Available now: USAvailable now: UK

The Lands of the Afro-Colombians

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.


The Rise and Decline of General Laws of Capitalism

It is hard not to be impressed by the meteoric success of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a success that has spawned dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of reviews and reactions from social scientists and journalists.

Yet we felt that few, if any, of these reviews touched on what we thought was the biggest shortcoming of the book. Sure, one can — and should, and we do — quibble with the theory (and especially the way it is presented and the way it follows the put-down that economic theory gets from Piketty) and the strong predictions about the future dominated by capital income (even though there is little evidence backing this up, perhaps because econometrics is also not en vogue). But from our viewpoint, more important is the way in which Piketty eschews a careful analysis of the determinants, and implications, of inequality situated in the context of the economic and political institutions of a society, and instead links the dynamics of inequality to fundamental or general laws of capitalism, very much in the style of Malthus, Ricardo and Marx.

So here is our attempt at a critique focusing on this point.


The Coatsworth Thesis

The reactions of the campesinos in Chachapoyas to the state might not have been completely surprising to people who had read the work of the historian John Coatsworth. In Chapter 1 of Why Nations Fail we present a comparative economic and political history of the Americas showing how the very different institutions that got set up in colonial Latin America led to its long-run development. In characterizing these institutions as extractive on the one hand we focused on economic institutions, such as systems of labor coercion, designed to exploit indigenous peoples to the benefit of colonists. Lying behind these extractive economic institutions were extractive political institutions, political power concentrated in the hands of the elite and a weak state. Yet why was the Latin America state weak? John Coatsworth has persuasively argued that to understand the institutional path of Latin America it is important to understand the structure of the colonial state which involves an interaction not just between the elite and society, but between society, the Spanish settler elites and the Spanish state. For example, the colonial state often intervened to protect indigenous peoples from exploitation by the settlers. One reason of course was that the colonial state wanted to exploit the indigenous peoples itself (something which comes up in Melissa Dells’ path-breaking study of the impact of labor coercion in colonial Latin America - The Persistent Effects of Peru’s Mining Mita).

But it also wanted to weaken the power of these settler elites because it was also afraid of them declaring independence or refusing to pay taxes. A particularly interesting example of this is attempts by the Spanish crown to rescind grants of encomienda, the earliest system of labor coercion implemented in the Americas. Coatsworth also points out that this is a reason why property rights were ill-defined and insecure in colonial Latin America, by not giving settlers well defined and secure rights the colonial state made them more dependent on it, thus weakening their autonomy and power.

Thus the idea that Peruvians might appeal to the central state to help them fight against the tyranny of local elites was not a new one in the 1930s. It had actually been going on for a long time.

A good place to read his views is in his paper “Institutions and Long-Run Economy Performance in Mexico and Spain, 1800-2000” co-written with distinguished Spanish economic historian Gabriel Tortella.


Do People Really Dislike the State So Much? (with thanks to Joshua Walker)

Scott’s work emphasizes the fact that people don’t really like living in states and they get away from them if they can. This argument certainly mirrors a great deal of anthropological evidence from small scale and stateless societies and it is certainly true in some cases as our last several blogs (here and here) suggested. But our argument has a logical corollary which ends up looking like the opposite of Scott’s thesis: if people think they can control the state and use it in their interests, then they will demand that it takes action and expands.

This argument has been developed in a series of brilliant works by the anthropologist David Nugent, most centrally his book Modernity at the Edge of Empire with a summary of some of the key ideas being presented in his article “Building the State, Making the Nation: The Bases and Limits of State Centralization in “Modern” Peru”.

Nugent presents us with a detailed history of the department and city of Chachapoyas in Northeastern Perú over the past century. Early in the 20th century the national capital in Lima exercised little direct authority over the department given its physical isolation and the fact that it was not connected by a proper road to the rest of the country. Instead, the department was controlled by a group of powerful families, castas, who controlled not land, but local politics. They used this political hegemony to staff and control all the positions of the state, most importantly the police force. Their main source of income was the taxes that they were able to extract from the population. The castas ruled, but they did so by occupying the positions of the state that in the early 1930s began to change its relationship to these local elites. In 1931 the National Election Law introduced a secret ballot, extended the franchise and made voting obligatory and generally weakened the control of the castas over local elections. In 1933 the local police force was abolished and a well-trained Guardia Civil composed of people from outside the region took its place. The national state began to exert its control over local administrative appointments and particularly the collection and allocation of tax revenues. Also important was educational transformation. Prior to 1930 the castas had appointed all the teachers in the department and did so as part of a clientelistic political strategy to keep power. After 1930 the national Ministry of Education gradually began to exercise control over appointments.

Clearly what was going on here was the extension of state authority and power to integrate Chachapoyas more firmly into the Peruvian state. Nugent shows that though this might have been highly adverse for the castas, it was not so for everyone. Most important, what put this dynamic of expansion into motion was not some autonomous impulse from Lima coercively imposed, but local demands from Chachapoyas.

Chachapoyas was the fiefdom of the castas, but Perú had a constitution which enshrined things like the rule of law, security of property. During the 1920s Nugent shows how social mobilization in Chachapoyas, mostly started by a few elites who had got an education in Lima, began to demand the end of casta rule. Critically, they demanded the expansion of state power as a tool to free the society from the rule of the castas who they saw as violators of their basic rights as Peruvian citizens. As Nugent puts it

In the first phase (in the 1930s) the state was proclaimed the legitimate protector and potential liberator of a self-defined “moral community” – a local, marginalized group that sought to free itself from the control of local powerholders – who actively assisted the state in effecting a more complete integration of regional territory and nationalization of regional population.

So this is James Scott’s thesis upside down! Rather than fleeing from the state and resisting it, ordinary people are demanding the expansion of its authority in order to attain freedom from arbitrary and coercive local elites.

As we have already argued and will continue to argue in the next post, this underscores the necessity of a conceptual framework in which the politics of state formation, and in particular whether different groups expect to be able to control the state, is at the center stage.


Shakespeare in the Bush

Though it is a bit of a distraction from the theme of state formation, we can’t mention the Tiv and the work of Paul and Laura Bohannon without mentioning Laura Bohannon’s wonderful story published in 1966 “Shakespeare in the Bush”. Here she relates the problems of telling the story of Hamlet in a completely different cultural context.

You can read the story here: