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close this bookAgricultural Expansion and Pioneer Settlements in the Humid Tropics (UNU, 1988, 305 pages)
close this folder15. Colonization in Central America
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentObjectives and dangers of colonization in the humid tropics
View the documentEcological regions Of Central America
View the documentThe process of colonization In Central America
View the documentCountry situations
View the documentThe process of land conversion
View the documentResearch and implementation needs
View the documentConclusion
View the documentNotes
View the documentReferences

Country situations


In Panama, the major colonization area is Darien. Plans have been developed for directing the process of colonization toward a rational management of the environment and to avoid a concentration of land in a few large cattle farms, which occurred in the interior agricultural provinces (Los Santos, Herrera, Veraguas, and Chiriquí) of the country (see Heckadon 1983). Due to a lack of funding, and an apparent lack of awareness or concern with potential problems in Darien, these plans for the most part have not been implemented. Several limited attempts have been made to develop overseer agencies, which would be charged with co-ordinating the process of colonization in both an ecological and socio-economic sense, but these have not had the desired effect.

An additional element in Darien colonization is hoof-and-mouth disease among cattle. This disease has been eradicated in North and Central America, but still exists in Colombia. The Darien National Park is a forested buffer which runs the length of the Panama-Colombia border; it was originally the responsibility of the Inter-American Commission for the Prevention of Hoof and Mouth Disease (COPFA). With the extension of the Inter-American Highway into Darien, the naturally existing forest buffer is increasingly threatened by colonizing farmers. As the forest shrinks, the accidental introduction of the disease becomes more likely.

A new attempt to oversee the process of colonization is being generated by the National Environmental Commission. This commission enjoys government support but is still largely unfinanced. The problems of Darien are overshadowed by other environmental problems of national concern: the management of the Panama Canal watershed is a primary concern for national policy makers, and the environmental degradation associated with the Cerro Colorado mining operation attracts a good part of the national environmental interest. At the present time, a very rapid spontaneous colonization is occurring along new access roads for mining and oil pipeline maintenance in Chiriquí and Bocas del Toro, in the western part of the country; while this colonization is smaller scale than that which is occurring in Darien, it is much more rapid and eye-catching since it affects virgin forest areas. Darien, on the other hand, represents a long-standing colonization process which may not attract public attention despite its national and international implications.

In Darien, several opposed land-use practices can be seen. By far the most visible practice is the clearing of forest land for the production of annual crops, followed by the sowing of pastures. This pattern is practiced by the colonists from the interior of the country in accordance with land-use practices from their native provinces. A second practice, contiguous to the "interiorano" clearing, is the maintenance of forest areas by Chocó and Kuna Indians. Reserves have been established through various means within the colonization area, and the Indians continue to practice a minimal intensity agriculture and long-fallow system in the forests which cover their land. A third adaptation is that of the "black" population, mostly Colombian immigrants, who, like the hispanic Darienitas (non-lndian natives of Darien), rely on fishing as a major source of income and practice a limited agriculture which notably focuses on plantain production as a cash crop. Many of the more recent immigrants are adopting aspects of the Indian and Darienita land management strategies, but the process of land conversion from forests to other uses is still widespread.

As a complement to the land colonization activities, large lumber concessions are granted by the Directorate of Renewable Natural Resources. Farmers clear land and sell wood to independent lumber middlemen, and at the same time the concessions are said to promote occupation of certain areas to ensure a labour force. A certain amount of tension has been generated between lumber interests and farmers over ownership of land and logs, leading to increasing pressure on forest reserves and Indian lands.

At present, the only obstacle to the conversion of Darien into large cattle ranches is the National Hoof and Mouth Disease Control Programme, which restricts the movement of cattle from Darien to other parts of the country. The inability to market animals has reduced the desirability of Darien for commercial ranching. The agrarian reform agency is understaffed and underfunded and lacks support from higher level decision makers to enforce agrarian reform objectives for the area. In general, government agencies are weakly represented in Darien and yet are the only force which can apply environmental controls at present. Their activities are hampered by inadequate funding and a lack of clear directives as to what national policy toward the development of the area is at any given moment.

