central Honduras was conceived to include more than 78,000 ha. The Rigoberto Cabezas Project in eastern Nicaragua was designed to include more than 1,000,000 ha (C.W. Minkel 1967). 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 Petén is considered, since this is Guatemala's largest department and borders the FTN. In Panama, the province of Darién has been the focus of colonization, especially since the extension of the Pan-American Highway. Costa Rica's northern lowland plain has been colonized with government support, and in some areas under government supervision (see Seligson 1980), but for the most part colonizers have been individually motivated and financed.

Land Settlement and Land Reform

The Charter of Punta del Este and the initiation of the Alliance for Progress presented a new set of problems for Latin American land settlement policies. The process of occupying forest lands prior to that time was seen to be a question of economic development, and the sizes of farms seemed to be a secondary concern. With the introduction of international financing for land reform, the more haphazard process of spontaneous colonization came to be formalized in organized, fundable activities.

After Punta del Este, it was recommended that international aid to agriculture be tied to social policy objectives (Dorner 1972; Montgomery 1984). Multilateral and bilateral funding (including that of USAID) influenced patterns of Latin American development by tying funding approval to land reform. Latin American governments responded by using settlement schemes as an alternative to land reform (Domike 1970), with small or landless farmers being awarded plots of land in tropical forests to forestall demands for the redistribution of lands in traditional agricultural areas. The pressure to create small farms and the existence of unused tropical lands were an unfortunate combination of circumstances. As a result, traditional peasant grain producers were transferred to new environments which would require new crops and production techniques for success. International funds flowed into these same areas to help develop new technologies and opportunities. The inability of governments to make hard, short-term choices for longterm benefits very clearly contributed to growing environmental problems.

In Central America, land reform and lowland colonization are handled by the same institutions. While the Alliance for Progress is one reason for this coincidence, another is the common characteristic of land settlement and land reform, the problem of transferring title. Given the usufruct orientation of land ownership, and the possibility that even formal titles may be subject to review, the process of land titling is very similar in both the reform and settlement situations, involving the evaluation of competing title claims and of the use and occupation status of the land. Even after recognizing the broad set of activities carried out by land reform agencies (including organizational development, agricultural technology transfer and planning, marketing, infrastructural development, inter-institutional coordination), their basic function is the validation and legalization of land titles, both in new and in traditionally established agricultural areas.

The Dynamics of Land Settlement and Land Use

The dynamic of land use change in Central America revolves around the process of land titling. This dynamic can be divided into several phases. Special conditions and problems of each phase can be identified for the purpose of analysis. The recognition of different phases of titling and of the conditions of each phase is a prerequisite to any discussion of land settlement and land reform.

The process of land settlement fits within the farm technology framework of Ester Boserup (1965), according to which land use undergoes a process of intensification identified with agricultural development in response to increasing population pressure. The first stages of land use are extensive, relying principally on the mining of forest resources (either flora or fauna). The next phase is one of extensive agriculture or animal production. Production depends on the natural fertility of the topsoil and involves minimal inputs of labour or chemicals. Fertility maintenance is achieved through low levels of production intensity and/or natural regeneration of fallow species and forage. The final stage is one of intensification, with increased applications of chemical, infrastructural, and labour inputs to maintain soil fertility and productivity.

The Boserupian focus employed here recognizes that the different stages of land use are not evolutionary but circumstantial, in that they do not reflect so much farmers' technical or cultural capabilities as the socio-ecological conditions of the area. Farmers often possess technical knowledge for intensive agricultural systems, but the local conditions constrain the employment of intensive techniques due either to price constraints or limitations of inputs. More fundamentally, the existence of adjacent lands which yield higher marginal productivities to labour through the use of extensive techniques may discourage attempts at agricultural intensification. (Painter [1987] describes such a situation for lowland Bolivian settlers). Farmers are unlikely to purchase productivity-enhancing technology when they can realize higher net returns through cheaper, "less technical" methods.

