|Agricultural Expansion and Pioneer Settlements in the Humid Tropics (UNU, 1988, 305 pages)|
|15. Colonization in Central America|
Although at one time the history of the colonization of Central America presented no major conflicts due to the abundance of forested land, this is no longer the case. The process of colonization is increasingly directed toward public lands which have been, or should be, set aside for environmental reasons. The protection of water supplies, the control of erosion, the maintenance of forest reserves, and the conservation of natural resources are needs which are coming into conflict with farmers' needs for new agricultural land. The conflict of public welfare and individual welfare is repeated in innumerable ways through the process of colonization; the value of farmers' welfare and of agricultural production must be balanced with the welfare of urban dwellers needing fresh water and protection from floods; the value of short term economic production must be balanced with the value of longer term income generation from forest resources; the international importance of natural scenic and genetic resources must be balanced with the immediate needs of the local population.
Modern colonists are now forced to occupy humid and very humid tropical forest areas, since these are the only remaining forest lands. These areas had been avoided in the past, due to problems inherent in their use. Heavy rains make overland transport difficult, in addition to causing agricultural problems such as fungal disease, waterlogging, and soil erosion.
What little success can be observed has been achieved through the application of knowledge gained from rudimentary empirical investigations on the part of farmers who find themselves in new environmental conditions. These farmers have developed new agricultural techniques, experimented with new crops, and tested production strategies to tune them to local environmental and socio-economic conditions (such as soil, markets, land tenure). These relatively successful techniques constitute a pool of "indigenous technical knowledge" (Brokensha et al. 1980) which forms one of the most important resources for the development of humid areas.
It should be emphasized that the use of what are now termed "fragile" lands for agricultural purposes is possible on a sustained basis. Indigenous populations occupied these areas quite successfully (Nations and Nigh  give an example for southern Mexico and Carter  for Guatemala), but the pressures of increased population and attempts to introduce new crops and intensified production methods either ignore more appropriate traditional strategies or simply push them past their capacities. Even with crops suited to humid tropical environments, care must be taken to maintain a balance between productivity and sustainability. A negative example is the persistent use of chemical fungicides in banana plantations in Central America to control the black sigatoka disease; many years are required before soil toxicity drops to levels which will permit cultivation.
It is possible to dwell on the environmental problems of the use of humid tropical lands and to overlook some of the positive examples and possibilities for the use of these areas. Cacao and coffee have been very successful, both environmentally and economically, in Central America. On a much larger scale, the comparative advantage for forestry in humid tropical areas has yet to be completely exploited. Permanent woody crops are most appropriate ecologically for humid areas (IUCN 1975, 1976), since any production strategy which requires disturbing precious topsoil and exposing it to more intensive sunlight and erosion action, as in the case of monocropping of cereals, is highly unlikely to be sustainable over long periods of time (except in the case of wetland rice). Fortunately, there is at present a relatively large number of permanent crops of potential commercial value which are alternatives to annual cropping in these areas.
Population and political pressures have made tropical land colonization a permanent reality. The identification of improved land-use practices for these areas can slow the spiral of continual deforestation to replace exhausted farm lands. The only real solution to the problem is the development of the political will to implement long term solutions and the mobilization of human and financial resources to design and manage these solutions. From a pragmatic perspective, it seems inevitable that large expanses of humid tropical lands will continue to be used for agricultural purposes in the foreseeable future, despite potential ecological problems.
This article is a concept paper, which identifies and discusses problems and solutions on the basis of institutional and field investigations carried out during 1984.1 More detailed information is presented in the final report of that investigation (Jones n.d.). The purpose of the present discussion is to briefly indicate colonization conditions in each Central American country and to discuss the policy and research implications of the observed conditions.