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7. Conclusions

Patterns of Settlement
Shortcomings of Directed Settlement in Central America
Land Tenure Problems
Technical Problems of Lowland Tropical Land Settlement
Conservation Concerns in Land Settlement
Social Implications of Land Settlement
The Frontier in Latin American Popular Culture
Indigenous Technical Perspective on Lowland Settlement
Final Thoughts

This study was initiated to address the broad question of tropical lowland land settlement and its impact on the environment in Central America. While it was clear that land settlement produces profound changes in the environment through deforestation, questions remained regarding the lessons that might be learned from the Central American experience: were there strategies for land settlement or for environmental protection in the land settlement context that had been notably successful or unsuccessful? Several broad conclusions emerged regarding patterns of settlement planning and environmental protection, but what became increasingly clear was that the process of land clearance and its environmental impacts are strongly influenced by a number of additional factors: patterns of land use, which are closely related to land titling; the generalized inadequacy of available technologies, pointing up the need to develop production alternatives or possibly to "rediscover" indigenous technical knowledge which permit environmentally sound settlement of the lowland tropics; the existence of a "frontier culture" with its own environmental attitudes adapted to traditional patterns of land titling; and national and international expectations regarding broader policy questions such as equity. These factors are mentioned here in addition to the specific conclusions of this study to make clear the complex interconnections of the land settlement process to broader social and technical conditions.

The major conclusion to be drawn from the experiences of Central American colonization activities is that they have been highly successful, especially in terms of country objectives. Permanent populations have been established in previously uninhabited, or only thinly settled, areas. Remote areas have been increasingly drawn into the mainstream of national life and the national economy. The objective of political control of border regions has been less successful, due at least partly to the influence of super-power rivalries. Another political objective, the alleviation of social pressures within nations, has had mixed results.

A significant change in attitudes has been registered across the region over the last decades on the part of forest users and the public at large. The environmental damage and the problems which accompany it have come to be more clearly perceived. The goal of land clearance and settlement is no longer seen as unquestionably desirable. Nearly all national ministries incorporate a concern for ecologically appropriate management in their broad policies, and many functionaries in these ministries feel a personal commitment to the execution of ecologically appropriate policies. Sawmill owners have seen a need to address ecological questions in the face of public concern. Loggers are decidedly defensive when interviewed regarding their operations, and take pains to point out their attention to ecological detail. Farmers in some countries are at least grudgingly supportive of legislation which requires forest cover near watercourses, and there has been an impressive response by individual farmers throughout the Central American region to conservation initiatives, especially those which attempt to address immediate farmer concerns. When settlers in new lands are questioned about the ecological problems they create in settlement areas, they commonly express their own frustration, and recognition, of these problems. They complain that despite their awareness of the ecological problems, they have no economically feasible production alternatives to their current ecologically inappropriate practice.

The question now facing the new colonization areas is that of sustainability. With increasing population densities and dwindling forest resources, non-sustainable exploitation patterns must be redesigned for permanence. Resource mining strategies involving rapid deforestation for timber and capital gains from forest clearance must move toward resource regeneration and sustainable production. Innovative research and land management strategies are being implemented with this goal in mind, although none can be said to be completely successful as yet. More to the point, sincere attempts to develop sustainable land use strategies by government ministries seem to highlight the lack of information relevant for the immediate problem; it has been much easier to identify problems than it has been to identify solutions.

Central American policy makers and policy implementors must work in this environment of public opinion and national goals for economic development and for human welfare. Long-term environmental concerns must be balanced with short-term welfare for wide acceptance of a policy. And, just as in developed countries, when policy decisions can be reduced to a short-term decision between conservation or employment, public opinion swings almost invariably toward employment. Short-sighted development policies with negative environmental impacts gain public acceptance because of the lack of effective solutions to the broad sets of problems facing these countries; more effort is needed to identify and demonstrate economically effective and environmentally sound strategies to Central American constituencies. Innovative agricultural practices and policy initiatives require a certain amount of public recognition, by farmers, by banks, by land reform agencies, and by local governments, to permit financial and institutional support necessary for the development of new production activities. To the extent that innovative recommendations are seen to be experimental or unpredictable, support will decrease in favour of more "practical" traditional alternatives. While it is possible to isolate policies for land settlement or environmental management in an academic sense, realistic policy alternatives can only arise through a consideration of a broader range of influences.

