Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 118 | Mayo 1991



Development that Destroys*

Envío team

By the late 1980s, general concern over the future of the world's environment and natural resources had risen to such a degree that it entered the vocabulary of even the World Bank and Shell Oil Corporation. While the word "environmentalist" used to evoke the image of nature lovers determined to protect a rare bird species, the image now has expanded to include anyone concerned about protecting the Amazon rainforest in order to prevent global warming.

But while the number of people who call themselves environmentalists has increased dramatically, the traditional developmentalist conception of "environmental problems" is a watered-down version of a much larger issue, integrally related not only to the preservation of natural resources but also to the just distribution of those resources and to ecologically sustainable development.

This update will take a brief look at Central America's environmental crisis and its origins, as well as some of the programs being promoted by the World Bank, the US Agency for International Development (AID) and the US government. While these organizations have newly espoused the environmental cause, their programs still promote natural resource degradation because they don’t address the fundamental causes of environmental destruction; the US is ultimately more concerned with promoting its own economic and political interests over an ecologically sound alternative development model for Central America.

A region in crisis

Central America's once rich natural resource base is disappearing. Sixty percent of its forests have been clear-cut for lumber or firewood or to make way for cotton, cattle or subsistence crops—mostly in the past 30 years, and deforestation continues at over 4,000 square kilometers per year. Forests covered 75% of Costa Rica's national territory in 1950; by the early 1980s, only 30%. According to a recent issue of the Central America Report, the Honduran Research Center estimates that contras, Nicaraguan refugees and US military maneuvers destroyed 80,000 hectares of forest annually.

Deforestation and over-intensive farming have caused massive erosion, destroying the fertile topsoil and washing tons of earth annually into lakes and rivers, threatening the water supply and fish resources. In El Salvador, soil erosion is seriously affecting more than half of the land mass. Deforestation also causes climatic changes, which have subjected the region to a series of droughts and floods over the past decade.

Industrial waste and untreated human waste have contaminated water supplies and pesticides have poisoned the water, soil and air. From the mid-1960s through the 70s, Central America was the world's greatest per-capita pesticide user, importing 40% of all US pesticide exports. According to the San Francisco-based Environmental Project on Central America (EPOCA), Guatemala registers the highest levels of DDT in mother's milk and human flesh in the world, 185 times the safe limit set by the World Health Organization. Contaminated water has made diarrhea the leading nonmilitary cause of death in the region. In El Salvador, only one in ten people has access to safe drinking water.

Given the region's agrarian base, the majority of poor Central Americans depend on natural resources for their survival, intimately linking the environment to the broader social and political context. Says Dr. Jaime Incer, Nicaraguan minister of the environment and natural resources, "How do we define an environmental problem when the environment is everything? The environment is health, combating poverty, improving the quality of life, the rational use of natural resources..."

Roots of the crisis

The two main historical causes of environmental degradation in Central America are the agroexport development model and poverty. The militarization of the region, especially in the past decade, must also be mentioned for both its environmental and social effects.

The region's historic development model, based on agroexport production, emphasized the overexploitation of land and cheap labor to generate profits for an elite class of large landowners. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, thousands of acres of forests were clear-cut to make way for cotton and cattle expansion. Cotton took over virtually the entire Pacific coastal plain running from Guatemala to Costa Rica and brought with it the extensive use of pesticides. Once famous for their fertility, those soils have been depleted of all nutrients. In Nicaragua, which by 1973 was the world's 15th largest cotton exporter, deforestation has left the region stripped of all protection from wind and rain. Local residents report that dust storms were so bad in the early 1980s, before the Sandinista government initiated a tree-planting program for wind breaks, that at times people had to turn on car headlights in broad daylight.

The expansion of beef production also destroyed forests and soils, which are compacted by the cattle. Almost one-third of Nicaragua's rainforests disappeared in the 1970s alone, as it became the United States' foremost Latin American beef supplier. By 1980, 22% of Central America's entire land area was being used for pasture—more land than used for all other agricultural products combined.

Expansion followed a similar pattern for both products. Small farmers were pushed off their fertile land and forced to clear new land on hillsides or in the forest. This new, marginal land, unsuitable for agriculture, could only produce for 2-3 years; the cotton or cattle growers would then take it over and the peasant would clear new land again.

By the mid-1970s, the wealthiest 4% of Central America's population owned 73% of the land, while the poorest 77% owned only 7%. Statistics from the 1970s showed that a high percentage of farms, ranging from 46% in Costa Rica to 92% in El Salvador, are too small to meet a family's basic needs. Even the World Bank, in a 1989 working paper on Costa Rica, El Salvador and Haiti, has recognized that such skewed land distribution, which forces peasant farmers onto fragile lands, is a major cause of environmental degradation, together with population growth.

