The Lands of the Afro-Colombians
Tuesday, September 2, 2014
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

We mentioned briefly in an earlier post how over the past decade or so the Afro-Colombian communities, mostly of the Pacific littoral, have managed to gain collective title to their lands.

This is a remarkable story in many ways, and like our examples from Perú, it constitutes a major challenge to James Scott’s vision as it provides another case where poor marginalized people, rather than fleeing from the state, managed to use the power of the state to their advantage.

Here is the story. Indigenous peoples in Colombia had collective title to their lands at least since Law 89 of 1890 that also recognized the rights of their traditional political institutions to manage their affairs. Law 2 of 1959 declared vast areas of the country to be baldío, essentially government lands, including much of the Pacific littoral. This was a prelude to land reform, which was legislated in the wake of La Violencia, a civil war that rocked Colombia most intensely between 1948 and 1958.

The threat of having their ancestral lands declared baldío stimulated the indigenous people to organize. At first, this worked particularly since the lands on the Pacific coast occupied by Afro-Colombians were not viewed as attractive for exploitation or re-settlement of people during land reform. In the 1970s things began to change, however, and Colombian elites started to gaze towards the Pacific, even if in a rather schizophrenic way. In 1975 the government of President Alfonso López Michelsen expressed his vision of turning Colombia into the “Japan of South America,” with a dream of developing the Colombian Pacific. This was then followed by a series of wild and unimplemented development plans. In 1982 President Belisario Betancur introduced his “Integral Development Plan for the Pacific Coast.”

This extensive region contains immense forest, fishing, river-and sea-based mineral resources which the country requires immediately.

The aim was to remove the “structural bottlenecks hindering regional development and holding back rapid growth.” The country may have “immediately required” the resources but what about the (black) people living there?

 In 1984 Betancur launched the Plan Pacifico with ambitious infrastructure projects included the building of roads, hydroelectric and energy plants, telecommunications networks, as well as plans to boost forestry, fishing, agriculture and mining. His successor, President Virgilio Barco announced more plans in 1987 including the construction of the Puente Terrestre Interoceanico (PTI), a land bridge between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans near Panama, comprising a railway, road, canal and oil pipeline. Crossing the Baudo mountain range and the Darien swamplands, the PTI was to connect two planned superports and included a massive road building plan throughout the Chocó. Interesting. However, as we pointed out previously there is still no road from Quibdó, the capital of the Chocó, to the rest of the country.

The intensification of elite interest in the Pacific and the Plan Pacifico, even if it was dead before the ink dried, provoked widespread alarm in the Black and Indigenous communities in the region. The result was large scale defensive social mobilization.

Various river-based Black peasant associations emerged—  in 1987 the Peasants’ Association of the Atrato River, in 1990 the Peasants’ Association of the San Juan River, as well as urban Black popular organizations like the Quibdó-based Organization of Popular Neighborhoods of the Chocó. Broader movements aimed at the representation and coordination of Black people’s demands also emerged, such as the Cimarron Movement, formed in 1982. These linked up with indigenous organizations.

In 1989 these groups were given a huge window of opportunity. During the campaign for the president to succeed Barco, three presidential candidates were assassinated and the Colombian body public was gripped with panic. The result was a decision to re-write the constitution that happened in 1991. Sensing an opportunity the Afro-Colombians managed to organize and cooperate with indigenous peoples to insert into the new Constitution the Transitory Article 55 which specified that a law had to be written to grant Afro-Colombians collective titles of their land and Law 70 emerged in 1993 specifying the process of how this was to happen.

Just how this clause got into the constitution is something of a mystery since Afro-Colombians are completely marginalized and discriminated against in Colombian society. You hardly see a black person in Bogotá and it was only in President Uribe’s government that the first black minister was appointed (the rather remarkable Paula Moreno, you might want to check out the activities of her NGO Manos Visibles, which is heavily engaged in promoting black empowerment in Colombia, here.)

The most plausible reason seems to be that Colombian elites have never really regarded the Pacific littoral as worth anything, and this was also a very unusual moment where the demobilized rebel group M-19 gained heavy representation in the constitutional convention (though they then quickly vanished from the political scene). The constitution was also concentrated on bigger fish, like decentralization, defining the powers of the president, the architecture of the supreme and constitutional courts, the electoral system and defining a whole web of rights for citizens. This was also one of those rare moments where progress happens in Colombia as elites panic at the unsustainability of the status quo and are willing to make concessions. This happened in the late 1950s and the main fruit of that was universal secondary education (albeit often of very low quality).

Another interesting issue here is why exactly Afro-Colombians demanded collective titles. Mostly this seems to have been an “invented tradition” since Afro-Colombian society did not organize economic activities collectively, though indigenous people did. One hypothesis is that this was a clever strategy in the light of the perceived incapacity of the Colombian state. It is one thing to pass a law, it is quite another for the Colombian state to actually demark and hand out hundreds of thousands of individual property titles. Recognizing that this was never going to happen the Afro-Colombians demanded their land in a form which massively reduced transactions costs. In consequence they now have title to 60% of the land in the department of Chocó.

Whatever the reason, the point is that this completely marginalized group, rather than fleeing the power of the state as Scott’s arguments presume, was able to get the states to further its interests and get what it wanted, title to its lands, even though this ran against the interests of more powerful elites.

Article originally appeared on Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (
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