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5. Colonization in Honduras

Colonization Areas


The process of colonization is of extreme importance for Honduras since it competes for forest resources in an economy where wood exports to the United States represented in 1981 approximately 20 per cent of its GNP (USAID n.d.). The value of wood lost through deforestation (largely for agricultural purposes) of broad-leaf forests is estimated by the Ministry of Natural Resources to be 640 million lempiras annually (Honduras 1984a). Honduras has suffered from periodic flooding of agricultural valleys, the severity of which can be linked in part to the process of uncontrolled deforestation in upper watershed areas. At the root of these problems is the combination of poor soils and insecurity of land tenure, which result in a generalized strategy of shifting cultivation. In many areas, primary and secondary forest remnants are continually brought into cultivation within agricultural zones in a process of land conversion that is not formally recognized as "colonization," but rather as a very long fallow system. At the other extreme, a well-defined process of new land colonization is taking place in sparsely populated portions of the country, where large expanses of primary forest are being incorporated into the "agricultural frontier." In this chapter, I will focus on these latter areas, where new land colonization has occurred adjacent to or within major forested areas.

Population Distribution

While the population density of Honduras is not extremely low by Central American standards (25 inhabitants/km²), colonization of new lands is a major feature of the agricultural economy due to the skewed distribution of population within the country. The population is concentrated in the western and central parts of the country; only relatively recently has the northern coast experienced an increase in population, and the three largest departments in the country, Olancho, Gracias a Diós and Colon, remain sparsely populated (see table 22). The economic centres of the country are still located in a corridor which runs from the Gulf of Fonseca on the Pacific coast, through Tegucigalpa and Comayagua, to San Pedro Sula near the Caribbean and including the cities of La Ceiba and Trujillo in the coastal banana production area. The subsistence agricultural base for the country has traditionally been the western part of the country, between the central corridor and the Salvadorean and Guatemalan borders and including the departments of Copán, Intibucá, Ocotepeque, and Santa Barbara. Population growth, land degradation, and the competition for land between subsistence farmers and commercial export producers have resulted in pressures to move into the low population density areas of the northern and eastern parts of the country (i.e. Yoro, Olancho, Gracias a Diós, Colon, and El Paráiso).

Table 22. Population density by department, Honduras

    Area Inhabs. area Forest
Department Households (km²) per km² (km²) (%)
Central Region  
Atlántida 27,426 4.251 6.45 3,032 71.32
Choluteca 32,930 4.211 7.82 875 20.78
Comayagua 23,362 5,196 4.50 2,424 46.65
Cortés 66,184 3,954 16.74 1,855 46.91
Francisco Morazán 77,393 7,946 9.74 4,186 52.68
Islas de la Bahia 2,785 261 10.67 44 16.86
La Paz 11,375 2,331 4.88 837 35.91
Valle 15.604 1.565 9.97 345 22.04
Western Region  
Copán 27.491 3,203 8.58 931 29.07
Intibuca 14,243 3,072 4.64 1,236 40.23
Lempira 22,536 4,290 5.25 1,178 27.46
Ocotepoque 9,308 1,680 5.54 478 28.45
Santa Barbara 32,884 5,115 6.43 1,900 37.15
Eastern Region  
Colón 14,271 8,875 1.61 8,706 98.10
El Paraíso 23,713 7,218 3.29 2,350 32.56
Gracias a Diós 3,369 16,630 0.20 14,033 84.38
Olancho 24,910 24,351 1.02 20,426 83.88
Yoro 33.220 7,939 4.18 5,652 71.19
Total 463,004 112,088 4.13 70,488 62.89

Sources: FAO 1965; Honduras 1978.

The case of Choluteca may be taken as a negative example of the worst-case scenario involving the process of agricultural expansion. As an area of relatively good soils and easy access by both sea and land, Choluteca has become a major commercial agricultural area. Land reform and commercial development have proceeded with little overall land use planning. Subsistence farmer populations were displaced by the introduction of higher value export crops into their agricultural areas (DeWalt et al. 1982; CSUCA 197X). The farmers were relocated through their own efforts and with the assistance of the Agrarian Reform Agency to the sloping areas of the upper watersheds which drain into the Choluteca basin. The result has been a near total deforestation of the area and a subsequent drying trend in both Choluteca and in Tegucigalpa (Tegucigalpa is in the area of the head-waters of the Choluteca basin); the drying trend has been demonstrated most concretely by the disappearance of permanent springs and watercourses in small-farm agricultural areas, and residents of Tegucigalpa complain of a mean temperature rise over the past 2() years (Dulin, pers. comm. 1984).

