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close this bookColonization and Environment: Land Settlement Projects in Central America (UNU, 1990, 155 pages)
close this folder4. Colonization in Nicaragua
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentCurrent Development Plans for Eastern Nicaragua
View the documentConclusions


Nicaragua possesses some 52,000 km² of humid tropical lands on its eastern coast in the provinces of Zelaya and Río San Juan. The climate of this area is much more humid than that of the rest of the country, and attempts to incorporate it into the national economy have been only temporarily successful. Banana, oil-palm, and cacao have been commercially produced, but their importance has declined due to disease. Experimentation with rubber began in the 1940s at the El Recreo experiment station, and coconut and raicilla (Cephaelis ipecacuana) have been commercially produced on a small scale. A plan for large-scale colonization of the region was elaborated and implemented in the 1960s to relocate farmers from the intensively used agricultural lands of western Nicaragua, and it was expected that farmers could produce grain using agricultural machinery and chemicals, and that extensive cattle ranching would also be undertaken (Marie Castillo 1968), Much to their credit, the Nicaraguan government recognized the serious ecological limitations of the production of annual crops in these humid regions and began programmes of permanent crop plantation. Nevertheless, a large colonist population of small farmers had already been established in the area, presenting planning and development problems for the future.

The colonization of the Atlantic area was begun in the 1960s under the name PRICA (Proyecto Rigoberto Cabezas de Colonización). The project included plans for the colonization of the entire foothill region of more than 5 million ha bordering on the Caribbean lowlands, in a nearly continuous belt from the Costa Rican to the Honduran borders. The area near Rama and Nueva Guinea, designated "Zone F" (also called Rigoberto Cabezas) in the project and covering more than 800,000 ha (see map 6), was selected as the focus of the present investigation. Nueva Guinea is no longer part of the agricultural frontier but a well-established community. More active colonization fronts are found in San Carlos, Siuna, and Kukra Hill, near Bluefields.

Map 5. Nicaragua: forest cover (source: Corrales 1983).

Little written information is available regarding the Rigoberto Cabezas colonization area. With the revolution of 1979, many government files and documents disappeared or were dispersed. Information which has been assembled under the post-1979 government in most cases is not in published form and circulates as internal documents within the ministries. Many of these documents are not available for consultation, and due to the intensity of guerrilla activities in the Nueva Guinea area, it was not visited during this investigation. Information had to be assembled through interviews with individuals who had worked in Nueva Guinea in recent years.

Between 1980 and 1984, a new policy for development of Zelaya Department was implemented. This policy involved an emphasis on perennial crops such as cacao, rubber, oil-palm, and coconut, managed in co-operatives. These cooperatives were not to include the production of annual crops. Only the cacao plantation project was under way at the time of the investigation. The first phase of the development plan was projected to bring between 10,000 and 20,000 ha of land under cultivation of the four perennial crops.

Map 6. Nicaragua: provinces and PRICA land settlement area.

The Caribbean Region of Nicaragua

The primary objective of the pre-1979 colonization in the Caribbean region was to resettle farmers displaced from the fertile alluvial soils of western Nicaragua by cotton production. While the immediate motivation for this movement was a volcanic eruption which affected farm lands in the west, part of the migration was motivated by the expansion of cottom production in the western lowlands. Another - unstated - objective seems to have been the extension of cattle pastures into the tropical regions of Nicaragua and the linking of those pasture areas to western Nicaragua through a series of new roads. Neither objective took into account the special conditions or capabilities of tropical regions, and in fact both seem to be based on the assumption that conditions there are similar to those in the western part of the country.

Table 13. Areas and types of forests, Nicaragua

Type of forest km²
Lowland rain forest 25,000
Highland rain forest 10,000
Dry tropical rain forest 4,000
Lowland pine forest 4,500
Highland pine forest 1,200
Total 44 700

Source: Corrales 1983.

Zelaya Department is a broad plain generally lower than 100 m altitude and extending up to 150 km inland from the Caribbean in some areas. Rainfall ranges from 2,000 to 6,000 mm annually and is heaviest in the south-eastern coastal regions from San Juan del Norte (on the border with Costa Rica, where a record 8,162 mm were recorded in 1942) to Bluefields. Rainfall decreases as one moves inland along the Rio San Juan and north to the Rio Coco on the frontier with Honduras. Most of the department experiences a brief dry season of two to three months, during which average monthly precipitation is below 60 mm. Average temperatures are generally 25° C or above. Most of the forests that remain are located in the Atlantic region, with the most important categories of forest being lowland rain forest and highland rain forest ("cloud forest") (see table 13 and map 2; note that table 13 refers to all of Nicaragua).

