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Introduction: Lowland Settlement and Environmental Impacts in Central America

Dangers of Misdirected Policies in Land Settlement
Role of the Current Study
The Colonization Areas

Global concern with social and environmental conditions in Central America in the 1980s have raised the profile of the region for much of the world. These higher levels of concern are a mixed blessing, since they invite both support and intervention from outside the region. Official development assistance to Latin America has increased by 76 per cent in real dollars between 1981 and 1987, and by 115 per cent for Central American countries, excluding El Salvador (World Bank 1989); much of that assistance is directed toward resource-related and potentially contradictory problems, specifically deforestation and agricultural development (see esp. Leonard 1985). The relationship between resource use for immediate needs and resource management for long-term benefits is nowhere clearer than in the land settlement process. Experiences from land settlement programmes in Central America provide insights into attempts to resolve resource use conflicts and demonstrate successes and pitfalls of different approaches.

Tropical lowland colonization has been a product of both national and international efforts at agricultural development. The settlement of these lands has been a longstanding objective of Central American governments, and more recently, an unintended outcome of social reform efforts such as the Alliance of Progress, which poured money into "land reform" efforts directly through us government sources and indirectly through the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank (Montgomery 1984). Simultaneous pressures for land reform and export-led development resulted in a pattern of financing forest destruction for new land uses, such as cattle ranching (Parsons 1976). The growing evidence of impending environmental damage caused by these programmes has begun in recent years to spur a response on the part of donor governments (see esp. u.s. Congress 1985) and international organizations.

International concern with deforestation has crystalized in a variety of forms, either as direct financing, political pressure through private sector groups, or "leveraged" environmental protection through debt swaps and other instruments (Page 1989). Financing has been applied to fund conservation agencies or individuals, and even to the purchase of lands for conservation purposes (Holder 1986; Barnard 1989). In other cases, attempts have been made to influence international markets to change patterns of incentives for forest clearance, as in boycotts of fast-food using Central American beef.

The objective of this study is to review Central American land settlement projects in the context of the two somewhat opposed objectives of development and conservation. Such a review cannot pretend to be exhaustive, but more illustrative of conditions and problems. The description of the land settlement process and programmatic attempts to ameliorate environmental problems helps demonstrate both government concerns and domestic political and economic constraints which influence programmes. What emerges is an almost bewildering variety of strategies responding to the specific environmental and social conditions of each country. While such variability does not easily lend itself to broad strategy recommendations for the region, it does demonstrate the rationale for promoting local involvement in the development of national and local strategies; that local concerns must be addressed to ensure observance of environmental policy guide-lines and to avoid the transformation of these policies into costly and counter-productive exercises in unpopular law enforcement (see esp. Cernea's 1989 review of social forestry projects).

On a more abstract plane, this study argues for a change in the perception of deforesting farmers in Central America, and possibly in all Latin America. Deforestation is often portrayed as an economic strategy, especially as a beef production strategy (Parsons 1976; DeWalt 1982; Partridge 1984), a view which is only half correct (Edelman 1985). Deforestation is also a title establishment mechanism, in which cattle serve primarily to demonstrate active land use, and, I would argue, only secondarily as a source of income. Farmer decision-making with regard to new land is driven by the process of establishing title within the usufruct framework common to all Latin America (Hartshorn et al. 1982 and Sáenz and Knight 1971 describe the practical and legal aspects of land titling for Costa Rica, and Bunker 1985 and Goodland 1984 do the same for Brazil). From the perspective of forest resource conservation, the distinction is crucial, since it addresses fundamental concerns of the farmers, whose co-operation will be necessary to carry out environmental management in the region.

Dangers of Misdirected Policies in Land Settlement

International attempts to influence patterns of land use in Latin America have often had disastrous environmental impacts. The promotion of land reform through the Alliance for Progress should have eased pressure on forest resources by providing alternative sources of livelihood for poor farmers; national and international political realities combined to turn "land reform" programmes into major forces for environmental destruction (Bunker 1985; Moran 1983). Environmental initiatives have the same capacity for generating unintended consequences.

With the growing concern over tropical forest depletion, there has been a tendency to characterize deforestation as a struggle between multi-national fast-food chains and conservationists. Poor farmers are seen to be merely camouflage in a process dominated by wealthy, large-scale landowners tied to international markets. While such a formulation may correctly identify various actors in the causal chain, it often misconstrues motives and patterns of benefits. The danger of this misinterpretation is policy development which harms small farmers, creates an unnecessary political antagonism between conservation efforts and poor segments of developing country populations, and which is ineffective in controlling the problem of deforestation.

Attempts to control deforestation through the elimination of the beef market are based on a flawed perception of the economic context of deforestation. It is widely recognized that the undervaluation of forest resources is a primary cause of deforestation (Guppy 1984; Repetto 1988), as land managment strategies seek to replace the "unprofitable" forest with more profitable alternatives. However, the "unprofitable" nature of forest resources is due to prices which do not accurately reflect costs of replacement or "costs of production" for those products, since, as natural resources, no human effort was expended. The forest conservation strategy based on eliminating the beef market will save forest resources only if forest products are reasonably valued, and if beef production has expanded as a result of its over-valuation; if this is not the case, the end result may be increased environmental destruction, as beef producers shift to alternative profit-making strategies.

