|Colonization and Environment: Land Settlement Projects in Central America (UNU, 1990, 155 pages)|
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
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.