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Access to property by colonising virgin land
Written by: Michel Merlet, (English version: Mary Rodeghier)
Writing date: November 2007
Organizations: Association pour contribuer à l’Amélioration de la Gouvernance de la Terre, de l’Eau et des Ressources naturelles (AGTER), Institut de Recherche et d’Applications des Méthodes de Développement (IRAM), Réseau Agriculture Paysanne et Modernisation (APM), Fondation Charles Léopold Mayer pour le Progrès de l’Homme (FPH)
Type of document: Research Paper
Merlet, Michel. Proposal Paper. Land Policies and Agrarian Reforms. AGTER. November 2007. (English version: Rodeghier, Mary). 120 p.
3. Access to property by colonising virgin land
In all of the countries that still possess virgin land, the extension of the agricultural frontier into forested regions is a major way for people to gain access to land. This has been the case in most Latin American countries, where the amount of cultivated land and pastures is constantly increasing. The decline in the extent of this type of access to land is recent, due to the reduction of forested areas and conservation of what remains.
There is a great deal of documentation on the dynamics underlying these pioneer fringes and frontiers, where small farmers cut down the forest, and/or lumber companies exploit the most sought-after trees. Land is frequently converted into extensive grazing areas owned by latifundistas that buy the plots cleared by small pioneer farmers, thus obliging them to advance ever deeper into the forest to clear new areas. This situation is different when growers are able to set up sustainable farming systems, especially with the planting of perennial crops such as coffee.
Conflicts are common in these agricultural borderlands and violence is rife. The confrontations between social groups and individuals are part and parcel of gaining possession of natural wealth, wood and fertile land through a process of primitive accumulation occurring in places far from any central authority. Those who suffer the most are the indigenous populations that often inhabit the forests. Violence increases with the problems raised by the cultivation and processing of illegal drugs, an activity commonly hidden away in such remote areas. In addition, certain spots are also home to conflicts between guerrillas, regular armies and paramilitary groups.
Agricultural frontier expansion is a process that is either spontaneous or state-directed to a certain extent. State-directed colonisation projects often foster confusion between frontier expansion and agrarian reform because, in theory, all virgin territory belongs to the government since the colonial era (see records # 7 and # 8 on this subject in part two of this paper68). The economic, social and ecological cost of the permanent migratory flux of pioneer farmers on the frontier is very high, even though this sort of land use has served as a safety valve for agrarian structures overtaxed by a concentration of land in the pioneer-sending areas. Several countries have tried to promote viable, market-based family farming from the outset on the pioneer frontier, but generally the rule is to allow the strongest to win and leave the market as it is, with the results mentioned above.
One claim made by the peasants on the pioneer frontier, as clearly stated by a Colombian farmer during the workshop organised by IRAM and APM at the World Social Forum of 2002, is the need to set aside new frontier lands exclusively for use by pioneer farmers (« reservas campesinas »). This would involve the necessity to control land markets and manage territories, as dealt with earlier in this paper. Specific problems are raised by frontier farms’ social contexts: the migrants who occupy new frontier lands have little experience farming in such environments and have distinct social and ethnic backgrounds. For these reasons, it will take time for such a society to structure itself. Experience has shown that new social rules and ways of managing resources are set up quite quickly, often with the help of the Church.
68 Record # 7. Delahaye, Olivier, “Venezuela: between the market and « agrarian reform », the colonisation of ‘virgin’ land,” Record # 8 and Merlet, Michel, Central America. Fragility and limits of agrarian reforms -1/3- Honduras.