Through the Looking Glass: Images of the Agricultural Frontier
We have to revise our notion of the agricultural frontier.
The country’s “Pacific” culture ignores the multicultural nature
of the Caribbean coast, as well as the complexity of the problem
and any possible solutions. Simplistically preaching either
conservation or the free market will
only intensify the violence.
René Mendoza Vidaurre
Most of us tend to understand the agricultural frontier as that none-too-thin “red line” separating forest from crops. And we understand its advance as the expansion of agriculture at the expense of forestland, the turning of forests into cultivated land and the transformation of nature by means of human activity. We view this advance as moving from barbarism to civilization, from a void to development.
There is an urgent need to revise this mental notion of the agricultural frontier we have learned from documents, speeches and texts; it is a notion that has generated different mindsets and actions between mestizos and indigenous people, and among institutions, specialists, scientists, intellectuals, social activists and political leaders. And these different ideas and actions in turn are triggering a growing spiral of violence, deforestation and poverty.
There is a need to employ new elements to recon-ceptualize the current notion of the agricultural frontier in Nicaragua. So what elements are we talking about? Firstly, we should accept that in our country the agricultural frontier is located in a multicultural region. We therefore have to understand the value associated with land there—which cannot always be measured in terms of market prices—and adequately assess the notable exclusion of the inhabitants in this part of the country from the market. We also have to understand the currently violent nature of access to natural resources, which are at the center of all the conflicts taking place in that region, and recognize that the conflict in the agricultural frontier is the result of many underlying factors and cannot be reduced to a particular place or a confrontation between any two groups.
A tragedy with a whole range of responsesWhat little news that comes out of a sizable area of Nicaragua known as the mining triangle (the areas of Rosita, Bonanza and Siuna) in the Caribbean side of the country usually involves deaths, torched houses and forests, machetes, rifles and evictions. The same is true of Layasiksa, 40 km southwest of Rosita, and of an area of 35,000 hectares of precious woods near Puerto Cabezas (Bilwi). And violent acts are by no means restricted to those places, or even to Nicaragua. Equally violent conflicts have erupted in the Guatemalan Petén, in Chapare in Bolivia and in many zones of the Brazilian Amazon.
The typical response to what is causing all these tragedies is the advance of the agricultural frontier. And what is causing that advance? The string of answers to this question is equally typical. It ranges from peasant poverty to the ambition of timber merchants, the “hamburger connection” (more pasture for more cattle for more meat for more McDonalds), the tradition of extensive agriculture and ranching, the negative consequences of a centralized state, the tenacious insistence of certain politicians to turn Nicaragua back into Central America’s “bread basket,” as it was known during the Somoza dictatorship, the non-demarcation of indigenous territories, the area’s lack of financial resources and the growing predominance of mestizos in both the North and South Atlantic Autonomous Regions (RAAN and RAAS)…
But not even all these answers added together put the issue to rest. If the peasants of the so-called “pioneer front”—those responsible for pushing the agricultural frontier forward—were the only ones responsible for all of this, the problem could be solved by sending in the army to stop their advance and evict them. It would be a relatively simple operation, given that these “pioneers” are just poor families with no economic or political power. If the region’s poverty and its lack of communication routes could in turn be explained by lack of financial resources alone, the questions would only mount, as dozens of companies are operating in the zone and over US$100 million of international aid has been invested in the RAAN and the RAAS. Meanwhile, the figures suggest that wood extraction currently affects only two to five trees per manzana (7 hectares), which means we cannot explain away deforestation as the voracious extraction of lumber, even given that the felling and transportation of those trees affects another ten.
How then can we explain the advance of the agricultural frontier and the consequent violence, poverty and deforestation? The following is an attempt to offer certain answers to this question.
Supposition number one: The forests are naturalThe idea we in Nicaragua and other countries have of the agricultural frontier has been socially constructed. Based on four main suppositions, we have all helped create a mirror that rather than reflecting reality as it really is, offers us a determined image of reality as we imagine and desire it to be, or as we have internalized it through the generations. And it is based on that distorted image that we have simultaneously been generating explanations of the agricultural frontier —and consequently coming up with strategies, actions, policies, projects and programs related to the phenomenon.
