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4. Colonization in Nicaragua

Current Development Plans for Eastern Nicaragua


Nicaragua possesses some 52,000 km² of humid tropical lands on its eastern coast in the provinces of Zelaya and Río San Juan. The climate of this area is much more humid than that of the rest of the country, and attempts to incorporate it into the national economy have been only temporarily successful. Banana, oil-palm, and cacao have been commercially produced, but their importance has declined due to disease. Experimentation with rubber began in the 1940s at the El Recreo experiment station, and coconut and raicilla (Cephaelis ipecacuana) have been commercially produced on a small scale. A plan for large-scale colonization of the region was elaborated and implemented in the 1960s to relocate farmers from the intensively used agricultural lands of western Nicaragua, and it was expected that farmers could produce grain using agricultural machinery and chemicals, and that extensive cattle ranching would also be undertaken (Marie Castillo 1968), Much to their credit, the Nicaraguan government recognized the serious ecological limitations of the production of annual crops in these humid regions and began programmes of permanent crop plantation. Nevertheless, a large colonist population of small farmers had already been established in the area, presenting planning and development problems for the future.

The colonization of the Atlantic area was begun in the 1960s under the name PRICA (Proyecto Rigoberto Cabezas de Colonización). The project included plans for the colonization of the entire foothill region of more than 5 million ha bordering on the Caribbean lowlands, in a nearly continuous belt from the Costa Rican to the Honduran borders. The area near Rama and Nueva Guinea, designated "Zone F" (also called Rigoberto Cabezas) in the project and covering more than 800,000 ha (see map 6), was selected as the focus of the present investigation. Nueva Guinea is no longer part of the agricultural frontier but a well-established community. More active colonization fronts are found in San Carlos, Siuna, and Kukra Hill, near Bluefields.

Map 5. Nicaragua: forest cover (source: Corrales 1983).

Little written information is available regarding the Rigoberto Cabezas colonization area. With the revolution of 1979, many government files and documents disappeared or were dispersed. Information which has been assembled under the post-1979 government in most cases is not in published form and circulates as internal documents within the ministries. Many of these documents are not available for consultation, and due to the intensity of guerrilla activities in the Nueva Guinea area, it was not visited during this investigation. Information had to be assembled through interviews with individuals who had worked in Nueva Guinea in recent years.

Between 1980 and 1984, a new policy for development of Zelaya Department was implemented. This policy involved an emphasis on perennial crops such as cacao, rubber, oil-palm, and coconut, managed in co-operatives. These cooperatives were not to include the production of annual crops. Only the cacao plantation project was under way at the time of the investigation. The first phase of the development plan was projected to bring between 10,000 and 20,000 ha of land under cultivation of the four perennial crops.

Map 6. Nicaragua: provinces and PRICA land settlement area.

The Caribbean Region of Nicaragua

The primary objective of the pre-1979 colonization in the Caribbean region was to resettle farmers displaced from the fertile alluvial soils of western Nicaragua by cotton production. While the immediate motivation for this movement was a volcanic eruption which affected farm lands in the west, part of the migration was motivated by the expansion of cottom production in the western lowlands. Another - unstated - objective seems to have been the extension of cattle pastures into the tropical regions of Nicaragua and the linking of those pasture areas to western Nicaragua through a series of new roads. Neither objective took into account the special conditions or capabilities of tropical regions, and in fact both seem to be based on the assumption that conditions there are similar to those in the western part of the country.

Table 13. Areas and types of forests, Nicaragua

Type of forest km²
Lowland rain forest 25,000
Highland rain forest 10,000
Dry tropical rain forest 4,000
Lowland pine forest 4,500
Highland pine forest 1,200
Total 44 700

Source: Corrales 1983.

Zelaya Department is a broad plain generally lower than 100 m altitude and extending up to 150 km inland from the Caribbean in some areas. Rainfall ranges from 2,000 to 6,000 mm annually and is heaviest in the south-eastern coastal regions from San Juan del Norte (on the border with Costa Rica, where a record 8,162 mm were recorded in 1942) to Bluefields. Rainfall decreases as one moves inland along the Rio San Juan and north to the Rio Coco on the frontier with Honduras. Most of the department experiences a brief dry season of two to three months, during which average monthly precipitation is below 60 mm. Average temperatures are generally 25° C or above. Most of the forests that remain are located in the Atlantic region, with the most important categories of forest being lowland rain forest and highland rain forest ("cloud forest") (see table 13 and map 2; note that table 13 refers to all of Nicaragua).

