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close this bookColonization and Environment: Land Settlement Projects in Central America (UNU, 1990, 155 pages)
close this folderIntroduction: Lowland Settlement and Environmental Impacts in Central America
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentDangers of Misdirected Policies in Land Settlement
View the documentRole of the Current Study
View the documentThe Colonization Areas
View the documentConclusion

The Colonization Areas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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