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Institutional Aspects of Colonization in Darién

Integrated Development Plans for Colonization

The land occupation following the opening of the Inter-American Highway into Darién was accompanied by the development of technical and organization plans for the amelioration of land use problems in the newly colonized areas. These arrangements have had very little effect on the process of colonization to date.

The most significant attempt at planning for the colonization of Darién was the integrated development plan produced through the OAS (Panama-OEA 1978). This study found only 6 per cent of the land in Darién to be suitable for intensive agriculture and another 26 per cent which could be used under careful management (table 10). A plan was outlined for settling farmers on the most appropriate lands according to categories of potential land use. The Ministry of Planning and Political Economy is now in charge of executing this plan. Nevertheless, a trip to the offices of the ministry and repeated phone calls only succeeded in identifying one individual who could give me information regarding the execution of the plan; on the one occasion this individual could be located in his office, he was too busy to allow an interview. No evidence or knowledge of the execution of this plan was found either in the field or in other government agencies.

The creation of a department of colonization in RENARE was recommended in the FAO'S report on forestry development in Darién (FAO 1980). The objective of this department was to co-ordinate colonization activities of the different institutions which had an impact on the colonization of forest lands. The department was in fact created (named Oficina de Ordenación Territorial del Darién), and two individuals were named to head the office in Darién. Nevertheless, an interview in July 1984 revealed the subdirector of RENARE had only a vague knowledge of the department and was not aware that it had been attached to RENARE. No formal reports could be located. The former assistant director for the office in Darién (no longer a RENARE employee) reported that the department existed for less than two years but that it became the focus of jurisdictional disputes between RENARE and Agrarian Reform; its activities were weakened and finally the department disappeared.

It is worth noting that the basis for all planning of colonization in Darién has been the special status of the strip of land bordering the highway. The width of this strip has varied between 2.5 and 8 km, but the process of colonization was to be controlled through the selective granting of access to these lands. The width now stands at 8 km, under the Agrarian Reform Agency's jurisdiction.

Currently, the two government agencies most directly related to colonization in Darién are RENARE and the Agrarian Reform Agency, both of which are dependencies of the Ministry of Agricultural Development (MIDA). RENARE is responsible for all forest resources, including granting of logging permits, protection of forest reserves and parks, forestry extension, watershed management, and research. Agrarian Reform is concerned with land titling and adjudication.

RENARE. RENARE'S involvement with colonization is indirect, in that its main concern is the control of forest exploitation. RENARE officials issue permits for cutting trees on a small scale to farmers in the area, who can cut three trees per month on their own property by paying us$4.00 for a permit from RENARE and us$3.00 to the local civic government. A nursery at Villa Darién was established to produce 10,000 plants per year. The nursery produces fruit-trees principally, along with forest species such as mahogany, cedar, leucaena, and "oak" (Tabebuia spp.), which it sells for us$0.25 each. Sales are reported on a small scale; tree purchases seemed to be destined to the establishment of home gardens.

A number of demonstration efforts are carried out in Darién. In several schools "taungya" (forestry plantations cultivated in agricultural plots) demonstrations were established. In a public school of Metetí, an agronomy teacher manages a plantation of teak interplanted with pineapple. The growth of the teak was uneven, but 50 per cent of the trees in a 20 m x 20 m plot reached 3 m in one year. Other agronomic activities include the planting of fruit-trees such as peach palm (Guilielma gassipaes), guanábana (Annona muricata), and mango (Mangifera indica). These demonstrations serve the dual purpose of instructing students and informing their parents about alternative production strategies. Heads of families were intrigued with the performance of the teak but were concerned with the problem of short-term cash flow before long-term investments such as lumber production.

RENARE also established a demonstration plot for forestry species at the edge of the highway near Villa Darién with eight species from the genera Cedrela, Swietenia, Bombacopsis, Tabebuia, Leucaena, and Guilielma. Although farmers know and value naturally occurring species of the region, they were unaware of the possibility of replanting them on their farms. RENARE'S forestry plot was intended to address this problem.