The first supposition underlying that image is that the forest is natural. The current concept of the agricultural frontier assumes that “development” is the equivalent of nature domesticated by human actions. Forests are considered a natural product in contrast to agriculture, which is seen as resulting from human action. This idea of development leads to another: that forestland is only worth something once it has been cleared and cultivated. In other words, when it is no longer forest.
The idea that a forest, any forest, is a natural result is based on the most conservative line of traditional ecology, which views human intervention in a forest as creating “disturbances” and proposes that forests know themselves better than any human being could, change through “succession” and are self-regulating and in a state of continual “equilibrium.” The idea of “community forestry” later emerged from these same suppositions, now combined with participatory approaches and the notion of communities as harmonic, conflict-free organisms. This idea proposed that the indigenous population and the forest could co-exist in harmony, in “equilibrium.”
Supposition number two: The second supposition is that mestizo agriculture is “civilized.” Traditional mestizo agriculture, which consists of a series of techniques for clearing the ground and systematically planting seeds, also using technology considered “modern” (chemical inputs and equipment ranging from animal traction to a tractor) compared to what are seen as “primitive,” is considered a form of culture, and a civilizing one at that. A complementary assumption is that heathenism—as expressed by nature and those who coexist with it, in other words indigenous people—needs to be absorbed by this civilization.
Mestizo agriculture is “civilized”
This in turn means that the indigenous communities’ agricultural activities—such as sowing root crops (malanga, cassava or purple yautia) among the trees in what mestizos would see as a haphazard way or prioritizing the planting and harvesting of medicinal plants—are not recognized as civilized or as expressions of an authentic form of agriculture.
Considering that traditional medicinal plants have not been “domesticated,” when from an indigenous logic they have, has serious implications, namely that anyone can appropriate them. Thus the North claims the right to pirate and patent the South’s vegetable biodiversity, placing it under Northern “copyright.” The underlying assumption behind the push to “civilize” indigenous agricultural and forestry practices, converting them into mestizo agriculture, is that indigenous culture, practices and concepts are backward, even lazy, and must be eliminated if human evolution is to advance.
Supposition number three: The third supposition is that lands claimed by indigenous people are “national” lands that have no private owner. The mestizo peasant culture is as respectful of what belongs to others as any other, but how does a mestizo peasant know if an area of land has an “owner” who has to be respected? For a peasant family, ownership is signaled by boundary posts delimiting an area, a path, a fence, a trail of smoke drifting up from a house, or the sight of plots sown with maize and beans or pasture grass. If mestizos see any of these things they assume the land has an owner protected by the right to individual ownership and thus should be respected, because “you have to respect what belongs to another.”
Indigenous lands don’t belong to anyone
When no such signs are visible on a piece of land, however, it is understood to be “no man’s land,” or “national” land that belongs to us all and is for the good of the country. Such land must be incorporated into the country’s “development,” or “colonized,” based on the principle of first come first served. And it is naturally understood that that first person to arrive must be a Nicaraguan.
A number of observations have to be made about this supposition. All of the signs that in mestizo culture demonstrate that an area of land has an owner suggest only one kind of ownership: individual private ownership. This means that in Nicaragua and rest of the world, other kinds of ownership are excluded, including communal ownership. Although these same signs—fences, boundary posts, smoke, houses—could also be seen on communal lands, their normally large extension and the way the land is worked don’t have the same meaning, the same force, to mestizos. Thus, even when indigenous lands are demarcated, the non-indigenous world will still be influenced by this supposition, the owners will continue to lack legitimacy and the lands will continue to be seen as belonging to no one.
Another observation is that indigenous people are never regarded as the first comers... paradoxically because they were there all along. Thus, despite their existence, they still end up as nobodies because people only exist insofar as their land shows signs of ownership. So if a peasant, rancher or timber merchant comes to their territory presenting himself as a mestizo—which is synonymous with being Nicaraguan—with the right to work lands that belong to Nicaragua and the mission to “colonize” and “civilize” them, he feels to be within his right to take possession of that land.
