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2. Colonization in Costa Rica

Historical Perspective on Costa Rican Land Colonization
Current Management of Tropical Forest Areas in Costa Rica
Case-Study: Batán Regional Office of the ADI

Historical Perspective on Costa Rican Land Colonization

Economic Importance of Tropical Lowlands

The tropical lowlands of Costa Rica have been of economic importance to the country since the seventeenth century, although the area has not been heavily populated due to a combination of factors, including health, defence, and climatic preferences. Since the colonial period, the production of cacao has been an activity of major economic importance. In the nineteenth century, banana production began and became a new focus of economic interest in the lowlands. A persistent factor in national interest in the tropical lowlands has been the desire to improve communications and transport, especially for exporting products from the Meseta Central via the Caribbean, transport between the Meseta and Pacific coast was well established in the colonial period, but access to the Atlantic coast has been a constant problem due to the heavy rains which have hindered road construction and maintenance.

Cacao was cultivated by pre-Columbian inhabitants of Costa Rica, but in the colonial period this cultivation was taken over by Europeans and descendants of African slaves in the coastal area near present-day Limón. Records from 1682 indicate that in the valleys of Matina and Suerre, there were 102,200 cacao trees in 55 haciendas. An analysis of rental records between 1650 and 1790 shows 192 renters, only 9 of whom were European; the rest were black or mulatto (Monge Alfaro 1980).

During the colonial period, the cacao production areas were dangerous not only for health reasons, but due to regular attacks by Indians and pirates. This area was officially ignored by the colonial government, since trade was prohibited through the Atlantic coast; colonial law required that all imports come from Spain by way of Guatemala and then be transported overland or through Pacific ports to the Meseta Central. Trade thrived through Atlantic ports despite danger and the official prohibition. The official neglect of the Atlantic coast left it defenceless, which resulted in regular raids by pirates and Indians, who would harvest ripe cacao and who, for at least one period, received tribute from Costa Rica.

In 1804, coffee was first introduced into Costa Rica, and its importance grew throughout the century. In spite of the economic expansion promoted by coffee, pressure on tropical agricultural lands was reduced due to the labour-intensive character of coffee production, which was carried out on small farms throughout the central highlands of the country. While it is generally agreed that there has been a tendency toward concentration of coffee holdings - beginning perhaps as early as the past century the distribution of coffee land was quite equitable as late as 1935 (Churnside 1981).

The development of the railroad to the Atlantic coast heavily influenced the process of colonization of the area. Several attempts to complete the railroad were made during the nineteenth century, but it was not until 1890 that Minor C. Keith was successful (Seligson 1980: 52). As a by-product of the railroad construction, 10,000 Jamaicans arrived in Costa Rica as labourers for the project, and many remained after its completion.

The exportation of banana began in 1880, when 360 banana stalks were shipped to New York. By 1884 this figure had risen to 420,000 (Monge Alfaro 1980). One of the major figures in banana production was Minor Keith, who developed several companies, including the United Fruit Company, as a complement to his activities in the railroad business.

Due to a combination of factors, there was little pressure on lowland tropical agricultural lands until well into the twentieth century. The requisites of coffee production and its distribution among small farms were probably of major importance in reducing the tendency for migration, since with a good source of income and a guaranteed demand for their labour, small landholders would be less motivated to test their luck in tropical lowland areas. Banana plantations provided a ready source of employment and occupied the best soils, which may also have reduced the development of lowland tropical farms outside the banana production areas. At the same time, other, less humid areas were available for colonization, especially in the areas of Guanacaste and San Isidro del General.

Colonization occurred on a reduced scale throughout Costa Rican history. To the south-west of the Meseta Central, cantonal administrative centres were legally recognized in Puriscal (in 1868) and in Orotina (in 1908). The dry coastal lowlands of Guanacaste saw the establishment of Liberia (1770), Santa Cruz (1821), Filadelfia (1839), and La Mansion (1890) in the foothills of the southern Nicoya Peninsula. The highlands of Tilaran were colonized from 1818 onward, first by large "hacendados" and later by small farmers (Sandner 1961). The area of Sarapiquf was a source of lumber throughout the nineteenth century, and attempts at colonization began in the San Carlos area as early as 1850. The rhythm of colonization speeded up in the 1930s.

