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Note to the Reader from the UNU

This book is the result of a study carried out under the United Nations University Project on Resource Use of Frontiers and Pioneer Settlements. A major aim of the project was to determine the ecological impact of pioneer settlement; specifically, which settlement patterns minimize the destructive effects on the environment. The project included an appraisal of the economic, political, and cultural factors bearing on frontier settlement, and an examination of the different interdependent variables involved from biophysical parameters to government action and policies- to discover which combination of these factors are likely to result in successful settlements.

The project (1983-1987) included in its activities several international symposia and indepth case-studies of pioneer settlement areas in the humid tropics of Africa, Asia, Central and South America.

Colonization and Environment: Land Settlement Projects in Central America presents the findings of a study undertaken in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama of patterns of tropical land colonization and government policies and management practices regarding land settlement.


ACD1 (Canada): Spanish acronym for the Canadian International Development Agency.

ADI (Costa Rica): Agrarian Development Institute (Instituto pare el Desarrollo Agrario), land reform and settlement agency. Formerly ITCO.


BID: Banco Interamericano pare el Desarrollo (Interamerican Development Bank).

BIRF: Banco Internacional de Reconstrucción y Fomento.

CATIE: Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigatión y Enseñanza (Tropical Agriculture Research and Training Center), located in Turrialba, Costa Rica.

CNMA (Panama): Comisión Nacional de Medio Ambiente (National Commission for the Natural Environment).

COATLAHL: Cooperativa Agroforestal Atlántida Honduras Limitada (Atlantida Honduras Agroforestry Cooperative, Ltd.).

COHDEFOR (Honduras): Corporación Hondureòo de Desarrollo Forestal (Honduran Corporation for Forestry Development).

COPFA: Comision Panameòa-Americana pare la Prevención de la Fiebre Aftosa (Panamanian-American Commission for the Prevention of Hoof-and-Mouth Disease).

CORFOP (Nicaragua): Corporación Forestal del Pueblo (People's Forestry Corporation).

CRN (Guatemala): Comité de Reconstrucción Nacional (National Reconstruction

Committee), government group formed to administer rebuilding efforts after earthquake.

CSUCA: Programa Centroamericano de Ciencias Sociales.

DICA (Guatemala): Dirección de Colonización Agricola-Instituto de Transformación Agraria.

DIGESA (Guatemala): Dirección General de Servicios Agrícolas (General Directorate for Agricultural Services).

DIGESEPE (Guatemala): Dirección General de Servicios Pecuarios (General Directorate for Animal Production Services).

DRI-I (Guatemala): Desarrollo Rural Integrado (Integrated Rural Development Project, in Izabál region).

DRNR (Costa Rica): Departamento de Recursos Naturales Renovables, CATIE

FAO: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

FTN (Guatemala): Franja Transversal del Norte settlement area.

FYDEP: Comisión pare el Fomento y Desarrollo Económico del Petén (Commission for the Growth and Economic Development of Petén).

TAN (Nicaragua): Instituto Agrario de Nicaragua (Agrarian Institute of Nicaragua).

TCTA (Guatemala): Instituto de Ciencia y Tecnología Agropecuaria (Institute for Agricultural Science and Technology).

IDIAP: Instituto de Investigación Agropecuario de Panama (Panamanian Agricultural and Animal Research Institute).

IICA: Instituto Interamericano pare la Cooperación Agricultura (Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture).

INA (Honduras): Instituto Nacional Agrario (National Agrarian Institute).

INAFOR (Guatemala): Instituto Nacional Forestal (National Forestry Institute).

INETER (Nicaragua): Instituto Nacional de Estudios Territoriales (National Institute for Territorial Studies).

INTA (Guatemala): Instituto Nacional de Transformación Agraria (National Institute for Agrarian Transformation).

IRENA (Nicaragua): Instituto Nicaragüense de Recursos Naturales y del Ambiente (Natural Resource Institute).

ITCO (Costa Rica): Instituto de Tierras y Colonización. See ADI.

IUCN: International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

MAG (Nicaragua): Ministry of Agriculture.

MIDA (Panama): Ministerio de Desarrollo Agropecuario (Ministry of Agricultural Development).

MIDINRA (Nicaragua): Ministerio de Desarrollo Agrario e Instituto de Reforma Agraria (Ministry for Agrarian Development and Reform).

MNR (Honduras): Ministry of Natural Resources.

MZ: manzana.

NCIA (Costa Rica): National Commission for Indian Affairs (Comisión Nacional pare Asuntos Indígenas, CONAI).

NFD (Costa Rica): National Forestry Directorate (Dirección General Forestal), part of the Ministry of Agriculture.

