Charla de Merienda: Indigenous Land Rights and Biodiversity




Diana L. Restrepo-Osorio

My research involves Paraguayan and Uruguayan ranching communities attempting to participate in the regional and international beef market while practicing sustainable cattle ranching. The Grassland Alliance (Alianza del Pastizal) serves as an assistant to these ranching communities in their search for ways to conserve the ecosystem services offered by the natural grasslands of the pampas biome. The disruption of this unique ecosystem affects not only ranching communities but other communities downstream at all levels of the watershed. Therefore, it is imperative to look at this issue in a comprehensive manner through all scales of the problem. By this, I mean that the perceptions of a single rancher should be considered equally as important as the watershed dynamics, and the historical, political, and cultural context of each nation involved. In this case, the choices to adopt conservation practices depend on the perceptions that cattle ranchers hold. These perceptions are often influenced by multiple pressures that may ultimately shape the entire decision making processes. The tools and resources available for climate change preparation and adaptation directly depends on the historical and political context of each country. I believe that a conversation based on a comprehensive approach, like the one proposed here, should be the first step towards strategizing for climate change adaptation.

Cultural traditions associated with cattle ranching are part of most South American countries. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), cattle ranching for subsistence living is mostly practiced by the rural poor, of whom 70% survive on less than $1 USD per day [1]. Nations in the Southern Cone of South America have become the main global export region for beef, catering to an increasing global population that has led to a 2.45% increase in the demand [1]. In order to fulfill these demands, land managers have found themselves straining the supply and quality of water resources and impairing the natural resources that support cattle ranching in this region. Some of these impacts on water resources are the consequence of increasing stocking rates, rampant deforestation for cattle ranching, and overall questionable management practices. A common example is the removal of riparian vegetation along rivers and creeks, which ultimately prevents the filtration of runoff transporting nutrients derived from cattle manure and agrochemicals, and result in the direct input of sediment into water bodies [2]. Pressures to compete with high yielding producers often drive small family ranchers out of the market and increases land tenure consolidation. Family ranchers often face drastic changes to their property management and some may face migration to the city, where they face tremendous difficulties.

            The tools available to those cattle ranchers who wish to participate in the global market while sustainably managing their natural resources depend on governmental and non-governmental support. The historical trajectory of governmental infrastructure determines the capabilities of offices such as the ministry of agriculture, which typically deals with producers [4].  In countries, like Paraguay, which was under a dictatorship for almost four decades, it’s governmental structure is in the early stages of becoming a democratic state. Their ministry of agriculture is significantly influenced by political favoritism placing unqualified personnel into positions of power, and there is evidence of diversion of resources which are supposed to reach Paraguayan producers [3,5,17]. On the other hand, the Uruguayan ministry of agriculture adopted an approach soon after a 12 year dictatorship, in the 1990s, which may be regarded as being progressive for its time [5,12,14]. The approach was designed by young professionals who understood the importance of using an interdisciplinary curriculum when training extension agents responsible for guiding producers [13]. While the training was heavily focused on scientific and technical information, extension agents were also taught disciplines that emphasized the human aspect of their job, including interpersonal communication skills, sociology, and leadership skills [12]. This approach built a relationship based on trust between the extension agent and the producer, promoting horizontal communication between both individuals, instead of a top down hierarchical communication [6,7,8]. Building these types of relationships allowed for the welcoming of new technologies while validating the opinions and beliefs of the producers [9,10,11].

The political, historical, and governmental contexts of both Uruguay and Paraguay are different, however, both countries face outside pressures from foreign funding organizations. Some conservation projects supported by external funding have strict rules on the flexibility of  project implementation. Conservation projects that lack cultural sensitivity and are restrictive on the level of input of local ideas are prone to disregarding the traditional practices typically transmitted over time and between generations [15]. Uruguayan producers also enjoy aid from their national and local government, therefore they have options to fund their projects in case external funds do not fit their preferences [16]. However, Paraguayan producers do not have such luxury and often find themselves caught in between the potential restrictions imposed by external funding or self-paying for the implementation of certain practices. This fork on the road for Paraguayan producers is particularly interesting as the adoption of conservation practices without financial incentives may indicate a personal decision to innovate in the realm of natural resource conservation.

During the last 5 years I have worked with cattle ranchers from Uruguay and Paraguay who are associated with the regional organization the Grassland Alliance (Alianza del Pastizal) of the Southern Cone of South America. This Alliance is composed of the four main countries of the Southern Cone, which produce beef for export: Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina. The Alliance’s main goal is to provide guidance, connections, and resources, if available, for the adoption of conservation practices resulting in a more sustainable cattle ranching system [22]. The way in which the Grassland Alliance operates in each country depends on the capacity of the non profit organization representing each one of the countries in the Alliance [24]. For example, Aves Uruguay works with ranchers in the adoption of practices for migratory bird habitat. Additionally, Aves Uruguay also helps in connecting ranchers with local and national governmental organizations when funds are available for various projects, including conservation projects [25]. On the other hand, Guyra Paraguay mainly works with international funds and the focus on working with cattle ranchers is not as substantial. The most common incentives used by Guyra Paraguay in the adoption of conservation practices are those of technical education, and assessments and inventories of bird populations. An additional incentive is a metal sign typically displayed in the front of the property certifying the rancher’s association with the Alliance.

