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Special Report
Last Updated: 09/29/2003
Indigenous Production & Globalization in Central America
Brett Sheppard

Brett Sheppard recently made a special study of Central American indigenous communities in the context of the Indigenous Community Integrated Ecosystems Management (GEF) Project of the World Bank, and notes the importance of both cultural as well as biodiversity.

The Issue


Indigenous populations are today found in a process of transition from a subsistence economy to an incipient insertion into a market economy.  In the past 20 years, markets have begun expanding at an unmanageable rate, and will soon have reach into even the remotest regions of the planet.  More recently, introducing the poor and marginalized to the market has been promoted and defended by development economists, policy makers, and government officials as a solid means for bettering living conditions, as previously unutilized human and natural resources are given the opportunity to meet their potential.  The manner, in which components of the market economy are advancing on indigenous societies, without a sufficient measure of control by the people themselves, propels the deterioration of traditional economic practices associated with a culture of subsistence.  The beckoning market makes promises of a better, easier world, and steers these societies at the exclusion of the consideration of socioeconomic factors, growing material poverty, and social deterioration.


That indigenous peoples have been able to live self-sufficiently, deriving all from their natural surroundings, in relative isolation until now has been the cause of much of their recent interaction with the outside.  Conservationists and scientists are interested in studying their lifestyles and community dynamics to dissect traditional knowledge and practice.  More interest is being given to the study of traditional agro forestry systems with a view to using them as a basis for the widespread development of agro forestry. This new interest is part of a shift that seeks to more fully understand traditional farming systems, so that problems in farming systems the world over may be more acutely addressed.  In a broader context, the full gamut of knowledge derived from traditional practice is appreciated and institutionalized in Chapter 26 of Agenda 21, developed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 (, which recognizes the role of traditional societies in the generation of appropriate and sustainable knowledge.


Adaptation and globalization


Indigenous communities will feel the rising tide of world integration, and outside support should be directed at smoothing the path.  To attempt to shield them from the onset of the world, preserving them as a cultural island, is a fruitless endeavor.  Effort need be devoted to making them aware of nascent markets that reward a conservationist lifestyle, such as the selling of non-wood forest products, the payment for environmental services, and maybe eventually ecotourism.  This is exactly the vision of the Indigenous Community Integrated Ecosystems Management (GEF) Project (, which seeks to support community-to-community development of indigenous peoples throughout Central America, focusing specifically on the payment for environmental services.


Adaptation, as it relates to sustainability, has been defined as “cultural adjustment to maintain sustained yields”.  This lends specifically to the agricultural facet of the project – communities with proven systems assisting others with poorer systems to adapt in order to sustain productive yields over the long term.  It is hoped that in assisting the exchange of information between one traditional knowledge society and another that in the end both will benefit, taking something away that fits to ease the burden placed on the land and society.  The success of this project and these exchanges could develop or rediscover a more sustainable land use system applicable to other stressed parts of the planet.


The Pressures


My study sought to examine the agricultural systems in place in various indigenous communities throughout Central America, describing the environment for each community, and the full picture of their productive system, including how pressures are affecting and changing it today.


Factors apart from the added stimuli brought on by the world at large are combining to weigh heavily on natural and productive systems in indigenous communities.  These include population increase, land demand pressures, and land degradation.  The relationship between the degradation of natural resources and the rise of population has been a source of concern in Central America in the past decades. For example, owing to land restrictions due to continual population expansion, almost all farmers in the Santa Cruz and Sierra de Marcala area of Honduras have already or will soon have to give up migratory productive systems they have used throughout their history, inducing a change in farming that leads to reduced yields.  This helps to explain why Honduran national production per capita diminished by 24% for maize and 44% for beans between 1950 and 1986. Unfettered population growth is a problem faced by the world at large and no easy answers are forthcoming.





A steadily increasing population, and transition from migratory to sedentary production styles as free lands become scarcer, has negative consequences for forests.  Continued deforestation is a severe threat not only to all that changes directly with forest lost, but also in altering for the worse the complete biological and environmental picture.  With forest loss, relative humidity and precipitation are reduced; temperature changes, and water conservation and the regeneration of soils are crucially compromised, to name but a few effects. Without forests, nothing will be the same.  Nothing will survive, as we know it today.