A major factor in the problems of the Choluteca basin relates to inappropriate farming practices, which rely on burning for weed control and land preparation and leave barren and easily eroded land at the initiation of the rainy season. It has been reported that farmers use a "slash-and-mulch'' strategy under certain circumstances in which, instead of burning, brush from land clearing is left in the field. It is not clear what the scale of this activity is and whether it is sufficient to reverse current trends (DeWalt et al. 1982). As an immediate solution to land degradation and associated flooding of low-lying areas in the Choluteca basin, an expensive watershed management project has been started for Choluteca (Honduras 1984a), but farmers have already begun to move, both individually and as whole communities, into forest areas in search of more fertile lands.

A combination in Choluteca of over-intensification of annual cropping and commercial pressures pushing grain farmers into areas of poor soils has encouraged the abandonment of old agricultural lands and the colonization of new areas. What is especially disturbing is that this process has begun on fairly good soils; the replication of the process in areas of poorer soils has ominous implications, since the whole process from clearance to abandonment is likely to occur much faster.

Land Use Potential

The narrow distribution of good agricultural land is another motivation for colonization in Honduras. In a country where less than 1() per cent of the soil is suitable for the intensive production of annual crops, one-third of this land is found in the valley bottoms of the sparsely populated eastern provinces (see table 23).

The forest cover gives another indication of the generally poor quality of Honduran soils. Pine forests cover more than 27,000 km². The forests are generally located in poor, sandy soils in areas of moist climates or in shallow, rocky soils in highland areas and are not appropriate for permanent agriculture. Broad-leaf forests cover 40,000 km², and while these forests indicate better soils, the agricultural capacity of these soils is limited by the high rainfall and ambient temperatures which combine to acidify soils and break down organic matter (FAO 1967).

Table 23. Land use potential, Honduras

  Area (km²) % Total
Intensive annual crops 8,726.00 7.8
Intensive perennial crops 0.00 0.0
Extensive annual crops 1,494.80 1.3
Extensive perennial crops 8,670.10 7.8
Silvo-pastoral 1,036.80 0.9
Broad-leaf forest 31,895.00 28.6
Mangroves 1,450.20 1.3
Pine forest 28,281.70 25.3
Protection 30,173.30 27.0
Total 111,728.00 100.0

Source: FAO 1967.

Table 24. Land use in forested lands (km²)

Land use
Sula Olancho Aguán Mosquitia Nation
Total areaa 16,165 18,367 15,610 21,089 112,088
Deforested 2,678 563 948 0 25,636
Cultivated 1,935 432 749 109 7,187
Cultivable 1,491 1,208 2,983 3,214 10,463
Pasture 3,456 1,002 1,508 131 13,706
Forested 10,062 16,164 10,930 18,492 70,488

Source: Hernandez Paz and Desloges 1982.

aIn the source document, no explanation was given for inconsistencies in the column entries and column


Despite the limitations on land use potential, population pressure has led to massive land conversion of lands with limited production potential for agricultural purposes. In an analysis of the state of land use in areas of broad-leaf forests, it was concluded that more than one-third of the land in these areas was now being used for agriculture (see table 24). One problem illustrated by the table is that in parts of Honduras, the potential remains to increase food production since there is more cultivable land than there is cultivated land; however, much of this cultivable land is used for pastures.

In the broad-leaf forest region, over 30,000 families have been settled on 138,719 ha through agricultural reform programmes (see table 25). Comparing land reform in broad-leaf areas to that on a national level, 67 per cent of the families affected by reform are in the broad-leaf area, as are 71 per cent of the lands affected.

Table 25. Lands affected by agrarian reform in broad-leaf forest areas

Agricultural administration area No. of families Area (ha)
North-eastern (Olancho) 1,412 8,217
Central eastern (Danlí) 2,466 19,982
Northern (San Pedro Sula) 11,078 48,049
Atlantic coast (La Ceiba) 7,107 62,471
Subtotal 22,063 138,719
National total 32,697 196,178

Table 26. Wood production in Honduras

  Production Wood existence
board feet
6 ha
106 ha
Broad-leaf 4.50 29,264 420 3.00 1.86
Pinea 226.60 1,000,000 170 2.73 1.93
Total 231.10 1,029,264 590 5.73 3.79

Source: Hernandez Paz and Desloges 1982.

aWood existence data for pine taken from FAO 1967.