The adoption or rejection of the practices suggested to ranchers depends on the particular perceptions held by the individual. These perceptions are shaped by personal past experiences or experiences of close friends or family. Would the perceptions of ranchers change if no financial or certification incentives are available? Would this provide insights regarding the role that political, institutional, and social conditions may have had on the rancher’s perceptions?. This is the matter of investigation which will be developed in my dissertation work. In this panel, I am hoping to engage in a conversation that enriches and moves forward the development of this work.



1. FAO Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean. FAO Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean: Ganaderia. Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations Available at:

2. Restrepo, D L. Taste and Odor Problems in Clinton Lake Reservoir’s Drinking Water. JUR 54–71 (2012).

3. Landini, F. Extensión Rural en Paraguay: Análisis de Problemas y Concepciones de Extensión. Investigación Agraria 17, 87–97 (2015).

4. Landini, F. Problemas de la extensión rural en América Latina. Revista Perfiles Latinoamericanos; Vol. 24, Núm. 47 (2016) (2016).

5. Landini, F. Extensión Rural en Paraguay: Análisis de Problemas y Concepciones de Extensión. Investigación Agraria 17, 87–97 (2015).

6. Vanclay, F. Social Principles for Agricultural Extension to Assist in the Promotion of Natural Resource Management. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 44, 213–222 (2004).

7. FAO. Foro Internacional Modelos de Extensión y Servicios Rurales para la Agricultura Familiar. (2017).

8. Thompson, D. Community adaptations to environmental challenges under decentralized governance in southwestern Uruguay. Journal of Rural Studies 43, 71–82 (2016).

9. Dogliotti, S. et al. Co-innovation of family farm systems: A systems approach to sustainable agriculture. Agricultural Systems 126, 76–86 (2014).


11. George, H. et al. Extension Agent Interviews.(2016).

12. Landini, F. & Riet, L. Extensión Rural en Uruguay: Problemas y Enfoques Vistos por sus Extensionistas. Mundo Agrario 16, (2015)

13. Stephenson, G. The Somewhat Flawed Theoretical Foundation of the Extension Service. Journal of Extension (2003). Available at:

14. DGDR/MGAP. Ganaderos Familiares y Cambio Climático. Direccion General de Desarrollo Rural Available at: rural/institucional/llamados/vigentes/ganaderos-familiares-y-cambio-climatico.

15. FAO. FAO Corporate Document Repository. What is Local Knowledge? (2004). Available at:

16. USDA. United States Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency. Conservation Programs: Prospective participants/General Public Available at:

17. La Extensión Rural en el Paraguay. ABC Color (2006).

22. Parera, A. & Carriquiry, E. Manual de Practicas Rurales Asociadas al Indice de Conservación de Pastizales Naturales del Cono Sur de Sudamérica (ICP). (Aves Uruguay, 2014).

24. Alianza del Pastizal. Iniciativa de Conservación de los Pastizales Naturales del Cono Sur de Sudamérica. Institucional Misión (2017). Available at:

25. Aves Uruguay. Aves Uruguay. Grupo Uruguayo para el Estudio y la Conservacion de las Aves (GUPECA) Available at:

Threats to Indigenous Land Rights in the Ch’orti’ Region of Eastern Guatemala and Western Honduras, and Strategies for Protection”

Brent Metz

 The trajectory of incessant land loss among the Ch’orti’ Maya mirrors those of many indigenous groups throughout Latin America.  Starting with the Spanish invasion in 1524, the Ch’orti’s experienced a catastrophic demographic crash from epidemics, warfare, famine, and forced population removals to regions devoted to mining and portage.  With a weakened Ch’orti’ population, Spaniards were able to settle the most fertile, well-watered valleys for the production of sugarcane, cattle, pack animals, indigo dye, and cocoa.  The Ch’orti’s were slowly confined to the driest, steep mountains, and when their population had nearly recovered by the early 1700s, their spatial expansion was blocked and existing land threatened by burgeoning Spanish and especially culturally mixed Ladino populations.  High tribute and forced labor demands in the 1700s and early 1800s motivated many Ch’orti’s to either move permanently to haciendas, where the owners usually paid their tribute obligations, or joined Ladino communities that had no land titles but also were demanded little by the Crown.

