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Reviewed by:
  • Black and Green: Afro-Colombians, Development, and Nature in the Pacific Lowlands
  • Ulrich Oslender
Black and Green: Afro-Colombians, Development, and Nature in the Pacific Lowlands. By Kiran Asher. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009. Pp. xv, 247. Maps. Illustrations. Notes. References. Index. $79.95 cloth; $22.95 paper.

This book is a welcome addition to the growing literature on indigenous and black resistance in Latin America. It looks in detail at the experience of one sector of the black movement in Colombia, the Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN). The colorful title-metaphor gives a clue to the author's approach. Rural black populations in the tropical rainforest region of the Colombian Pacific lowlands have officially been recognized as guardians of this fragile ecosystem. In fact, black and green was considered a winning formula in the early 1990s to protect both the environment from uncontrolled exploitation by mining and logging companies and the traditional life styles and culture of rural black populations. It was a time of hope for the region's Afro-Colombian communities who were seemingly empowered by a legislation that would grant them collective land titles over 5 million hectares.

Asher gives an ethnographically rich account of how the black movement emerged in the context of what appeared to be a changing rationale for sustainable development in the region. she charts the confluence of state and black movement interests in the Pacific lowlands, and pays particular attention to the processes in the Constituent Assembly that proposed communal ownership. The author is very much aware of the multiple agendas in the passing of this legislation as Law 70 in 1993 and its "seemingly paradoxical effect" (p. 22) of granting land rights of over 50 percent of this region to black communities in an era of neoliberal economic globalization.

Asher is above all interested in examining the entanglements between development and social movement discourses that, according to her, cannot be explained in terms of simple binaries of modernity versus tradition, or exploitation versus resistance (p. 1). Thus she sets out to examine how black movement discourse has partly been shaped by the state's developmentalist logic. she finds a seemingly convincing case in the PCN, and above all in the black women's cooperatives (Chapter 4) that receive funding from state bodies to be trained in micro-enterprise management and low-interest credit schemes to improve living conditions locally. There is much of interest here in Asher's keen ethnographic account that shows the multiple connections of the black women's network to state development agencies, NGOs, and multilateral agencies.

Less convincing is her conceptual approach. She critiques post-developmental analysis as viewing social movements as "simple manifestations of radical, non-Western culture," thereby underestimating "the degree to which development and resistance are related dialectically" (p. 25). At no point, however, does Asher theorize the unequal power relations in this dialectic game. Her insistence on "going beyond binaries" leads to her failure of stressing the stark opposition that does exist between the black social movement and development discourse and practice. Nowhere is this more evident than in the development-induced forced displacement of these rural black populations from their lands since 1996. Asher does have a last chapter on these issues, but it feels like an add-on. She [End Page 143] can't quite come to name the culprit behind the massive de-territorialization campaigns in the Pacific region, namely development projects promoted by the state, such as the large-scale agribusiness of African palm plantations. This violence in capitalist development is absent from her analysis, maybe because it does not fit into her framework of focusing on the "complex, contradictory, and contingent ways in which development and resistance structure each other" (p. 189).

There is a further flaw in the way she understands the black movement, when she states that "[i]n demanding autonomy from the state, the PCN recognizes the state's authority and in a curious way legitimizes it by engaging its instruments (law, policies) and institutions" (p. 128; emphasis in original). It is not true that the PCN demands autonomy from the state. It rather demands autonomy within the state, a crucial difference...


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