Boserup's framework is especially relevant in the context of deforestation, since much of that problem revolves around the question of "productivity," without specifying productivity of what or the inputs considered in the comparison. Deforestation is often cited as an irrational use of resources in which high-value forest species are destroyed to be replaced by non-sustainable food-crop production. Nevertheless, any discussion of productivity must recognise that such a measure requires the definition of a "product"; since poor land users need food, productivity can be rationally measured in that metric.

In many cases, another "product" of interest is tenure title security, improved through the utilization of the land. Activities which clearly demonstrate use are given priority by Central American farmers in an attempt to strengthen usufruct claims to land, although these activities are not always the most productive in terms of cash income or long-term land use stability. The elimination of natural forest is considered one of the clearest and strongest demonstrations of active land use.

The phases of intensification broadly correspond to phases of land titling. The phase of lowest intensity exploitation corresponds to a period of exploration and initial claims by agriculturalists. In Latin America, the majority of national lands are available for homesteading, but contradictory claims often arise between homesteaders and non-local claimants with legal rather than usufruct bases for their claims. The claims of usufruct possessors of land grow stronger with time of occupation, so the earliest "settlers" in a forest region are essentially testing the legal waters to see if their usufruct claims will be disputed. Initial usufruct claims require minimal actual use of the land, in some cases the mere act of fencing land being sufficient to demonstrate the land is being "actively" utilized. When land is later transferred to another farmer through a "letter of sale" (carta de yenta), the usufruct claim is strengthened by the transaction itself, since it implies that there are no active competing claims to the land, and further documents the history of use.

The following phase of settlement is one of farm consolidation. Land is more completely cleared, and significant investments are made on the farm, especially in buildings, more secure fencing, and other farm infrastructure. During the earlier phase of occupation, these investments are not justified, due to the possibility that possession will be lost through legal proceedings. Investments may even be counter-productive at that stage, since the increased value and desirability of the land may in and of themselves encourage competing claims by raising the rewards of a successful title challenge. During the consolidation phase, the possibility of losing land through legal procedures continues, but the economic burden of these challenges decreases with time; as the farmer builds equity and a usufruct history on the farm, the costs of a title challenge increase for the challenger, as do the farmer's economic and legal capacity for meeting such a challenge. Agricultural practices remain extensive, with long rotations, limited improvements in pastures, and the gradual elimination of forest areas on the farm.

The final phase is one of intensification, or what is generally recognized as "agricultural development." Intensive agricultural techniques become more generalized within the local community, and local organizations are formed to co-ordinate activities and to pressure government agencies to provide such basic services as road construction and maintenance, water supply, health posts, and schools.* In the final phase, the combination of higher levels of investment, long periods of documented use of the land, and the existence of community organizations result in a relatively secure tenure arrangement.

Land titling itself is another, independent, consideration. Given the existence of the usufruct orientation, a legal title in itself does not guarantee land tenure security. It does establish a strong claim to the land and considerably enhances a usufruct claim. Due to the cost of titling and the time and special knowledge required, farmers often do not go through a formal titling process. Over half the farms in Central America probably have no formal title. Land titling may occur at any point in the process of occupation, but depends largely on the wealth of the owner. Wealthier owners establish formal title earlier on in the occupation process, but even farmers of more modest means seek titles as land value increases.

The process of land titling is not only a legal and social process, but a political one as well. At the initiation of the process, a piece of land is no more than a statistic from the perspective of the government. No taxes are generated, and there is no clear relation between individuals on the land and the government. Lands may even be occupied by foreign nationals who feel more moral and political commitment to their country of origin. The establishment of usufruct, the registration of purchase and sale transactions in legal documents, the formation of local groups of land holders, and finally the formalization of these groups in political entities (municipalities) and of the land in legal entities (titled lands) represent sucessive levels of incorporation of land and individuals into the national life.