Patterns of Settlement

A central question in land settlement is the extent of planning and its impact. While all Central American countries have settlement policies and agencies for their implementation, there is a great variation in the strictness with which policy is implemented. Guatemala is the country with the most centralized settlement implementation strategy, while Costa Rica falls at the other extreme, with a relatively open-ended process.

The combination of national legislation and the military presence in Guatemala's Franja Transversal del Norte has led to a close adherence to policy. While national policy has been directed to the goal of occupying new agricultural lands, the existence of guerrilla bands and the military control over the region have lent a special capability for enforcing policy. Military considerations loom large in the "development pole" policy applied in the FTN settlements, and the military presence may be a prerequisite to achieve close co-ordination among the independent minded government agencies which operate in the region.

Panama resembles Guatemala in that it possesses a centralized, comprehensive land settlement strategy for Darién. The strategy calls for the creation of a colonization office to co-ordinate the activities of the different ministries in the province and outlines a plan for socially and environmentally appropriate land settlement. Panama differs from the Guatemalan situation in the lack of any authority to carry out its settlement plan; the colonization office only existed briefly and was finally disbanded. The social and environmental recommendations made for the area have been implemented piecemeal by different government agencies with no overall co-ordination. Finally, the plan is effectively inoperative since it provides no more than an opportunity to justify agency activities with the settlement plan, with no means or obligation to carry out the full complement of necessary supporting or controlling functions.

Nicaragua cannot be easily classified, since the majority of the land settlement was carried out before the 1979 revolution, while management is carried out under current government policies. In 1984, there was no settlement policy apart from that dictated by military needs (which consisted largely of resettling Hispanic farmers and Miskito Indians to separate them from guerrillas). There was, however, a pilot project for a comprehensive management plan of the lowland humid regions which called for land consolidation and the standardized implementation of large-scale, cooperatively managed plantations of humid tropical crops. This management plan would have clear implications for settlement policy, since its objectives were optimum land use and management practices; settlement would be funneled toward, and likely restricted to, participation in co-operative plantations.

Honduras has a bimodal policy with regard to land settlement. Its show-piece for land settlement and agrarian reform is the Bajo Aguán Valley, which is a tightly planned programme built around the management of permanent crops such as oil-palm and banana. Land is managed through highly regulated co-operatives, with limited provisions for individual land use for subsistence or commercial production. However, the majority of Honduran land settlement takes place outside the Bajo Aguán in a diffuse institutional framework characterized by cross-cutting objectives and jurisdictions. "Planned" settlements may be created by agrarian reform, forestry, or agricultural agencies; these settlements usually must rely on agencies other than their "parent" institutions for complementary services. More common are spontaneous land occupations on the frontier which are later brought under the administrative authority of one agency or another.

While Costa Rica possesses a land settlement policy, its centrally designed settlement process is overshadowed by spontaneous settlement. Large tracts of forest land have been acquired by the land reform agency (ADI) for settlement, but the majority of settlements seem to be spontaneous, later to be assigned to the ADI. This is an impressionistic judgement, since neither the pattern of land settlement in Costa Rica nor the record-keeping of the ADI distinguish planned settlements from spontaneous settlements that are later incorporated into the AD! framework. But, AD' personnel are quick to point out that their ability to carry out agronomically and ecologically appropriate settlement plans is severely hampered by their frequent need to respond to and legalize invasions.

While all the Central American countries reviewed share the view that settlement planning is appropriate and necessary, only in Guatemala and Nicaragua does that view come close to realization. In both cases, the effectiveness of planning seems to hinge on an extraordinary level of centralized authority created by the existence of armed rebellions and a military presence which concerns itself with settlement patterns. On a reduced scale, Honduras has acheived a high level of centralization and planning in its Bajo Aguán settlement area, which seems to be largely a result of a concentration of international funding for national settlement efforts into that single programme. It would seem that the cost of planned programmes, either for administration or to create sufficient economic benefits to attract settlers (or possibly both), is too high to permit their regular implementation. Military or police action is the alternative to economic inducements for ensuring participation, but experience has shown that volatile communities are the final result.