Costa Rica

After El Salvador, Costa Rica is the Central American country with least opportunity for new land colonization in humid tropical areas. Agrarian reform programmes have occupied much of the national territory, and a vigorous conservation programme involving the formation of national parks, Indian reservations, wildlife preserves, and watershed protection zones has restricted access to much of the remaining noncultivated areas.

Land-use changes in Costa Rica are now largely restricted to changes in intensity of agricultural exploitation. Politically active peasant groups take charge of identifying and occupying lands which are underutilized (see Downing and Matteson 1965); in fact, some of these areas are secondary forest areas with some primary forest remnants, but there is little sense of "agricultural frontier," since these are pockets of forest which have been bypassed by the earlier colonization movement due to problems of accessibility. The area of most activity is in the Atlantic lowlands of the country, and the Agrarian Development Institute has begun a major project in conjunction with USAID (US Agency of International Development) to consolidate and regulate the colonization process in that area. In 1984 there was a violent invasion of the southern Pacific highlands, in the Altos de Cotón, near the Panamanian border. This invasion affects both private farms and forest areas under National Park Service and Forestry Directorate control. The resolution of this invasion is working its way through the courts at the time of this writing.

As a response to the unavailability of new lands, a process of agricultural intensification of humid tropical land use is seen in Costa Rica. The production of cacao, tropical spices, palm heart, ornamental plants, and especially coffee has received increasing attention from both government agencies and farmers. Costa Rican farmers have been very active in the development of agro-forestry systems to intensify land use. The association of forest species with permanent crops such as coffee and cacao offers the benefits of both improved soil structure and fertility (e.g. in the case of Erythrina sp. [Russo 1982] and lnga sp. [León 1966] for coffee shade) and increased income from the sale of valuable lumber species such as laurel (Cordia alliodora) or cedro (Cedrela odorata) associated with cacao and coffee (Rosero and Gewald 1979; Beer 1982a, 1982b; Heuveldop and Espinoza 1983). These techniques have been empirically developed by farmers and are cited as positive landuse examples and as promising avenues for further development research.

The pressures on the limited land area, and the relatively strong position of agriculture in the national economy of the country, have promoted biologically appropriate land uses which may serve as models for other areas of Central America. Nevertheless, there are also areas of serious environmental problems, especially in the newer colonization areas, which will need special attention.


Interest in the colonization of humid tropical lands in Nicaragua has fluctuated in the past 40 years. The "Proyecto Rigoberto Cabezas" (PRICA) was a sweeping plan to incorporate a large part of the forested Atlantic zone of Nicaragua (more than 4 million ha) into the national economy by settling it with farmers (IICAMAG-BID 1978).

Although the project was said to be directed mainly to small farmers, statistical data show the presence of large farms in the colonization area, which were unofficially reported to have been granted to government supporters. The colonization process was largely based on the assumption that the Atlantic coast could become a major production area for basic grains, to compensate for the conversion of grain production areas in the western coastal area to commercial crops. Unfortunately, the progress reports of this project and most documents were either dispersed or destroyed in the aftermath of the revolution of 1979, so detailed accounts of the colonization process are not readily available.

The PRICA project was especially notable for its overestimation of the availability of arable land in the area. In 1978, the Nueva Guinea area was estimated to be 33 per cent suitable for all kinds of crop production (IICA-MAG-BID 1978), while later studies seem to indicate that this figure should have been placed much lower. The resident population at the time of the project was also severely underestimated; early PRICA survey teams found the "uninhabited" forest area to be so filled with spontaneous colonists at the beginning of the project as to make further settlement difficult (Taylor 1969). Estimates of the current population range from 85,000 to 100,000 (Deve 1983; INETER, pers. comm. 1984), approximately 16 persons per square kilometre (this is the same as the average national population density).

