|Colonization and Environment: Land Settlement Projects in Central America (UNU, 1990, 155 pages)|
|5. Colonization in Honduras|
The process of colonization in Honduras has been a mixture of directed and spontaneous land settlements. The most common pattern seems to be one of the spontaneous movement of farmers into new lands followed by quick support from the government. Nevertheless, one major directed effort at land colonization has taken place in the Aguán River valley, and it is the show-piece of the agrarian reform institute (INA). A number of other areas are being colonized, but with less direct support from the government. These areas are the Cordillera Nombre de Diós, near Trujillo; Dulce Nombre de Culmi, near the head-waters of the Rio Plátano in Olancho; the Sico River Valley in Colón and Olancho; the upper Patuca (also in Olancho) on both the north (Poncaya) and south (Palestine, Nueva Choluteca) sides of the river; the middle Patuca near the confluence of the Rio Wampú in Olancho and Gracias a Diós (see map 7). A new project is being proposed for the Rio Sico-Río Paulaya area, but no detailed information regarding the project is yet available.
The Cordillera Nombre de Diós is in an area which has experienced major population increases in the last 20 years. A major attraction has been the economic development of the north coast, based mainly on the development of agricultural export industries. Another factor in the population growth of the area has been the Bajo Aguán colonization project, by which thousands of farmers have been brought in to utilize the fertile valley lands. For a variety of reasons, there has been a high desertion rate among the new farmers. In conjunction with these new population pressures and in part as a direct result, forests have been cleared from the slopes of the Cordillera in recent years.
Dulce Nombre de Culmí is at the end of the road which runs from Tegucigalpa through Juticalpa and Catacamas toward the Honduran Mosquitia. The access to new lands has encouraged an influx of spontaneous colonists.
The Patuca River has also been the site of colonization activities, and is one of the most active areas of deforestation in the country. Exploitation of the north bank of the river was begun by logging concessions which opened roads for the extraction of mahogany and cedar; these roads were then used as access routes by farmers who are now in the area. The south bank of the Patuca is the site of an organized, religiously inspired forest land colonization which began at Nueva Palestina (Smith-Hinds 1980). Since the first occupation in 1973, the population of the area has continued to grow, and the original colony is now 1 of 21 in the area. More recently, Nicaraguan rebels have occupied the area and begun land clearing for their own purposes.
In Gracias a Diós colonization seems to be in an incipient stage. In the middle Patuca valley, near the confluence of the Wampú and Patuca rivers, a major resettlement of Miskito Indian refugees from Nicaragua has been established. The upper areas of the Rio Plátano Biosphere Reserve are the site of spontaneous colonization by both Salvadorean refugees and Hondurans. In 1988, a massive occupation and deforestation was extensively reported in the news media, involving some 15,000 settlers in that remote area.
Table 31. Population change in urban centres of Olancho
|San Francisco de la Paz||2,291||4,145|
Source: Hernandez Paz and Desloges 1982.
Colonization activities are described in the following according to department to give an overview of the process.
Olancho is the centre of colonization activities in Honduras at present. Although the capital city of Juticalpa has existed since the colonial period, it has been isolated by bad communications networks. In 1967, the Guayape River valley was indicated as the centre of a major colonization effort (C.W. Minkel 1967), and in 1980 an allweather road connecting Juticalpa and Tegucigalpa was finished. With the construction of the road the population of urban centres grew nearly 100 per cent over a period of seven years (see table 31).
The Guayape River Valley. By 1984 the Guayape River valley had completely lost its character as a colonization area. The valley is 12 km wide by 60 km long, with reasonably good alluvial soils, and is now completely deforested; nearby mountains show deforestation on fairly steep slopes as farmers search for new lands, and the valley is a major producer of cotton and basic grains. At present a plan for the "integrated rural development" of the Guayape valley is being proposed by the Department of Hydraulic Resources of the Ministry of Natural Resourcs, but this plan is concerned mainly with the development of irrigation that will tap the enormous underground aquifers. In fact, no government official interviewed recognized Guayape as a "colonization area" in the recent past.