Colonization in the 1930s

The Depression and the arrival of Panama Disease in the banana plantations gave a new impetus to land colonization in Costa Rica. Before 1930, the majority of the country was very sparsely populated outside the Meseta Central, with the population of the country concentrated in the coffee and, secondarily, banana production areas to meet the growing demand for these products. Earlier colonizations had moved at a leisurely pace, concentrating on the most desirable areas of new colonization zones. Although cantons had been established in the Nicoya Peninsula, the highlands of Guanacaste were still largely uninhabited. Also, the Valle del General was sparsely populated, as were the northern plain and the Atlantic coastal areas. In the 1930s major colonization movements were directed toward the border areas of Costa Rica, opening roads and farm land where previously there had been only forest and occupying forest areas which remained between previously established population centres.

The reduced demand for coffee and bananas caused by the Depression had a profound effect on the Costa Rican economy. As the importance of coffee had risen, Costa Rica went from self-sufficiency in basic grains to being a net importer (Seligson 1980); flour was purchased from Chile and California to make up the deficit. As the economic opportunities from export agriculture diminished in the 1930s, the natural increase in population could no longer be absorbed into cash-crop production, and jobless young farmers began pushing toward the frontier regions. This motivation toward land colonization was accentuated by Panama Disease, which destroyed many banana plantations. While the change of banana plantations to farm land may have ameliorated the demand for new forest land conversions (Stouse 1965), the diminishment of the banana industry as a source of work left in place a transportation infrastructure which facilitated access to new lands.

Sandner (1961) documents the process of colonization in Costa Rica during the twentieth century. The major colonization area was the Valle del General, southeast of San Jose, but there were numerous others, such as the Nicoya Peninsula, the central Pacific coastal areas, and the Sarapiquí-San Carlos areas. By mid-century these colonization areas had largely been occupied. Once access roads and basic services were established, populations grew rapidly. By the second half of the century, the colonization of tropical forest areas had fairly lost its characteristic "frontier" quality, as the forest came to be restricted to pockets between agricultural areas.

Colonization between 1930 and 1960 followed and reinforced Costa Rican perceptions regarding forests and land use. Historically, forests have been regarded in much the same way as had been the North American "frontier," as a source of new wealth, employment, and an opportunity for land-hungry farmers. Twentieth-century colonization bore out this perception to some extent; areas such as Nicoya and the Valle del General contained some good agricultural lands whose use had been limited by lack of transportation and lack of initiative. Nevertheless, the best soils were quickly occupied, and more recent colonization has had to concentrate on less appropriate land in more difficult conditions.

Recent Colonization in Costa Rica

Major colonization efforts are now restricted to the northern Atlantic plain, an area which extends west from the Caribbean coast to the chain of volcanoes which divide the plain from the drier Pacific lowlands, and from the foot of the Meseta Central north to the Nicaraguan border. Unoccupied forested areas still exist in the mountains of the Cordillera de Talamanca in the southern part of the country, but these areas have recently been designated Indian reserves and national parks, and new colonists are being excluded.

The northern Atlantic plain is chiefly humid tropical forest (Holdridge 1979). Annual rainfall is variable, but most areas recieve 2,000 to 3,000 mm, with a "dry" season of three months from January to March, which in some years is marked only by a decrease in precipitation. Rainfall peaks occur in June and October-November. Most of the area lies below 100 m altitude.

While soils of the area suffer from the problems characteristic of high rainfall areas, there are areas of relatively good soils made up of volcanic alluvium.

A number of directed colonization efforts have been carried out in the area. Most notable are the Rio Frio-San Carlos area and Cariari. In the Rio Frio area, a number of colonization projects have been organized within areas of spontaneous colonization, making the differentiation of "directed" and "undirected" activities and results difficult. CATIE has been working in the Rio Frio area within the framework of an agreement with ITCO (now ADI) (Villegas Zamora 1980). Cariari is one small colony located near Guapiles, formed in the 1960s and adjacent to the spontaneous colonization area of Guacimo and the banana plantations of the "Linea Vieja," some of which have been converted to small farms. Both Cariari and Rio Frio have been successful in the establishment of small farms and the permanent settlement of migrant families. Formal technical improvement programmes especially directed toward these colonies have undoubtedly had important impacts (Villegas Zamora 1980; Jones 1983). Both areas are now experiencing a development of urban centres, population increase, and dramatic rises in land values. Cariari Colony is potentially one of great interest, since its design incorporated a plan for forest exploitation by the farmers (McKenzie 1972). No further work has been done with regard to the forestry activities in this colony.