NPF (Costa Rica): National Park Foundation (Fundación de Parques Nacionales), private non-profit conservation group.

NPS (Costa Rica): National Park Service (Servicio de Parques Nacionales), part of the Ministry of Agriculture.

OEA: Organización de los Estados Americanos (Organization for American States).

PNUD: Programa Naciones Unidas Desarollo.

PRICA (Nicaragua): Proyecto Rigoberto Cabezas de Colonización Agricola (Rigoberto Cabezas Agricultural Colonization Project).

RENARE (Panama): Dirección Nacional de Recursos Naturales Renovables).

ROCAP: Regional Office for Central America and Panama, USAID.

SANAA (Honduras): Servicio Nacional de Aguas y Alcantarillas (National Services for Waters and Sewers).

SSF (Honduras): Sistema Social Forestal (Social Forestry System).

UNAN: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua (National Autonomous University of Nicaragua).

UPD (Panama): Universidad Popular del Darién (Public University of Darién).

(US)ATD: (United States) Agency for International Development.

USPADA (Guatemala): Unidad Sectorial de Planificación Agropecuaria y de Alimentación (Sectoral Planning Unit for Food and Agriculture).


The phrase "colonization in Central America" generates a multitude of images, ranging from pioneering derring-do and righteousness to environmentalist anxiety and dismay, depending on who perceives it and in what context.

Colonization has historical, political, economic, social, and ecological aspects. For the early Spanish colonizers, the land was "there to be occupied," a feeling that is still prevalent among many people and particularly decision makers, regardless of the agricultural marginality of the land involved. The rapid rate of occupation over the last 100 years has not yet created an awareness that land to be colonized is finite: many people continue to believe that "beyond the next mountain there is still lots of empty land."

Politically, colonization is an extremely useful expedient. The land is either unowned or in the government's hands: giving it away to landless and poor farmers enhances the political aura of the government, as witnessed by the classic ceremony where a prominent government official, often the president himself or a military leader, hands over the newly acquired property titles to poor farmers - with cameras clicking and zooming in on the happy faces. To the large landowners who possess the best land, it is an effective way to distract land hungry peasants from their land and relieve - at least for the time being - what has become a most annoying pressure on their "sacred private property."

Opening new land is an apparently promising economic venture that lends itself to many financial schemes, including loans by development banks or "soft" money from friendly countries or agencies. It also opens possibilities for building roads, houses for the new settlers, and of course a whole array of land speculation opportunities.

The image of a land hungry peasant family moving into a new colonization area, with initial loans, a new house, education and health services, is without question a very socially satisfying scheme. Moreover, spontaneous colonization - as opposed to government directed colonization schemes- is a very old tradition and a socially accepted practice which has been documented over centuries.

The ecological implication is perhaps the least studied or understood. The capability of land to be managed on a sustainable basis to support a family is a question seldom considered. People are commonly heard to say "no hay sierra male; lo que no hay es gente pare trabajarla" (there is no bad land; all that is missing are people to work it).

Yet in most countries of Central America, almost all the land with adequate rainfall, moderate slopes - not to mention level land - and reasonable soils is already taken. What is left is land that is too steep, soils that are too poor in texture or in nutrients and too moist because of excessive rain and/or inadequate drainage.

It is not by chance that most directed or spontaneous colonization efforts nowadays are found in the humid areas of Central America, where conditions are usually marginal for sustainable agriculture. More than 50 per cent of Costa Rica's present pasture lands have recently been qualified by the national planning board as "mistakes in the conversion of forest to pasture" which should revert to forest. However, this sort of realization has not stopped the countries from continuing the opening of new land, usually primary forests, at an alarming rate.

This is not to say that there is no role for colonization, but that the present attitude to it must change. Some areas with slopes or high rainfall may be farmed, but not with traditional techniques imported from other ecological areas, characterized by more level land, better soils, or drier or cooler conditions or a combination of any of these factors. Colonization must become a carefully thought out process, and appropriate farming systems must be devised, understood, applied, evaluated, and continuously improved.

Agro-forestry, in which the United Nations University is deeply involved, may be a proper tool in some cases. In others, imaginative land use techniques must be devised. Traditional technical knowledge can be a most interesting guide to "new" or improved techniques.

It is time for decision makers and planners, who have the fundamental power over land use, to make a careful assessment of present colonization schemes and, it is hoped, learn from past mistakes as well as from success stories. The present contribution by Dr. Jeffrey R. Jones, an assistant professor in the Program in International Development and Social Change at Clark University, is an attempt in this direction, and, in addition, fits well with the UNU'S fundamental objective to establish guide-lines for sustainable land use under satisfactory ecological and socioeconomic conditions.


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