Despite its great geographical extension (approximately one-half the surface area of Nicaragua), the Caribbean region of Nicaragua has a small population. The population of the region in 1968 was 120,870 (19,047 in Rio San Juan and 101,833 in Zelaya) as compared to the national population of 1,875,297. In terms of area, the Caribbean region covers 66,542 km² of a total national territory of 118,350 km² (7,448 km² in Rio San Juan and 59,094 km² in Zelaya). Population density in the Caribbean region as of 1968 was 1.79 inhabitants per square kilometre as compared to 15.56 for Nicaragua as a whole (Incer 1970).


PRICA was a highly ambitious and optimistic plan based on inadequate information. Two basic misconceptions were that large extensions of suitable agricultural land existed in the area and that large tracts of land were unoccupied. The project as a whole was programmed to affect 5.8 million ha, but most activity seems to have been concentrated in the Rigoberto Cabezas subarea.

At the beginning of the settlement of the Rigoberto Cabezas subarea within the PRICA project (one of approximately a dozen), a survey team set out to investigate the condition of the land. In an area of 860,000 ha, the IAN (Instituto Agrario de Nicaragua) had expected to formalize the titles of some 1,000 existing family farms and to settle 3,500 more in the same area. Taylor (1969) reports, however, that survey teams found the area to be filled with settlers at the time of the first visit by IAN (no further documentation was located to indicate what had been done in that case).

Table 14. Land use potential for Zone F. PRICA (all measurements in manzanas, 1 mz= .69 ha)

Use potential Area %
Broad (all uses) 282,919 33
Broad (perennial) 0 0
Limited 181,130 21
Very limited 329,821 38
Forestry 46,905 5
Restricted 21,454 2
Total 862,229 100

Source: IICA-MAG-BID 19;'8.

Initial estimations of land use potential for the area seem to have been overly optimistic. PRICA documents (IICA-MAG-BID 1978) suggested that 33 per cent of the land in Zone F was appropriate for all kinds of agriculture (table 14). This figure was unrealistically high, and later surveys reported a drastically reduced area appropriate for agriculture. Whereas PRICA evaluations indicated that current land use left a great possibility for improvement and an increase in production (table 15), land may have been in use up to or beyond its capacity even in 1978.

One explanation offered by employees of IRENA for the colonization project indicated that the project's major objective was not land distribution. Large tracts of land were said to be assigned to military personnel and politicians, and the development of a small-farm population was actually meant to create a work-force for large ranches. Small farmers were reported to be contracted for deforestation and the sowing of pasture. Another motivation was the supply of raw material for the plywood factory established at Tipitapa, which is near Managua on the road to the Rigoberto Cabezas colonization area.

In 1978 the population of the Rigoberto Cabezas area was approximately 26,089 (see table 16). Sixty-five per cent of this population was distributed in 24 communities, with nearly 35 per cent unassociated with the communities. Comparing population data with land titling information (table 17), a large majority of titles awarded and lands titled were outside the planned colonies. The average size of farms outside the colonies was twice that of farms inside the colonies. These unexplained inconsistencies in titling seem to confirm suspicions regarding the objectives of the PRICA programme.

Table 15. Land use in PRICA Zone F. 1977 (all measurements in mz)

Land use Area %
Annual crops 1,248 0.14
Pastures 341,301 39.58
Pastures and crops 151,188 17.53
Forests 256,969 29.80
Forests and crops 82,332 9.56
Forests and pastures 29,191 3.39
Total 862,229 100.00

Source: IICA-MAG-BID 1978.

