The Geographies of Social Movements: Afro-Colombian Mobilization and the Aquatic Space.

AuthorRausch, Jane M.
PositionLATIN AMERICA - Book review

Oslender, Ulrich. The Geographies of Social Movements: Afro-Colombian Mobilization and the Aquatic Space. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016.

With this carefully researched, well-written examination of issues facing Colombia's Pacific lowlands in the twenty-first century, Ulrich Oslender offers two important contributions: first, the elaboration of an innovative, theoretical template inspired by the region's unique geography as a lens to analyze developments that have and are occurring there; and second, a history of the region that reviews its development from colonial times to the present, but emphasizes the twenty years after the adoption of Colombia's Constitution of 1991, including Article AT-55 that specifically acknowledged Afro-descendants as a distinct culture group and empowered the mobilization of black communities. Based on a thorough review of primary and secondary sources as well as more than twenty years of ethnographic fieldwork carried out by the author in and around the town of Guapi, Cauca, the book is an important addition to geographical understanding and the historiography of this understudied Colombian region.

Colombia's Pacific lowlands cover an area of almost ten million hectares of tropical rainforest that is set apart from the republic's interior by the Eastern Andean mountain range. It is a region of jungle and swamp cut by numerous streams that flow westward to the Pacific. The largest of these waterways that make river settlements accessible to major Atlantic ports is the navigable Rio Atrato, which flows northward to the Golfo de Uraba. To understand the development of this region, which is rich in biodiversity and alluvial gold deposits, Oslender proposes a critical place perspective. He shows how the residents' social relationships are entangled with the region's rivers, streams, swamps, rain, and tides, and that this "aquatic space"--his conceptualization of the mutually constitutive relationships between people and their rain forest environment--provides a local epistemology that has shaped the political process. From this construct, he goes on to demonstrate that social mobilization among the black communities is best understood as emerging out of their place-based identity and environmental imaginaries, and he argues that this proposed "critical place perspective" accounts more fully for the multiple, multiscalar connections and the rooted, networked experiences within social movements (17).

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