The state has a similar right and obligation to hand out “national lands” to its citizens, provide concessions to foreign businesses and declare areas reserves without even consulting let alone negotiating with the indigenous population inhabiting the lands in question. This lack of consultation or negotiation is also true of UNESCO when it comes to declaring biosphere areas. “The next morning we realized we were part of the reserve,” said Fidencio Davies, leader of the indigenous organization Mayangna Sauni As, when he explained how the state appropriated their ancestral lands and the indigenous populations inhabiting them. This is just one expression of the “mestizo=Nicaraguan” analogy examined in Jeffrey Gould’s book El Mito de la Nicaragua Mestiza (The Myth of Mestiza Nicaragua) and more recently in Erick Blandón’s Barroco Descalzo (Barefoot Baroque). This “myth” assumes that Nicaragua is a homogenously mestizo society, and was in fact historically employed to further that end and undermine indigenous culture.
Supposition number four: The fourth supposition is that the country’s Pacific region is in fact Nicaragua. President José Santos Zelaya’s “reincorporation” of the Caribbean coastal region—which in reality had never been “incorporated” in the first place—through a signed agreement at the end of the 19th century following the military occupation of Bluefields can be explained in the light of the first three suppositions. Not only were the geographical area and the peoples of the Caribbean coast “reincorporated” into the Pacific region and therefore into Nicaragua, but their cultural diversity was also absorbed by the Nicaraguan state and by mono-ethnic “mestizo” Nicaragua.
The Pacific region = Nicaragua
Something similar is happening again now in discussions of Central American integration, which tend to exclude—by not even thinking about—the peoples of the Caribbean coastal regions, taking it for granted that their cultural differences are a thing of the past and that they have already been assimilated into their respective states, molded by the Pacific regions. Likewise, any talk of commercial relations with the Caribbean coast in Nicaragua tends to be based on attracting foreign investment there to continue with the kind of enclave economies that predominated in the past and that the government is now labeling “clusters.” Their aim is to exploit the region’s cheap labor and abundant natural resources, although the strategy is being sold to us as a “bridge towards progress” and a way of inserting the country into the new global economy.
Victims and victimizers The four suppositions on which our concept of the agricultural frontier is based also form the mirror that reflects our image of both mestizo peasants and indigenous peoples. They all recognize themselves in that image and view each other as enemies. The Caribbean coast’s poor—mestizos, indigenous people and Afro-Caribbeans—and the external actors—companies, the state, aid agencies, research centers, consultancies—all see themselves reflected in that image and assume their respective roles accordingly.
agree on the same image
Thus indigenous people might tell mestizos in no uncertain terms: “These lands are ours!” To which the mestizos would angrily repost, “Why do they belong to you, then? What work are you doing here? You just come here to hunt!” And the indigenous people would continue defending their rights: “It’s ours because our ancestors lived here, and because we’re the ones who protect and conserve the forest and Nicaragua should help us in return for this.” The mestizos reflect all four of the above-mentioned suppositions in this kind of discourse. But they are also present in the indigenous discourse, because rather than feeling that they are part of Nicaragua and seeing the forest as their product or defending their own agriculture or symbols, they tend to defend themselves by assuming the conservative environmentalist discourse and seeing themselves as “other.”
The situation becomes even more complex if we view all of this through the prism of the region’s Afro-Caribbean population, because if they claim territory in the name of their ancestors, they would ultimately reach all the way back to Africa. It is also fair to say that the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean coast feel more Nicaraguan than they used to, although it is unclear quite how: whether by strengthening a non-indigenous identity in order to “integrate themselves,” or by maintaining their indigenous identity, albeit one that has been remolded by the cultural changes taking place in the world.