To the east of Cariari lies the area of Batán. This settlement was initiated on abandoned banana plantation lands nearly at sea level (10 m) and surrounded by forests and squatter settlements. It has been an area of cacao production for several centuries (it lies 6 km from the town of Matina, mentioned above) and is close to the main highway which connects the port of Limón with the Meseta Central. The nearest town is Siquirres, and Batán itself is "urban" in a loose sense' with several blocks of businesses and dwellings bordering the railroad tracks. It has not acheived the urban growth of Guapiles, possibly due to the close proximity of the major urban centre of Limón (less than one hour by asphalt road) and of Siquirres (less than one-half hour). While it seems anomalous that an area along a major road is a "colonization" zone, this may be explained by the early establishment of large landholdings associated with the railroad and the banana industry. As other areas have been saturated with colonists, farmers have begun to challenge the large landholders.

Batán is still an important area for production of cacao, and there are several banana co-operatives in the area. A new crop is mechanized rice in flat humid lands. A government programme supports prices, but producers of the area have now reached their collective quota.

Current Management of Tropical Forest Areas in Costa Rica

In recent years, Costa Rica has made important strides toward protecting its remaining forest resources. National and international organizations have joined forces for an extensive campaign to establish biological reserves and national parks in areas of exceptional beauty and biological interest under the direction of the National Park Service (NPS). The National Forestry Directorate (NFD) has been charged with the management of all remaining forests in the country and has established a number of forest reserves and protection zones where deforestation has potentially damaging impacts on downstream populations or facilities. Another large block of forest land has been incorporated into Indian reserves, under the management of the National Commission for Indian Affairs (NCIA). These efforts have been surprisingly successful, and nearly 20 per cent of the total land area of Costa Rica is incorporated into some kind of land protection plan (see tables 3 and 4). To a large extent, the process of land colonization has been centralized under the Agrarian Development Institute (ADI); while the primary concern of the AD! has been land reform in areas of established farms, it is also the institution which processes demands for new land from forests.

The National Park Service

The National Park Service has been quite successful in protecting forest areas, in preventing forest destruction for agricultural or other purposes. Their policy is to resist all incursions on park land. When parks are formed, they try to buy legally established farms which remain within the park boundaries. * Squatters are informed that they are on park land and discouraged by park guards. Only one area under park service authority has problems with squatters (Biological Reserve R.B. Hitoy), and this problem arose during the prolonged process of acquisition of the land, when neither the former owners nor the park service had legal authority over the land.

Map 3. Costa Rica: provinces, cities, and protected areas.

Table 3. Costa Rica: protected areas, types of management, and managing agencies

Management class Agency No. Area (ha)
Forest reserves NFD 12 408,351
Protection zones NFD 13 60,671
Wildlife preserves NFD 5 15,483
Indian reserves ADI 13 276,379
Biological reserves NPS 9 21,688
National parks NPS 14 393,850
National monument NPS 1 218
Recreational areas NPS 5 659
Total   72 1,177,299

Source: Morales Díaz 1984.

Table 4. Breakdown of forest administration areas in Costa Rica

Management category
and name
Management category
and name
Forest reserves   Protection zones  
Matina 400 Caragres 4,000
Grecia 2,000 Escazú 7,000
San Ramón 7,800 Cerros de la Carpintería 2,000
Juan Castro Blanco 13,700 Rio Grande 1,500
Cordillera Volcánica Central 72,300 Atenas 700
Taboga 297 Río Tiribi 650
Arenal 18,325 Las Tablas 19,602
Rio Macho 91,922 Barbilla 12,830
Los Santos 62,000 Cabécar  
Golfo Dulce 70,000 La Selva 10,204
Cordillera Volcánica de


39,537 Quitirrisi 40
El Rodeo 2,085
Manglares 30,000 Cerro Turrubares  
Wildlife refuges   Recreational areas  