Although the Guayape River valley itself is not a colonization area, it is one site of a potentially important experiment in land management being carried out jointly by the Peace Corps, CARE, and SANAA (Servicio Nacional de Aguas y Alcantarillas). The project is designed to improve watershed maintenance, water quality, and water-supply through works undertaken at the community level. Peace Corps volunteers give demonstrations and lectures, but also actively participate in the implementation and construction of the management and conservation works on individual farms. The agricultural pattern for Zopilotepe, for example, was reported to be one of small farms producing corn and rice on flat valley lands, with grazing cattle on the hillsides. Activities being promoted were the establishment of river-bank hedges, efforts to create terraces on hillsides, and watershed maintenance for improved water production; agro-forestry interplanting systems with corn and Leucaena; river-bank plantations with mahogany and cedar; reforestation of hillsides with mahogany and cedar; the planting of fruit-trees; and the replacement of burning for land preparation with mulching.
The response to these initiatives was varied. The construction of terraces was not deemed to be mechanically useful, due to the exposure of soils to erosion in the construction process. Conservation works in general were not appreciated as such, but farmers were interested in reforesting with valuable timber species (mahogany and cedar) and in the improvement of the quantity and quality of available water. River-bank plantations, especially with timber species, were well received. Farmers were also interested in Leucaena plantations, probably for fuelwood. Attempts to establish orchards generally failed due to disease, but farmers were still interested in some fruittrees. Nevertheless, farmers still felt that burning was necessary for production, even taking into consideration the erosion problems it presented.
Despite the mixed results of the experiment, it represents an important step in the involvement of farmers in conservation activities on a larger scale. It must be emphasized that the personal commitment and participation of Peace Corps volunteers represents a much more persuasive model than that of the transient agricultural extension or watershed management technician. Some of the proposed conservation techniques are not mechanically functional, and others are not economically practical, but some are appealing to farmers and represent an important source of experiences for furture experiments.
The South Bank of the Upper Patuca River. The areas currently identified as "colonization areas" in Olancho are the north and south banks of the upper Patuca (Poncaya on the north and Palestina on the south) and Dulce Nombre de Culmí. The two banks of the upper Patuca offer an interesting contrast with regard to colonization. Nueva Palestina is a peasant organized colonization scheme documented most extensively by Smith-Hinds (1980). Repeated floods and droughts and land tenure conflicts in Choluteca motivated poor farmers to seek new lands in the sparsely populated lands of the Patuca River valley. In coordination with the Catholic church, local leaders from the Choluteca communities of El Corpus and Concepción de Maria made an exploratory survey in the Patuca area in January of 1973. After making another exploratory trip with representatives of INA and the UNC (National Farmers' Union), it was decided that the newly identified area could be colonized if the access road was improved. The first migration to the area occurred in April of 1973 and was made up of 83 men and 13 women.
The occupation of New Palestine marked the beginning of the establishment of several communities in the area. Before the entire colonization group could be assembled in October of 1973, however, non-community members had begun to occupy the lands claimed for the New Palestine settlement. In December of 1973, a splinter group split off from the main settlement due to a dispute over private ownership of cows and became the nucleus of Las Camelias. In 1975, two more groups were formed by new settlers, one called Nueva Esperanza (with more than 30 families) and another 20 de Mayo (with 54 families; these last figures come from Smith-Hinds  and are different from those provided by INA, which records no 20 de Mayo and reports an initial population of 12 for "La Esperanza." INA reports an initial population of 38 families for "La Palestina").
There is no information on the initial population of the south bank of the Patuca, but Smith-Hinds (1980) estimates a population of 800 to 1,000 families in the late 1970s. INA records report over 500 families in 22 agrarian reform communities for 1984 but give no indication of how many other families might be found in the region. The head of COHDEFOR'S Olancho office estimated a population of 10,000 families in the area south of the Patuca (including INA and non-INA colonies), while the head of the INA office estimated 5,000 families in 1984.
