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close this bookColonization and Environment: Land Settlement Projects in Central America (UNU, 1990, 155 pages)
close this folder2. Colonization in Costa Rica
View the documentHistorical Perspective on Costa Rican Land Colonization
View the documentCurrent Management of Tropical Forest Areas in Costa Rica
View the documentCase-Study: Batán Regional Office of the ADI
View the documentConclusions

Historical Perspective on Costa Rican Land Colonization

Economic Importance of Tropical Lowlands

The tropical lowlands of Costa Rica have been of economic importance to the country since the seventeenth century, although the area has not been heavily populated due to a combination of factors, including health, defence, and climatic preferences. Since the colonial period, the production of cacao has been an activity of major economic importance. In the nineteenth century, banana production began and became a new focus of economic interest in the lowlands. A persistent factor in national interest in the tropical lowlands has been the desire to improve communications and transport, especially for exporting products from the Meseta Central via the Caribbean, transport between the Meseta and Pacific coast was well established in the colonial period, but access to the Atlantic coast has been a constant problem due to the heavy rains which have hindered road construction and maintenance.

Cacao was cultivated by pre-Columbian inhabitants of Costa Rica, but in the colonial period this cultivation was taken over by Europeans and descendants of African slaves in the coastal area near present-day Limón. Records from 1682 indicate that in the valleys of Matina and Suerre, there were 102,200 cacao trees in 55 haciendas. An analysis of rental records between 1650 and 1790 shows 192 renters, only 9 of whom were European; the rest were black or mulatto (Monge Alfaro 1980).

During the colonial period, the cacao production areas were dangerous not only for health reasons, but due to regular attacks by Indians and pirates. This area was officially ignored by the colonial government, since trade was prohibited through the Atlantic coast; colonial law required that all imports come from Spain by way of Guatemala and then be transported overland or through Pacific ports to the Meseta Central. Trade thrived through Atlantic ports despite danger and the official prohibition. The official neglect of the Atlantic coast left it defenceless, which resulted in regular raids by pirates and Indians, who would harvest ripe cacao and who, for at least one period, received tribute from Costa Rica.

In 1804, coffee was first introduced into Costa Rica, and its importance grew throughout the century. In spite of the economic expansion promoted by coffee, pressure on tropical agricultural lands was reduced due to the labour-intensive character of coffee production, which was carried out on small farms throughout the central highlands of the country. While it is generally agreed that there has been a tendency toward concentration of coffee holdings - beginning perhaps as early as the past century the distribution of coffee land was quite equitable as late as 1935 (Churnside 1981).

The development of the railroad to the Atlantic coast heavily influenced the process of colonization of the area. Several attempts to complete the railroad were made during the nineteenth century, but it was not until 1890 that Minor C. Keith was successful (Seligson 1980: 52). As a by-product of the railroad construction, 10,000 Jamaicans arrived in Costa Rica as labourers for the project, and many remained after its completion.

The exportation of banana began in 1880, when 360 banana stalks were shipped to New York. By 1884 this figure had risen to 420,000 (Monge Alfaro 1980). One of the major figures in banana production was Minor Keith, who developed several companies, including the United Fruit Company, as a complement to his activities in the railroad business.

Due to a combination of factors, there was little pressure on lowland tropical agricultural lands until well into the twentieth century. The requisites of coffee production and its distribution among small farms were probably of major importance in reducing the tendency for migration, since with a good source of income and a guaranteed demand for their labour, small landholders would be less motivated to test their luck in tropical lowland areas. Banana plantations provided a ready source of employment and occupied the best soils, which may also have reduced the development of lowland tropical farms outside the banana production areas. At the same time, other, less humid areas were available for colonization, especially in the areas of Guanacaste and San Isidro del General.

Colonization occurred on a reduced scale throughout Costa Rican history. To the south-west of the Meseta Central, cantonal administrative centres were legally recognized in Puriscal (in 1868) and in Orotina (in 1908). The dry coastal lowlands of Guanacaste saw the establishment of Liberia (1770), Santa Cruz (1821), Filadelfia (1839), and La Mansion (1890) in the foothills of the southern Nicoya Peninsula. The highlands of Tilaran were colonized from 1818 onward, first by large "hacendados" and later by small farmers (Sandner 1961). The area of Sarapiquf was a source of lumber throughout the nineteenth century, and attempts at colonization began in the San Carlos area as early as 1850. The rhythm of colonization speeded up in the 1930s.

Colonization in the 1930s

The Depression and the arrival of Panama Disease in the banana plantations gave a new impetus to land colonization in Costa Rica. Before 1930, the majority of the country was very sparsely populated outside the Meseta Central, with the population of the country concentrated in the coffee and, secondarily, banana production areas to meet the growing demand for these products. Earlier colonizations had moved at a leisurely pace, concentrating on the most desirable areas of new colonization zones. Although cantons had been established in the Nicoya Peninsula, the highlands of Guanacaste were still largely uninhabited. Also, the Valle del General was sparsely populated, as were the northern plain and the Atlantic coastal areas. In the 1930s major colonization movements were directed toward the border areas of Costa Rica, opening roads and farm land where previously there had been only forest and occupying forest areas which remained between previously established population centres.

