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6 Afro-Colombian Social Movements Peter Wade By some estimates,Colombia has the second largest population of Afro-descendants in Latin America, after Brazil (Sanchez and Bryan 2003). It also arguably has the most comprehensive array of legislation aimed at Afro-descendant people, including special land titles for “black communities” (as defined by the law); ethno-education programs in schools; university places reserved for candidates from black communities; representation on committees and decisionmaking bodies at various levels of the local, regional and national state; a special Directorate of Black Community Affairs; and two seats in the Chamber of Representatives of the Congress reserved for candidates representing black communities.1 Yet before the 1990s, when these laws came onto the statute books, Afro-Colombian social mobilization was not very well developed and, indeed, many academics and activists bemoaned the fact that Afro-Colombians were “invisible” in the eyes of the state and in the nation more generally. Even academic disciplines, such as history, anthropology and sociology, were said to ignore Afro-Colombians, preferring to concentrate on slavery, indigenous peoples , and the poor (defined in terms of class rather than ethnic identity). In this chapter,I will outline the background and current situation of Afro-Colombians and try to explain how the changes in their “visibility” came about (which will also involve arguing that they were not quite as invisible as is often maintained). My own experience of Colombia and Afro-Colombian people began informally in 1980,when I spent some time in the city of Cartagena,on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, where there is a substantial Afro-Colombian population. From 1983 to 1998 I carried out a series of projects in rural and urban areas, using techniques of ethnographic enquiry and interviews to explore issues of identity, discrimination, political mobilization, and the intersection of culture and politics. I also used the analysis of documents, especially in a study on the social history of music from the Caribbean coastal region, but my methodology has been mainly anthropological.  136  Peter Wade Background and Context Africans were imported into Colombia from the 1520s and concentrated first in and around Cartagena, a port on the Caribbean coast, where they did domestic and agricultural labor. The main occupation of slaves, however, was gold mining and this was focused on the Pacific coastal region and in valley zones of the provinces of Cauca and Antioquia. The Pacific coastal region was particular for having a population composed mainly of slaves, free blacks, and indigenous people with a tiny minority of whites. Interbreeding was limited and the emergence of mestizos (mixed people) was thus also restricted,in contrast to many other areas of Colombia where they became a majority by the end of the eighteenth century. Slavery was abolished in 1851 and the Pacific coastal region remained a poor, underdeveloped area with little infrastructure. This history helped constitute the Pacific region as a particularly“black” region in a regionally diverse country. Colombia is often represented as a country of regions. Typically, four main regions are said to exist. The central Andean region, with three mountainous cordilleras running north to south separated by two impressive river valleys, encompasses the biggest cities and is the seat of political power and economic wealth. It is predominantly white and mestizo with small groups of indigenous peoples, especially in the higher areas. The Pacific coastal region to the west is damp, poor, heavily forested, and sparsely populated and has rather little infrastructure . It is often seen as the“black region” of the country, with a population that is about 80 percent black and the significant presence of indigenous groups. The hot Caribbean coastal region to the north has some medium-sized cities and a population that includes significant numbers of both Afro-Colombian and indigenous peoples and a majority of mestizos with a lot of African and indigenous heritage. Finally, the plains and jungles to the east of the Andes are famed as the territories of cowboys (on the plains, or llanos) and indigenous peoples (in forests). This “racialized” geography, whereby regions have stereotypical associations with certain racial identities, is important in understanding the situation of Afro-Colombians and their processes of political mobilization. It is similar to some other Latin American countries, such as Peru, where the highlands are associated with indios and the coastal plains with whites and mestizos , or Ecuador, where the Pacific coastal region is the “black region.” Often the regions associated with black and indigenous peoples are marginalized...


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