Cover Image
close this bookAgricultural Expansion and Pioneer Settlements in the Humid Tropics (UNU, 1988, 305 pages)
close this folder16. Organized settlement on the Amazon frontier: The Caquetá project in Colombia
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentThe project
View the documentProject characteristics
View the documentTarget population
View the documentDevelopment or stabilizing strategy
View the documentThe environmental issue in Colombia
View the documentMaterial accomplishments of Phase II
View the documentProject investment and cost
View the documentSocio-political events in the project area
View the documentStability of the production model
View the documentEnvironmental effects
View the documentEnvironmental costs
View the documentFrontier stabilization alternatives
View the documentFrontier management technology

The environmental issue in Colombia

The expansion of Colombia's agricultural frontier has been characterized by the requirements of a country whose economy and foreign earnings have been and still are based on coffee production. Thus the first important land clearing dates back to the mid-nineteenth century; these initial efforts were concentrated in the volcanic ash soils of the Andes mountain slopes. The colonization (land clearing) of Colombia's flat lands has occurred only recently (1900-1910).

Given the cultivation technology utilized in the coffee farms, in which native tree species were alternated with plantains to provide permanent shade for the coffee plants, the colonization of these slopes did not require thorough forest clearing and thus its environmental impact was hardly visible.

Concomitantly the population concentrated around the coffee belt, and until 1950 at least 60 per cent of the national territory (eastern plains, Orinoco and Amazon basins, coastal valleys) was practically uninhabited and, consequently, Colombia possessed a sizeable forest reserve. This state of apparent environmental wealth was to be placed in jeopardy due not only to the rapid demographic growth and its ensuing land tenure conflicts but also to the prevailing notion whereby land acquisition through forest clearing was associated with the patriotic and economic accomplishments of the coffee pioneers of the nineteenth century.

It was not until as recently as the end of the 1960s that both settlers and government agencies began to accept the possible catastrophic effects of indiscriminate and reckless forest clearing, especially in the more fragile and erosion-prone soils of the Amazon Basin and of the eastern slopes of the Andes range.

Thus there is nothing unusual about the prevailing attitude of government authorities and the local community regarding the environmental consequences of the type of colonization going on in the Caquetá region in the middle of the 1960s, an attitude enhanced by INCORA through its colonization programme.

It was the belief at the time (as recorded in the documentation prepared to obtain financing from the World Bank for Phase I of the Caquetá rural settlement project) that "the soils of the project area adapted well to natural and improved pastures for livestock raising." Moreover, it was asserted that the soils of areas cleared by pioneers using the traditional slash-and-burn technique could best be protected by the establishment of pastures, although it was accepted that the soils' primary "vocation" was to sustain the original tropical forest. Nevertheless, the area (in 1967) was one of the main sources of one or two highly sought species of commercial timber, and very little mention was made either in the project documents or in the Bank's appraisal (1973) with regard to the cost in opportunity of indiscriminate timber clearing. Less or nothing was said regarding the costs to society of promoting through government investment the elimination of the hitherto unappraised environmental capital represented by the forests, fauna, and flora of the Amazon.

It was not until Phase I had been completed that the first visual impact of uncontrolled deforestation was registered and that some of the local government officials began to voice their concern. This, however, was not enough to mitigate optimism both within INCORA and the World Bank regarding the socio-economic success of this type of colonization project.

However, in order to appease criticism from the natural resources institute, INDERENA, and other government agencies, both INCORA and the Bank, which were already preparing Phase II, did voice some concern over the possible environmental impact of accelerating the removal of "the forest cover and replacing it with pastures," and thus Phase II specifically included funds for research in the development of environmentally oriented livestock management techniques. The two agencies also conceived the establishment of a forest reserve covering an area of 20,000 ha within the project area, to be monitored, managed, and policed by INDERENA in order to develop natural resource management techniques.

By isolating the environmental component from the research and development activities, the Bank and government experts confirmed the general conceptual trend in dealing with development projects whereby natural resource management and conservation are treated as if a world apart from production.

In the specific experiences of Caquetá Phase II, this separation contributed to spreading the notion among the settlers that INCORA was the friendly agency and INDERENA the settlers' enemy. It is unfortunate, too, that the sums set aside to finance the activities of INDERENA amounted to only US$552,000.00, or 1.48 per cent of the total estimated project funding.

The contrast between the amount of funds allocated to identify future natural resource management techniques and those allocated for road construction (32%) are a good indication of the degree of environmental awareness at the time (1974) and, at the same time, the reliance on an unproven production model in which replacement of forest cover with pastures supposedly secured ecologic balance. This contrast also contributes to our understanding of the manner in which Phase II was evaluated by both INCORA and the Bank.

It is hardly surprising that there is already a Phase III project under preparation, while, simultaneously, a small group of destitute pioneers supported by guerrillas are demanding that the government withdraw from the National Forest Reserve an area of about 1.5 million ha adjacent to Phase II and provide funds for production credit and road building along lines similar to the model used in Phase II.