Cattle production in Central America presents an enigma. Detailed studies of production costs and returns on farms between 17 and 122 ha report negative incomes to farmers from animal production in six of eight areas in Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama (CATIE 1983). Citing examples from Central and South America, Ledec and Goodland (1989) arrive at similar conclusions. These somewhat surprising results suggest a need to reassess the rol of cattle production in deforestation, and more specifically, motivations for cattle production.

It can be argued that the persistence of cattle production in the face of relatively low profits is tied to problems of land tenure. The establishment of homestead title to land is tied to active use of farm land in forest areas. Interestingly, the usufruct principle extends even beyond forest areas; various authors (Downing and Matteson [1965]; Seligson [1980]) argue that invasion and squatting on underutilized lands are a spontaneous land reform process in Costa Rica, and by extension, in Central America; de Soto's (1989) discussion of land invasion in urban Lima suggests that this principle is generalized throughout Latin America. A critical element in the selection of land to be invaded is the actual intensity of use; abandoned lands are prime candidates for invasion and difficult to defend legally from the usufruct perspective. Animal production constitutes a relatively low-cost method for "actively" using land; animals keep lands clean, require little maintenance, and provide income to maintain the farm operation. The combination of constant use and the low number of permanent labourers (who as tenant farmers might also constitute a challenge to the landowner) is well adapted to the maintenance of title.

Changes in international beef prices eventually would cause a restructuring of the land maintenance tactic, possibly eliminating cattle production as a preferred strategy. However, the need for "active" land use will remain and may well lead to alternatives such as mechanized, extensive cropping strategies, possibly relying on extensive use of aircraft and herbicides to reduce labour demands. The outcome may be the development of new, more environmentally destructive methods for extensive land management. Time and effort spent in restructuring beef prices would be better spent increasing the value of forest products through legislation, marketing, research, or public action campaigns, thereby increasing the economic appeal of forestry.

The development of effective strategies for the protection of Central American environments within the context of the countries' development needs will require a clear understanding of motivations and strategies of the farmers using those environments.

Role of the Current Study

Central American land settlement programmes have evolved considerably over the past decades. The initial tendency to prescribe new land settlement as a generalized panacea for social, political, and economic ills of society has given way to a more circumspect appreciation of the potentially negative economic and environmental impacts of these programmes (Nelson 1977). In response, projects have incorporated new elements designed to alleviate environmental problems, address social concerns, and ensure economic viability. While not always successful, these efforts have been instructive with regard to interactions of farmers and policy.

New policy concerns which have emerged include (1) a more rational use of forest resources in colonization areas, (2) the stabilization of the colonization front, and (3) an increased emphasis on the characteristics of the participants in settlement programmer.

One of the most negative impacts of the usufruct based tenure system has been the careless destruction of valuable forest resources to establish title. Valuable timber species are cut and either burned or left on the ground to rot, destroying the forest as an ecosystem and the timber as a saleable commodity. The losses through forest destruction amount to hundreds of millions of dollars in environmental damage and lost income; it is not uncommon for settlers to face the ultimate irony of purchasing building materials after clearing their own land. Control efforts have included (1) the creation of national forest agencies and lumber corporations, (2) the training and licensing of settlers to process and market wood from settlement areas, and (3) the requiring of forest harvesting plans controlled through permits.

The stabilization of the colonization front is a growing concern for settlement programmer. Settlement areas often serve as "jumping-off" points for forest penetration by commercial interests. New roads and infrastructure are used for lumber exploitation or to facilitate the entry of non-farming land speculators. Settlers themselves may use project settlements as a home base from which they try to claim and manage extensive landholdings in forest lands. A variety of strategies have been attempted by governments and projects to regulate access to adjacent forest lands: (1) requirements of timbercutting and transport permits, (2) the creation of local participant groups for timber exploitation and management, and (3) withholding of land titles for specified periods from settlers and threat of not granting title for land use infractions.

There has also been an increasing focus on screening participants in settlement projects in response to public and environmental concerns with what might be termed "settlement fraud." Individuals may join settlement programmes, not to farm, but to reap the benefit of land appreciation due to subsidized public infrastructural development and the private investments of their neighbours. These individuals may even serve as agents of large landholders, who are legally excluded from settlement lands; these pseudosettlers collude to obtain lands based on their own landless status, only then to turn over new lands in exchange for short-term employment or lump-sum payments. Such fraud is discouraged through (1) tenure conditionality based on patterns of land use (such that land may revert to the state), (2) residence period requirements and delayed titling, and (3) screening procedures to identify individuals unlikely to be successful farmers.