The productive emphasis of the communities on the south bank is nearly exclusively on annual crops. All but one community report the production of corn, beans, and rice as their major activities' with cattle production reported in six communities and coffee in two. It is striking that, although the original communities had organized wood production teams as part of their communal activities, and in fact depended on lumber production as their major source of income, this activity seems to have completely disappeared.
The co-operative form of organization is potentially a valuable method for controlling forest destruction. Since community land is indivisible and not individually owned, it does not allow the possibility for the encroachment of large landed interests where disillusioned farmers might be willing to sell land. It also serves to control land speculation by small farmers who might want to occupy and clear land only for later sale. The presence of government services such as health, extension, and road maintenance serves as an incentive for farmers to remain associated with the cooperative.
Despite the potential benefits of the co-operative colonization strategy, it may also contain elements which promote deforestation. Residents of Nueva Palestina commented that the community served as a base for reprovisioning independent farmers of the area, and in fact may serve as a springboard for the colonization of more distant lands. Members of several co-operatives in Olancho were questioned as to the noncooperative use of lands by members; it was generally acknowledged that farmers had separate individual plots within the lands adjudicated to the co-operative, but all insisted that no lands outside the co-operative were used by co-operative members, in accordance with the regulations of INA. However, the presence of government (INA or COHDEFOR) officials at the time of the interviews makes it unlikely that members would admit to circumventing regulations. In Comayagua, outside the presence of government officials, INA co-operative members freely admitted the possession of lands outside INA co-operatives; these lands in fact were an integral part of the farmers' economic strategies, by which the land available to them in the co-operative was complemented by non-cooperative lands. While no evidence of this strategy was seen in the brief visits to the colonization areas, it does not eliminate the possibility that co-operative members in fact are opening private farms outside the co-operative in preparation for a final separation when their activities are discovered.
The North Bank of the ripperatuca River. The colonization of the north bank of the Patuca has followed a different path. Communities were established with little intervention by INA (INA only reported one colony for the area), and the major institution involved in the area was COHDEFOR, with a plan incorporating the COATLAH model. The area was originally opened for logging, followed by spontaneous colonization of the area by farmers using the logging roads. Farmers were organized into pit-sawing co-operatives to exploit remaining forest resources, and at the same time a series of swaths were cut around the area to demarcate forest protection zones. The objective of the demarcation is to indicate clearly to farmers where protected areas begin and to make control of the expansion of the agricultural frontier more manageable. The Olancho COHDEFOR office estimated 4,000 families in the area.
Communication between the north and south banks of the Patuca is very difficult. From Catacamas to the Poncaya area is a journey of seven hours, although the linear distance is approximately 35 km. The linear distance from Juticalpa to Palestina is approximately 40 km, which is generally a journey of 3 hours. The Juticalpa-Palestina road passes over several provisional log bridges which have eroded to a point that a jeep passed with difficulty. A much better road is reported to connect Patuca with Danlí.
The Agalta, Guayambre, and Gualaco River Valleys. The process of colonization in Olancho is by no means homogeneous and in fact demonstrates a certain "leapfrog" pattern. Following the new Juticalpa-San Estebán road to the north from the Guayape valley, the first valley encountered is Gualaco. Upon observation, this area seemed to be in the hands of relatively few ranchers, and little agrarian reform activity was noted, although the area had been deforested through the use of fire for pasture clearing. After the Gualaco valley, the road enters the Agalta valley, where San Estebán is located. This area shows much more agrarian activity. It is also the site of a production forest for Corfino, which is a major lumber production operation of COHDEFOR. There seems to be little integration of INA and COHDEFOR in the area.
A similar pattern of settlement is found south of Juticalpa. Before reaching Patuca, the road passes the Guayambre River valley, which is in the hands of two large ranches.