They are not victims in need of helpThe indigenous population voices many criticisms of the foreign companies, but deep down there is a yearning for the return of those that dominated the economic scene before the Sandinista revolution of the eighties. But this feeling is not necessarily a problem. The indigenous peoples, Afro-Caribbeans and mestizos all share the same demand of the state, NGOs and aid agencies: “Help us.” And this is not necessarily a problem either. The problem is that the mirror I have described tells them all that the local populations are victims who need help (the installation of companies; the establishment of reserves; the decentralization of municipal governments; the promotion of cocoa and pepper nurseries; the concession of mineral and forestry exploitations; the donation of food, medicines, housing and school materials). But this kind of help only tends to intensify the tensions in the region, energizing the vicious circle of poverty that erodes local power and contributes to deforestation.
Why? Because the concept of the agricultural frontier so deeply institutionalized in our society and in the international organizations working in our country is underpinned by racism and a partial vision that reduces the problem to a particular place and to two groups. Everybody else can remain removed from such realities. Such a mirror distorts reality. The world has changed, but we still have limits in understanding that it is no longer a question of humanity “dominating” nature so we can develop and incorporate ourselves into the global economy, but rather of understanding that we are witnessing the imposed construction of a determined culture on the ashes of other cultures. Our failure to understand this is seriously truncating our country’s identity and substantially affecting our efforts to modernize, develop and participate in the global economy. We need to understand that this mirror’s images cast the ideals of sustainability, autonomy and democracy that we talk about every day into a deep shadow.
We’re not all “children of maize” So how can we reconstruct the concept of the agricultural frontier in a more appropriate, more comprehensive way? The old notion describes only one part of the reality: the peasant and mestizo side of things, in which the whole philosophy and mode of organization revolves around land. As Guatemalan anthropologist Ricardo Falla wisely said, “A peasant without land is a being without a soul.” This soul is not just a question of having land, but of working it, of being a farmer and living through agriculture, which bestows identity. In fact, it provides us all with an identity, as it is even sung—in the name of all Nicaragua—that “we are the children of maize,” although only Nicaraguans from the Pacific side of the country can claim such heritage…
There are no “peasant families” living on the agricultural frontier. The frontier implies a clash of cultures mainly between mestizos and the coast’s indigenous groups—Miskitos, Mayangnas and Ramas. And this clash is particularly strong with respect to notions of land.
In contrast, the philosophy and organization of the Afro-Caribbean populations—the Garífunas and Creoles—is more linked to fishing and the sea in particular. This explains why it is so important for young black Creoles of the South Atlantic region to go to sea for a few months, accepting any job on the boat they can get. They dream of this adventure, wait for the merchant or tourist boats to come in and return to their communities as heroes. They were brought to these lands as slaves and the sea continues to provides them with economic and cultural solutions.
While the Miskito communities along the coastline share some of this sea-based identity, the majority of Miskitos and the Mayangna-Sumo people have a culture that is not particularly expressed through either the sea or agriculture. They use rivers and creeks, rather than tracks or paths, to move around and their philosophy, organization and practices revolve around the forest, to such an extent that we could adapt Ricardo Falla’s words and state that “An indigenous person without a forest is a being without a soul.”
If, as Jesus of Nazareth said, “Your heart is where your treasure is,” then the indigenous treasure and heart are in the forest. Their income (currently from timber, and previously from rubber, tuno bark and chicle, but always linked to foreign companies), most of their food (hunting, river fishing, fruit), their means of transport (dugout canoes), housing materials (bamboo and lumber) and medicines all come from the forest. The forest has great “value” to them—in fact, it is everything to them. They live from forest-culture. They are not children of maize, but rather of wabul, made from mashed plantains or a starchy palm nut known as pijibay mixed with fish or coconut oil.
The indigenous populations’ constant intervention in the forest (shifting their settlements, extracting forestry and non-forestry products, using fire for hunting) and their continuous use of forest-culture have made the forest a fundamentally indigenous product. And this is precisely the focus of a new kind of ecology that explains any forest on the planet as a social product, the result of human activities.
This is still a novel idea, given the abundance of maps that present forest ecosystems in combination with indigenous populations in a way that promotes the idea that forests are natural and indigenous peoples and forests live in supposed harmony. In fact, the forests of the Nicaraguan Caribbean have historically been the object of human intervention, above all the Caribbean pine forests, planted during the Somoza dictatorship and then replanted during the Sandinista government.