Rafael Lucal Rodríguez

75 Santa Ana 48
Ricardo Jimenez  
Caballero 7,523 Oreamuno 58
Tapanti 5,000 Cariari 13
Isla Bolanos 100 Laguna de Frayjanes 13
Cano Negro 9,969 Simon Bolívar  
  (Biological Park) 3
Indian reservations   National parks  
Cocles 5,538 Volcán Irazú 2,309
Chirripó 75,824 Volcán Poás 5,317
Tayni 22,803 Cahuita 1,067
Talamanca 62,253 Santa Rosa 21,913
Guatuso 2,744 Manuel Antonio 682
Guaymí Coto Brus 7,500 Rincón de la Vieja 14,083
Guaymí Abrojos   Barra Honda 2,295
Moctezuma 1,480 Chirripó 50,150
Boruca-Térraba 31,981 Corcovado 41,788
Ujarrás-Salitre-Cabagra 56,561 Tortuguero 18,946
Quitirrisí 1,710 Braulio Carrillo 31,401
Zapatón   Palo Verde 9,460
  Isla del Coco 2,400
National Monument Talamanca (La Amistad) 192,000
Guayabo 218    
Biological reserves   Total areas  
Cabo Blanco 1,172 Forest Reserves 408,281
Islas Negritos y Guayabo 143 Wildlife Refuges 22,667
Isla Pájaros 4 Indian Reservations 268,394
Isla del Cano 200 National Monument 218
Carara 5,500 Biological Reserves 21,678
Hitoy 9,144 Protection Zones 60,611
Monteverde 4,500 Recreational Areas 135
La Selva (Research   National Parks 393,811
Station) 880    
Las Cruces (Research


135 Total 1,175,795

Source: Morales Díaz 1984.

One example of the park service's success can be seen in Corcovado Park, on the Osa Peninsula. Corcovado shares a long boundary with the Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve, managed by the NFD. The Golfo Dulce Reserve has been invaded by squatters who have been encouraged by the gold-mining activities in the reserve. No method for controlling this invasion has been found, and the NFD was well disposed to a plan to manage the reserve jointly with the AD! in order to stabilize the population through formal land titling and to try to bring them into a legal framework for controlling forest cutting. This plan has not yet been financed, and there has been no improvement in the condition of the reserve. Corcovado Park, on the other hand, does not have any invasion problem (as of June 1984), and employs 20 park guards to control the entry of squatters. The only farmers who remain within the park boundaries are those who had legal title to their land before the establishment of the park.

Another example of NPS success in avoiding forest destruction can be seen in the Altos de Coton, on the Panama border. This has been the site of a major conflict between peasant squatters and national officals, and the area in question abuts lands administered by the AD] and the NFD. According to NPS officials, the activities of some six guards in the Las Tablas Protection Zone (jointly administered by the NFD and the NPS and managed by the NPS) has been sufficient to avoid the inclusion of more than a small part of the park lands in the conflict.

In at least one instance, the NPS relinquished control over parts of a biological reserve which were not appropriate for inclusion under their administration. The reserve in question is Carara, which, in the beginning, included some areas of abandoned pasture and an isolated watershed protection area. Organized squatters invaded part of the reserve, and were ejected, but they brought pressure to bear through the actions of local political officials, so the NPS acceded to the separation of some abandoned pastures which, according to an NPS official, were not really appropriate for inclusion in the reserve. Part of the separated lands became farms, and the rest became the Cerro Turrubares Protection Zone. The NPS strategy of releasing lands which they are not prepared to manage may be important in their success in protecting the areas they can manage.

National Commission for Indian Affairs

Indian reservations occupy more than 276,000 ha in Costa Rica. These lands are generally forested, and NCIA officials report that these lands are not being deforested. The Indian populations do not practice extensive agriculture or commerical logging. Furthermore, the Indians assist in keeping squatters out of the reservations, either by advising them that they are on reservation land or by informing the appropriate authorities. The exceptional cases of Indians who consistently alienate reservation lands through attempted "sales" (Indians have no legal right to sell reservation land) are controlled through "development committees" composed of local Indians which may order their exclusion from the reservation.