The most visible outcome of the project is the colony of Nueva Guinea, which is now a large community of small grain-producing farmers. Soil exhaustion is reported, and a new development plan incorporating perennial crops has been implemented, but no results can yet be seen. Although there has been a tendency for farmers of Nueva Guinea to sell exhausted land and move on into the surrounding forest area, this has largely been curtailed by guerrilla activity, and the formerly dispersed agricultural population has now been concentrated in villages within the area. Nicaragua's humid Atlantic region is striking for the disease and market problems plaguing the development of permanent crops; a variety have been tried, but none has been completely successful. Many of these same crops are now being incorporated into permanent-crop development plans.

Colonization is taking place along new roads connecting the Atlantic coast to the rest of the country. In the northern part of Zelaya, a new road connects Puerto Cabezas and Managua, passing through Siuna. In the south, a new road to connect Nueva Guinea and Bluefields is under construction. Both roads have been conduits for colonists, although in both areas new colonization seems to have been slowed by guerrilla warfare. The Miskito population from the northern Atlantic zone has been relocated along the SiunaPuerto Cabezas road. The road from Nueva Guinea to Bluefields has seen armed conflicts, and both farmers and logging crews have abandoned the area.

A major plan for the conversion of the entire Atlantic coast to permanent crop production has been outlined (EMACRA 1984; MIDINRA 1981), but it is underfinanced and suffers from a lack of biological research support and background experience (such as field trials and germ-plasm collections). Efforts have been made to consolidate research and implementation efforts of different government agencies involved in the development of the area, but this consolidation is still far from complete.


The sparsely populated parts of eastern and north-eastern Honduras have received major influxes of colonists in recent years. The mechanization of commercial export crops in southern Honduras combined with a high population density has forced farmers to migrate to new areas (De Walt et al. 1982; Smith-Hinds 1979). The eastern and northeastern sections of Honduras are the areas of the most intensive colonization. The most extensive area is in Olancho, but there is also colonization in Gracias A Diós, Colón (Agáun Valley), and in Atlántida (in the mountains near Trujillo). Several surveys have identified major unexploited areas which would be appropriate for agriculture; it is pointed out in these surveys that a large portion of the good agricultural lands in Honduras is still under forest (FAO 1967).

Two major tendencies in Honduran colonization can be distinguished. The first is the creation of government projects which are heavily involved in the establishment and design of new communities and agricultural systems. This has occurred most notably in the Aguán River Valley (Díaz A. 1974; Martínez and German 1974), and similar but much less well-endowed efforts are being made in areas such as the Agalta, Guayape, and Patuca river valleys (MRN-Lavalin 1983; Smith-Hinds 1979). The objective in these projects is the establishment of agro-industrial enterprises for commercial products, including cotton, where possible, and banana and oil palm, among others.

The other tendency is spontaneous colonization, with little attempt to control or direct production patterns. In Dulce Nombre de Culmi and the northern bank of the Patuca, farmers have arrived before the completion of roads. Refugee settlements of Nicaraguans and Salvadoreans tend to follow this pattern, with a minimum of technical assistance or guidance. Nevertheless, government services are provided for spontaneous settlers, although not in the comprehensive manner of a "directed" effort.

Both patterns of colonization bear major similarities. Despite attempts to promote certain crops within agro-industrial co-operatives in planned colonization areas, an "unplanned" population inevitably establishes itself outside the recommended guidelines. This population consists of disenchanted co-operative members, previous residents of the area, or colonists attracted by the government services and improved communication associated with the agro-industrial project. In the Aguán Valley, a considerable population of unincorporated farmers exists, which endangers the future of the watershed due to the use of shifting agricultural practices on surrounding hillsides (Van Ginneken 1981). The overall pattern in both kinds of colonization is one of large commercial farms in fertile bottom lands, surrounded by small farmers in the less desirable hilly lands. In the Aguán Valley, as in other areas, the large commercial farms may be either privately or co-operatively owned.