            The most damaging event since the Spanish invasion occurred when the independent postcolonial governments of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras instituted privatizations of indigenous communal lands in the 1870s-90s.  This occurred in tandem with the rise of coffee production in indigenous mountain refuges that had long been of little commercial interest.  In Guatemala, the zone with the highest population density, Spanish Creoles and Ladinos maneuvered to split mountainous coffee-producing areas from municipios (counties) where Ch’orti’s had greater control into new smaller municipios.  In Honduras, population density was lower but Guatemalan Ladinos and Ch’orti’s both were moving in, the former mostly for tobacco cultivation.  Discrimination against “Indians”, Creole and Ladino connections to and cultural maneuverability in circles of power, and the Ch’orti’s principle interest in shifting horticulture meant that Creoles and Ladinos would eventually gain title to the land and Ch’orti’s would either become their peons or continue migrating north in search of more virgin forest lands to clear.  In El Salvador, privatization was the last gasp for Ch’orti’ communities, whose disease-ridden populations had been surrounded and invaded by Ladinos since the early 1700s.  Both Ch’orti’ leaders and Ladinos outmaneuvered the poor peasants when communal lands were allocated, and without lands in common, Ch’orti’s abandoned their identity in a sea of Ladinos.  Commercially, the land was valued mostly for cattle grazing after the decline in the global indigo trade in the early 1800s.

In the past 30 years the greatest threats to the remaining Ch’orti’ land in Guatemala and Honduras have been the selling of municipal lands to private interests for coffee production, mining, illegal timber clearing, hydroelectric dam operations, and ranchers.  Many of these operations subsidized by narcotraffickers, who launder their millions in such investments.  It is not simply the loss of land that is impoverishing an already destitute population, but the declining quality of the land and climate for subsistence agriculture that is threatening the Ch’orti’s.  Despite constant emigration from the region since the 1800s, the populations within Ch’orti’ communities have climbed arithmetically since the mid-1800s, which in turn has led to shortening fallow periods, erosion, and loss of fertility.  The mining operations are contaminating streams and rivers with heavy metals used to wash ore.  Since the 1970s Ch’orti’s have complained of more extreme climate variability, such that the rains never come at the end of April like they almost always did before.  Nowadays the rains may start in April, May, or June, and then it may stop for weeks as at a time, as happened this past summer when it did not rain for 39 days straight in June and July, wiping out 80% of the corn crop.

Ch’orti’ strategies for survival include picking coffee for low wages to buy food, migration to cities or the last forests in northern Central America, and the formation of indigenous organizations to reclaim territory.In Honduras, this has been met with partial success, as the government has bought over 10,000 hectares of inferior land from tobacco plantations and cattle ranches for Ch’orti’ communal land.In Guatemala, one organization has used the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169 to claim about 600 hectares coffee plantation, but this came at the cost of 3 lives and 6 men imprisoned under false pretenses.Protests against mining operations have also been dangerous, and one leader was murdered in October. Another threat looming on the horizon is a “dry canal” plowing through the region that would relieve some of the traffic pressure from the Panama Canal.

Getting their Lands and Forests Back:Recognizing Indigenous Territorial Jurisdictions in Central America

Peter H. Herlihy, Ph.D. Professor of Geography

Matthew L. Fahrenbruch, Ph.D. Candidate

Taylor A. Tappan, Ph.D. Candidate

Department of Geography and Atmospheric Sciences

Prior to the 1970s, little land or forested area was legally set aside for indigenous communities in Central America. The first of what we call “indigenous territorial jurisdictions” (ITJs) were 19th century “reservations” and later “protected areas” and “biosphere reserves” where the state owned the land and had governing authority, not providing for the autonomy or self-determination of the indigenous peoples within. Over the past five decades, however, a “territorial turn” has occurred in indigenous-state relations in Central America resulting in the establishment of new ITJs covering vast expanses of the region—especially in Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama.

Indigenous communities are receiving land titles and secure rights and governance authority over their communities, lands, and forests as state governments are satisfying their historic and contemporary obligations to recognize and protect their indigenous populations. Following specific national and international legislation, and supported by World Bank and other international funding, state agencies and NGOs have worked together with indigenous communities to define the new ITJs. They are mostly delimited to include settlements and their subsistence zones (functional habitats) with newly conceived inter-community titles (title held in common by multiple communities). Some ITJs are provincial in size while others are much smaller.

As part of our University of Kansas - American Geographical Society Bowman Expedition, called Centroamérica Indígena (funded by a U.S. Department of Defense Minerva Grant), KU professors and students coupled field research with the analysis of census data and cadastral information to examine the population distribution of indigenous communities in Central America. We reviewed the development the ITJs in each country and did a digital cartographic assessment using ArcGIS to evaluate the official data from each Central American country.

Our results shows ITJs presently cover 18% of Central America, as more continue to form. Our assessment using satellite imagery of forest cover shows their delimited polygons include the region’s most important remaining areas of tropical forests. On average ITJs are over 70% forested, compared to Central America at about 60%. 40% of their area overlapping with the region’s legally-established protected areas, and there is some evidence that, throughout the region, ITJs have experience statistically lower instances of deforestation than protected areas over the last decade.


Today indigenous leaders in Central America and their legally-recognized federations now express disdain for state-sponsored protected areas that they no longer want on their lands and forests. Today, the ITJs are developing their own governance structures that coordinate with state agencies and NGOs to help protect and manage their lands and resources that continue to be threatened by mega-development projects, illegal agricultural colonization, forest extraction, and drug traffickers.

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