Despite its great geographical extension (approximately one-half the surface area of Nicaragua), the Caribbean region of Nicaragua has a small population. The population of the region in 1968 was 120,870 (19,047 in Rio San Juan and 101,833 in Zelaya) as compared to the national population of 1,875,297. In terms of area, the Caribbean region covers 66,542 km² of a total national territory of 118,350 km² (7,448 km² in Rio San Juan and 59,094 km² in Zelaya). Population density in the Caribbean region as of 1968 was 1.79 inhabitants per square kilometre as compared to 15.56 for Nicaragua as a whole (Incer 1970).


PRICA was a highly ambitious and optimistic plan based on inadequate information. Two basic misconceptions were that large extensions of suitable agricultural land existed in the area and that large tracts of land were unoccupied. The project as a whole was programmed to affect 5.8 million ha, but most activity seems to have been concentrated in the Rigoberto Cabezas subarea.

At the beginning of the settlement of the Rigoberto Cabezas subarea within the PRICA project (one of approximately a dozen), a survey team set out to investigate the condition of the land. In an area of 860,000 ha, the IAN (Instituto Agrario de Nicaragua) had expected to formalize the titles of some 1,000 existing family farms and to settle 3,500 more in the same area. Taylor (1969) reports, however, that survey teams found the area to be filled with settlers at the time of the first visit by IAN (no further documentation was located to indicate what had been done in that case).

Table 14. Land use potential for Zone F. PRICA (all measurements in manzanas, 1 mz= .69 ha)

Use potential Area %
Broad (all uses) 282,919 33
Broad (perennial) 0 0
Limited 181,130 21
Very limited 329,821 38
Forestry 46,905 5
Restricted 21,454 2
Total 862,229 100

Source: IICA-MAG-BID 19;'8.

Initial estimations of land use potential for the area seem to have been overly optimistic. PRICA documents (IICA-MAG-BID 1978) suggested that 33 per cent of the land in Zone F was appropriate for all kinds of agriculture (table 14). This figure was unrealistically high, and later surveys reported a drastically reduced area appropriate for agriculture. Whereas PRICA evaluations indicated that current land use left a great possibility for improvement and an increase in production (table 15), land may have been in use up to or beyond its capacity even in 1978.

One explanation offered by employees of IRENA for the colonization project indicated that the project's major objective was not land distribution. Large tracts of land were said to be assigned to military personnel and politicians, and the development of a small-farm population was actually meant to create a work-force for large ranches. Small farmers were reported to be contracted for deforestation and the sowing of pasture. Another motivation was the supply of raw material for the plywood factory established at Tipitapa, which is near Managua on the road to the Rigoberto Cabezas colonization area.

In 1978 the population of the Rigoberto Cabezas area was approximately 26,089 (see table 16). Sixty-five per cent of this population was distributed in 24 communities, with nearly 35 per cent unassociated with the communities. Comparing population data with land titling information (table 17), a large majority of titles awarded and lands titled were outside the planned colonies. The average size of farms outside the colonies was twice that of farms inside the colonies. These unexplained inconsistencies in titling seem to confirm suspicions regarding the objectives of the PRICA programme.

Table 15. Land use in PRICA Zone F. 1977 (all measurements in mz)

Land use Area %
Annual crops 1,248 0.14
Pastures 341,301 39.58
Pastures and crops 151,188 17.53
Forests 256,969 29.80
Forests and crops 82,332 9.56
Forests and pastures 29,191 3.39
Total 862,229 100.00

Source: IICA-MAG-BID 1978.

Table 16. Population distribution for Rigoberto Cabezas Project Area, 1976

Community Population # Families % Population
Nueva Guinea 1,989 104 7.69
Rio Plata 437 66 1.65
Verdún 685 117 2.63
Yolaina 746 116 2.86
Los Angeles 908 114 3.48
La Esperanza 761 139 2.92
Nuevo León 535 93 2.05
Jerusalén 629 108 2.41
Corocito 615 84 2.36
Los Laureles 683 98 2.62
Tacanistes 515 97 1.97
Talolinga 648 100 2.48
Kurinwas 603 98 2.31
San Jose 645 128 2.47
San Martín 511 118 1.96
Rio Rama 752 138 2.88
San Antonio 905 117 3.47
San Ramón 446 93 1.71
San Miguel 899 141 3.45
Naciones Unidas 791 151 3.03
Nuevos Horizontes 518 97 1.99
Providencia 632 181 2.42
Serrano 727 169 2.79
Somoza 509 207 1.95
Rigoberto Cabezasa 9,000 1,500 34.55
Total 26,089 4,374 100.10

Source: IICA-MAG-BID 1978.

aThis category is not explained in the source, but it seems to be the unincorporated farmers of the area.