This dynamic of land occupation is fundamental to patterns of land use in Central America. The occupation of land, the uses to which it is put, and most importantly, the disposition of standing forest are all most clearly understood in that context. Theoretically, planned colonization projects are designed to correct the deficiencies of this informal titling and occupation process. For a number of reasons, however, informal titling still underlies formal projects, despite efforts to the contrary. Farmers still transfer land using "letters of sale," and settlement projects often follow settlers into new areas, either in an attempt to regularize the informal settlement or to begin an alternative, formal settlement procedure in a nearby area. Planned projects frequently come into contact with informally titled land and at times are forced to address land questions in those terms.

Patterns of Land Clearance

Although peasant farmers are often the immediate agents of land clearance, their actions are not always motivated by long-term farming interests. Poor farmers react to the larger social and economic environment, with its economic limitations and opportunities, and may clear land which is ultimately used by other, possibly larger, farmers.

Heckadon Moreno and McKay's work in Panama (1982) has provided a descriptive basis for understanding both the cultural and ecological dynamics of the land clearance process. As the traditional agricultural areas of Panama have come to suffer increased pressure on farm-land resources, farmers from the "interior provinces," especially from Los Santos on the Azuero Peninsula, have migrated into the tropical forest areas of the country. These "Santeño" farmers recognize the limited agricultural capacity of the newly cleared lands, and in many cases plan to abandon the lands after a few years of grain production. As grain yields decrease, pasture is planted, until the farm has been completely converted; the farmer sells this "improved" land to an interested buyer, often a wealthier, established landowner, and moves on to the next forest area.

The ultimate objective of the Santeño pioneer is to achieve the status of those individuals to whom he sells his exhausted farm. This objective is at once culturally and economically motivated. The image of the cattle rancher as an aristocrat and a holder of high social status is a powerful motive for poor farmers. Cattle ranchers are by definition wealthy; the possession of a large herd and a large farm constitutes a level of capital holdings beyond that of the average farmer. Cattle ranching is less physically demanding than farming, since labour requirements are relatively low. In economic terms, returns to capital (land and animals) are relatively low, while to labour are quite high.

Over time, the tradition of land clearance has created what Heckadon (Heckadon Moreno 1981a) has termed the "culture of pastures," incorporating wealth and status objectives in a broad cultural framework. A man's capacity to clear land has become a cultural validation of personal worth and a motivation independent of the economic aspects of the process. The strength of these cultural motivations has tended to maintain the "culture of pastures" life-style and activities, even beyond the limits of their economic adaptiveness. While Heckadon's formulation specifically describes the farmers of Panama, reflections of this "culture of pastures" mentality can be seen throughout Central America.

In some cases, land clearance by poor farmers for ultimate use by wealthier land users is undertaken on a contractual basis. Landless farmers are offered the use of forest land with the requirement that they use it for a few years and return it to the owner with pasture sown. In areas of poor soils, this arrangement is attractive to poor farmers, since the quality of land does not permit the establishment of permanent farms in any case; the farmers prefer to use land for only the first few years after forest clearance, and pasture can be established along with the last grain crops. This pattern is widely reported throughout Latin America (Partridge 1984).

In other cases, wealthy landowners may find themselves constrained by environmental protection legislation which limits land clearance. Poor farmers are exempt under certain legislation, in the belief that prohibiting their land clearing would deny them a livelihood as agriculturalists, or that lumber harvesting on a small scale is for personal rather than commercial use. Lenience in the application of land clearance legislation may also be a question of enforcement pragmatics; it would be virtually impossible to control all tree clearance by small farmers, and rather than become involved in an acrimonious, selective enforcement schedule, environmental agencies may simply focus on larger landholders. To avoid legal constraints, wealthy land users may indirectly "invite" small farmers onto their land by letting it be known that they will not eject farmers from forest areas; small farmers are expected to clear land, use it for subsistence agriculture for several years, and finally abandon it (preferably with pasture sown) to the legal landowner. Another variation is for logging operations to invite in small farmers, who fell and prepare trees within logging concessions while opening land to farm.

Patterns of land clearance and land tenure merge in an overall strategy to con*ont legal problems involved in land settlement. Since land in frontier areas may be legally restricted either by prior ownership or by environmental legislation, land clearance may bring with it certain risks. The practice of transferring "title" from the land clearer to a secondary owner deflects some risk by permitting the owner to truthfully state that he (or she) is not responsible for any illegal clearing and that money was transferred in good faith that the previous "owner" had made proper legal arragements.

