Parsons has selected an area with which he is thoroughly familiar for illustrating the pioneer settlement phenomenon in Latin America. Through careful historical research combined with intensive field investigations he presents the reader with a picture of the typical but complicated marginal Latin American region which has lain dormant since early colonial times until recently. From 1951 to 1966 the population has increased more than fivefold, and the area has now almost been converted from forests to a cleared land of experimental crops and cattle. Certainly Parsons’ explanation of what has transpired in Antioquia’s panhandle is not only a major contribution to the settlement literature of a little-known part of South America, but may well establish a standard for the kind of basic study sorely needed by tropical land planning agencies.
His excellent analysis of pertinent human and physical geofactors brings to light the reasons for the continued underdevelopment of this part of Antioquia. Although handfuls of settlers moved into the area around the turn of the century and extracted Castilloa latex, lumber, ipecac roots, and tagua nuts, civil wars in Colombia, along with the difficulties imposed by rough terrain, prevented development of the road to the sea. The Thousand Days War (1899-1902), for example, which left 100,000 dead on battlefields, ruined commerce. During subsequent periods of political consolidation the frontier area with its Liberal tendencies was neglected by Conservative governments. The creation of large Indian reservations and the emergence of uncertainty over land titles slowed progress even in desirable parts of the area. Also, the corridor region has much heavier rainfall than Antioqueños were accustomed to. Land was not suitable for the preferred coffee crop, and pasture maintenance requirements were completely different. Steep slopes and shallow soils were other factors which militated against settlement of the panhandle.
The processes of land opening have had particularly disastrous results. Lumbering activities since 1905, for example, have produced undisciplined hill settlement and accelerated runoff, channel clogging in the lower areas, floods, and the demise of the few remaining Indians. Forests have been rapidly converted into useless second growth or pasture by individual settlers who frequently end up as wage earners for latifundistas. Since 1959, when the United Fruit Company decided to move into the Urabá area, thousands of pioneers have opened land and contracted with the company to produce bananas for the international market. Many have become rich this way, but the multitudes have produced a settlement pattern which bodes trouble for the future.
Unfortunately, officials have been caught napping by the massive invasion of the panhandle. A population increase estimated at over nine percent in 1963 has produced new cities and towns which are little better than slums. Everyone awaits government action; gone are the days when the United Fruit Company planned housing, clinics, stores, recreational facilities, and even education for colonists. Whether the federal and departmental authorities will long be able to ignore pressures for substantial aid is doubtful unless programs of regional and community self-help are inaugurated soon.
Parsons’ elucidation of modern developments in the panhandle of Antioquia points toward urgent need of planned settlement in tropical lowland areas, particularly when they are settled by pioneers from other climates. This reviewer wishes that he had made more of the distinction between pioneer settlements, which may be spontaneous or planned, and colonization, but this is a quibble. The reader of this fascinating book will most certainly want it for his own collection. Although the linguist will detect a sizeable number of printer’s errors, it is a fine piece of work. This book and Parsons’ excellent volume on Antioqueño colonization constitute an indispensable vade mecum on the history and geography of northwestern South America.