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close this bookAgricultural Expansion and Pioneer Settlements in the Humid Tropics (UNU, 1988, 305 pages)
close this folder16. Organized settlement on the Amazon frontier: The Caquetá project in Colombia
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentThe project
View the documentProject characteristics
View the documentTarget population
View the documentDevelopment or stabilizing strategy
View the documentThe environmental issue in Colombia
View the documentMaterial accomplishments of Phase II
View the documentProject investment and cost
View the documentSocio-political events in the project area
View the documentStability of the production model
View the documentEnvironmental effects
View the documentEnvironmental costs
View the documentFrontier stabilization alternatives
View the documentFrontier management technology

Socio-political events in the project area

Up until the beginning of Phase II (1973), the Caquetá area was regarded as being relatively free from the social conflicts prevailing in adjacent rural areas. Due to the fact that it was considered a frontier zone, had not achieved statehood, and had relatively low political leverage, it also lacked the social infrastructure and services available in other more populated rural areas for small farmers and rural workers.

However, from 1975 the area became one of the better known guerrilla activity centres of the country. More unfortunately, from the late 1970s it has gained importance as a producer of coca leaves and thus has been contaminated by the influx of both drug traffickers and new settlers in search of land for coca production. These two factors have contributed to the distortion of the social effects of the colonization projects, although both describe distant zones, deeper inside the Amazon forest. Nevertheless, the political activities of the guerrillas have sought to capitalize on social conflict arising in the villages and recently formed shanty towns in the capital of Florencia among thousands of poor, displaced settlers and their families fleeing either environmentally related droughts and floods or increasing armed confrontations between the army, the guerrillas, and drug bands.

Thus, attempting to evaluate Phase I and Phase II-or, more generally, the strategy of massive investments in rural settlement projects in the Amazon frontier -in terms of their socio-economic benefits, one is faced with more questions than answers. One may ask, for example, how it is that at the termination of the project one finds that, from a relatively peaceful community of settlers, the area has evolved into a socially explosive zone. Guerrilla activity, with the support of some of the poorer settlers, has greatly increased, malaria continues to run rampant, and unexpected migration to new population centres of families displaced by violence, is imposing hardships on the few existing, rudimentary health facilities. Although these events could not have been foreseen at the project design stage, a nagging question hangs in the background related to the selection of the economic strategy.

Given the experiences of other countries (where the IBRD and IDB are involved with colonization projects in Amazon Basin-type soils), and taking into account the specific income requirements and labour availability of migrant settlers, one wonders whether there were no other development strategies at hand, different from the simple and perhaps elitist production model utilized in Caquetá If the Amazon forest area is needed for settling landless workers and displaced peasants, are governments and society to stand helplessly by and watch the current indiscriminate destruction of natural resources in order to establish medium and large cattle or agricultural operations? Can other models with more socially encompassing benefits not be established? How can one make the abundant peasant family labour available productive in these particular areas?

One final question related to this project is in regards to the expected social benefits. From reading initial documentation, one gathers that by channelling funds in order to create opportunities for entrepreneurial settlers to open up frontier land, the expected outcome in terms of production and income generation would not only stabilize economic activities but also generate a mood of optimism and hope among the population. Instead, one finds despair, a stagnation in land value, proliferation of disease, crime, and other forms of social unrest and strife. Also, there is a growing awareness of the environmental damage caused by mass deforestation and its effects revealed in recent phenomena such as unprecedented droughts and floods and massive insect attacks on pastures.

This situation seems to outweigh the limited economic benefits received, directly and indirectly, by the target population and leaves one with doubts regarding the overall social welfare of the area's population.

One final point that warrants mention is related to who are the final beneficiaries in a project of this nature. There is some recent empirical evidence which seems to suggest that the original pioneer settlers in the area do not benefit in the way originally intended. Forest clearing for pasture on these soils is a process characterized by a large labour input which is finally validated when the settler establishes a legal claim and obtains titles to the land. Once this is achieved, the farm has the basic components to enter the land capitalist market and it is then that medium and large cattle farmers from other areas step in and purchase and integrate three or four titled farms and set up an economically feasible operation. The original settler perceives this as an opportunity to recover the true value of his family's labour, sells, and moves further out to begin the forest clearing process once more.

Thus, it is no accident that some of the settlers who are clearing forest in the areas adjacent to Phase II were, at one time, the settlers of Phase II and its intended beneficiaries.

If this trend proves to be of a generalized nature, it then confirms the suspicions about the real achievements of Phase II, that is the stabilization of the pioneer settlements and the Amazon frontier. It would also imply that the current production model (i.e. extensive cattle production) is not compatible with the needs of the migrant settlers of Caquetá and that its social implications will not contribute to the achievement of the government's rural social policy.