Issue 18 - Article 10

Land-management tools and natural disasters in Central America

June 4, 2003
Suzanne Lerch

Vulnerability to natural disasters in Central America is not only a ‘physical’ problem. Issues surrounding land-use, ownership and planning also need to be addressed if this vulnerability is to be reduced.

In Central America, the subject of land ownership and use is surrounded by imprecision, an imprecision reflected in the available cartography and data. Two examples illustrate the importance of land usage and the part economic and social factors can play in exacerbating vulnerability to natural catastrophes in the region. These are crucial issues, not only during the period of reconstruction, but also in terms of analysing the causes of damage.

In the Salvadorean town of Tacuba, north of the capital San Salvador, the majority of peasants live on tiny parcels of steeply-sloping land; land suitable for agriculture and housing is taken by the large estates dedicated to coffee production. There is no social-welfare cover. In the event of extreme bad weather, crops are lost, and peasants have neither stocks of food nor a minimum assured income. In this region, preventive measures against vulnerability to natural catastrophes should include a redistribution of land and an improvement in the status of agricultural workers.

The second example concerns the Casitas volcano in western Nicaragua. When Hurricane Mitch struck in October 1998, part of the volcano collapsed, burying 2,000 people in a torrent of mud. This volcano, most of which belongs to a large landowner and a member of the ruling party, was crowned with television antennae, and construction work had begun on a holiday village on the summit. Many of the inhabitants believe (perhaps wrongly) that there is a link between this construction work and the catastrophe. While the official report into the disaster, conducted by the Instituto Nicaraguense de Estudios Territorales in January 1999, considers only physical factors, land ownership is an essential question for the council and people of Posoltega. Unless the reasons for the catastrophe are clearly established, and responsibility attributed, local confidence in national and international experts will not be restored, and the risk of further landslides will not be reduced.

The problem

One of the key tools in land management is cartography. However, existing cartography in Central America principally consists of topographical maps to the scale of 1:50,000 or 1:25,000, many of which are more than 20 years old. Vegetation, towns and infrastructure have all since changed, as have hydrography and topography. Rare larger-scale town plans show only general information covering road networks and hydrography, with no indication of developed estates, topography and the parcelling of land.

Land registration (where it is undertaken) is perceived and conceived as a means – admittedly a very useful means – of increasing tax revenues at municipal level, not as a way of making decisions on national and regional development. In rural areas, data concerning land ownership is available to the public only in statistical form, not as widely-distributed maps. This is the result partly of a lack of technical resources, but also of an absence of political will: land has always been the cause of most of Central America’s conflicts and population movements.


Central America’s extreme vulnerability to natural catastrophes has prompted international voluntary initiatives in the field of cartography. A programme by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SCD), for example, is producing maps of the dangers facing Nicaraguan towns, while a UN project coordinated by the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) and the UN Office for Project Service (UNOPS) aims to create a website to give cheap and direct access to satellite images to local players involved in reconstruction after a catastrophe or conflict. These projects are of a very technical nature, and will be ineffective unless they are accompanied by an integrated approach to national and regional planning in all of its phases and aspects, permitting the players – politicians, technicians, locals and dignitaries – to take responsibility for preventing natural and ecological disasters.


Four main lines of work, to be carried out in parallel, can be identified.

1. Promoting ‘citizens’ participation’ on a municipal or micro-regional scale

‘Citizens’ participation’ seeks to open up debates on planning issues, such as the municipal budget, the politics of health and education, housing and public transport. It is not the same as ‘community participation’, which centres on immediate needs and addresses inhabitants of an affected area as beneficiaries. Rather, it aims to create a framework and culture for debate, trying to change the traditional relationship between voluntary organisations, local authorities and inhabitants.

2. Integrating the idea of ‘territory’ into this process

The concept of ‘territory’ stands above all else for the common good. It is a powerful idea; public awareness of the ‘culture of territory’, raised by producing and distributing the implements for regional planning like accurate maps, increases the power of people to put forward their own proposals and conduct negotiations through traditional authorities like town councils, or through new authorities they create themselves. In San Francisco Menendez in El Salvador, for example, a dam built by the government immediately after Hurricane Mitch now deprives a whole estuary of fresh water, putting the work of many farmers at risk and provoking an ecological disaster in an area of mangroves designated a site of national interest. Inhabitants and town councillors, armed with a good map, could perhaps have succeeded in negotiating the position of this dam with the engineers in charge of building it.

3. Encouraging ‘decentralised cooperation’

‘Decentralised cooperation’ – between towns and regions in the North and their counterparts in Central America – offers some interesting advantages. These include increased political autonomy; the involvement of elected officials, technicians and citizens of the North in initiatives in Central America, who are required to give an account of their work and reflections to their own community; and a greater sense of equality between the partners. Examples of such cooperation abound, particularly in France, Spain, Italy and Holland. Often, this form of cooperation has focused on local support for infrastructure construction, but it is increasingly taking up the complex and less glamorous theme of regional and national development.

In Central America, examples of collaboration along these lines are increasing: between La Dalia (Nicaragua) and Seville in Spain, between Leon (Nicaragua) and Florence in Italy, and between the Nicaraguan town of Granada and Lyon in France, for example. French towns grouped under the Fédération mondiale des cités unies have for many years been twinning with towns in Nicaragua and El Salvador, and envisage municipal training operations in 2001. A partnership between Central American towns and the district and university of Geneva is in the pipeline on the theme of regional information, in collaboration with the UN. Schools of architecture in Catalonia have formed a network with universities in Central America, and hold two training seminars a year on the theme of town planning, one in Central America, the other in Spain.

4. Stepping up exchanges and networking

The space for debate on regional and national planning in all its dimensions (cultural, historical and technical) is rarely available in Central America. This limits the extent to which professionals, elected members and the inhabitants themselves can develop critical skills. This isolation means that, to a degree, ideas – Spanish, French, Swiss – are imposed from outside the region. To remedy this, a North–South network on national and regional development in Central America should be established to further exchanges of information and experiences, and to encourage methodological reflection.

Suzanne Lerch is a Geneva-based town-planning architect. She can be reached by e-mail at

Useful websites

Swiss Disaster Relief Unit <>

Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation <>




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