Table 16. Population distribution for Rigoberto Cabezas Project Area, 1976

Community Population # Families % Population
Nueva Guinea 1,989 104 7.69
Rio Plata 437 66 1.65
Verdún 685 117 2.63
Yolaina 746 116 2.86
Los Angeles 908 114 3.48
La Esperanza 761 139 2.92
Nuevo León 535 93 2.05
Jerusalén 629 108 2.41
Corocito 615 84 2.36
Los Laureles 683 98 2.62
Tacanistes 515 97 1.97
Talolinga 648 100 2.48
Kurinwas 603 98 2.31
San Jose 645 128 2.47
San Martín 511 118 1.96
Rio Rama 752 138 2.88
San Antonio 905 117 3.47
San Ramón 446 93 1.71
San Miguel 899 141 3.45
Naciones Unidas 791 151 3.03
Nuevos Horizontes 518 97 1.99
Providencia 632 181 2.42
Serrano 727 169 2.79
Somoza 509 207 1.95
Rigoberto Cabezasa 9,000 1,500 34.55
Total 26,089 4,374 100.10

Source: IICA-MAG-BID 1978.

aThis category is not explained in the source, but it seems to be the unincorporated farmers of the area.

Table 17. Land titles: Area and number in Nueva Guinea 1976 (all measurements in mz)

Colony # Area
Nueva Guinea 97 4,820
Los Angeles 53 2,217
Verdún 85 5,174
La Esperanza 91 4,522
Yolaina 92 4,473
Nuevo Leon 51 2,485
Outside defined colonies 2,184 222,420
Total 2,653 246,111
Percentage outside defined colonies 82 90
  Inside of
Outside of
Average farm size 51 102

Source: ICA-MAG-BID 1978.

Nueva Guinea in the 1980s

The general evaluation by Ministry of Agriculture personnel of the colonization experience in Nueva Guinea is that it has been disastrous. Yields are low, costs of production are high, and the rate of repayment on agricultural loans is 3 per cent.

It is reported that in at least two communities (Talolinga and Kurinwas) lands are being abandoned due to the severe competition from weeds. This is a common problem in humid tropical forest areas cleared for agriculture. Aggressive sunseeking weeds are generally not present on the forest floor. Their population increases with each year of cultivation, requiring more time and effort for weeding.

In view of the negative evaluations by agronomic workers, recent data show a surprising orderliness in farms and farm development. MIDINRA has assembled information for 120 farmers whose lands are destined to be affected by the cacao project." This information shows that the majority of the farm land in Nueva Guinea was in pasture, while some 24 per cent was used for crops (table 18). The use of an average of 23 mz in the production of corn, rice, and beans on certain farms makes it seem likely that there was extensive use of wage labourers. The existence of a large landless population is further suggested by data on membership in the proposed cacao co-operatives, where only 7.5 per cent of the members of the new co-operatives are landowners (11 of 145); nearly half (1,330 mz) of the required land has now been assigned to the co-operatives.

Table 18. Land use for different farm types: 120 farmers in Nueva Guinea (measurements in mz)

  Type of land use on farm
Agriculture Pasture Forest House plot Total
Type of farm Area % Area % Area % Area % Area %
Agriculture 23 47 23 47 2 4 1 2 49 100
Ranch and agriculture 11 23 34 72 0 0 2.2 5 47 100
Ranch 5 6 67 90 1 1 2 3 74 100
Average 14 24 41 71 2 2 2 3 57 100

Source: Project report, MIDINRA cacao project, 1984.

Table 19. Destination of cultivated crops for 12() farmers in Nueva Guinea

Crop % Consumed % Sold
Rice 40 60
Maize 35 65
Beans 30 70
Tubers 100 0
Plantain 100 0

Source: Project report, MIDINRA cacao project, 1984.

The majority of food grains produced in the area are produced for sale, while production of plantains and tubers is strictly for home consumption (table 19).

There has been considerable stability in farm size since the initial colonization. Table 20 shows that over half the farms have 50 mz, which is the size of initial allotments made by IAN, and 85 per cent of the farms are between 30 and 99 mz. The most successful farmers, i.e. those who have managed to buy cattle, are those who have been longest in the area (see table 21). Sixty-four per cent of the 120 farmers (77 individuals) have been on their farms more than seven years. *

The population of Nueva Guinea has grown impressively since its establishment. Devé (1983) estimates that there are 85,000 inhabitants (13,000 families) in Nueva Guinea, while other estimates are as high as 100,000 (reported by INETER). The 800,000 ha originally destined for the Rigoberto Cabezas colonization could theoretically be divided into 16,000 parcels of 50 ha, which suggests that Nueva Guinea could be regarded as a mature, if poor, agricultural area.