The other facet of RENARE activities in Darién is the issuance of forest concessions to logging companies. It is generally believed that these concessions give rise to abuses, through bribery, disorganization, and RENARE'S inability to control the activity with its limited staff (the head of RENARE'S forestry department reports that the most optimistic estimate of their coverage of forested areas is 1 forest guard for each 50,000 ha). RENARE and MIDA are involved in a clear conflict of interest in the issuance of permits, since concession payments are an important part of their operational funds. Information about concessions is freely available, and there are fairly current maps with locations and extensions. One problem noted with the system of granting concessions pointed out by the RENARE regional director is the vagueness of the environmental obligations, which are no more specific than to require that the companies "take necessary measures" to avoid environmental problems. It was also pointed out that the two-year time period of the concession was too short to permit or motivate logging companies to reforest.

What may be the most destructive problem associated with concessions is the lack of clear territorial definitions in the activities of the Agrarian Reform Agency. At present there is no map which differentiates state land (over which RENARE would have authority to grant concessions) and land adjudicated by colonists. Problems have arisen where logging companies and farmers think they have rights to the same lands, and in several cases farmers have blockaded roads until the lumber company has paid them for extracting lumber from "their" land ( Waterman 1984). In order to avoid unforeseen payments to farmers, lumber companies now find it more attractive to work in the Indian reservations of the area, where landownership is more clearly defined; companies pay us$.01 per board foot to Indians for wood extracted from reservations.

Universidad Popular del Darién. The Universidad Popular del Darién is formally part of the University of Panama in Panama City. It was founded in 1979 to provide regular university training, especially in agriculture and environmental sciences, and to serve the needs of the farming population of the area. It is located in Villa Darién. It stands on a 21 ha farm, much of which is forest, and in 1984 had only one building, then under construction. This structure serves as office, class-room, and dormitory for some of the university employees.

The UPD has five professors teaching a range of topics including horticulture and ecology. Classes are generally taught outside the UPD grounds in nearby communities during evenings. In a class meeting observed in Nicanor, a lecture on ecological principles of agriculture was given to a group of 30, including men, women, and adolescents. A group of approximately 10 individuals remained after the class to formalize plans for establishing a demonstration parcel of vegetable crops in the community under the direction of another UPD professor.

On the grounds of the UPD, another demonstration established by the director of Ecosystem Protection combines native fast-growing lumber species and annual crops. This plot consists at present of 1 ha of forest which has been cleared of trees and brush, leaving only young robles (Tabebuia sp.) of 2 to 3 m in height. Roble is a valuable lumber species in this area, and the objective of the experiment is to combine the forestry species with common agricultural crops such as plantain and maize to demonstrate and test alternative cropping methods for the area. The Ecosystem Protection Programme is new in the university, but it is hoped it will take a dynamic lead in experimentation and demonstration in agro-forestry as a basis for development in Darién.

Both the UPD and RENARE base their activity on the supposition that farmers lack information regarding appropriate agricultural practices and realistic alternatives to current practices. The focus on demonstration plots, courses, and community participation is designed to directly confront this problem.

Parks and Wildlands. The administration of parks and wildlands is the responsibility of RENARE. These areas are threatened by pressure from land-seeking colonists, yet play an essential part in the environmental protection which is of great importance for the agricultural future of newly colonized areas.

Slightly more than 15 per cent (1.16 million ha) of Panamanian national territory falls within protected areas (some existing, others proposed) under the jurisdiction of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (table 12). These lands are protected by 71 employees of the National Park Service. Approximately half of the protected areas of the country are found in Darién, in Darién National Park, and the Filo de Tallo Biosphere Reserve, with seven and two guards respectively, an average of one guard for 63,888 ha.

Darién National Park extends along the Panama-Colombia border and is an area which was originally administered by COPFA as part of its strategy for preventing the extension of hoof-and-mouth disease into Central and North America. Since the disease can be transmitted through live animals or unprocessed animal products, the maintenance of an unpopulated strip of forest serves to impede the unintentional movement of the disease from farm to farm. Under park management, an effort will be made to remove nonindigenous squatters from the park, since their extensive cattle ranching techniques are a major environmental disturbance and complicate the control practices for hoof-andmouth disease. The Indians do not keep cattle and practice a non-commercial shifting agriculture on a small scale, or produce plantains commercially. Non-indigenous colonization of the park area has not been extensive, due to the lack of access roads, which inhibits commercialization of agricultural products.