The exploitation of forest resources is one of the alternatives for economic development of Honduras, given its difficult soil conditions. The major efforts for forest industry development have been directed toward the pine forests. While they represent less than one-half the total area of standing forest and only one-third the total volume of wood in existence in Honduras (see table 26), some 98 per cent of all commercial wood production is pine.

In the exploitation of broad-leaf forests, the lack of proper management techniques constitutes a major problem. Very few species are utilized, and forest area remaining after cutting is damaged in the logging operations. According to COHDEFOR (the Honduran Forestry Development Corporation) figures, 11 species make up 94 per cent of all wood exploited in broad-leaf forests (table 27), with an average of 10 to 15 m³ per hectare exploited. Further, as mentioned, there is a lack of conservation techniques, so that forest remaining after logging suffers severe damage (Hernandez and Desloges 1982). Furthermore, commercial logging focuses on relatively pure, dense stands of commercially valuable species to reduce production costs, leaving only low-grade forests. Once access roads have been established by the logging companies, farming populations follow, completing the destruction of the forest left standing by the loggers. The loggers argue that their selective logging is not the major problem with regard to the overall deforestation process, but that it is the subsequent uncontrolled introduction of small-scale farmers who clear land for agricultural purposes that represents the most destructive and longest lasting impact on the forest.

Table 27. Broad-leaf species exploited in Honduras

Species   % Wood exploited
Mahogany Swientenia macrophylla 47.5
Cedar Cedrela odorata 11.7
Sangre Virola koschnyi 8.8
Ceiba Ceiba pentandra 6.7
San Juan   6.7
6 other species   12.6
Total   94.0

Source: Hernandez Paz and Desloges 1982.

Table 28. Sistema Social Forestal co-operatives, 1977

No. of groups Activities No. of families
92 Pine resin collection 4,236
3 Sweet gum resin collection 40
3 Tuno latex collection 74
21 Pit-sawing 400

Source: USAID 1978.

One of the more intriguing aspects of COHDEFOR's overall programme is the Sistema Social Forestal (Social Forestry System). In a country with abundant forests, poor farming potential, and a large unemployed population, the SSF'S objective of incorporating farmers into forest exploitation is an extremely attractive concept. Co-operatives have been established for the production of resins, fuelwood, and lumber (see table 28). However, the establishment of such co-operatives has been sporadic and inconsistent due to funding constraints and the limited applicability of this model because of the relatively low income levels and the logistical limitations of the implementing agency, COHDEFOR.

Institutional Aspects of Colonization

Two Honduran institutions are of major importance in the process of new land colonization: INA (Instituto Nacional Agrario, or National Agrarian Institute) and COHDEFOR.

Table 29. Agrarian reform colonies in eastern Honduras, 1983

District No. of members Area (ha)
Catacamas 689 4,950
Dulce Nombre de Culmi 302 3,745
Sta. Maria del Real 140 565
Sn. Fco. Becerra 49 174
Juticalpa 866 4,272
San Esteban 227 1,443
Sn. Fco. de la Paz 11 210
Total 2,284 15,359

Source: INA records, Dulce Nombre de Culmí. Sta. Maria del Real Tegucigalpa.

INA. INA is the agency charged with the fundamental aspects of agrarian reform in Honduras. Its major activities are land adjudication, titling, and the organization of farmers into co-operative units. The activities of INA are focused mostly on the lands of the more densely populated regions of the country, where underutilized lands or remnant forests are adjudicated for peasant groups (see table 29). In Olancho, the activities of INA have been directed in part toward forested areas, as land pressures push farmers to look for new lands. INA'S strategy is built around the maintenance of administrative and technical ties with asentamientos, to promote their co-operative model and to give access to technical assistance. A major new programme is the titling of lands, carried out in coordination with AID. Titling motivates farmers to stay on a single farm and improve it for their own use and it avoids the tendency of farmers with insecure title to sell to avoid conflicts with others. The titling programme has been directed at farming areas of the western part of the country rather than at areas of colonization.

Ideologically, INA is an agrarian reform agency rather than a colonization agency. Its activities are oriented toward the improvement of peasants' abilities to hold on to valuable land in major agricultural areas and to improve their income and political status through organization. The principal focus of INA activity has been the Aguán Valley; this area was originally banana plantation, then abandoned and converted to individual agricultural holdings, and finally expropriated for land reform. The Aguán Valley is exceptional in Central America in its relatively successful establishment of co-operative land holding and agricultural production entities, centring around African oil-palm. (It should be noted that there are serious criticisms regarding the efficiency of the investment of national and international funds in the area. INA has been criticized by some as being a paternalistic national institution which has become the new "employer" of an agricultural proletariat not unlike that of the privately owned banana plantations of the same region.) INA has also been active in other parts of the country, such as Choluteca, but this activity has focused much more on the redistribution of lands than on the implementation of the large-scale, complex organization and productive structure which distinguishes the Aguán Valley.

