|Colonization and Environment: Land Settlement Projects in Central America (UNU, 1990, 155 pages)|
|Introduction: Lowland Settlement and Environmental Impacts in Central America|
Central American land settlement programmes have evolved considerably over the past decades. The initial tendency to prescribe new land settlement as a generalized panacea for social, political, and economic ills of society has given way to a more circumspect appreciation of the potentially negative economic and environmental impacts of these programmes (Nelson 1977). In response, projects have incorporated new elements designed to alleviate environmental problems, address social concerns, and ensure economic viability. While not always successful, these efforts have been instructive with regard to interactions of farmers and policy.
New policy concerns which have emerged include (1) a more rational use of forest resources in colonization areas, (2) the stabilization of the colonization front, and (3) an increased emphasis on the characteristics of the participants in settlement programmer.
One of the most negative impacts of the usufruct based tenure system has been the careless destruction of valuable forest resources to establish title. Valuable timber species are cut and either burned or left on the ground to rot, destroying the forest as an ecosystem and the timber as a saleable commodity. The losses through forest destruction amount to hundreds of millions of dollars in environmental damage and lost income; it is not uncommon for settlers to face the ultimate irony of purchasing building materials after clearing their own land. Control efforts have included (1) the creation of national forest agencies and lumber corporations, (2) the training and licensing of settlers to process and market wood from settlement areas, and (3) the requiring of forest harvesting plans controlled through permits.
The stabilization of the colonization front is a growing concern for settlement programmer. Settlement areas often serve as "jumping-off" points for forest penetration by commercial interests. New roads and infrastructure are used for lumber exploitation or to facilitate the entry of non-farming land speculators. Settlers themselves may use project settlements as a home base from which they try to claim and manage extensive landholdings in forest lands. A variety of strategies have been attempted by governments and projects to regulate access to adjacent forest lands: (1) requirements of timbercutting and transport permits, (2) the creation of local participant groups for timber exploitation and management, and (3) withholding of land titles for specified periods from settlers and threat of not granting title for land use infractions.
There has also been an increasing focus on screening participants in settlement projects in response to public and environmental concerns with what might be termed "settlement fraud." Individuals may join settlement programmes, not to farm, but to reap the benefit of land appreciation due to subsidized public infrastructural development and the private investments of their neighbours. These individuals may even serve as agents of large landholders, who are legally excluded from settlement lands; these pseudosettlers collude to obtain lands based on their own landless status, only then to turn over new lands in exchange for short-term employment or lump-sum payments. Such fraud is discouraged through (1) tenure conditionality based on patterns of land use (such that land may revert to the state), (2) residence period requirements and delayed titling, and (3) screening procedures to identify individuals unlikely to be successful farmers.
Although the measures described here have not been entirely successful as currently implemented, they will be elements of future strategies for environmental management in settlement areas. An appreciation of their successes and failures will form a sound basis for improving their application in the future.