None of the Central American countries has been successful in integrating land settlement and conservation concerns, despite attempts with several alternative strategies. Two broad approaches can be distinguished which parallel the different approaches to land settlement itself; one approach is an attempt at centralized environmentally oriented production planning, as oposed to a more decentralized mode.

Of the five countries reviewed, Guatemala seems to have the least environmentally informed settlement policy. Numerous national and international groups have questioned the environmental appropriateness of the FTN strategy on the basis of both climate and soil characteristics. Nevertheless, the Guatemalan government has decided to downgrade environmental concerns and follow through with the plan to settle the FTN area, both to relieve population pressure on traditional farming areas and to strengthen political control over the region. Environmental concerns are introduced into individual projects, although their somewhat haphazard design suggests superficial environmental commitment.

In contrast, Nicaragua's lowland settlement policy is couched in environmental terms, recognizing limitations in land capability and appropriate land uses. Annual crop production will be discouraged or prohibited in favour of commercial perennial crops, both to avoid environmental damage and to maximize income-generating possibilities. Plans call for only four crops, cacao, rubber, oil-palm, and coconut, to be planted in the Atlantic lowlands.

Guatemala and Nicaragua share certain characteristics in the environmental aspects of their settlement efforts, in that they attempt to plan for environmentally approprite land uses within a politico-military policy framework. More complex technical considerations are incorporated into planning, but in a subordinate fashion. The result is planning which addresses environmental concerns, but in a deficient manner; plans are generated without regard to infrastructural capacity, with the expectation that shortcomings can be erased by centralized administrative power. Long-term impacts of the plans seem not to be considered, possibly reflecting only cursory input on the part of environmental agencies or advocates. Despite the focus of both countries' plans on environmentally appropriate species, the structures of both contain the possibility for environmental disasters through well-meaning but uninformed decision-making.

At the other end of the policy spectrum, Panama, Honduras, and Costa Rica all have complex, decentralized environmental components of their land settlement efforts which suffer from overall inconsistency. The Darién region is perceived to have several potential - but not necessarily compatible - uses: (1) for the construction of a sea-level canal to accommodate larger ships than those which can use the present Panama Canal, (2) as an area for land distribution to poor farmers through the agrarian reform agency, (3) as a forest region to protect North and Central America from the accidental movement of hoof-and-mouth disease from South America, (4) as land for spontaneous colonization and economic development, and (5) for forests for lumber exploitation. While most of these potential uses are being developed through agencies within the Ministry of Agriculture, there is little coordination. Individuals or companies which encounter restrictions on their land use through any single agency can often have the same activity permitted by another; different agencies may even compete for "clients" among the frontier population as a method for validating and supporting their interpretation of the most appropriate land use. As a result, land occupation and deforestation are limited mainly by physical access to land rather than by policy constraints.

Land settlement in Honduras is framed within a set of policies nearly as complex and contradictory as those of Panama. Various agencies of the government support policies for (1) large-scale forest exploitation, (2) environmental protection, and (3) planned and spontaneous land settlement. The general socio-economic climate of Honduras is at the same time overshadowed by a significant influx of refugees from both Nicaragua and El Salvador, many of whom end up in the forest areas of eastern Honduras.

Despite its highly visible successes in environmental planning and protection, Costa Rica also suffers from a certain inconsistency in the environmental aspects of its land settlement policy. Land reform, social equity, and economic development concerns compete with forest conservation, and the success of the social and economic policies has taken a heavy toll on forests. Although AD' policy and practice respect the need to identify appropriate lands and strategies for successful settlement, higher order political priorities often derail the site and settler selection process. Nevertheless, a number of valuable policy experiments have been initiated in Costa Rica which should be considered for application in other countries, since Costa Rica's shortcomings in environmental protection seem to be a function more of its development success than of its environmental policy failure. These initiatives include the incorporation of private conservation foundations, legislative innovations such as the Regimen Forestal, and attempts to establish buffer zones around parks and involve local communities in environmental assessment and planning (these points are developed in more detail below).