Colin Danby of Policy Alternatives for the Caribbean and Central America (PACCA) argues that if the population had shared equally the benefits of the spectacular economic boom that the region experienced from 1950 to 1978, "the average standard of living would have risen 175%." But, simply put, the rich got richer and the poor, poorer with the agroexport model.

Beside the damage resulting from the push to marginal agricultural lands, poverty has other direct environmental consequences. With no alternative for economic survival, Central America’s poor are forced to overexploit the region's natural resources. Firewood, for example, is used for over 86% of all residential and commercial energy needs. Local experts from Nicaragua's Natural Resource Institute estimate that Managua alone consumes over $50,000 a day of firewood at retail prices, not including industrial use. Hundreds of residents cut Managua's trees to meet their personal energy needs or strip the few remaining wooded areas near the city to sell firewood in order to buy food. A recent article in Nicaragua's El Nuevo Diario reported that in one León neighborhood, 77% of the families make a living selling firewood cut from mangroves, which protect the Pacific coast shoreline from erosion and are home to fish and shellfish.

The direct effects of the counterinsurgency programs in Guatemala and El Salvador are well known: fires and bombings have destroyed vast areas of both countries. EPOCA writes, "Much of northern El Salvador has become a virtual wasteland, with crops destroyed, villages razed, forests burned and the landscape scarred with bomb craters." Besides the resulting deforestation and its consequences, EPOCA says, "the combination of bombing and burning has damaged soil productivity and lowered water tables."

The indirect environmental effects of military repression relate to the thousands of war refugees in the region who have been uprooted from their land and sources of survival. In order to try to cut off the guerrillas from their rural support base, the army in Guatemala has forced villagers to farm close to town, on deteriorated soils, instead of on their traditional fields farther away and out of the army's watch. Refugees have swelled the ranks of coastal resettlement camps in El Salvador, where over-fishing has caused a sharp decline in the shrimp and fish populations. One telling event summarizes this whole devastating cycle: EPOCA reports that deforestation by landless Salvadoran peasants caused Monte Bello mountain to give way during a torrential rainstorm in 1982, killing over 700 refugees living at its base.

Development aid: So what's new?

A recent World Bank report says, "Sound environmental management has been recognized as fundamental to the development process, and the World Bank now emphasizes the need to make environmental concerns an integral part of its activities." While environmental rhetoric now permeates the vocabulary of the bank, AID and the US government as a whole, a closer look at the economic and development programs they promote proves them to be more of the same. At best, they provide patchwork solutions to some environmental problems, but, in general, they only serve to preserve the existing social and economic order and exacerbate environmental deterioration.

Structural Adjustments. "Structural adjustment" in Latin America is essentially a formula imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to address mounting inflation and economic crises in the region. The adjustment requires that governments promote export production at the cost of domestic food production, eliminate trade barriers, remove nationalist restrictions on foreign investment, and cut deficits by laying off or cutting salaries of state employees and slashing subsidies and social programs. The result is recession, higher unemployment, a drop in production for the domestic market, increased exploitation and destruction of the natural resource base, and an even greater burden on the poor.

In the Winter 1990-91 issue of Foreign Policy, the authors of "Development: The Market is Not Enough" claim that adjustments have undermined "ecological sustainability...in country after country." In the frenzy to export, they say, natural resource exploitation becomes the easiest solution. As a result, lumber exports are denuding mountainsides, promoting erosion and drying up watersheds; cash crop exports depend heavily on pesticides; large fishing boats are destroying the coral reefs where fish live and breed; and mine tailings are contaminating rivers and bays. Structural adjustments "have adjusted to the short-term benefit of narrow elite interests."

Former World Bank official Chandra Hardy told Jim Lobe of Interpress Service that structural adjustments place "the heaviest burden on the poor." According to the Foreign Policy article, a 1989 World Bank working paper stated that "people below the poverty line will probably suffer irreparable damage in health, nutrition and education." Said Hardy, "Alleviating world poverty is still not the highest priority on the development agenda," coming "somewhere after GNP growth, sound fiscal policies, privatization and trade liberalization. It has no place in the policy framework papers that establish lending programs and conditionalities." UNICEF reports that average incomes in Latin America in the 1980s dropped by 10%. Rather than eliminating poverty, said Hardy, adjustment itself became the bank's goal.

Adjustments clearly do nothing to challenge the root causes of environmental degradation or poverty and only serve to deepen both. Said Hardy, the multinational development banks "shy away from conditionality that would require progress in reducing income and wealth disparities, such as land reform, on the grounds that these are too controversial."

What happens after structural adjustments, with the new loans for which those countries become eligible? The New York Times reports that the World Bank has "long [been] criticized by conservationists because of the ecological consequence of its programs." Despite some improvements, the director of a Canadian nonprofit research group says that the new environmental consciousness has simply resulted in "the same old projects with a few trees planted around the edges."