Although the measures described here have not been entirely successful as currently implemented, they will be elements of future strategies for environmental management in settlement areas. An appreciation of their successes and failures will form a sound basis for improving their application in the future.

The Colonization Areas

The five country reports are preceded by an overview of general conditions in Central America and a detailed description of the usufruct based land acquisition. Despite specific national variations, this pattern applies to the entire region.

The first country report deals with Costa Rica. Costa Rica is unique in a number of ways. Its democractic political tradition has presided over a relatively egalitarian (although clearly skewed) agricultural society, with wide access to public services and political channels. Costa Rica also has one of the most active parks and conservation programmes in the world, paradoxically accompanied by the highest rate of deforestation in Central America. Populist pressures for land settlement create a clear tension with conservation interests, while the economic strength of export agriculture argues against land reform meddling in farm lands of the export sector. The documentation of the land settlement process in Costa Rica is particularly rich, with numerous contributions by the geographer Gerhard Sandner, one example cited in Nelson's review of Latin American land settlement, and a rich literature on land reform (see esp. Seligson 1980).

In the Costa Rica case-study, two land settlement areas are described. The principal area described is the Atlantic lowlands, near the towns of Guácimo and Batán. The interplay of national political issues, local political groups, and technical production problems for the region impede both the settler selection process and land quality assessment by the land reform agency. A second case is introduced with the TaqueTaque settlement area in a national forest reserve, where attempts to regulate land use through control of land title have met with limited success. Ironically, these two relatively successful settlement areas strongly resist attempts to ensure long-term environmental viability through government planning.

Land settlement in Panama is a legal nightmare. Competing claims to jurisdiction within the government over large parts of Darién Province are confronted with a de facto land settlement process which also conflicts with those legal claims. Within the legal vacuum, national forestry and conservation agencies work to balance short-and long-term environmental needs with powerful commercial interests and, at the same time, to promote environmentally appropriate land use among settlers. Studies of Panamanian land settlement are aided by previous research by a number of authors (Heckadon Moreno and McKay 1982), who demonstrate the vicious cycle of forest clearing, soil depletion, and further deforestation.

During the time of this study, Nicaragua has been in a state of turmoil. A combination of international pressures and domestic concerns have led to circumstances of an extraordinary nature. The indigenous groups of the Atlantic lowlands have actively sought, through both armed and political means, more direct control over tribal lands traditionally made available to Hispanic Nicaraguan settlers by the Hispanic national government. At the same time, government plans have sought to convert the Atlantic coast from an area of small-scale private farms to collectives, beginning in Nueva Guinea. The plans envision sweeping government controls over land use of the region. Nevertheless, much of this planning is clearly contingent on wider political considerations, making it likely that the plans will not be permanent policy orientations.

Honduras confronts the most critical land settlement problems in Central America. As a poor country, there is an urgent need for both income generating resources and gainful activity for its inhabitants. The extensive forest lands of the country provide both; one study estimates that most of Honduras's good agricultural land remains in forest, a tantalizing observation for a country with scarce supplies of agricultural land. The Bajo Aguán settlement project was designed to incorporate such remote, fertile lands into the national economy and is the premier land settlement project in the Central American region.

Honduras's attempts to utilize forest resources are formalized in the Honduran Corporation for Forestry Development (COHDEFOR), which is mandated to oversee forest management throughout the entire country and to oversee the marketing of forest resources. COHDEFOR has been internationally recognized as a major innovator in participatory forest management, and at the same time, constitutes a major element in environmentally destructive land use.

The examples presented for Honduras correspond to relatively recent areas of forest settlement, one in the south of Olancho Province near the Patuca and Guayambre rivers, and the other in the north of Colon Province. The latter is adjacent to the Bajo Aguán project, but represents an independent, spontaneous settlement of the Bonito Oriental forest region. To the east of this settlement area lies the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, one of a kind in Central America and currently threatened by pressures from both Hondurans and international refugees.

The final country report is that of Guatemala, which presents a "worst case" scenario for land settlement through an unfortunate coincidence of national conditions. The densely populated highlands of Guatemala have long been recognized as requiring relief through the provision of additional farm land. Limited attempts in that direction were made in the Pacific lowlands, but the principal effort has been directed toward the northeastern escarpment of the highlands, in the Franja Transversal del Norte, despite persistent protests of environmental damage. Recurrent guerrilla activity in the country has drawn the military into direct involvement with land settlement. The tradition of centralized, top-down planning exacerbates problems in the area by creating environmentally well-intentioned but inadequately designed or researched plans.


Land settlement in Central America is a widespread and highly variable experience. The governments of the Central American countries face similar sets of problems, imposed by the similarities of environments, common concerns of international agencies and donors, and basic social and economic problems of developing countries. While no country in the region can be said to have encountered a "solution" to the problems of land settlement, the variety of experiments and programmes provides valuable experience for future efforts. An appreciation of what factors contributed to both the success and failure of these experiments will be an important step in the design of more effective strategies.

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