Ecological Regions of Central America

The pattern of Hispanic land settlement in Central America closely follows ecological patterns. Colonizing populations have first occupied the drier and more temperate zones, moving into the most humid regions only as a last resort (see maps 1 and 2). The occupation of the humid regions has brought along with it a series of problems, ranging from the need to identify appropriate crops to the development of human support systems (for health and transportation) which could withstand the special problems of the high humidity.

Central America is an area of some 516,000 km², with a population of more than 25 million. This relatively small area has been repeatedly cited as an example of climatic and life-form diversity for its unique geographical situation (see esp. Janzen 1983). Its position between the Pacific and Caribbean weather systems, combined with the attitudinal effects of the central mountain chain, create a broad range of climatic zones. In addition to the climate diversity, Central America's role as a land bridge between two major continents has resulted in a concentration of species seldom seen in such a small area. The richness of species and climatic diversity has created a mosaic of ecological communities, which has been catalogued by Holdridge (1979) in his work on life-zone ecology.

For present purposes, the range of climates can be simplified to three geographicalclimatic zones (see map 2): the Atlantic lowlands, the central highlands, and the Pacific lowlands. The most extensive zone is the Atlantic lowlands, covered with remnants of dense broad-leaf forest, and in northern Nicaragua, open pine savannah. The defining characteristic of this zone is the short (or non-existent) dry season (Dulin 1984). In general, precipitation ranges from 2,000 to 6,000 mm annually.

The area is generally below 600 m in elevation, with average annual temperatures greater than 20° C. On the Caribbean coast of Panama, the area forms a narrow fringe, but beginning in Costa Rica and extending north through Honduras, the lowlands of the "Mosquitia" stretch in places to more than 100 km inland. The Atlantic lowlands narrow again between Trujillo, Honduras, and the Guatemalan border, but broaden again to become the lowlands of Belize and the Guatemalan Petén. There are small areas on the Pacific coast which share the same climatic pattern, especially on the peninsula of Osa in Costa Rica and in parts of the peninsulas of Nicoya in Costa Rica and Azuero in Panama.

Map l. Migration patterns in Central America.

The absence of a dry season in this zone creates serious problems for agricultural production and human habitation in general. Maize often germinates on the stalk or suffers attacks of moulds and bacteria as a result of high humidity; beans likewise suffer from insect and fungus attacks in most years. These are also areas which present special problems in the control of disease and in road construction and maintenance. As a result, the Atlantic lowland climate zone has been the last to be settled by humans, and is the area where tropical rain forests have survived.

The second climatic zone corresponds to the central mountain chain which runs the length of the isthmus. It is characterized by a marked dry season and moderate temperatures; rainfall is moderately heavy (1,000-3,000 mm). Two highland areas can be identified. The northern highland stretches from Mexico through Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras and ends in northern Nicaragua. The southern highland runs from northern Costa Rica to central Panama. Generally speaking, the northern highland is drier than the southern. Naturally existing pine stands can be found throughout the northern highland but are non-existent in the south (Denevan 1961).

Map 2. Simplified climatic map of Central America, with lowland humid colonization regions and physical features.

A third zone is constituted by the Pacific lowlands of the isthmus. The identifying characteristic of this zone is the extended dry season, which may reach eight months in southern Honduras. Annual precipitation ranges from 800 to 4,000 mm, but the high temperatures and high evapo-transpiration make this an arid region through part of the year.

The dry seasons in the central highlands and the Pacific lowlands have favoured human occupation. These zones are still the most heavily populated of the isthmus, although in recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the populations of the Atlantic lowlands. Agriculture, too, is concentrated in these same zones. Except for the ports and the major banana producing areas, the Atlantic lowlands remained until recently sparsely populated.