The Filo de Tallo Biosphere Reserve faces much more difficult problems of management. The area is under the management of the local municipality of La Palma, which is responsible for its maintenance and protection. Nevertheless, the reserve has not been legally constituted as yet, and the municipality has not kept squatters out of the area. The authority for the titling process within the reserve area has been ceded to RENARE; although the granting of permissions has been halted, the reserve lands are being continually occupied.

Agrarian Reform. Darién at present is experiencing a rapid population increase. The opening of the new highway has made nearly all of the province accessible, or accessible in the foreseeable future. The 1980 census reported 2,554 farms in Darién, up from 1,291 in 1970. The primary objective of the Agrarian Reform Agency is to demarcate and begin the titling process on occupied lands. Individual parcels are limited to 50 ha, with a maximum road frontage of 200 lineal metres.

Land titling is not universal in Panama. Only 34,940 of the 150,820 farms in all Panama have land titles, while in Darién, only 45 farms of 2,554 were found to be titled in the 1980 census. Farmers are accustomed to carrying out all land transactions through letters of sale or other quasi-legal methods and generally have no real understanding of the titling process. To date, the Agrarian Reform Agency has granted only three land titles in Darién but has issued at least 1,000 applications for land adjudication. The slow rate of titling reflects in part the indecision with regard to the legal status of the recently colonized lands and in part the lack of resources invested in the process. Applications for adjudication provide Agrarian Reform with records of occupancy and give the colonist access to bank loans for agricultural purposes. Agrarian Reform officials note that there still remains a certain amount of confusion among the farmers, who in many cases think that the application is in fact their land title.

Table 12. Wildlands of Panama

Management category and name Province Extension
Altos de Campana National Park Panamá 4,816
Portobelo National Park Colón 11,000
Volcán Barú National Park

Darién - National Park World Patrimony

Chiriquí 14,000
Site Biosphere Reserve Darién 575,000
Soberanía National Park Panama & Colón 22,500
La Amistad National Park
Chiriqui & Bocas
del Toro
Bacas del Toro National Park
Bocas del Toro 6,300
Isla de las Perlas National Park
Cope National Park
Coclé 35,000
Chagres National Park
Panama & Colón 76,000
Cerro Hoya Resource Reserve
Veraguas & Los Santos 18,000
Montuoso Forest Reserve Herrera 10,000
Wildlife Reserve Cenegón del Mangle Herrera -
Wildlife Reserve Isla Iguana Los Santos 53
Wildlife Reserve Peñón de la Honda Los Santos -
Wildlife Reserve Cienaga de las Macanas
Herrera -
Recreational Park Lago Gatún
Recreational Natural Area Metropolitana
Colón 120
(Curundu) Panama 265
Protective Forest Palo Seco Bocas del Toro 240,000
Total area 1,163,054

Source: Internal documents, RENARE.

A major goal of the head of the Santa Fe office of Agrarian Reform is to map adjudicated lands to avoid conflicts. One class of adjudicated lands comprises those which have been recently occupied. These are generally 50 ha or less, and many have been registered with the agency. Recently adjudicated farms have not been located precisely on maps. The other class consists of farms which existed before the construction of the highway. These farms may be quite large, but their precise boundaries are not known. A map has been issued which approximately locates these farms, but is not precise enough for the purposes of the Agrarian Reform office. The major conflicts which have arisen have been between lumber concessions and farmers, since there is no way for RENARE to know if they are granting concessions in areas occupied by colonists. Latent conflicts exist between old farms and new farms, since Agrarian Reform employees recognize that they have no way to know if they may be locating farms on already existing farms.