The incorporation of national lands into agricultural activities is a legal no man's land in practice. A series of overlapping obligations and responsibilities hinder the effective implementation of policies even in cases where it is clearly in the immediate public interest. For example, the watersheds which generate the potable water supplies for Tegucigalpa and Juticalpa are being endangered by land clearance. Despite the legal formation of La Tigra National Park to protect the Tegucigalpa water supply, no institutional mechanism for preventing the entry of squatters has appeared (Dulin, pers. comm. 1984). In Juticalpa, a small group of 20 squatters invaded the watershed generating the city's water; INA was called in to remove the squatters, which it did, but they returned. INA officials are now unwilling to take further action. They feel that the local authorities are not prepared to make the political commitment to reinforce INA activities, so that INA must bear an unreasonable portion of the abuse and ill-feeling which accompanies the removal of the squatters. It seems clear that the enforcement mechanisms are not sufficiently well defined to permit the control of land use patterns even in areas of easy access for government institutions; the possibility of carrying out the necessary enforcement activities in remote areas with little permanent government presence would seem to be correspondingly remote.

Despite its limitations, INA remains a crucial element in natural resource protection. It is the legal mechanism for formalizing land titles over national lands, i.e. forested lands, for the use of individual farmers or those in a co-operative. Nevertheless, INA'S first responsibility is to its farmer clients, and its legalization and establishment of farming communities in forested lands is a source of friction with institutions concerned with forest conservation and management.

COHDEFOR. COHDEFOR is required by law to administer all forest lands in Honduras. It was formed in 1972 to nationalize forestry interests, which had been controlled by foreign companies and which, it was argued, had led to highly exploitative management practices and the expatriation of national income. COHDEFOR was given sweeping powers to regulate all forestry activities, and took over all phases of the lumber industry, from forest management and production to marketing.

Since more than half of Honduras is forested, COHDEFOR'S activities bring it into direct contact with peasant farmers. These contacts have been conflictive in many cases, where COHDEFOR limits or prohibits certain peasant activities (see Murray 1981; Jones 1988). As part of the response to these conflicts, COHDEFOR has instituted a series of programmes under its Sistema Social Forestal in which peasant farmers associate in agro-forestry groups or co-operatives to exploit forest resources on a small scale. Three major activities of these groups are resin tapping (both pine and sweet gum), firewood production, and hand preparation of tropical hardwoods. Only the last of these is found in the recent colonization areas of the country; sweet-gum resin-tapping co-operatives were formed near Culmí and El Carbon in Olancho, but low world prices led to their abandonment, although some independent commercial tapping is still being carried out.

A major effort for the management of broad-leaf forest areas has been made by joint projects of COHDEFOR and ACDI(ACDI is the Spanish acronym for the Canadian International Development Agency). The oldest of these projects is the Cooperativa Agroforestal Atlántida Honduras Limitada (COATLAHL), built around the philosophy that small-scale hand-sawing operations can exploit forest resources more completely and more economically than large-scale enterprises. The projects specifically recognize the generation of labour demand by such activity and include this consideration in many aspects of planning and execution. The COATLAHL programme began in an effort to utilize wood from trees which had been felled by Hurricane Fifi on the north coast of Honduras. In the early years of the project, trees were sawed up and marketed in tablones under the direction of COHDEFOR. More recently, the use of chain-saws has been prohibited, since they are wasteful of the raw material (a chain-saw cut may be 1/4" to 1/2" wide), and the increased rate of forest exploitation threatens to eliminate a source of employment for the cooperative members over the longer term. The organizational model for this operation is very similar to that used by other COHDEFOR agro-forestry co-operatives, in which small-scale operations are licenced and overseen by COHDEFOR but ideally managed in the form of co-operatives or small-scale businesses.

Unfortunately, the overall tenor of relationships between COHDEFOR and farmers tends to be negative on nearly all levels. Large landowners come into conflict with COHDEFOR because of their strategy of "fence creeping," by which a legally established property is extended out into national forest lands simply by moving the fences. Since ground inspections by COHDEFOR are spotty and infrequent and adjacent squatters cannot usually contest the claims of the more poweful landowners, this strategy is generally practiced with impunity. Nevertheless, COHDEFOR is aware of the practice and takes measures to prevent it, thereby earning the animosity of large ranchers.

