Black and Green

Asher, Kiran. 2009. Black and Green: Afro-Colombians, Development, and Nature in the Pacific Lowlands. Durham: Duke University Press.

Kiran Asher’s Black and Green: Afro-Colombians, Development, and Nature in the Pacific Lowlands argues that “development” and “resistance” are mutually shaped in southwest Colombia through the relations of force between black activists and local-global political economic forces. She provides an ethnography on how Afro-Colombians organized and struggled for their collective rights to be enshrined in the 1991 constitution and how their politics mobilized discourses of culture, nature, development. But Asher argues that efforts to reconsolidate state legitimacy and capitalist development also turned on the mobilization of these same discourses, meaning that Colombia’s Pacific Lowlands became a deeply contested terrain in the way discourses of culture, nature, and development played out in practice. Mobilization of the discourses created a complex spectrum of limits, possibilities, and contradictions for both activists and state-led development efforts. But the state ultimately gained the upper hand.

Along the way, Asher examines the fractious internal struggles among Afro-Colombian activists to organize collectively for the Constitutional reforms that recognized Afro-Colombians as an ethnic group and provided them with a series of cultural rights, including collectively titled territories. She identifies three broad Afro-Colombian factions engaged in this internally contentious process: urban middle classes allied with traditional political parties, activists from the northwest department of Chocó who saw the reforms as a way to shake up elite dominance of party politics, and a more radical faction calling for a more autonomous and ethno-cultural idea of territory (7). The latter is represented in Asher’s account by the Proceso de Comunidades Negras (Process of Black Communities, PCN).

Before exploring these divisions and their consequences, the first chapter of the book explains how state-led projects of development and conservation created the conjunctural terrain upon which activists were forced to organize. Another chapter examines how these complex articulations play out within Afro-Colombian women’s groups—something that’s been largely overlooked in the literature. And the final portion of the book discusses how with the explosion of violence in the mid to late 1990s all these efforts were torn asunder, though not by any means eliminated. Threaded through all these discussions is how conservation, cultural rights, and development became assembled and understood by an array of actors—from technocrats and policy reformers, to activist and peasant groups.

Rather than autonomous expressions against the state (as PCN activists claimed or wished), black struggles, including understandings of local realities and culture in the 1990s, were at least partially shaped by and through the very discourses of political and economic modernity they opposed. For one, it appeared that both black movements and state interventions were using similar discourses and languages to construct their understandings of nature, culture, and development. (20)

Another thread through the book is an argument against Arturo Escobar’s views on how Afro-Colombian movements repurpose the discourses of modernity and their embedded coloniality toward more liberatory (decolonial) ends. Asher says that her more relational view of development and resistance provides a counterpoint to Escobar’s over-estimation of the facility with which social movements are able to accomplish this decolonial move. Although I agree with her cautiously skeptical conclusion, her description of Escobar’s work is somewhat caricatured and used to lay the terrain for her own claims.

Nonetheless, Asher gives some interesting treatment to the sometimes fraught relations between full time radical activist organizations (for lack of a better term) and the everyday life of the lowland river communities. She argues that the PCN’s far-reaching political horizon, for example, can sometimes meet difficulty at this critical juncture where the rubber meets the road. Escobar, on the other hand, paints a much more seamless (or, perhaps, indivisible) picture of how PCN’s political projects are grounded and culturally embedded in the everyday practices of the communities themselves.

Asher’s book undoubtedly offers a succinct and well-written account of the indeterminate political valence of discourses about culture, nature, and development in Colombia; she shows how they become material forces shaping vastly different—and in some cases, diametrically opposed—political projects. Readers from various disciplines and fields will be well-served by her excellent work.

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