Table 20. Farm size among 120 farmers of Nueva Guinea (measurements in mz; approx. date 1984)

Farm size No. of farms Percentage
Less than 30 13 11
31 to 49 12 10
50 75 62
51 to 99 15 13
More than 100 5 4
Total 120 100

Source: Project report, MIDINRA cacao project


Table 21. Time of possession of parcels by type of farmer


Percentage of farmers

Less than
2 years
3 to 6
More than
7 years
Farmer 14 28 58
Farmer and rancher 0 20 80
Rancher 0 33 67

Source: Project report, MIDINRA cacao project 1984.

Agronomists working in the area note that there have been some technological innovations by farmers in response to the environmental conditions they face. These include the abandonment of land plowing and brush burning to avoid destroying the thin layer of topsoil. Farmers have also adopted a fallow rotation of three to five years between crops.

Current Development Plans for Eastern Nicaragua


The Nicaraguan Natural Resource Institute (IRENA) is the national entity most concerned with questions of forest conservation and resource management. Since the revolution of 1979, the policy focus of national institutions has been explicitly directed to production for the generation of income. IRENA has been generally overlooked in this process, since its major function was perceived as that of resource conservation and therefore the obstruction of the productive process. In August 1984, IRENA was in the process of being incorporated into the Agricultural and Agrarian Reform Ministry, which many hoped would provide it with a better position for communicating and enforcing its mandated objectives.

The major policy interest of IRENA in humid areas was the improvement of forest management techniques. A Bulgarian team worked on this plan until August of 1984, when it was removed from the area due to intense guerrilla activity. A report was prepared in the meantime. A Swedish team was also working on the problem.

IRENA's office of co-operatives was planning a joint CORFOP-IRENA project for the production of charcoal from almendro de río (Andira inermis), which has a wood too hard to be commonly used. One of the major activities of this office was environmental education carried out in agricultural areas. Instruction was to be given in co-operatives and schools and focus on conservation and the prevention of forest fires. Its activities also included the promotion of agro-forestry through the establishment of demonstrations in a few private farms of the Nueva Guinea area.

In 1984, a draft of a "natural resources strategy" was being considered by government authorities, although no copies were available for wider circulation. The major tasks were presented verbally in interviews with members of IRENA staff. They included (l) management of natural forest areas; (2) enrichment of degraded forests; and (3) the enhancement of the process of natural regeneration. The details of the strategy are expected to be presented in the final report by the Bulgarian mission.

The subdirector of IRENA emphasized that everything having to do with the advance of the agricultural frontier was the province of MIDINRA and ClERA and not part of the mandate of IRENA.


CORFOP is the nationalized wood-processing industry which was originally part of IRENA but was separated several years ago in an administrative reorganization.

The major concern of CORFOP is forest production. In Nueva Guinea its major activity is the management and exploitation of broad-leaf forests. Investigation is limited to areas in the forest production areas.

Another activity of CORFOP is the development of forestry co-operatives. One suggestion which is still in the planning stages is the management of unproductive forest areas for fuelwood. The suggested project areas would be brush lands which produce no marketable timber and which would be harvested for fuelwood and planted to Eucalyptus. While this strategy could conceivably be applied in Nueva Guinea, it was reported that it would be more likely in areas closer to existing population centres in western and central Nicaragua.

It is noteworthy that individuals in other ministries perceived CORFOP's activities as highly exploitative and short-sighted. They cited an exclusive focus on harvesting with little emphasis on reforestation and insufficient attention given to the design of management strategies.

MlDINRA's Cacao Project

One of the most active projects in the development of land use alternatives for the humid lands of Nicaragua is the MIDINRA cacao project. This ambitious project is attempting to redress some of the problems caused by the haphazard colonization which had previously been promoted in the area. Members of the project staff pointed out that farmers had been brought from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic area by the PRICA project without any preparation or technical assistance. Early research efforts at the El Recreo experiment station were made to test the possibility of lime applications to the acid soils of the area, but the test results indicated that the treatment would be too expensive to be economically viable, and no comprehensive management recommendations seem to have resulted.

Cacao is one of four crops MIDINRA promoted for cultivation in tropical areas. The others are rubber, coconut, and oil-palm. Projects involving cacao, coconut, and oilpalm are well developed, while research was still being conducted on rubber production in August of 1984. While the immediate plans for these projects contemplated less than 20,000 ha, MIDINRA technicians foresaw the cultivation of these crops on a very large scale in the relatively near future.

