Cover Image
close this bookColonization and Environment: Land Settlement Projects in Central America (UNU, 1990, 155 pages)
View the documentNote to the Reader from the UNU
View the documentAbbreviations
View the documentForeword
Open this folder and view contentsIntroduction: Lowland Settlement and Environmental Impacts in Central America
Open this folder and view contents1. The Process of Colonization in Central America
Open this folder and view contents2. Colonization in Costa Rica
Open this folder and view contents3. Colonization in Panama
Open this folder and view contents4. Colonization in Nicaragua
Open this folder and view contents5. Colonization in Honduras
Open this folder and view contents6. Colonization in Guatemala
Open this folder and view contents7. Conclusions
View the documentBibliography


The phrase "colonization in Central America" generates a multitude of images, ranging from pioneering derring-do and righteousness to environmentalist anxiety and dismay, depending on who perceives it and in what context.

Colonization has historical, political, economic, social, and ecological aspects. For the early Spanish colonizers, the land was "there to be occupied," a feeling that is still prevalent among many people and particularly decision makers, regardless of the agricultural marginality of the land involved. The rapid rate of occupation over the last 100 years has not yet created an awareness that land to be colonized is finite: many people continue to believe that "beyond the next mountain there is still lots of empty land."

Politically, colonization is an extremely useful expedient. The land is either unowned or in the government's hands: giving it away to landless and poor farmers enhances the political aura of the government, as witnessed by the classic ceremony where a prominent government official, often the president himself or a military leader, hands over the newly acquired property titles to poor farmers - with cameras clicking and zooming in on the happy faces. To the large landowners who possess the best land, it is an effective way to distract land hungry peasants from their land and relieve - at least for the time being - what has become a most annoying pressure on their "sacred private property."

Opening new land is an apparently promising economic venture that lends itself to many financial schemes, including loans by development banks or "soft" money from friendly countries or agencies. It also opens possibilities for building roads, houses for the new settlers, and of course a whole array of land speculation opportunities.

The image of a land hungry peasant family moving into a new colonization area, with initial loans, a new house, education and health services, is without question a very socially satisfying scheme. Moreover, spontaneous colonization - as opposed to government directed colonization schemes- is a very old tradition and a socially accepted practice which has been documented over centuries.

The ecological implication is perhaps the least studied or understood. The capability of land to be managed on a sustainable basis to support a family is a question seldom considered. People are commonly heard to say "no hay sierra male; lo que no hay es gente pare trabajarla" (there is no bad land; all that is missing are people to work it).

Yet in most countries of Central America, almost all the land with adequate rainfall, moderate slopes - not to mention level land - and reasonable soils is already taken. What is left is land that is too steep, soils that are too poor in texture or in nutrients and too moist because of excessive rain and/or inadequate drainage.

It is not by chance that most directed or spontaneous colonization efforts nowadays are found in the humid areas of Central America, where conditions are usually marginal for sustainable agriculture. More than 50 per cent of Costa Rica's present pasture lands have recently been qualified by the national planning board as "mistakes in the conversion of forest to pasture" which should revert to forest. However, this sort of realization has not stopped the countries from continuing the opening of new land, usually primary forests, at an alarming rate.

This is not to say that there is no role for colonization, but that the present attitude to it must change. Some areas with slopes or high rainfall may be farmed, but not with traditional techniques imported from other ecological areas, characterized by more level land, better soils, or drier or cooler conditions or a combination of any of these factors. Colonization must become a carefully thought out process, and appropriate farming systems must be devised, understood, applied, evaluated, and continuously improved.

Agro-forestry, in which the United Nations University is deeply involved, may be a proper tool in some cases. In others, imaginative land use techniques must be devised. Traditional technical knowledge can be a most interesting guide to "new" or improved techniques.

It is time for decision makers and planners, who have the fundamental power over land use, to make a careful assessment of present colonization schemes and, it is hoped, learn from past mistakes as well as from success stories. The present contribution by Dr. Jeffrey R. Jones, an assistant professor in the Program in International Development and Social Change at Clark University, is an attempt in this direction, and, in addition, fits well with the UNU'S fundamental objective to establish guide-lines for sustainable land use under satisfactory ecological and socioeconomic conditions.