The factor which seems to have most facilitated human occupation in the isthmus is the ability to use fire for land clearance and land maintenance. This is only possible where there is a dry season. The use of fire in land management is pre-Columbian in origin (see esp. Budowski 1985); early explorers found large parts of the isthmus to be "grasslands" (Sauer 1966), and the distribution of pine forests seems to be tied to the use of fire (Johannessen 1963; Denevan 1961). When European settlers began to intensively manage the Pacific lowlands through the use of fire, they were following a pattern of land management in use by Central American aboriginal populations.

It is important to realize that the vegetation of the Central American isthmus has not been static over the past centuries. The most notable recent change in land cover accompanied the depopulation after European contact (MacLeod 1973), when natural forests regenerated in large parts of the isthmus (see esp. Sauer 1966). The most striking example is Darién, which was reported to be a savannah by early Spanish explorers. In the 400 years following the conquest of the New World, Darién came to be virtually a climax forest, and only in recent years has been occupied again by sedentary agricultural populations. Other, less extensive examples are found in the highlands of Nicaragua and Honduras. Columbus reported intensive agriculture and high population densities along the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica and Panama (Denevan 1961). Archaeological evidence suggests a similar process took place in Petén, after the Maya collapse in the first millennium A.D. (Pohl 1985; Edwards 1986).

The Central American isthmus presents a complex pattern of climatic and ecological variation. Its geographical position, climatic conditions, and history combine to define a patchwork of ecological zones superposed by a pattern of human occupation and abandonment that has created environments differentiated by their stages of succession and the local ecology.

People and Land

A fundamental aspect of land settlement is the pressure of the human population on existing land resources. While population is fairly simple to document, land and forest resources present a more difficult problem.

Population Density

Central American population densities are not homogeneous. El Salvador has by far the highest population density, and for all practical purposes, colonization has long since occupied all forest lands. Guatemala and Costa Rica have the next highest population densities, and in both countries the areas still available for colonization are limited. Honduras, Panama, and Nicaragua have the lowest densities and are the countries for which large-scale colonization may still be physically possible (see table 1). These disparities in population densities can explain regional tensions to a certain extent, as in the case of the "Football War" between Honduras and El Salvador (Durham 1979), although such a simple Malthusian framework quickly breaks down in dealing with relations between Central American countries.

Table 1. Land area, population, and dense forest cover in Central America

  Area Pop.a Density Dense forest  
Country (km) (000s) (inhab./km) 1980b Forest(%)
Costa Rica 50,899 2,791 54.83 1,638,000 32.18
El Salvador 20,865 4,934 236.47 141,000 6.76
Guatemala 108,888 8,434 77.46 4,442,000 40.79
Honduras 112,087 4,679 41.74 3,797,000 33.88
Nicaragua 148,005 3,501 23.65 4,496,000 30.38
Panama 75,648 2,274 30.06 4,165,000 55.06
  516,392 26,613 51.54 18,679,000 36.17

aPopulation figures from IDB 1988.

bFigures from FAO 1981.

Incursions by Farmers on Forest Resources

The discussion of "forest resources" is complicated by the variety of definitions which might be applied. When speaking of "deforestation" problems, a common image is that of an agricultural frontier marked by clear-cutting up to the edge of the remaining "forest resource." Nevertheless, the category of forest resources includes many kinds of forest landscapes in addition to dense "virgin" forests. Forests can be disturbed by humans with varying degrees of intensity, including low-impact hunting and gathering, selective harvest of tree species, long fallow "shifting" agricultural patterns, and maintenance and management of "natural" or cultivated forest areas on established farms.

In an FAO review of Latin American Forest resources (FAO 1981), more than a dozen categories of forest lands were differentiated in an attempt to systematize information for future resource management planning. From a perspective of land settlement, these categories can be reduced to unintervened forests, intervened forests, and remnant forests. Table 2 presents a breakdown following FAO (1981) of forest cover in Central America.