The National Forestry Directorate

The largest category of protected lands in Costa Rica is forest reserve, under the administration of the NFD. The NFD also jointly administers protection zones with the NPS. The management of forest reserves and protection zones falls under the direction of the Reforestation Program of the NFD. Each forest reserve and protection zone has its own operative plan, which is to serve as a basis for a more detailed management plan. To date, only La Carpintera (a protection zone) has a management plan. The plan for the largest forest reserve, Rio Macho, is being written up as a thesis project by a CATIE student. In principle, none of these lands is available for colonization, but there has been a constant pressure on the NFD to release lands. Some reserves have been colonized by squatters, and the Golfo Dulce and Los Angeles reserves were mentioned as having especially severe problems. The Los Angeles Reserve was established after the town of Santo Tomas had been established within its limits, creating a situation of constant pressure by farmers. The NFD strategy is one of legalizing farmers within the reserve by giving land titles, thus cleary establishing which lands are occupied and which not in order to prevent further squatting. Farm lands within the reserve will be zoned as to appropriate land use, and the NFD'S power to authorize land titling will be used as an enforcement tool.

The NFD has not been as successful as the NPS in controlling access to protected areas, possibly due to the ambiguity of their mandate in the management of forest areas. The head of the department of reforestation for the NFD reports that the objective in managing forest reserves is to incorporate them into the national economy. While this orientation is appropriate for a governmental agency, it surely gives rise to a need for many decisions as to whether an immediate economic contribution is more desirable than a more valuable future or long-term contribution. The existence of these alternatives may hamper decision-making and thus cause an ineffective protection of forest areas. The case of the Taque-Taque colonization illustrates this point.

Taque-Taque is located near the town of Pejibaye, in Jimenez Canton, Cartago. It represents an innovative plan for colonization involving forest reserve lands; it was initiated in 1977 and is jointly administered by the NFD and the ADI. The "colony" is a mountain top near Pejibaye, which itself is located in an agrarian reform colony established in 1963 in a banana production area. Pejibaye sits in a small valley and the establishment of new colonies is required by the growing population of the area. Both the NFD and the AD! see this pressure as an indication of the success of the Pejibaye project (another colony, El Humo, was established by the AD' in the same area in 1974).

The innovative aspect of the Taque-Taque colonization is that it is a first attempt by the NFD to manage the occupation of forest areas for agricultural purposes. The NFD had managed the colonization of the Chambacu area near Ciudad Quesada, but the land had already been deforested at the time the project began. TaqueTaque abuts the R'o Macho Forest Reserve (91,992 ha) and comprises an abandoned farm which straddles the border of the reserve. Part of the 340 ha colony has been carved out of the forest reserve and temporarily loaned to farmers for five year renewable loan periods.

Some parts of the Taque-Taque area are too steep to be safely cultivated, and the objective of the management project is for the NFD to analyse land use potential and recommend appropriate uses through the activity of the national level agroforestry programme. The basis for activity to date has been in large part a student thesis, in which land in the area was stratified by appropriate land use. These recommendations are being reviewed by NFD personnel for incorporation into the final package of recommendations to farmers. Following the land use recommendations in the thesis, land in Taque-Taque has been stratified into usage categories of "protected," "restricted," and "unrestricted." These strata correspond to absolute protection (no agriculture), agro-forestry (especially macadamia), and general agricultural use (annual crops or pastures).

The activity by the NFD in Taque-Taque is still restricted to investigation, and no recommendations to farmers or attmepts at control have yet been made. Some agricultural activity is being introduced into the area, but the main activity seems to be extraction of fuelwoodfor the coffee processing plant in Pejibaye.

NFD officials are doubtful of their ability to enforce their technical recommendations, despite their seemingly powerful weapon of last resort, the revocation of the temporary permission to use the land. The Taque-Taque colonization project was a response to pressure from the local community to provide new lands for younger farmers. The NFD acceded to this pressure in permitting the land from the forest reserve to be considered for colonization, and a recurrent theme regarding government officals in this study has been the inability of government agencies to resist the demands of local political pressure groups.

The Agrarian Development Institute

The Agrarian Development Institute is the largest land manager in Costa Rica. In 1984, the AD! reports that it has settled 40,326 farmers on 793,940 ha of land in the last 23 years (ITCO, the predecessor of the ADI, was formed in 1961) (Barahona Riera 1980: 225). The AD! is the agency responsible for the management of nearly all colonization, both on forested lands and on established farms, and is called upon in cases of invasion of forest reserves or Indian reservations.