The importance of biological diversity


Traditional agroecosystems, based on the cultivation of a diversity of crops and varieties in space and time, have allowed farmers to enjoy harvest security under low levels of technology and with limited environmental impact. They have historically worked not to the exclusion of nature, but reliant upon it.  Neither tractors nor large work animals are used, and generally only small dosages of herbicide, pesticide, or fertilizer.  These are all healthy factors from the point of view of conservation. Chemical fertilizers and herbicides are obviated by an initial fastidiousness in cleaning the land prior to planting.  If well weeded, crops will grow so fast that new weeds will soon be shaded out.  When corn and rice are young it appears as if weeds are taking over, but the crops soon rise above.  Later, rank grasses will grow high, but then are beneficial in providing organic matter. A new method being employed in some communities in Belize is the semi-managed regrowth of weeds to limit soil nutrient declines, by accumulating available nutrients, as well as preventing their loss by leaching.  Additionally, the weed growth provides an incentive to farmers to rotate their crop production, abandoning the plot to regrowth and regeneration once the weeds become unmanageable. The development of such traditional knowledge and practice is gaining momentum outside of indigenous communities, as seen in the application of “bio-mass increase” and “zero tillage” technologies in some Latin American and Caribbean countries.


But as outside markets encroach on indigenous communities, traditional knowledge could be compromised with the introduction of new inputs.  In some indigenous communities practices reliant upon chemical fertilizers have been adopted.  This permits a continual planting in soils that normally would not support it due to erosion reducing the natural fertility.  Once the use of fertilizers is begun, rotating systems are often abandoned, and the soils require more and more to maintain productive levels.  Further, farmers complain that the soils become “addicted” to the additives, and that it is virtually impossible to re-establish a productive system without them once introduced.  A continually rising price tag makes it increasingly difficult for farmers to justify buying fertilizers in the escalating quantities necessary.  Indigenous people are aware that certain productive methods in use are unsustainable and destructive to the natural cycle.  They are often unaware of viable alternatives.


Fortunately, efforts to conserve nature and natural systems fall directly in line with the development of more sustainable productive systems.  Fertility renewal processes are completely biological, utilizing restorative functions of a wide range of processes, species, and elements.  The healthy renewal of part of a productive system (i.e. an agricultural plot), then, requires the maintenance of biological diversity.  Natural diversity performs a variety of often taken for granted ecological services including the building of resilience into a system, so that it may feel less harshly the effects of, and bounce back more readily from, natural disasters.  As all evidence points to an increase in the frequency and severity of natural disasters in the future, building systems that can cope becomes essential.  When natural regenerative services are compromised due to biological simplification, both economic and environmental costs can be quite high.  Although documented, it is yet to be fully appreciated by policy makers that actions costly for environmental health and stability are always, in the end, more costly economically.  Relative to agriculture, once a biological system’s natural services are crippled; costly external inputs are necessary to control pests, to provide fertilizers, and to provide water.  The fragile relationship between economy and environment will prove to be the crux of sustainability into the future.  These foundations of life must be meshed into one and granted equal importance by all of society for any possibility of the propagation of life as it is known today.


Enhancing traditional knowledge


Securing and enhancing traditional knowledge in agricultural production now, before it is lost to the over-simplified monoculture production styles found in the majority of the world today, could prove to be a boon for the indigenous into the future.  Monoculture systems heavily reliant on external inputs may eventually fall or be rendered to a low level of production that leaves them uneconomical.  Subsequently, demand for produce coming from sustainable, steadily producing systems will rise.  One recent example giving proof of the resilience of some indigenous systems is taken from the Quezungual system in place in some communities in Honduras.  In response to the extended drought followed by the heavily destructive forces of Hurricane Mitch in 1998, many communities reliant on modern agricultural techniques were utterly crushed, some still re-building today.  Conversely, nearby communities employing the Quezungual system lost only a small percentage of their crops to the drought, and realized a sizeable surplus of grain resultant to Hurricane Mitch.