The cacao co-operatives are located on the best lands available, with the objective of completely replacing the production of annual crops in the area. The project envisions a number of co-operatives formed of 8 to 25 families each, with an average of 6 mz of cacao per family. The plan calls for the planting of cacao with plantain (Musa spp.) for shade, to be replaced later with tree species. There was a proposal for the plantations to be granted 30-year loans with a 7-year grace period, but the final decision on financing will be made at the ministry level by MIDINRA and the National Finance System.

The establishment of the co-operatives began with donations of land and purchases from farmers who did not wish to participate in the project. This proved to be too expensive, however, and the project now relies on other methods.

Project technicans felt they faced several problems in the implementation of the project. First, there was the poor track record of government agencies in the area. Farmers had seen several projects come and go; the production of pineapple and coffee had been promoted, only to discover that no marketing provisions had been made. There was also a lack of co-ordination between the cacao project loan programme and that of the National Development Bank, which resulted in some cases of farmers using one loan to pay off another, rather than making the prescribed investments.

One of the weakest links in the development of alternative crops is the capacity for biological research and the maintenance of germ plasm collections. There was an active programme at El Recreo, but administrative reorganizations left the station without any strong institutional affiliations for a time, during which the technical staff and collections were dispersed. Operations were moved to a new station, called Los Pintos, near Nueva Guinea, and in August 1984 there seemed to be an increasingly close cooperation between the cacao and rubber projects and the research station at Los Pintos.

Land Management Planning

Although both IRENA and MIDINRA have planning departments which deal with questions of land use planning, INETER (Instituto Nicaragüense de Estudios Territoriales) is the most comprehensive in scope; the other planning agencies do not consider integrated agricultural and forestry land use planning to be their concern and focus almost exclusively on the activities of their respective dependencies. Nevertheless, there still seems to be some doubt as to the final status and administrative authority of INETER with respect to the other planning departments.

INETER is in the process of developing overall land use strategies within a "national framework for physical planning." One of its major tasks is the collection and organization of data. INETER recognized the need for biological investigation into appropriate cropping strategies and acknowledges the value of the experimental station at Los Pintos. Referring to Nueva Guinea, crops such as plantain, pineapple, coffee, and tropical tubers have been mentioned by INETER as possible cropping alternatives to the current emphasis on basic grains. (Notice the apparent disregard, or ignorance of, the MIDINRA plan.)

The maintenance of Nueva Guinea's current agricultural focus is seen as extremely costly for the nation, given the low output of the area and the necessary government support. Costs of production are thought to be three times higher in Nueva Guinea than in other areas of the country for the production of grains. At the same time, natural fertility of the area has declined drastically over the past 15 years, and yields for unfertilized fields are one-third what they were at the time of colonization. In INETER it was asserted that cattle ranching is unsuccessful in the area due to the excessive humidity, which affects the health of the animals. Nevertheless, a technician from MIDINRA's planning group reported that cattle production was one of the best alternatives for the area.

While there is as yet no formally defined policy with regard to land use, a general strategy has been suggested. This strategy would focus on the settlement of alluvial valley lands, with Sebaco and Jalapa given as examples (these areas are neither particularly humid nor lowland forest areas). A major aim would be the use of "black soils," vertisols which expand and contract according to the level of humidity and have been avoided for agricultural purposes due to a lack of appropriate land use strategies. These soils are fairly common and represent a major soil resource if they can be made to produce, although they tend to be found in the country's drier Pacific lowlands. In sum, INETER seems to have a good grasp of the environmental problems and to understand the need for a proper planning of land use. The next major hurdle for the agency is to implement its recommendations and to come to terms with the other agencies more closely involved in the actual administration of tropical lands.

Planning for Humid Tropics

A new administrative structure is being formed to deal exclusively with development questions in the humid tropics; this structure comprises the directorates of Humid Tropics and of Teaching and Investigation, both of MIDINRA.

In 1984, the Directorate of Humid Tropics was only eight months old and was still in the process of formation. Its function was to serve on the MIDINRA Project Council and provide information and perspectives on humid tropical land use in the process of project formation. The directorate had identified several important problems to be considered in the development of the Nueva Guinea area.