The ADI is primarily concerned with settling farmers on land; environmental concerns may be recognized and acted upon at a personal level, but are not generally included in policy decisions. For questions of forest use, the general AD' policy is to look to the NFD to supply whatever guide-lines are necessary, while the AD! tends to the problems involved in establishing farmers on land. In some cases, for example the 12,800 ha Barbilla Protection Zone, the administration of the area is jointly assumed (in this case by the ADI, NFD, and NPS), with the understanding that each agency will carry out its function within the designated area. Another attempt at collaboration was the previously mentioned plan for the Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve, where the AD! and the NFD were to collaborate in the management of the area to control deforestation by colonist-farmers through the formalization of farm titles and the application of legal controls. In such a plan, forest exploitation is integrated into the process of colonization in a more rational fashion, as had been done in the Cariari colony near Guapiles (McKenzie 1972). Provisions are made so farmers realize benefits from the forest which will capitalize the farms and demonstrate the economic potential of forest management. Such a project requires good controls over forest cutting and lumber marketing, and neither the NFD nor the AD! have resources available for these activities.

The policy of the AD] is to precede the establishment of new colonies with a set of socio-economic studies which analyse the appropriateness of proposed farmers and use capacity of the farm land as a basis for recommending the most appropriate farmers and for purchasing the land. These studies later serve for making recommendations to farmers as to how to manage their farms. For example, a visit to the Neguev Colony in 1984 revealed that it had complete soil maps of the area and that the colony had been zoned into sectors corresponding to most appropriate crops. Training and extension efforts were directed toward the recommended activities for each zone.

Farmers are admitted to the colony on the basis of several criteria which seem to be fairly clearly directed toward the exclusion of "land speculators" in agrarian reform colonies. The requirements for colonists are

1. They must not possess other lands.
2. They must have a family.
3. They must show that agriculture is the basis for their livelihood.
4. They must demonstrate basic agricultural knowledge.
5. They must agree to work the farm themselves.
6. They must not have received (and sold) land from the AD! (or ITCO, its predecessor).

The completion of background studies by the AD] is an ideal not always achieved, as will be discussed in the case-study which follows.

No provision is made for the enforcement of land use recommendations. Farmers are left to accept or reject them on the basis of their own judgement, although it is assumed that most will follow the technical recommendations. In much of the tropical lowland colonization region discussed here, inappropriate land use does not present much erosion danger, since the land is relatively flat. Nevertheless, even in more difficult areas, erosion control is the province of the NFD and is not included in ADI work plans.

Within AD! colonies, forest management is controlled by the NFD in a fashion similar to that in areas which have no ADF colonists. Farmers are required to obtain permits for forest cutting from the NFD and are subject to all normal regulations. The ADF intervenes only to help the farmer establish that he is the legal owner of the land, which is a prerequisite for lumbering or land-clearing permits. In Neguev Colony, one agronomist is assigned the task of overseeing forestry questions, but he is strictly an advisor to the NFD inspector and makes recommendations as to appropriate action; he cannot issue permits. The one restriction the AD! places on forest harvesting is that all proceeds must be reinvested in the farm; prior to the recommendation of allowing a cutting permit, farmers must present an "investment plan" (plan de inversion) which details the use to which income will be put. Frequent purchases are fencing materials and fumigation equipment. Nevertheless, once the permit is authorized, the AD! recognizes that many farmers do not follow the investment plan.

NFD policy with regard to forest-cutting permits is to avoid exploitative or dangerous deforestation and to authorize cutting when no environmental or legal problems are present. In practice, this means that steep slopes and stream courses cannot be deforested. The NFD will also authorize selective cutting in forest areas on farms, while prohibiting complete deforestation. These restrictions are enforced indirectly; NFD permits are required for the transport of logs on major highways, without which they can be detained. Truckers prefer not to purchase logs without having this paperwork in order, so the NFD policy does in fact control commercial logging. Small-scale cutting for on-farm use is permitted with NED authorization, but in practice it is largely uncontrolled, and clearing is often carried out without permission when there is no intention of selling the wood.

Logistical and other problems often impede the complete implementation of the AD' management strategy, and these problems are described in the case-study that follows.


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