A general conclusion with regard to settlement policy, then, is that environmental abuse is equally as possible in centralized as in decentralized policy environments. Centralized policy planning offers the possibility of rapid and sweeping legislative changes, but carries with it the danger of overzealous implementation of imperfectly formulated policy. Decentralized policy environments face the problem of diffusion of authority and of multiple, cross-cutting objectives. Individual agency policies, which alone may be environmentally acceptable, may have a compound effect in combination with the policies of other agencies. Or agencies may deliberately "over execute" their policies to decrease policy space for competing national agencies. A balance is required between centralized authority for co-ordination of possibly incompatible agency policies and the decentralization necessary for adaptation to specific considerations which may be overlooked in centralized policy formulation.

Shortcomings of Directed Settlement in Central America

One of the most powerful arguments for directed land settlement is that it is a means to avoid the economic and environmental pitfalls of spontaneous settlement. Settlement planning permits the provision of necessary services to settlers in isolated colonization areas, blunting the social and economic costs of settlement. It also promises to promote more durable settlements, by selecting environmentally "robust" areas which will not deteriorate under agricultural use, or, when the use of fragile lands is unavoidable, project planning can introduce appropriate land uses.

Unfortunately, directed settlements in Central America have not been notably successful in either providing especially favourable economic conditions or in avoiding environmental problems. The economic goals pursued by bureaucratic land settlement institutions, or the goals assigned to farmers by those institutions, are not always realistic; farmers frequently find the institutionally created environment too restrictive and either remove themselves completely or invent quasi-legal methods to circumvent the limitations. The farmers' circumventions of land settlement plans are frequently in critical areas, such as titling and farm residency requirements or in patterns of land use, so that their introduction is antithetical to the objectives of the sponsoring institution.

While the goal of close direction of settlement for environmental protection seems necessary for avoiding excessive environmental damage, the Central American experience demonstrates the weakness of that strategy. Land settlement institutions can easily be "kidnapped" by authorities with other than environmental priorities, presenting frightening possibilities to use environmental institutions to do environmental damage.

Land Tenure Problems

A fundamental problem for Central American farmers is the establishment of secure tenure over their land. This is not a problem restricted to small landholders or even to landholders without formal titles. All land is subject to the usufruct orientation of land legislation, and, as a result, land management strategies have been developed which address the problem. In Costa Rica, Seligson (1980) reports that only 75 per cent of all farms have legal titles, and census information in other Central American countries suggests titling rates as low as 20 per cent. Even in Costa Rica, some 90 per cent of remote farm lands are thought to be untitled. Of the 34,000 farms adjudicated by the ADI, many are still not titled due to the policy of withholding titles.

The usufruct orientation produces what is commonly referred to by Central Americans as "land speculation," by which land is occupied with the primary objective of obtaining marketable possession rights. "Speculating" farmers may occupy land for fairly short periods (several months to several years), initiating "improvements" on the land which enhance their possession claims and sale price. These improvements usually include fencing, land clearance, and the establishment of crops and pasture on as large a portion of the farm as possible. The pattern of occupation and farm establishment is virtually indentical for the speculator and the genuine colonist. In a historical sense, land use legislation in this case works exactly as it should; it encourages the establishment of new farm land. This "speculation" is an important part of the settlement process. The first settlers in an area validate the land claim by their presence and, in many cases, will resolve initial ownership challenges; these challenges often lead to violence against squatters or to their imprisonment. Such challenges can be met, however, through political organization: squatters may associate themselves with local political movements which have legal or political resources to influence local authorities. Local political movements usually have their own political agenda which farmers endorse as a quid pro quo for their support.