1. Fuelwood. The extensive deforestation in the colonization area has created a fuelwood scarcity, especially in heavily populated areas. Projects should be designed with this problem in mind, and an effort should be made to use fuelwood producing trees wherever possible.

2. Mixed cropping strategies. The intermixing of crops is recommended as a way to avoid environmental problems associated with grain production in humid areas and, at the same time, as a means of providing a subsistence for farmers. Specific mention is made of grains and plantain, although the grains are strictly for noncommercial, smallscale use.

3. Soil fertility management. It may be desirable to include an understorey of small plants with permanent crops, for reasons of both fertility and soil erosion. There is a need for the consideration of soil recuperation in degraded areas and for special studies of the use and management of acid soils.

4. Water balance. While the Nueva Guinea area generally has a short dry season, it seems to be increasing in length and intensity. There are no sources of ground-water in the area, and in a recent, especially severe dry season, cacao production was notably affected.

The Directorate of Teaching and Investigation has formally joined the UNAN (Autonomous National University of Nicaragua) with MIDINRA The objective is to reinforce MIDINRA's capacity for agricultural development through the linking of training and research facilities. For the humid tropical area, it has been suggested that a training centre be established in El Recreo using the large existing physical plant, which was established in the 1940s for rubber research, for housing and labs. The Fondo Simon Bolívar has funded development of the germ plasm and experimental capacity of the station. The centre is to give agronomists and other biological scientists training directly related to the problems of agricultural development in humid tropical areas. In its initial stages, this centre will have to be staffed by MIDINRA technicians, since the university has no one who could carry out such activities. The programme is seen as an answer to the short-term need for technicians, and students will be given three years of generalized training at the university in Managua and two years of specialization at El Recreo. The objective is the creation of 30 technicians by 19X6.

A strategy for investigation was still not fully outlined as of 1984, although there were plans to begin a school of forestry and a division of watershed management.


The outstanding feature of all aspects of Nicaraguan agricultural development, and not only in the field of colonization and humid tropical development, is the lack of fixed organization. Offices, committees, and government agencies are in a state of change, and, as of this writing, plans and strategies had only begun to be sketched out. Projects seem to start at a low level, and there is a notable lack of coordination between different agencies.

Co-ordinating offices such as INETER and the Directorate of Humid Tropics were too new to fully exercise their functions, and project planners therefore generally proceed without consulting them. They face a major challenge in getting their recommendations to be respected by other agencies.

As a result, there is a tendency to focus on short-term rather than longer-term problems, and particularly on commercial production. An especially worrisome manifestation of this problem is in the area of colonization. While it was observed that the government takes an appropriate approach to development in the humid tropics in its selection of perennial crops over annual crops, there will be a minimal impact over five or even ten years, due to the long maturation period of perennials. The 2(),000 mz which may be set aside for perennial crops in the envisioned projects are 2.5 per cent of the Nueva Guinea area (not to mention the rest of the Atlantic coastal area), and the few thousand families which may directly benefit form a small portion of the existing population. The effects of the large remaining population on existing forests and exposed soils could be disastrous.

The weakness of overall planning becomes especially critical when the lack of training and inexperience of project technicians and managers are considered. A tendency to focus narrowly on project objectives and ignore peripheral considerations, despite their potential importance for the success of the project, was observed.

There is a need for technical support in the following areas:

1. The training of technicians. The lack of trained and experienced technicians is a major bottle-neck in agricultural development. For tropical areas, there are virtually no technicians available for training or project execution.

2. The cacao project. This project was underway at the time of this report, but it was lacking in information with regard to management alternatives. Questions of varieties of shade, spacings, management practices, etc., had to be defined for the project area. There was also a need for integrated planning, including areas surrounding project areas, especially where this could help to control erosion or improve the water balance for the cacao.

3. Humid tropics programme. The MIDINRA offices specifically concerned with development questions in the humid tropics are in the process of formation. These offices have only recently been established. so their programmes are not yet formulated, but their planning at this stage indicates that they will require technical support in alternative production strategies, such as agro-forestry, as their programme develops.

4. Some provisions must be made for existing colonist populations. While it is clear that these farmers are a burden on the economy, unless they are given technical alternatives, they will continue to cause environmental damage in their efforts to earn a living. The long time required for the implementation of the permanent-crop programmes such as cacao mean that some interim solutions must be developed.

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