In a very general sense, COHDEFOR'S mandate creates conflicts with the traditional agricultural production strategy of Honduran small farmers. The general pattern of shifting agriculture and the poor farmers' practice of producing fuelwood to supplement low incomes are adaptations to very difficult environmental conditions, under which farmers have managed to make a living from agriculture, despite the very poor quality of the land. The use of fire for land clearance and pasture management allows the use of land which cannot generally be made to produce in an intensive fashion. Since COHDEFOR is charged with the prevention of forest fires and the control of land clearance, antagonistic relationships frequently arise between the corporation and farmers.

Finally, COHDEFOR'S legal control over all trees may possibily be the country's greatest disincentive to reforestation. It is common to hear stories of farmers who have forests on land they consider their own or even forests which they have either planted or managed for their own long-term benefit that are granted by COHDEFOR to a third party as a forestry concession with little or no remuneration to the farmer. In the end, farmers are very unsure of their rights to forest on the land they manage. Farmers feel severely constrained in their land use decisions by what they feel to be unreasonable restrictions on land clearance, since COHDEFOR generally tries to discourage deforestation for agriculture and grants permission through a bureaucratic procedure. Surveys of on-farm tree plantings in agro-forestry combinations found an exceptionally low incidence on Honduran farms when compared with farms in other Central American countries (see table 30), suggesting that farmers tended to deforest to avoid the controls of COHDEFOR.

Table 30. Agro-forestry combinations on Central American farms (as percentage of farms per country)

Type Costa Rica Panama Nicaragua Honduras
Living fences 84 87 50 19
Fruit-trees 98 94 78 53
Timber 40 44 42 16

Sources: Jones 1982; Jones and Otárola 1981; Jones and Pérez 1982; Lemckert and Campos 1981.

Despite its ambitions to the contrary, COHDEFOR'S control over forests has a negative impact on the conservation of forest resources. As in other Central American countries, Honduran land-holding law is based to a certain extent on a "homesteading" ethic, according to which individuals who occupy and work national lands can gain legal control over the land. The general strategy for establishing control over land is to "unencumber" the land from competing claims. In practice, this means formally purchasing any "improvements" made by other occupants of the land and constant vigilance to ensure that no other farmers occupy and "improve" any part of the farm. The land "owner," for his or her part, in turn improves the land by eliminating forest cover, establishing fence lines, and constructing dwellings and other infrastructure on the farm. The elimination of forest is a method for avoiding potential competing encumbrances; landless farmers feel they have the right to cultivate "unimproved" land, and COHDEFOR can either grant permission to exploit forested land to third parties or prohibit alterations in the forest cover. Given the low percentage of lands with clear title, the strategy of eliminating competing encumbrances is a powerful motivation for deforestation, even though the owner might see economic benefits in the exploitation of the forest resource.

The outcome of the numerous conflicts between COHDEFOR and farmers is a lack of farmer interest in forest resources and a carelessness with regard to their preservation. The lack of understanding on the part of the farmers of COHDEFOR'S function and goals and the historical condition of Honduras as a country with a nearly limitless agricultural frontier create a situation of extreme difficulty for the control of further deforestation and inappropriate land use in the new agricultural lands.

COHDEFOR'S mandate loses moral force due to cases of corruption of COHDEFOR officials, which also confirms the farmers' perception of COHDEFOR controls as an arbitrary limitation of their agricultural activities. COHDEFOR'S institutional policy of favouring large lumber interests over farmers' interests creates an extremely negative situation in which farmers look at the evasion of conservation regulations as a fact of life - farmers have even been reported to burn forests in retaliation for grievances against COHDEFOR (Murray 1981).

The Ministry of Natural Resources. The Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) has a relatively small involvement in colonization at present, although this is likely to change in the future. The MNR is proposing to manage land in agricultural areas with innovative projects on a fairly large scale, and has proposed a large project for the management of the colonization area of Rio Sico-Río Paulaya.

The management of the Choluteca river basin is a major project, financed by USAID. The Choluteca river basin is not a colonization area, but the project is experimenting with methods of incorporating peasant farmers into land management programmes and promoting improved land management techniques on an individual level. The motivation for change will be provided by increased land productivity over the long run and subsidies over the short run.

A proposal for the "Rehabilitation of Principal Watersheds of the Atlantic Coast" was prepared recently, with the objective of improving patterns of land use in the watersheds of the eastern Atlantic coast. The watersheds affected will be those of the Cangrejal, Papaloteca, and Sico rivers, which are located in the sparsely inhabited areas of eastern Colón. In 1988 financing from the Canadian government set the project under way.


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