The logic of the forests’ owners In line with this new ecological perspective, indigenous logic sees the forest areas as “owned” territories, marked out with their own symbols: rather than boundary posts and fences, the indigenous peoples demarcate their territories using rivers, the coastline, hills and lagoons and the forest itself. Territories marked out in this way are never individual property, but are rather communally owned, although they do usually contain individual plots assigned in usufruct.
From this perspective, we obviously need to reflect further on the notion of territory relative to resources such as the forests. When peasants fight for land, they are fighting for their right to work it, but they see what is on top of it—the forest—and underneath it—petroleum, gold, other minerals—as belonging to the state.
The state thinks along the same lines, asserting its “ownership” over the forest and subsoil of the coast’s indigenous communities. But unlike the mestizo populations, indigenous people live entirely from, for and within the forest. There is thus a need to reflect on the territory-forest and territory-subsoil links and on indigenous people’s rights to what is above and below the territories they inhabit.
When the Pacific’s culture of power threatens the forest, whether through concessions, reserves or structural adjustment policies, it is threatening the very basis of indigenous life, its development logic and its only possibility of inserting itself into the global economy. Failing to recognize this reality in a multicultural Nicaragua with a multicultural agricultural frontier, where there is a convergence of such different logics, is leading to the disappearance of forest-culture and water-culture as they are eaten up by agri-culture, backed by the sharp teeth of the state, the political parties, aid agencies and NGOs.
The indigenous resistance against this devouring of its culture is based on forest-culture and has its own evolution. One example is the transition from communities (groups in determined areas) to territories (several communities in one area) and regions (several territories in a determined area) as a way of responding to the actions of the state and the aid agencies, which are also promoting their own interests and intervention based on “territories.” Another example is the evolution of the síndico, the indigenous figure traditionally responsible for community land matters, into the Council of Elders and the emergence of associations such as MASAKU, which are territorially rather than communally based.
The logic of the advance It must be borne in mind that in Nicaragua, what is currently the agricultural frontier is the mountainous or foothill area approaching the indigenous-populated Caribbean region, whose acid soil is much more apt for forest than for intensive agriculture. Nonetheless, mestizo peasants see its forest, which is the soul of the indigenous populations, as nothing more than fertile land with trees that they can clear so they can plant beans. In the mentality of Nicaragua’s Pacific region, it is every peasant’s dream to have land to work, which is why land and its value are the driving force behind all the dynamics involved in the advance of the agricultural frontier. Land increases in value as what was once agricultural frontier becomes established agricultural land that is more accessible due to improved transportation infrastructure.
towards the “mountain”
This dynamic can be seen when a poor peasant from Yaoya-Siuna sells his small piece of land there in the hope of obtaining a larger, as yet uncleared area and thus realize his dream of becoming a farmer one day. Or a small cattle rancher in Mulukukú sells his property to buy a larger area around Yaoya to realize his dream of increasing his herd. Or a medium- to large-scale rancher looks for another farm to use as pasture for his cattle in the dry season, hiring some of its workers, while the others move deeper into the agricultural frontier in search of another boss.
The economic structural adjustment policies of the nineties and the policy of distributing land to former combatants in exchange for laying down their arms gave notable impetus to this kind of domino effect. In such a context, profit in the agricultural frontier is made by selling not the land so much as the “improvements” made on it—clearing it, planting pasture, building fences—then using that to buy cheaper “virgin” land further away from the market, with unexhausted soil…and, of course, with more trees that must be cleared.
A domino effect similar to that of the peasant-farmer-rancher economy exists in the lumber business as well: lumber companies-dealers-indigenous communities. The increasing pressure on the agricultural frontier cannot be blamed entirely on the “pioneer” front—in other words the peasants sandwiched between mestizo agriculture and the forest. This advance and the logic behind it express other structural and cultural factors related to spatial mobility, social patterns, capital accumulation, in other words to practices and interests that even exceed Nicaragua’s frontiers.