The reduced demand for coffee and bananas caused by the Depression had a profound effect on the Costa Rican economy. As the importance of coffee had risen, Costa Rica went from self-sufficiency in basic grains to being a net importer (Seligson 1980); flour was purchased from Chile and California to make up the deficit. As the economic opportunities from export agriculture diminished in the 1930s, the natural increase in population could no longer be absorbed into cash-crop production, and jobless young farmers began pushing toward the frontier regions. This motivation toward land colonization was accentuated by Panama Disease, which destroyed many banana plantations. While the change of banana plantations to farm land may have ameliorated the demand for new forest land conversions (Stouse 1965), the diminishment of the banana industry as a source of work left in place a transportation infrastructure which facilitated access to new lands.

Sandner (1961) documents the process of colonization in Costa Rica during the twentieth century. The major colonization area was the Valle del General, southeast of San Jose, but there were numerous others, such as the Nicoya Peninsula, the central Pacific coastal areas, and the Sarapiquí-San Carlos areas. By mid-century these colonization areas had largely been occupied. Once access roads and basic services were established, populations grew rapidly. By the second half of the century, the colonization of tropical forest areas had fairly lost its characteristic "frontier" quality, as the forest came to be restricted to pockets between agricultural areas.

Colonization between 1930 and 1960 followed and reinforced Costa Rican perceptions regarding forests and land use. Historically, forests have been regarded in much the same way as had been the North American "frontier," as a source of new wealth, employment, and an opportunity for land-hungry farmers. Twentieth-century colonization bore out this perception to some extent; areas such as Nicoya and the Valle del General contained some good agricultural lands whose use had been limited by lack of transportation and lack of initiative. Nevertheless, the best soils were quickly occupied, and more recent colonization has had to concentrate on less appropriate land in more difficult conditions.

Recent Colonization in Costa Rica

Major colonization efforts are now restricted to the northern Atlantic plain, an area which extends west from the Caribbean coast to the chain of volcanoes which divide the plain from the drier Pacific lowlands, and from the foot of the Meseta Central north to the Nicaraguan border. Unoccupied forested areas still exist in the mountains of the Cordillera de Talamanca in the southern part of the country, but these areas have recently been designated Indian reserves and national parks, and new colonists are being excluded.

The northern Atlantic plain is chiefly humid tropical forest (Holdridge 1979). Annual rainfall is variable, but most areas recieve 2,000 to 3,000 mm, with a "dry" season of three months from January to March, which in some years is marked only by a decrease in precipitation. Rainfall peaks occur in June and October-November. Most of the area lies below 100 m altitude.

While soils of the area suffer from the problems characteristic of high rainfall areas, there are areas of relatively good soils made up of volcanic alluvium.

A number of directed colonization efforts have been carried out in the area. Most notable are the Rio Frio-San Carlos area and Cariari. In the Rio Frio area, a number of colonization projects have been organized within areas of spontaneous colonization, making the differentiation of "directed" and "undirected" activities and results difficult. CATIE has been working in the Rio Frio area within the framework of an agreement with ITCO (now ADI) (Villegas Zamora 1980). Cariari is one small colony located near Guapiles, formed in the 1960s and adjacent to the spontaneous colonization area of Guacimo and the banana plantations of the "Linea Vieja," some of which have been converted to small farms. Both Cariari and Rio Frio have been successful in the establishment of small farms and the permanent settlement of migrant families. Formal technical improvement programmes especially directed toward these colonies have undoubtedly had important impacts (Villegas Zamora 1980; Jones 1983). Both areas are now experiencing a development of urban centres, population increase, and dramatic rises in land values. Cariari Colony is potentially one of great interest, since its design incorporated a plan for forest exploitation by the farmers (McKenzie 1972). No further work has been done with regard to the forestry activities in this colony.

To the east of Cariari lies the area of Batán. This settlement was initiated on abandoned banana plantation lands nearly at sea level (10 m) and surrounded by forests and squatter settlements. It has been an area of cacao production for several centuries (it lies 6 km from the town of Matina, mentioned above) and is close to the main highway which connects the port of Limón with the Meseta Central. The nearest town is Siquirres, and Batán itself is "urban" in a loose sense' with several blocks of businesses and dwellings bordering the railroad tracks. It has not acheived the urban growth of Guapiles, possibly due to the close proximity of the major urban centre of Limón (less than one hour by asphalt road) and of Siquirres (less than one-half hour). While it seems anomalous that an area along a major road is a "colonization" zone, this may be explained by the early establishment of large landholdings associated with the railroad and the banana industry. As other areas have been saturated with colonists, farmers have begun to challenge the large landholders.

Batán is still an important area for production of cacao, and there are several banana co-operatives in the area. A new crop is mechanized rice in flat humid lands. A government programme supports prices, but producers of the area have now reached their collective quota.