Table 17. Land titles: Area and number in Nueva Guinea 1976 (all measurements in mz)

Colony # Area
Nueva Guinea 97 4,820
Los Angeles 53 2,217
Verdún 85 5,174
La Esperanza 91 4,522
Yolaina 92 4,473
Nuevo Leon 51 2,485
Outside defined colonies 2,184 222,420
Total 2,653 246,111
Percentage outside defined colonies 82 90
  Inside of
Outside of
Average farm size 51 102

Source: ICA-MAG-BID 1978.

Nueva Guinea in the 1980s

The general evaluation by Ministry of Agriculture personnel of the colonization experience in Nueva Guinea is that it has been disastrous. Yields are low, costs of production are high, and the rate of repayment on agricultural loans is 3 per cent.

It is reported that in at least two communities (Talolinga and Kurinwas) lands are being abandoned due to the severe competition from weeds. This is a common problem in humid tropical forest areas cleared for agriculture. Aggressive sunseeking weeds are generally not present on the forest floor. Their population increases with each year of cultivation, requiring more time and effort for weeding.

In view of the negative evaluations by agronomic workers, recent data show a surprising orderliness in farms and farm development. MIDINRA has assembled information for 120 farmers whose lands are destined to be affected by the cacao project." This information shows that the majority of the farm land in Nueva Guinea was in pasture, while some 24 per cent was used for crops (table 18). The use of an average of 23 mz in the production of corn, rice, and beans on certain farms makes it seem likely that there was extensive use of wage labourers. The existence of a large landless population is further suggested by data on membership in the proposed cacao co-operatives, where only 7.5 per cent of the members of the new co-operatives are landowners (11 of 145); nearly half (1,330 mz) of the required land has now been assigned to the co-operatives.

Table 18. Land use for different farm types: 120 farmers in Nueva Guinea (measurements in mz)

  Type of land use on farm
Agriculture Pasture Forest House plot Total
Type of farm Area % Area % Area % Area % Area %
Agriculture 23 47 23 47 2 4 1 2 49 100
Ranch and agriculture 11 23 34 72 0 0 2.2 5 47 100
Ranch 5 6 67 90 1 1 2 3 74 100
Average 14 24 41 71 2 2 2 3 57 100

Source: Project report, MIDINRA cacao project, 1984.

Table 19. Destination of cultivated crops for 120 farmers in Nueva Guinea

Crop % Consumed % Sold
Rice 40 60
Maize 35 65
Beans 30 70
Tubers 100 0
Plantain 100 0

Source: Project report, MIDINRA cacao project, 1984.

The majority of food grains produced in the area are produced for sale, while production of plantains and tubers is strictly for home consumption (table 19).

There has been considerable stability in farm size since the initial colonization. Table 20 shows that over half the farms have 50 mz, which is the size of initial allotments made by IAN, and 85 per cent of the farms are between 30 and 99 mz. The most successful farmers, i.e. those who have managed to buy cattle, are those who have been longest in the area (see table 21). Sixty-four per cent of the 120 farmers (77 individuals) have been on their farms more than seven years. *

The population of Nueva Guinea has grown impressively since its establishment. Devé (1983) estimates that there are 85,000 inhabitants (13,000 families) in Nueva Guinea, while other estimates are as high as 100,000 (reported by INETER). The 800,000 ha originally destined for the Rigoberto Cabezas colonization could theoretically be divided into 16,000 parcels of 50 ha, which suggests that Nueva Guinea could be regarded as a mature, if poor, agricultural area.

Table 20. Farm size among 120 farmers of Nueva Guinea (measurements in mz; approx. date 1984)

Farm size No. of farms Percentage
Less than 30 13 11
31 to 49 12 10
50 75 62
51 to 99 15 13
More than 100 5 4
Total 120 100

Source: Project report, MIDINRA cacao project


Table 21. Time of possession of parcels by type of farmer


Percentage of farmers

Less than
2 years
3 to 6
More than
7 years
Farmer 14 28 58
Farmer and rancher 0 20 80
Rancher 0 33 67

Source: Project report, MIDINRA cacao project 1984.

Agronomists working in the area note that there have been some technological innovations by farmers in response to the environmental conditions they face. These include the abandonment of land plowing and brush burning to avoid destroying the thin layer of topsoil. Farmers have also adopted a fallow rotation of three to five years between crops.