Some findings


Traditional productive systems have followed a natural evolutionary process over the centuries, slowly changing to add new, more sustainable components, while letting go of old, defunct components.  Their unique styles have developed in response to accumulated experiences of man interacting directly with the land, without the aid of external inputs or scientific knowledge. Life relatively isolated from outside human elements has provided an environment for the evolutionary process to continue unmolested.  Agricultural systems in indigenous communities are still as productive as they are today owing to centuries-old traditional knowledge that has formed with and responsive to biological processes and cultural changes. 


Although working in relative harmony with nature, traditional productive systems are not unflawed.  For some time they have felt the pressure of population increase and a subsequent demand for land, problems for which nobody as of yet has acceptable answers.  More recently they are feeling the pressures brought on by a changing outlook in indigenous societies.  The land is feeling the effects of burgeoning market integration, being overworked as to provide excessive yields, and being planted progressively with monocultures, spurred mostly by the younger generations.  Monoculture cropping is superseding proven, steadily producing polyculture systems in order to fill a market niche.  Market integration is also felt in the deleterious rising of out-migration of labor from these communities, to the neglect of agriculture.


Not only will people newly exposed to markets often be ready and willing to convert surrounding resources into cash, but also, at times, development assistance initiatives promote this as a means to improving living standards.  One report from a development agency states that the Miskito have existed as a culture of subsistence not for a lack of available lands, but for a lack of financial and technical assistance to make use of idle natural resources.


An inevitable increased exposure to markets, combined with increasing aspirations to improve quality of life, could induce forest-based peoples to exploit forests to the breaking point.  Throwing the doors to the world wide market open to people who have previously had only limited access is sure to cultivate a somewhat addictive spirit, changing mind-sets from a subsistence orientation to one of buy and sell.  The international community and national governments should begin to take this type of threat seriously, as all encroaching environmental threats, and act now to compensate indigenous people for benefits forgone in conserving the rainforest, thereby increasing local desires to conserve.



Need for full understanding


Assistance to communities need be provided with care, keeping in view and involving fully the people specific to the project, their agricultural history and understanding.  They need to have a full understanding of short- and long-term potential outcomes of all options presented and available.  Poor farmers given access to machinery, fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides – inputs that reduce labor and increase yield – would likely employ all of them without considering the state that their soils and system would be in years to come.


Cultural diversity


The most frequently overlooked aspect of many projects that strive to promote environmental conservation or the development of community well being is cultural diversity.  Particularly in Central America, each Indian culture is unique, and no two have developed identical ideas about ways of working the land and utilizing natural resources. Though coming from the best of intentions, attempting to homogenize certain aspects of lifestyle in traditional societies in order to facilitate the regional institutionalization of the payment for environmental services may not only be difficult, but dangerous.       


Streamlining agricultural practices in traditional societies could be a first step to muddling the individual identities of the societies.  It should be recognized that it can take years – not weeks or months – for someone unacquainted with a region, its land practices and culture, to achieve a thorough understanding, and to really be able to get at the root of any current or future problems.


However, given the homogeneity of natural environments across the cultures of Central America, as well as the similar makeup of crops that constitute the core of the diets of the various groups, and given that a community is willing to accept members of another tribe to come in and help improve their system, enough of the base factors are similar enough to make a project such as this plausible.  Willingness or desire of farmers to participate in a project is maybe the most important factor contributive to project success.  Many communities with poor production systems are not that way for a lack of knowledge or ability, rather in response to having chosen another means of livelihood.  Being that the stated impetus of the project is for communities with proven productive systems to assist those with poor systems to improve productivity, a question that should be considered is, “Will communities with poor productive systems be willing to participate in the project, truly desiring to participate in learning more sustainable agricultural techniques?”


Brett Sheppard is currently undertaking a Masters degree in Natural Resources and Sustainable Development held jointly at the University for Peace in Costa Rica and American University in Washington.