The FAO categories of "open forest," "disturbed forest," and "brush" are combined to create the category of remnant forests mentioned above. "Open forests" are generally grazing lands with some trees. The trees are often left in pastures intentionally for fodder, shade, or eventually for harvest as lumber. "Disturbed forests" and "brush" refer to secondary growth, which may be incorporated into either a long or short fallow system. In some cases this last category overlaps with "brushy" agricultural crops such as coffee. (The FAO'S classification was based to a certain extent on satellite imagery or aerial photos, leading to the merging of forest types on the basis of their aerial appearance.) Remnant forests may include on-farm forests or wood lots or "agroforestry" combinations such as coffee or cacao with shade trees, fruit orchards, or home gardens.

Table 2. Forest cover in Central America (in 1,000s of ha)


Dense forest

Disturbed Brush Total
Unfarmed Protected W/access
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 30.82 14.15 29.34 2.41 6.84 16.44 100.00
As percentage of 5 country total area  
15.97 7.33 15.20 1.25 3.55 8.52 51.81

The FAO equivalents of the column labels are Unfarmed = NHCfluv + NHcflm; Protected = NHCf2; W/access = NHCfluc; Open forest = NHC/NHO; Disturbed = NHCA; Brush = NH.

"Dense forests with access" are the intervened forests mentioned above which have been logged and now have at least moderately serviceable logging roads. These forests are likely to contain settlers who are clearing land and establishing usufruct rights. Agriculture appears as clearings in the forest.

"Unfarmed dense forest" and "protected dense forest" correspond to the remaining unintervened forests of the area. "Protected dense forest" is land which is legally preserved for future logging operations, parks, Indian reserves, watershed management, etc. The estimate of how disturbed these areas are depends on how optimistic one is with regard to the efficacy of forestry protection efforts. There are many known cases of incursions on forestry reserves, but there are no precise data as to how extensive these incursions are. Unprotected forest areas are those which, due to problems of access, terrain, climate, or land quality, have been unattractive to settlers.

Forest lands constitute 51 per cent of the total land area of Central America according to the calculations of the FAO. One-quarter of this forest land is recognized to be integrated into farm lands in some form; the percentages vary among the individual countries. Forty-five per cent of forest lands is unintervened, fourteen per cent due to legal protection. Twenty-nine per cent is exploited forest with road access for colonists.

Fifty-four per cent of the forest land identified by the FAO iS now part of the agricultural landscape. Part of this forest land has already been "domesticated" and forms part of the management strategy of existing farms. A slightly larger part of this forested land is in the process of being converted; these lands are being incorporated into settlers' farms, and the forests are being altered or removed for agricultural purposes. This study, then, refers to some 5.6 million ha of "dense forest land with access," which is approximately one-third of the forested area of Central America and one-sixth of the total land area.


In reviewing the process of land settlement in Central America, it is crucial to recognize the central importance of individual decision-making. While the largest and most visible colonization activities have taken place under the aegis of governmentally managed "colonization" programmes, the process of settlement, and the success achieved even within the government programmes, can best be understood in the context of individual settlers. Government programmes have facilitated, in some degree, the occupation of new lands, but these programmes have not been sufficient to achieve the broader goals of permanent, economically successful occupation.

Nowhere is the significance of individual activity more visible than in deforestation. The degree of deforestation which accompanies land settlement is in a certain sense a measure of the failure of government programmes to adequately guarantee land title; farmers prefer to rely on usufruct rights rather than government programmes to protect their new farms. Given the common and often very long bureaucratic delays in individual titling within colonization programmes, usufruct farmers may be justified in their decision. Even in areas where government programmes exist, it is common to find active populations of spontaneous settlers who find government programmes inadequate for their needs and, resisting attempts to incorporate them, directly compete with government-sponsored settlers for resources.

The individual nature of spontaneous colonization has contributed to a situation in which most of the areas identified as "forest lands" currently have human occupants. These occupants may not have formal titles, and can be found even in areas of dense forest. Any attempt to address problems of land settlement or deforestation must recognize that these forests are now in the hands of individual farmers whose most effective method for ensuring their title has been land clearance. Policies promoting "improved" land management may have just the opposite effect if they do not adequately address farmers' needs and concerns.

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