Honduras has what may be the most vigorous process of new land colonization in Central America, which continues into the considerable remaining forest areas of the country. Nevertheless, much of this remaining area does not have soils or climatic conditions appropriate for traditional agriculture and will require the development of new techniques and marketing channels to permit their appropriate use. A notable aspect of colonization in Honduras is that it is well endowed with experiments in methods for improving soil conservation, land use, forest management, etc. A major Canadian effort is experimenting with new forms of peasant forest exploitation, and a variety of efforts to encourage improved soil management practices are being promoted by CARE, the World Food Program, and the Peace Corps.

The colonization of Honduras holds both great promise and grave environmental dangers. Due to the existence of poor soils and large areas of unclaimed forest, Honduran farmers have opted for extensive land-use practices; forests are felled and land is cultivated for a short time before being abandoned or sown to pasture (see Murray 1981; Betancourt and Rafsnider 1982). Little progress has been made in the development of farming systems which are stable over a period of many years. While the full impact of this "technological underdevelopment" has been cushioned by the presence of new lands, the analysis of the land conservation experiments mentioned above takes on a special urgency as remaining forest areas shrink.


The colonization efforts of Guatemala have been controversial. Colonization is occurring mainly in the Franja Transversal del Norte (FTN), a strip of low-lying tropical land of 8,800 km2 bordering the densely populated highlands of the centre of the country. With a total population of 172,704, the FTN has a population density of 17 per square kilometre, as compared to a national average of 69 per square kilometre. Spontaneous colonization of the area began before the establishment of planned projects, at least as early as the l950s (Adams 1965; Carter 1969). The FTN projects set as goals the integration of the new lands into the national economy and, to a certain extent, the improvement of agricultural practices and the encouragement of appropriate systems of cultivation.

The FTN is a large area, and projects first began at its western end. A new project is being planned for the eastern end of the FTN, which, until now, has not been greatly affected by colonization plans. Similar to the colonization work in other parts of the FTN, the objective of this new project is to improve communications and government services, but with an emphasis on the introduction of new production systems.

The process of colonization at one point was "directed" by INTA (Instituto Nacional de Transformación Agraria), in the sense that it was relatively independent in defining strategies and implementation. A general characteristic of current colonization efforts in the FTN is the attempt to consolidate a range of government services in specifically identified "development poles." The objective is to ensure an adequate provision of services such as education, health care, transportation, and agricultural credit and extension in 44 fairly remote areas. The consolidation strategy leaves it unclear whether colonization activities should be considered "directed" (since they count on large-scale government support) or "undirected," since this support is merely the provision of a full range of government services by the respective agencies which would be expected in any agricultural region.

By size, the major colonization area of Guatemala is Petén, the northern lowland province adjoining the FTN. Petén has followed a singular history of development, where control of all activities has been exercised by FYDEP (Comisión pare el Fomento de Desarollo Económico del Peten), an agency created to manage Petén. FYDEP does not respond to or co-ordinate with most other government agencies, such as those in the agricultural sector. A general plan for the colonization of Petén. has been developed by FYDEP, but its focus is production rather than the settlement of population, and it gives great weight to cattle ranching.

Like Honduras, Guatemala has experienced a variety of land colonization and management schemes which are of great potential value if they could be carefully analysed. Changes in the administrative and tenancy structures of colonies, attempts to introduce new crops, and the attempt to create "development poles" are all interesting innovations whose evaluation could provide important insights both for Guatemala and other countries of the tropics.

To a greater extent than in Honduras, farmers in Guatemala have developed stable production systems, based to a certain extent on communal land management and the use of low-intensity agricultural practices. One of the most intriguing strategies is the use of velvet bean (Stizolobium sp.) in crop rotations; this legume is vigorous and produces a dense mat of vegetation which controls weed growth and which can be mulched to provide nutrients for subsequent crops. First reported by Carter (1969), it has since been adopted in the Chocón area (Ruano 1981), where its use continues to spread.