Another major question is the disposition of lands restricted by plans for the proposed Sea Level Canal. Decree 103 of 1966 established that a large part of the lands of Darién were inadjudicable, in order to avoid future conflicts with the construction of a new canal. The plans for this canal are generally believed to have fallen through, and the law has not been recognized by Agrarian Reform in the past, although it is still in force. Consultations with Agrarian Reform lawyers through the main office in Panama have confirmed the inadjudicable status of these lands, but the local officials are under pressure from functionaries of the national Agricultural Development Bank (Banco de Desarrollo Agropecuario) to ignore the law so that loans can be authorized on the basis of adjudication applications.

The question of adjudicability of lands is of major importance in Darién since large parts of the region are under various sorts of restrictions. There are three major Indian reservations, one large proposed biological reserve, and a national park which occupies the entire border area with Colombia. It is estimated that if the lands declared inadjudicable by decree 103 are included, 80 per cent of all land in Darién is not adjudicable.

Realistically, the question of adjudicability of land seems to be moot. The Agrarian Reform Agency has restricted its efforts to the legalization of farms which have been spontaneously occupied, refusing to proceed where there is some doubt as to adjudicability. Given the indeterminate status of the region, the agency does not have a clear enough mandate either to legalize farms in general and involve them in the formal economic and land tenure system of the nation or to remove squatters from prohibited areas. In default, farmers proceed with land occupation and land transferences through informal agreements. By the time the legal status is clarified, the lands will very likely have a fairly long history of informal tenure agreements, and Agrarian Reform will be put in the uncomfortable situation of legalizing (or adjudicating disputes over) informal claims or trying to evict farmers on lands that are finally defined as inadjudicable.

Although the Agrarian Reform Agency limits land titles to 50 ha farms, it is recognized that this is not a legally fixed limit and that there are no provisions to prevent these lands from being consolidated into larger farms. It is believed that many farms are jointly owned by family members and that these farms actually exceed the 50 ha limit desired by Agrarian Reform.

The National Environmental Commission

Official awareness of the importance of environmental questions has resulted in the creation of the National Environmental Commission. While it has no executive powers, as a presidentially named commission it has direct access to policy makers. Several of its recommendations to the president (CNMA 1983) bear on the process of colonization and will be mentioned here.

The most comprehensive of its recommendations was for the creation of an Institute of Natural Renewable Resources to replace the present RENARE. As a dependency of the Ministry of Agriculture, RENARE has much less ability to make and carry out policy than it would as an autonomous institute. Although RENARE has grown considerably, it suffers from an inability to control physical and budgetary resources, which are allegedly siphoned off into other areas designated at the ministry level without its knowledge or consent. The environmental commission recommendation was subsequently accepted and RENARE became an autonomous institute, with its own budget and administration.

The commission also calls for a specific recognition of the environmental and forestry resources of Darién and a reinforcement of the forestry and protection activities in the area. Two other recommendations are for agro-forestry research and environmental education. The agro-forestry strategy is mentioned in the context of a strategy for "eco-development," designed to protect fragile environments, and is accompanied by a plan for an emergency programme to assign 300 state employees to tree nurseries and roadside tree plantation activities. Another aspect of the campaign to improve environmental conditions involves "the permanent retraining of technicians, teachers, students, producers and other users of the information" (CNMA 1983:40).

Current Problems Associated with Colonization in Darién

Even a brief visit to Darién reveals problems which must be considered in any programme for establishing an environmentally sound and sustainable colonization of the area.

The most outstanding problems with regard to colonization in Darién are administrative. The political indecision and the lack of co-ordination between government agencies combine to frustrate and demoralize the government officials assigned to colonization and environmental protection tasks.

Evidence of the lack of political will can be seen in various situations in the area. For example, the existence of an important natural resource area (Filo de Tallo Biosphere Reserve) with incomplete authorizing legislation is a serious oversight, especially in view of the area's function as a water source for the human population of the area. The damage done to the area before its legal status is clarified will have serious consequences in the event of lower than average rainfall in the area (as happened in 19811982).

The inability to define the legal status of lands included in the Sea Level Canal decree is another example. Although the Sea Level Canal plan may not be revived, it sets a dubious precedent when Agrarian Reform officials are obligated to operate illegally and weakens the capability of the Agrarian Reform Agency of environmental and land use control through the use of land titling as an incentive. Ideally, titling and possession could be made contingent on the implementation of ecologically appropriate management strategies, but this possibility diminishes as informal, uncontrolled forms of possession proliferate.

