Collective action on terrain where things are getting complicated: Case of Miraflor

Collective action on terrain where things are getting complicated: Case of Miraflor

René Mendoza V. *


In the previous article (“Coordination and collective action to mitigate the impact of climate change”) we worked on the framework of coordination, science, ecology and economics in the case of the CamBIO project in Central America. Now we will examine the experience of Miraflor (Estelí).

Miraflor, located at an altitude of 1,450 mts and 30 km from the city of Estelí with a population of 16,000 people, is a peasant area and symbol of change due to the agrarian reform, the emergence of women leaders, family agriculture and community tourism. Its history of changes speaks to the country, from a zone of three large estates prior to 1979, it became a zone of cooperatives in the decade of the 80s, then a protected area in 1999 and a “Protected Terrestrial Landscape”, including communities in the municipalities of Yalí and Concordia starting in 2004 (see Plan de Manejo Miraflor-Moropotente: Nevertheless, since 2000 Miraflor is moving toward the reconcentration – and foreign ownership – of the land, toward an agriculture dependent on agrochemicals, potato monocropping, and private tourism, having an impact on diversified family farming, some organic farming in coffee, the production of biological inputs for corn and beans, the community tourism that combines patches of forests and trees on farms, and its virtue of being the “lungs” of Estelí.

Why does a zone with so many resources (forests, water) and prospects tend toward the reconcentation of the land and an agriculture that generates greenhouse gases (GHE)? The response has to do with property insecurity, individualized reaction to the market, and the fragile institutionality of the co-management. About the property insecurity, the declaration of the protected area, in spite of its status as “Landscape…” does not undermine the individual property titles, but generates uncertainty in the population. The small producers have doubts about the validity of their property titles, the ex large estate owners, seeking to recover their lands, repeat over and over to them that those titles “are not worth anything”, and the financial institutions for 10 years now have been telling them that these titles are not valid because they are in a protected area. Consequently, many families are decapitalizing themselves over time, selling their land, and the richest are buying it off of them, “because the power of the rich is effective.”

To the insecurity caused by the lack of credit is added the adversity of the markets. Let us look at the case of potatoes that illustrates something that is happening with other crops. The price of potatoes went up to C$1,200 in 2012, while at the end of 2013 it dropped to C$250/quintal, in part because of the oligopolic system of the supermarkets that control the supply of potatoes throughout Central America. In the face of this price variation the small scale producers, even with external support, lost money and were left indebted: “just when the FAO was supporting us with credit and technical assistance, the market fell on us and we potato growers were left owing money; the market killed us.” Being members of cooperatives they responded to the markets (of products and capital) as individuals, and the international organizations supported the producers as if they were “individuals”.

Added to the property insecurity and vulnerability to the markets is the institutionality of the co-management. The status of “Landscape” implies wide flexibility in the application of the environmental laws due to the fact that it is in category 8 out of 9 categories of protected areas in the country, with category 1 as the strictest. Of 72 protected areas, there are 6 in co-management, and of these Miraflor-Moropotente formally is co-managed by an association of inhabitants of that same zone. The co-manager promotes environmental practices, approves or disapproves of requests for permits to use wood, and reports bad environmental practices to the State, who makes the decisions. In turn, the state backs the co-management as such, which is helpful for negotiating external funding. This co-management model administers projects and conceives of coordination with the inhabitants as their participation in those projects. Correspondingly, part of the population express doubts about this co-management model: “they are people who came from the large producers”, “they don´t say anything to the large potato growers that use agrochemicals and pollute the water,” “our voice denouncing private tourism with its bad practices is not listened to”.  These voices might be biased, but as the saying goes, where there is smoke there is fire.

This institutionality has meant that the nearly 20 cooperatives in the area, who in spite of their efforts to get the zone declared a protected area in 1999, their work of defending the agrarian reform in the 90s against the ex-large estate owners, and their promotion of community tourism, are not a party to the current co-management. This also is due to their own fragility, to depending since their beginnings on external resources. So the co-manager and the cooperatives mutually exclude one another, compete for external resources, have their own local networks and their own external donors, and both have distanced themselves from the problems and the opportunities of the zone. Consequently, community tourism is supplied by the community, includes diversification of income, environmentally compatible investments and collective actions like loaning horses to one another and sharing tourist guides; while private tourism has their own horses and tourist guides, and does investments (construction) considered to be in conflict with the environmental and social laws: “For 14 years we have been building community tourism, creating the Miraflor brand, and we were able to stop alcoholism to have good tourism and reduce the violence in the homes, but then the big ones came in, buy land in the best places, build in a matter of months, appropriate our brand and openly sell alcohol.”

From the above, a first reading of Miraflor is that there has not been spaces of coordination, be they to define the structure of co-management, or to visualize its sustainable development based on their own human capacities. The science has been reduced to a minimum, the bases on which the ecology and the economics can be combined are unknown, or what the coordination can be based on. In contrast the primacy of the economy is highlighted, in spite of the fact that it is a protected area. The same is true for the financial institutions that, instead of financing activities that combine economics and ecology, prefer to avoid Miraflor “because their titles do not have value”, and the international organizations are supporting specific activities (be it potatoes, coffee or forests) and only see “individuals”, instead of strengthening peasant families with their diversified systems and community tourism, and of seeing them as the organized families that they are.

Why is it so difficult to create spaces of coordination where the local actors are protagonists with their agroforestry systems and community tourism, and thus Miraflor might consolidate itself as the “lungs” of Estelí? A second reading requires the approach of the dilemma of collective action (Olson, 1965, The Logic of Collective Action). Olson thinks that collective actions (e.g. coordination around generating less GHE in Miraflor) do not take place because of the problem of free riders (opportunism). We are all in agreement in generating less GHE, but individually the person (or organization) perceives that their contribution in order to benefit from the climate is insignificant, and that is why the person concludes that it is rational to not coordinate, not do studies and not be concerned about the effects of climate change. The dilemma is that we all want good climate and well-being, but we are part of a chain of free riders, from international organizations to peasant families, passing through institutions and local leadership. The solution to the dilemma does not rest on any one individual, so we are all then on terrain where things are getting complicated.

* René Mendoza V. ( has a PhD in development studies. This article is based on work done with Edgar Fernández. Both are collaborators of the Winds of Peace Foundation (

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