A relatively small number of spectacular misuses of the land tenure/land reform system have had a significant impact on attitudes toward land settlement. In a few notorious cases, poor farmers have occupied relatively unintensively managed farms which were subsequently purchased by the land reform agency, only to sell the parcels back to the original owners within a few years. There have also been cases of large landowners who, wanting to sell but finding no buyers, manipulate the land reform agencies into purchasing the farm. Accusations of fraud appear at different levels: landowners and farmers may collude to have a farm "invaded" to obligate the intervention of the reform agency, or influential landowners may be able to have the purchase of their farm for land reform purposes be given higher priority than other farms; or, once a farm is selected for land reform, the price will be unrealistically elevated, possibly through the collusion of officials within the land reform agency. A public outcry has accompanied these revelations, where both poor and wealthy farmers seem to manipulate land reform legislation and agencies for short-term gains at the expense of the national treasury. Similar concerns are voiced in all Central American countries, and land settlement efforts are usually accompanied by background checks of beneficiaries; land rights are often granted with "impaired" titles which limit farmers' rights to sell land; land may be granted either in co-operative, non-divisible, or non-salable units; major purchases of farms are subjected to of ficial and unofficial public scrutiny to detect collusion and fraud.

Land settlement and land reform are legally and institutionally interwined. The same usufruct pattern of landholding applies in both established farming areas and in colonization areas, with the difference that in traditional farming areas, agricultural practices are more intensive, farms are smaller, and, as a result, usufruct usurpation is less likely. The same institutional framework addresses the problems of land tenure in colonization areas and agrarian reform in traditional areas. Agrarian reform adjudication of land invasions often involves offers of uncontested, frontier lands for squatters as an alternative to the legal problems associated with expropriation or purchase from the legal owner. In new agricultural areas, squatters on national land usually look to the agrarian reform agency to support their claims against challenges. Most importantly, the experience of "land speculation" in traditional agricultural areas has caused reform institutions to adjust their guide-lines for settlers to avoid the informal title establishment and transfer process.

The negative publicity surrounding cases of land settlement fraud obscures important positive aspects of the land distribution process. Frontier farmers accept high risks in return for economic opportunity. Sewastynowycz (1986) documents how colonizing farmers build up their working capital through successive land sales of "sweat equity" in newly cleared lands, followed by reinvestments in lower priced lands. In the course of a lifetime, pioneer farmers may move from poverty to levels of relative wealth. Land settlement has also resulted in a significant distribution of real wealth (in land) to large numbers of poor farmers, even in the cases where these farmers have not been able to make spectacular changes in their incomes. Research among beneficiaries of land settlement/land reform in Costa Rica has found them to be highly satisfied with the overall experience, despite their recognition that the government institutions did not supply expected levels of support (Seligson 1980); in the majority of cases, settlers felt their lives had improved significantly. Most importantly, a large number of farmers have been benefited by the agrarian reform process; documents from Costa Rica's AD! record the allocation of nearly 1 million ha to more than 34,000 families, in a country of less than 102,000 farms.

The institutional response to problems of land settlement fraud has been a series of policies which, to a certain extent, contribute to the landholding confusion of the region. Nearly all colonization programmes are very slow in transferring title; fixed periods may be set when titles will finally be awarded, with the expectation that this will encourage permanence. But rather than discourage land transfers, the effect has been that farmers in settlements must rely on the traditional methods of land transfer, especially letters of sale. In themselves, these letters have little legal validity apart from the demonstration of the settler's monetary interest in the property and as a means to establish their period of residence. Implicit in many land transactions is the recognition that the farmer has no legal claim over the land; farmers talk of "selling improvements" rather than "selling the land" when they transfer their farm. At the end of the "probationary" tenure period, the reform agency finds itself with the uncomfortable decision of whether to award title to the possessor of (illegal) letters of sale or leave the settler without permanent title. Darién, in Panama, promises to be a legal nightmare whenever an attempt is made to regularize titles, since a large number of colonists have settled in legally prohibited areas.

