Black and Green: Afro-Colombians, Development, and Nature in the Pacific Lowlands

Asher, Kiran
Duke University Press, Durham, NC and London, 2009, ISBN 978-0-8223-4483-4, 247 pp.
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Victoria Bateman
CENDEP, Oxford Brookes University, UK

Set in the most westerly states of Colombia known as the Pacific Lowlands, Black and Green follows the paradoxical processes of development in the region leading up to, and following, Law 70: the constitutional law which recognised collective land titles for black communities in the early 1990s.
During this time, a huge remote area, once cut off from the rest of the country and populated by millions of African Colombian descendants and indigenous people, came under the external pressures of development, at once meeting resistance from advocates for the rights of local communities and from environmentalists.

The book analyses the complex processes that helped to shape the Colombian law, including the important role of Afro-Colombian social groups, and the ensuing implications following its ratification. Kiran Asher argues that neither the globalising force of capitalist development, nor the alternatives suggested by grassroots-level social movements, is independently able to promote economic growth, meet basic human needs, and conserve the natural environment in an effective way. The author explores these three principles at their conjunction in this ecologically important and resource-rich region, through the experiences and debates of involved parties. On this basis she explains the intricate ways in which developmental powers and social movements have shaped each other, rejecting the idea that globalisation under neo-liberalism is a one-sided homogenising system that victimises minorities, and also the idea that local communities have the power to influence the process of development.

Asher sympathises with the perspectives of different actors with often opposing outlooks, having gained access to the meetings in which legislation was formed and planning decisions made, in addition to engaging directly with local communities. She tracks the fluid formations and fracturing of active social movements in relation to the increasing power that Afro-Colombian groups gained in the process of developing the constitution, and the subsequent splits caused by the differences of interest within the Afro-Colombian community after the law’s implementation. This highlights contradictions inherent in trying to give a voice to the Afro-Colombian community, while having to express the conflicting interests of rural and urban, well-off and poor people, through a handful of autonomous representatives.

The series of small victories gained in promoting racial equality and ethnic rights to land ownership are in alliance with international pressures on environmental protection and human rights. These often conflict strongly with the Colombian government’s plans for socio-economic development in the area, and other external pressures to release resources for global supply. The contradictory tasks of planning to develop the region economically, opening it up to a global market and capitalising on this biodiverse region, while also planning for environmental protection and preserving the subsistence lifestyle of rural Afro-Colombians, never really get underway, as mounting tensions allow the situation in the region to slowly slip out of control.

The onset of a decade of increasing violence, drug cultivation, illegal logging and mineral extraction would seemingly make these battles irrelevant. Thousands of people were displaced, and communities shattered. The bio-diversity of the region was at once threatened and exploited even more uncontrollably, and the development agenda in this period became subsidiary to, or subsets of, military confrontation and globalisation. However, Asher argues that success emerged from the project’s failure, with fundamental gains in terms of increasing the rights of black Colombians and affirming equality and the right to be different. Land titling was granted to 122 communities, there was an increase in the number of delegates in the Chamber of Commerce, and a change in the national curriculum to accommodate Afro-Colombian history.

Asher uses an anthropological methodology to guide her research, specifically with first-hand ethnographic information and historical background studies, providing an interesting and diverse perspective on the negotiations that took place on various levels, from the deliberations of the state senate to the wants and needs of individuals within the black communities. She documents the series of discussions in intricate detail, highlighting the differing viewpoints and contradictions surrounding ideologies, implementation, and administration of Law 70. Asher demonstrates a rare self-reflective
quality, for example in a chapter dedicated to the experiences of the women of the region, prompted by her wider interests in gender, and admitting that she felt that she could gain their trust by being a woman and by drawing on ethnic parallels.

This is clearly an original and important work which provides a balanced and objective documentation of the parties involved in the struggles to implement Law 70. It offers a useful insight into the culture and ethnology of the region, the logistics of national government and local governance, and the interplay between regional and global development – but very much within this one particular context. This provides for a very strong, well-researched case study but weakens the author’s main concepts, which are not really tested beyond the very particular events that are the focus for her argument. This is not a general-interest book and is unlikely to be key reading material for social and environmental studies, but it does provide a detailed and reliable source of information in reference to Afro-Colombian ethnicity and the 1991 Colombian Constitution.