Problems of lack of co-ordination between government agencies in part reflect the lack of definition of priorities and goals. A clear example is the mapping of land claims. Given the repercussions which arise from land tenure uncertainty, mapping of land claims is an indispensable prerequisite to an ordered process of land occupation and use. Nevertheless, the request for such a map has not generated any concrete mapping activity for several months. Similarly, technicians in the field realize the deficiency of basic data for making land use recommendations. Nevertheless, each governmental agency has an independent set of priorities which may not include the generation of information necessary to other agencies. A unified set of regional priorities would be an important step in resolving this problem.


Deforestation and colonization are taking place with very little supervision or technical support from government agencies. Although a large part of Darién is legally protected, the mechanisms for enforcement are deficient, and the areas which are not being colonized are those which are too inaccessible to be desirable to colonists. Darién National Park and the Indian reservations have not been greatly affected by colonists, but these are areas which are quite distant from the Inter-American Highway. Filo de Tallo Biosphere Reserve, on the other hand, is located close to population centres and to the highway and is being colonized despite the presence of two RENARE employees assigned to guard the area.

To avoid long-term problems in the development of Darién, a much more decisive programme is necessary on the part of government agencies. At present, development plans and environmental protection laws exist but are not enforced due to the lack of administrative and financial support to the local offices. The enforcement of existing laws and the execution of existing plans would have an extremely beneficial effect on the process of development in the area. For example:

  1. A more forceful application of environmental controls in the 8 km strip along the Darién highway by the Agrarian Reform Agency or by RENARE has been prescribed in several development plans for Darién.
  2. In 1978 the OAS published a fairly complete set of recommendations for integrated development of Darién, including colonization and conservation, but the execution of this plan is not currently in evidence.
  3. The administrative confusion arising out of the lack of land occupation maps fairly clearly contributes to the deforestation of Indian reservations.
  4. RENARE officials have stated that environmental obligations are not as clearly stated as they could be in lumber concession agreements and suggested that these documents could be improved.

More recently, a set of recommendations has been proposed by the National Environmental Commission which touches on these problems and many more. The weakest link in the control of environmental problems at this time is execution rather than planning.

There is also a need for the development of basic technical information, especially in the area of agro-forestry. Local officials and even farmers have been convinced of the need for some sort of forestry to meet the special needs of the area. There are no models ready for immediate implementation in the area, although research has begun on some alternatives. Viable alternatives must address the question of short-term utility and profitability of the agro-forestry systems, because Darién colonists tend to be poor. There is an active interest in mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) and cedro espinoso (Bombacopsis quinatum) in the area, and these species are being produced on a smallscale in the RENARE nursery near Metetí.

Agro-forestry programmes are being carried out by RENARE, the University of Panama, the Universidad Popular del Darién, and the IDIAP. Each of these programmes has developed independently, with a notable lack of co-ordination between them. The programme of the University of Panama is the most advanced and has the additional advantage of being formally associated with the Universidad Popular del Darién. A programme for financing and co-ordinating these programmes would be a major contribution to the future development of Darién, especially if it would permit activities to go beyond the demonstration phase and take a more active role in promoting the establishment of agro-forestry systems. This very likely will require more work in the perfection of production systems and other support activities like those which are usually directed toward other agricultural production, including extension, credit, etc.

As mentioned previously, unsatisfactory enforcement of existing land use regulations is a major problem. Clarification of land holdings through a process of mapping and land adjudication is a current strategy of local agencies in Darién, but it is being carried out very slowly; more resources and clearer mandates of action must be given to local offices to allow them to carry out this policy.

Also lacking is an understanding of on-farm land management strategies in Darién, as well as those of logging companies and possibly those of local indigenous groups. Although the general process of colonization and pasture planting is known, there are many questions which must still be answered before effective legislative or administrative strategies can be developed to control land misuse. Long-term plans of farmers, the role of land speculation, the effect of on-farm lumbering, and different types of lumber entrepreneurship, etc., all are factors which must be understood to facilitate future land management planning.

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