The conflicts in the agricultural frontier are a result of the global economy as much as anything else, as the structural adjustment policy that helps explain them was imposed by the international financial institutions on the governments in power since 1990.
An immense wall separates peasants The products of mestizo peasants and indigenous producers have extremely little value in those areas of Nicaragua that are home to the frontier between agriculture and forestland. Both groups—peasants and indigenous—share a very weak insertion into both national and international chains of commercial exchange.
and indigenous peoples from the market
While an indigenous community in Prinzapolka can only sell mahogany for US$6 a cubic meter, its f.o.b. price is over $900 a cubic meter. In other words, the community receives only 0.6% of its exported value. In El Hormiguero, Rosita or Bonanza, a hundredweight of beans sells for $4 dollars, while the same amount in Managua fetches $30 without having any value added at all, not even packaging.
Why is it important for indigenous people and mestizos to insert themselves more advantageously into the market? The lower the value of peasant and indigenous products, the greater the impetus to clear forestland and sow beans—affecting the soil fertility—or to sell more trees, moving from mahogany to softwoods and from nearby trees to those deeper in the forest. Unless absolutely forced to by circumstances, a peasant family is unlikely to slaughter its only cow if it provides milk for its children. By that same logic, an indigenous community is not likely to decimate its own forest if it can sell its wood in a rational, sustainable manner at a price the community can survive on.
Peasant families and indigenous populations have remained in the production phase or in the forest, isolated by an immense wall imposed by the market institutions that separate production from trade and the market from the living communities. To be certain, accessing the market also requires a commercial culture. It supposes venturing out into another world, breaking down the walls. It implies a negotiating capacity, working capital and, depending on the case, links with the central state power, as is clearly seen in the example of lumber merchants. All these things can be learned, but who will teach them?
More market access and more forestsThe wall separating these populations from the market is institutionalized, which is considered “positive.” According to this institutionalized logic, reduced market access equals greater natural resource conservation. That makes the sales operations in the RAAN and the RAAS exceptions to the rule. How else can we explain why so many lumber companies, so many conservation and agricultural intensification projects are being promoted there, yet not a single indigenous community has its own sawmill to sell its wood in Managua or export it?
The market exclusion that has affected everyone in the agricultural frontier—both mestizo peasant families and indigenous populations—is a colossal contradiction in an era proclaiming the free market ad nauseam. This exclusion will not conserve the forests. In fact, the less access to the market—and the lower the value of peasant and indigenous products—the greater pressure to destroy the forests. So how is it possible to continue claiming that the conflict in Layasiksa is limited to two groups and that its causes are limited to that particular locality?
Political power no longer steals land at gunpointMarket access is frequently conditioned by access to political power. The agricultural frontier’s fundamental resources are the natural resources, around which populations, organizations, businesses, institutions, policies, practices, customs and development paths revolve. Some see the region as a timber treasure trove, while others see it as a carbon and oxygen reserve, or as particularly fertile soil for beans and pasture or a source of biodiversity for the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. For yet others, this region ranges from both home and food source to a gold mine, a scientific laboratory or a source of incomparable tourist landscapes.
Why such a variety of perceptions and interests? It’s a complicated question to answer, because these interests have been structurally molded for generations, culminating in the “single thinking” currently dominating the global economy. It’s clear that indigenous peoples’ struggles for their rights have been conditioned by the international organizations, reducing them to technical problems, to laws and regulations, to projects and aid, to the achievement of territorial demarcation. It’s still a way to steal their lands, but this time using maps rather than guns.
It is also clear that the historical struggles of the indigenous peoples and peasant populations have been reduced to the administration of NGO projects and the rendering of narrative and financial reports. This conditioning not only fails to resolve the kind of inequality and segregation that triggers conflicts, it adds elements that further intensify and complicate those conflicts: expropriation of territories and valuable natural resources, threats to cultural survival and market exclusion.
A constellation of contradictions: Who will win this struggle, in which lumber merchants want the forests for their wood and ranchers want to turn it into pastureland? Who will back down in a struggle in which the cooperation agencies want to establish reserves, the indigenous populations want to keep their territories and the forests that are their very soul and the peasant families want to guarantee their tortilla and beans?
