Transformation to Sustainability - T2S

Transforming Unsustainable PATHways in agricultural frontiers : articulating microfinance plus with local institutionnal change for sustainability in Nicaragua – TRUEPATH

TRansforming UnsustainablE PATHways in agricultural frontiers: articulating microfinance plus with local institutional change for sustainability in Nicaragua

The TruePATH program focuses on the study of agrarian dynamics in the Rio Blanco and Miskitia regions of Nicaragua, under the influence of a cattle development front that has been advancing for several decades. This movement, which operates from the centre to the north of the country, is accompanied by particularly marked deforestation in favour of the installation of grasslands for cattle grazing, including in areas occupied by indigenous populations (Mosquito).

Agrarian dynamics and social differentiation in the face of the advancing agricultural frontier in central and northern Nicaragua. What room for more sustainable development pathways ?

Analysis of the contemporary advance of the agricultural frontier in Nicaragua: production processes, inequalities and socio-spatial differentiation<br />For several decades, Nicaragua has been experiencing strong growth in cattle farming for the export of meat and dairy products, particularly in the central and northern regions of the country. This development is accompanied by the advancement of the agricultural frontier and the progressive conversion of forests into agricultural land, in particular grasslands to feed the herds. This research project aimed to study these agrarian transformations, to analyse their impact in terms of social and environmental inequalities, and to reflect on possible alternatives for slowing down the advance of this front, which is now penetrating the indigenous territories of the north of the country in a particularly conflictual manner. Carried out in collaboration with Nicaraguan and Belgian teams that have been involved in local rural development for a long time, these analyses are part of a a reflection on the support mechanisms that could be implemented to influence these dynamics for a more sustainable agricultural development in this part of Nicaragua.<br />The main partners of the programm are the Institute of Development Policy and Management (IOB) of the University of Antwerp (Belgium), the Nitlapan Research and Development Institute of the Central American University (Nicaragua), AgroParisTech (France) (funded by ANR), the microfinance organization Fondo de Desarrollo Local (FDL) and the environmental NGO Centro Humboldt (CH), both based in Nicaragua.

Comparative field research linking access to resources, production processes and social inequalities
This work has mobilised the methods and concepts of Comparative Agriculture (Cochet, 2015; Cochet et al., 2007), a discipline at the crossroads of geography, agronomy and economics. It focused on three agrarian regions in central and northern Nicaragua, where the agricultural frontier began to develop in the 1950s, 1970s and 1990s respectively (Rio Blanco, Santa Rita (Mulukuku), Mosquitia (indigenous territory). The analysis was conducted at different scales (agrarian region, village, farm). This made it possible to highlight the dynamics common to these three regions, but also the specific features of the transformations at work in certain villages where, over the course of history, the rules of access to land and capital have been different, and thus to explore the importance of these conditions of access on inter- and intra-village social inequalities. By studying the technical functioning of different types of farms, the income that farmers derive from their activity, and the limiting factors that may arise (capital, land), we were able to link access to resources, production processes and economic inequalities. This research was based on extensive data collection, based on 15 months of fieldwork and nearly 250 interviews with farmers in these regions.

Initially forested, central Nicaragua was progressively cleared from the 1950s. Population growth in the region has progressively led to a reduction in the amount of agricultural land available per household in each generation. At the same time, the fertility rent of the former forest cover has been progressively exhausted. We show that, for this reason, farmers have implemented, over the last twenty years or so and in contrast to cattle farming, which is often described in these regions as extensive, an intensification of labour and capital per unit of surface area in an attempt to increase production and the wealth created per hectare. This intensification of fodder production makes it possible to maintain farmers on more limited areas and, potentially, to slow down the spatial expansion of these cattle farms, but the possibilities of deployment are directly linked to the unequal capital available to the producers.
Indeed, our research indicates that social differentiation has remained strong in the region. It allows us to examine in depth the modalities of social reproduction of the different categories of producers, and the way in which they are part of the migrations that fuel the advance of the agricultural frontier. In particular, we show that in the face of rising land prices and the cost of deploying fodder intensification, owner-breeders are in the best position to buy land in central Nicaragua on which to settle their children and avoid them migrating to Mosquitia. On the other hand, and despite the clear increase in production per hectare recorded over the last thirty years, family farmers, limited in land but even more so in capital, have too small a surplus to do so: some of their children therefore still have no other option than to migrate to find land further north.
Even if fodder intensification has been widely popularised by local development organisations, its deployment therefore partly eludes family farmers due to a lack of capital and targeted support. Our surveys in central Nicaragua have enabled us to identify alternative strategies to this type of increase in production per unit area, which is based primarily on capital, but also on the role that a less unequal distribution of land can play at the different scales of analysis used. For example, in the village of San Ignacio, where a particular agrarian history has led to a distribution of land in small, homogeneous plots, agriculture has remained almost exclusively family-based and the differences in income per family worker between producers do not exceed a factor of 3, whereas they reach a factor of 20 to 30 in the other villages marked by a very unequal land history.

Continuation of the scientific valorisation of the results.

This research has led to the writing (in progress) of four scientific articles, which concern (1) a comparative study of capital and labour intensification strategies among producers in central Nicaragua and their consequences in terms of spatial expansion; (2) socio-spatial differentiation and inequalities in Mosquitia (indigenous territory) under the influence of land grabbing linked to the expansion of cattle farming; (3) a cross-analysis of our results and those of our Nicaraguan partner, leading to a reflection on development support. The work carried out in Mosquitia also gave rise to a communication, and the work on agrarian dynamics in north-central Nicaragua is the subject of two reports and two capitalisation syntesis for research and development purposes.

The project uses an innovative pathways approach to inquire into the global-local institutional dynamics that generate the dominant socially and environmentally unsustainable cattle development pathway, a major driver of deforestation in Latin America and contributing to climate change, destruction of critical biodiversity stocks and dispossession of indigenous people. Addressing the key concern of T2S, the deeper understanding of the socio-institutional dynamics characterizing processes at the agricultural frontier enables to identify in-roads for policies of institutional entrepreneurship. This contributes to a transformation of powerladen institutional processes in order to change today's pathway in the direction of a more sustainable, equitable and climate-smart agriculture without a need to incorporate ever more land resources. The research consists of an action-research process in Nicaragua in cooperation with the microfinance organization Fondo de Desarrollo Local (FDL) and the environmental NGO Centro Humboldt (CH), focused on the potential of a Green Microfinance Plus (loans + technical assistance + Payments for Ecosystem
Services) connected to a citizen science approach to local climate data generation, processing and use as well as broader reflections in local deliberative fora. In terms of research methodology, a multidisciplinary mixed methods set-up is adopted, combining inputs from development sociology and economics with the Agrarian Systems approach, and making use of an original simulation game informed by local data. We develop scientific outputs and policy proposals that contribute to change towards sustainability in the Nicaraguan pathway and beyond, in particular for Green Microfinance.

Project coordination

Nadège GARAMBOIS (AgroParisTech)

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


AgroParisTech AgroParisTech
University of Antwerp, Institute of Development Policy and Management (IOB)
Universidad Centroamericana, Nitlapan, Institute of research and Development

Help of the ANR 200,200 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: November 2018 - 36 Months

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