AID's Nontraditional Exports. One of the "new" US development strategies for Central America and the Caribbean is the promotion of "nontraditional" export crops such as cut flowers, vegetables and fruit for the US market. Because these crops are not native to the region, they generally require intensive capital inputs and a heavy dose of pesticides in order to thrive in the tropics. AID has pushed Central American governments to provide incentives for nontraditional crops while reducing credits and price supports for basic food production. Though AID states that "environmental considerations are fully integrated into the AID decision-making process," AID projects have caused environmental degradation both directly and indirectly by deteriorating the natural resource base and increasing poverty and landlessness.

Friends of the Earth reports that with a $6.5 million AID loan, Honduras' coastal mangrove forests were bulldozed to make way for large breeding ponds to raise shrimp for export. Local fishermen and farmers report that the mangroves, which protect the shoreline, shelter wildlife and provide a home to marine life, are being destroyed. The industry, they say, is affecting the Gulf of Fonseca's shrimp population and forcing local inhabitants off their traditional farming and fishing grounds.

In Guatemala, according to the Central America Report, studies show that 100% of women tested in three provinces had unacceptable levels of pesticide contamination in their breast milk. Yet nontraditional crops require even higher pesticide levels than other crops. While nontraditional exports increased 23.3% between 1989 and 1990, the Guatemalan Association of Nontraditional Exporters reports that significant amounts were quarantined or outright rejected by the US due to contamination. The rejected crops were sent to countries with less stringent restrictions.

Colin Danby reports that the Costa Rican government has reduced credit, services and support prices for corn, bean and rice production, switching incentives to nontraditional crops. "Unfortunately," writes Danby, "these goods have been difficult for smaller farmers to produce and market successfully, and some have suffered financial losses so great that they have lost their land."

Sheldon Annis, senior research associate of the Overseas Development Council, testified before the House of Representatives' Committee on Hunger that increased poverty in Central America is a direct result of AID's nontraditional export policy. Nontraditional crops are capital intensive and require expensive agrochemicals, technical sophistication, prime land, international marketing connections and specialized storage facilities. Annis claims that rising land costs increase landlessness and decrease subsistence and small farm agriculture.

The Bush Plan. President Bush's Enterprise for the Americas Initiative has been partially implemented in Central America through the "debt-for-nature swap" program, which is now being negotiated, with the long-term goal of developing a free trade zone on the continent. The debt-swap plan would forgive a small portion of a country's public debt and establish an environmental fund. Rules for participation in the program include implementing a structural adjustment program, reshaping investment policy toward open investment and adhering to a strict payment schedule for the private debt. The environmental consequences of structural adjustment policies have been outlined above. A fully open investment policy could mean unregulated natural resource exploitation or waste disposal. And while the plan is packaged as a debt-relief measure, the requirement of a firm payment schedule on the private debt may actually increase pressure to pay—which, in turn, would increase pressure on the natural resource base.

In addition, the Washington-based Development Group for Alternative Policies (GAP) says that while the plan would generate funds for sustainable development, the receiving government has no incentive or obligation to actually spend the money as such, nor is there a mechanism by which to measure the environmental impact of the structural adjustment or new foreign investments it promotes.

A free trade agreement would also require relaxing or removing restrictions on foreign investment and trade between the United States and the region. With respect to the agreement in Mexico, the US National Wildlife Federation has expressed concern that strict environmental requirements for investment will be removed, an open investment climate will attract additional polluting industries, and the demand for natural resources, including land and water use for export production, will intensify.

The Development GAP concludes that the debt-swap plan is "clearly designed to leverage changes in, or continued adherence to... structural adjustment programs." And Pedro Vuscovic of the Managua-based research institute CRIES says there are no altruistic motives behind the Bush Plan, just an attempt by the US to salvage its own international power position in the wake of a deteriorating economy. He describes the US economy as a "world parasite."

Toward alternative development

US programs clearly continue to promote US interests. "Planting trees around the edges" of the same old programs will not stop the ongoing destruction of Central America's environment. Real environmental protection and recovery will only come with a fundamental change in the region's development model, which must first address the issue of unequal resource distribution instead of supporting the business elite. US aid to the region—almost 20% of which was direct military aid in 1989—must stop financing militarization, which destroys the natural resource base in addition to sustaining oppressive government structures that defend the existing social and economic order and prevent the necessary fundamental changes from taking place.

Even the World Bank, though unwilling to challenge the existing social order, recognizes the importance of land reform. The Central American poor must be allowed to rebuild communities and to organize, as well as to improve their standard of living so they are not forced to destroy environmental resources in order to survive. Even if structural adjustment plans, export incentives and new investment are able to improve the region's overall economic indicators, real long-term stability will remain elusive as long as the poor keep getting poorer and the natural resource base continues to disappear.

* Statistics in this article, unless otherwise noted, were taken from Joshua Karliner, "Central America's Other War," World Policy Journal, Fall 1989.

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Development that Destroys*


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