Who will come out on top?
Given this constellation of contradictions and conflicting interests, access to the Caribbean coast’s natural resources will continue to be influenced by essentially violent processes and mechanisms: the expulsion of families and communities, armed struggles, the education of indigenous people in a language that is not their own, mineral and timber concessions imposed by the central government, the non-negotiated declaration of natural reserves, the emergence of municipalities that divide indigenous territories, erosion of the local powers... These mechanisms of colonization, speculation, robbery and murder are strong links in the system prevailing in today’s Nicaragua. One example of the erosion of local powers born of these contradictions is that whereas Miskito or Mayangna síndicos, despite their limitations, used to work with their community before the nineties, the vast majority of these community leaders have since become representatives of extra-community interests.
How did this come about? The figure of the síndico, whose role in the community is related to land and resource use and other environmental issues, started to acquire more importance with the increasing presence of lumber companies in the past decade. In addition, the forestry legislation administered by the state through the Agriculture and Forestry Institute (INAFOR) and the municipal governments turned the síndico’s signature into a green light for the extraction of wood, with the síndico effectively answering to the state for the community’s wood. Thus, with little say in the matter, the síndico was absorbed and the indigenous community lost its leader, which quickly led to suspicions and accusations of corruption.
Another example is that aid agencies with huge funds and a solid organizational apparatus are currently administering forest and biodiversity resources without the communities having any say in important decisions related to the use of their own resources. The most recent example was the propaganda-saturated inauguration of the Meso-American Biological Corridor.
Everybody wants the valuable natural resourcesNo one invests in the Caribbean coast because of its human capital, communications infrastructure or state of the art technology, none of which exists. No peasant or rancher is interested in having a farm there on the assumption that high productivity levels can be generated through intensive farming. The only thing of any real interest in this region is its natural resources. Mestizo peasants and indigenous people are rarely among those with the power and determination to access these resources. This is a frontier enmeshed in an unequal and permanent dispute over resources, territories, lands, organizations and culture.
Accessing political power is key to accessing the natural resources, the region’s main source of wealth. Doing so has historically cost a great deal of blood—a tragedy that has included the burial of whole cultures with their own forms of organization and visions of the world. To act more correctly, new power relations have to be developed in the region, between indigenous people and mestizos, among external and local actors and within each ethnic group, all of whom are fighting over the natural resources.
The mirror must be changed It is increasingly vital to reconceptualize the notion of the agricultural frontier, although this will be very hard to accomplish, because it is precisely that very notion that is in dispute. Everyone intervenes in the agricultural frontier based on what we have created and see in the mirror, and they do so with what could be termed good intentions. The mestizos want to contribute to development and modernity; the lumber companies want to extract wood and generate jobs; the international conservation organizations are thinking about humanity as a whole when they defend the forests as the planet’s lungs; and the indigenous populations refuse to renounce their resistance, which they express as identity, using different ways to demand what belongs to them. The contradictions are so great, however, and the mirror’s trap so risky that good intentions translate into bad results: violence, poverty and deforestation.
in order to halt the violence
This reconceptualization requires us to take various aspects into account. The Pacific coast culture knows so little about the region’s multicultural nature that it verges on racism. Reducing the complexity of the problem and its solutions to a delimited zone, to the pioneer front and the contradiction between settlers and indigenous people, displays an alarming lack of objectivity that continually translates into distorted studies and misguided policies. The two international forces—those preaching free market and those preaching environmental conservation—are both actually accelerating deforestation by excluding the populations of the agricultural frontier from the benefits of the market.
The violence in the agricultural frontier demonstrates that capital and the appropriation of properties to acquire their natural resources trigger a dynamic based on policy imposition and the erosion of local powers. The violent nature of this colonization in the past and present is a challenge to us all today. There is an urgent need for reflection, and we could be helped by the perceptive words of Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes: “There is no worthwhile globalization without a functioning locality.”
René Mendoza Vidaurre is a researcher at Nitlapán-UCA.