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Black and Green: Afro-Colombians, Development, and Nature in the Pacific Lowlands (review)
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In the mid-1990s, Kiran Asher observed the burgeoning of Colombia's black social movement. Following the constitutional redefinition of the nation as multicultural, Law 70 of 1993 granted communal territorial rights to the black communities living along the rivers that traverse the forests of the Pacific lowlands. The so-called Ley de Negritudes encouraged an unprecedented wave of black political mobilization, which was largely based on the contested notion of black ethnicity. I also took part in this exceptional and exiting moment, working for three years in one of the projects depicted in Black and Green.

Establishing an argument with Arturo Escobar, Asher's clear and well-written book seeks explicitly to avoid viewing development and social movements in oppositional terms by striving for a nuanced exploration of their interconnections. It starts by giving an overview of the intertwined legal and social processes that brought "Afro-Colombian ethnicity to the limelight." It then focuses on the black social movement of the mid-1990s and its relation to "the development project." Finally, it closes with a chapter that traces the disruptions caused by war since the late 1990s, as well as the changes in state policy and the accommodations undergone by the movement.

Asher's exploration of the "development" projects operating in the region at the time centers on the contrasting ways in which "local communities" and state officials conceived them. She argues that while the former pushed for communal knowledge and community participation to play a pivotal role, the latter emphasized national interests and economic goals. Ironically, while communities were largely successful in their demands, the projects ultimately helped to expand the presence and legitimacy of the state in a marginal region.

The book's main contribution rests on its study of an important part of the black social movement and its relationship to the state. Asher aptly shows the divergences within the movement before concentrating on one faction, the Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN). While other groups were primarily interested in institutional politics or the communal-land titling process, the PCN adopted an anti-institutional stance. It sought to organize a broad black movement based on an ethno-cultural strategy and, in the name of the "communities", assert political control over the Pacific lowlands. By following the PCN's performance regarding a series of plans and projects, among them the formulation of the Plan de Desarrollo para Comunidades Negras, Asher shows how its goals were ambitious, vague, and fraught with logistical complications. Although the PCN mistrusted and critiqued the state's proposals and practices, she notes that it had to engage with the state, shared its language, and depended on it for funds. Asher concludes that by working with the state the PCN helped to legitimize it.

Asher also explores how women's cooperatives established in the 1980s decided to remain autonomous from the PCN. While they adopted some of its ethnic and territorial imperatives, they also pushed the PCN to adopt their own gender and income generation concerns.

The methodology used for this study has great advantages, but also a series of drawbacks. Asher draws on her observations during 15 months spent in Colombia between 1993 and 1995, as well as on reports and other published and unpublished materials. She makes ample use of her participation in public meetings and cites a good number of interviews with activists and state officials. Her narrative is very successful in giving the book a flavor of the processes examined and incorporating the voices of its participants. It is also an agreeable read.

But Asher's focus on public meetings as the core of the interaction between the state and the organizations leaves out many other ways of exploring this relation, which would have greatly supported her interpretative move beyond oppositional binaries. The confrontation at these very important meetings was one among several strategies used by the PCN. There were other spaces of conflict and collaboration. A closer look at the double role of Libia Grueso, one of the PCN's most visible leaders, as both activist and official of one of the state projects would have given a different perspective on the complex relation between the state and this segment...



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