Bajo Aguán The most ambitious colonization undertaken in Honduras is Colon's Bajo Aguán in the lower Aguán River valley. Abandoned by the banana companies in the 1930s, the infrastructure of the valley had reportedly all but disappeared by the 1950s, and the remaining towns were greatly reduced in size. In 1961, the reported population was 68,000 inhabitants, despite efforts in the 1950s to recolonize the area, leading Nelson (1977) to conclude that the project had been a total failure. After 1974, the population of the valley began to increase rapidly due to spontaneous and induced colonization, and in 1980 it had reached 181,000 inhabitants. The Aguán valley covers 200,000 ha, although the entire Aguán watershed containes over 1,000,000 ha (Van Ginneken 1981).
While it is questionable whether the activities carried out in the Bajo Aguán can be characterized as "new lands settlement," the project is the show-piece of INA and deserves mention as such. Some INA officials insist that the Aguán valley had virtually reverted to forest by the time of the settlement project, although the 1961 population of 68,000 calls this observation into question. Local interviews determined that farmers and ranchers displaced by the Bajo Aguán programme moved into nearby areas, such as the coastal plains of Limón. taken over by cattle ranchers, and into nearby forest areas.
The Aguán valley is a major agricultural area. Despite an "underutilization" of the available lands, the area produces the majority of the nations' pineapple, grapefruit, and coconut, and nearly half its banana output (see table 32). In the lower Aguán valley alone, Van Ginneken (1981) reports over 149,000 ha of land with slopes of less than 10 per cent.
The development strategy for the Aguán valley has been directed toward the formation of agricultural production co-operatives to manage large farms of permanent crops such as oil-palm, coconut, citrus,etc. The statistics from table 32 indicate that in productive terms, the project has been successful. However, there have been reports of problems with the co-operative strategy employed. A large number of farmers have occupied the steeper lands surrounding the valley floor (Van Ginneken 1981), and at least some of the farmers are disenchanted cooperative memebers who have attempted to revert to individual farming on the only lands available to them (Hughes-Hallett, pers. comm. 1984). INA officials report that this problem has diminished since the permanent crops have reached fruition, increasing incomes. Nevertheless, it should be noted that abandonment is a generalized problem in agrarian reform settlements: nearly 30 per cent of the 45,000 families initially settled in INA colonies were reported to have left them by 1978 (USAID 1978).
Table 32. Agricultural production of the Agues valley as percentage of national production
Source: Hernandez Paz and Desloges 1982.
The development of the Aguán valley has been expensive. In 1978, a cumulative estimate for infrastructure in the valley (roads, marketing facilities, etc.) was over 125 million lempiras (us$1.00=2 lempiras) (USAID 1978). In terms of INA inputs, approximately 75 per cent of its resources are dedicated to Aguán activities. The Bajo Aguán project has been criticized by both farmers and others as being too paternalistic. In some cases, INA is compared to former plantation owners, with co-operative members (who are paid salaries and often feel quite powerless over their co-operatives) as the new employees of the plantation. But it is generally agreed that life on the INA plantations is much easier than life as an independent farmer on the frontier. The existence of social security benefits, transportation, urban centres, regular work hours, etc., are cited by some farmers as examples of the wastefulness of the programmes and reasons for the lack of a sufficient work ethic on the part of participants; others view these conditions as goals for the development of other communities in the area.
Río Sico-Río Paulaya-Rio Cangrejal. The eastern Atlantic watersheds of the Sico, Paulaya, and Cangrejal rivers represent some of the most important reserves of good agricultural lands in Honduras. The Rio Sico watershed is thought to contain 19.9 per cent of the cultivable land for the country, but only 1.5 per cent is used at present due to communication problems.
The area has been the focus of a major management and conservation effort funded by ACDI and carried out through COHDEFOR (Hernandez Paz and Desloges 1982; Roper and Irías 1983). In addition to designing a plan for forest management, a large forest reserve area has been delineated and marked with corridors cut through the forest to indicate to farmers and COHDEFOR officials the limits of the reserve and of agricultural activity.