In principle, a limitation on landownership would seem to offer an ideal means to control land settlement and land use through the power to revoke control over illegally occupied land. Insecure farmers might be expected to be more anxious to comply with land management regulations in an effort to avoid loss of access, introducing the possibility for avoiding environmental problems through the application of appropriate land use recommendations on new farms. This is not the case. Authorities often do not have sufficient resources to apply sanctions, since that would require either a strong and constant police pressure to enforce legislation or a set of sufficient inducements to lure farmers away from restricted areas or practices. Cases were cited in Costa Rica and Honduras where officials unsuccessfully attempted to dislodge settlers or to influence their patterns of land management. Given their lack of alternatives, farmers are usually more tenacious in breaking the laws than the authorities are in enforcing them.

The most negative argument in this regard can be seen in Honduras. Registration problems lead to the near universal pattern of extra-legal landholding. In addition, national legislation assigns the right to manage or harvest all trees in the country to COHDEFOR, the national forestry development agency. Far from resolving the problem of uncontrolled settlement and land clearance, this arrangement seems to exacerbate it. COHDEFOR leads a constant battle against forest fires, many of which are thought to be set by disgruntled farmers in protest. This is not an entirely symbolic gesture; once forests have been eliminated, COHDEFOR loses interest in the land, and farmers may take control (see esp. Murray 1981). Surveys of agro-forestry practices on Central American farms have demonstrated that Honduran farmers are much less likely to manage trees of any kind on their farms.

An alternative solution has been proposed in revolutionary Nicaragua, where land owership and control is passed to the government as part of a collectivization campaign. This solution is appealing in that tight controls and nation-wide integration eliminate the necessity for the production of ecologically inappropriate annual grain crops in humid tropical zones. Small farmers are not forced to make production decisions on the basis of short-term market considerations or concerns with tenure security, as happens in other countries. An inherent disadvantage in this approach is the possibility that an inappropriate ecological solution will be mistakenly identified, either through overcentralized controls over planning or due to limitations in knowledge regarding the longer term consequences of that strategy. The implementation of large-scale cacao, coconut, and oil-palm plantations may represent a threat equal to or more serious than that currently posed by disorganized peasant settlement and land exploitation. * The conversion of diverse tropical forest into a much more homogeneous plantation regime also increases the possibilities of catastrophic pest or disease attacks.

Problems of land security also directly contribute to inefficiency in farm management, since they eliminate the possibility of using land as collateral for agriculural loans. Banks recognize the instability of land tenure and will only accept land as collateral on farms which have been legally titled. Cattle, on the other hand, are readily seen as collateral, since their ownership can be more readily established and they are less likely to become frozen assets in legal proceedings. Nevertheless, cattle production is usually not very efficient; many other crops permit a more intensive use of land and higher rates of return on investments. But cattle are the most readily accepted collateral for farmers without title, and most farmers quickly acknowledge their interest in acquiring cattle as a farm improvement strategy.

A combination of factors conspire to retard regional development in land settlement areas. The value of farms and the ability of a farming region to support infrastructural development are proportional to the productivity of the region. Income provides a tax base and individual wealth which can be used for private infrastructural development. Without access to loans, the cycle of regional development is slowed to the rate of accumulation of poor farmers on isolated farms, as the development of roads, water, electricity, schools, and other public services must be financed out of farmer savings. Under these circumstances, farmers" highest aspirations are to clear land for cattle to provide collateral for future sustainable production. The cultivation of permanent crops, which might be more appropriate for the region and more profitable over the long run, remains a vague, future plan for most farmers.

Cattle provide one of the easiest means to occupy a farm. Once land has been cleared and fenced, grazing cattle will keep it clear with relatively little assistance from farm workers. Occasional weed control can be carried out by manual or chemical means, and the number of workers required to manage cattle is low. Given the priority of active use to validate land claims, cattle production is a low-cost means of "title insurance," with the dividend that it also generates a little income.

The dynamics of land titling are an integral part of Central American land settlement and land use patterns. Discussions of long-term patterns of use, appropriate and inappropriate techniques or activities, etc., are relatively meaningless if they do not recognize the fundamental problem of gaining and maintaining possession of farm land. The positive impact of positive land reform and land titling efforts in Central America on environmental questions cannot be overestimated.


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