The programme was successful during the first five years, during which time a Canadian-Honduran agreement for forest management was in force. During a pause of several years in the project while a new agreement was being written, however, COHDEFOR'S capabilities for inspection diminished and the protected area was invaded by farmers.
The Río Cangrejal watershed of 39,700 ha has 15,000 ha of deforested land for agricultural purposes. The land is being used for migratory agricultural and, increasingly, urban development, as it makes up the head-waters of the valley where the city of La Ceiba is located, the site of the regional headquarters for COHDEFOR.
The project proposes to (1) collect land use information, (2) conduct a census by watershed, (3) prepare a map of land tenancy, (4) conduct extension services in both agriculture and forestry, and (5) relocate people who are on land inappropriate for agriculture.
As mentioned, funding for the project was arranged through ACDI, and project implemention was in its initial stages in 1988. The most remarkable aspect of this forest management project was the special attention paid to residents of the relevant watersheds, recognizing the importance of addressing their special needs and designing project solutions around forestry, hydrological, and socio-economic constraints. While this approach is clearly more complex than a strict forestry or hydrology approach, its design may permit that project achievements will not be lost in any of the lapses in project funding/implementation which are characteristic of government activities.
The management of the Río Sico area has taken on a new urgency in the past decade. A road was constructed connecting San Estebán, in Olancho, with the north coast. This road has facilitated the movement of farmers in both directions, and a farming population has quickly grown up along the new road. Previously, the Rio Sico had been a continuous natural forest area, since farmers had been physically limited in their access to the land.
Río Sico presents a fairly typical set of problems for Honduras. While some good agricultural land exists in the watershed, farmers are also clearing marginal lands (which are a majority). Farmers have begun to complain of microclimate changes in the area; it is said to be noticeably drier now than it was 10 years ago (according to their observations and memories). Whether the climatic observations are correct or not, the more general problem of declining agricultural quality is sure to be part of the future of these tropical lands.
Río Plátano. The Rio Plátano is a biosphere reserve which has not been fully established due to budgetary problems. The reserve has been threatened by immigrant colonists in at least two instances, and at present its future is not altogether secure.
Miskito Indian refugees from Nicaragua reportedly have been exploring new areas outside the resettlement areas officially designated for their use: most significantly, the upper areas of the Rio Plátano Biosphere Reserve.
Another settlement of refugees (Salvadoreans) was set up in the area of Dulce Nombre de Culmí. This area is near the head-waters of the Rio Plátano and contiguous to the biosphere reserve. Complaints of incursions into the protected area brought an official decision to halt the occupation of the area, but COHDEFOR officials could not say whether these changes had actually been implemented or not.
In both cases, international and humanitarian pressures are creating problems for the design and implementation of appropriate land use, and no satisfactory mechanism seems to have developed to review and redirect these refugee colonization activities.
Gracias a Diós
The easternmost department of Honduras is the most sparsely populated and the least developed in terms of physical and administrative infrastructure.
The colonization of the department has been done mainly by foreigners, principally political refugees from El Salvador and Nicaragua. The obvious pressures involved in settling these people has led to planning and management problems and more than a little obfuscation on the part of authorities as to what precisely has been done.
The major new settlement of refugees has been established for Nicaraguan Miskito Inidans in the middle Patuca area near its confluence with the Wampú River. The Miskitos are traditionally hunter-gatherers, with little interest in agriculture. The concentration of population in a relatively small area, however, may force a change toward agricultural production. Population estimates range from 15,000 to 30,000.
A national commission has been assembled, consisting of members of relevant government institutions, to evaluate the impact of the influx of Miskitos into Honduras and make recommendations as to how to ensure the least damaging process of settlement. One major concern is the location of the new settlements. COHDEFOR employees stated that the middle Patuca is an area extremely susceptible to land degradation and recommended investigations into the relocation of the refugees and the establishment of a much stronger support service with international funding to help ensure that the new inhabitants are able to make the land produce in a sustained manner.