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Geography Knows No Boundaries

Mónica P. Hernández

La Boquilla is a community of almost six thousand people dedicated mostly to fishery. It is located north from Cartagena on the Caribbean Coast of Colombia, approximately 400 miles from Bogota, the capital city. Besides fishery, tourism represents an important sector for its inhabitants. During weekends and high season (December-January/July-August), people from La Boquilla and surrounding villages provide services for tourists, which constitute an important component of the village’s economy. Almost 70% of the population in the area is Afro-Colombian. They were recognized as an Afro-Colombian community by the government more than five years ago, and in 2011 they were granted a collective land title over 39Ha of territory.

 The city of Cartagena has jurisdiction over La Boquilla and at least another 25 rural villages that are in the process of collective land titling. Those other communities are seeking the title mostly because they fear being expelled by the tourist enterprises that are taking over the beaches and other lands near the coast. There are also other private enterprises working in gas exploration or transportation projects that threaten settlements because of the environmental impacts of their work in the area. The Afro-Colombian communities I study are trying to obtain the titles to have a stronger position to negotiate their participation in those development projects. Acquiring indigenous land rights, they hope, will allow them to slow environmental degradation or promote economic development on their terms. However, while these processes advance slowly, companies are working in the zone through previous consultation (PC) with ethnic communities. Through processes of PC they inquire about community needs and commit to help with those needs as a tradeoff for permission from the Afro-Colombian communities to conduct their works in their villages. Those needs could be anything from public works like water and sewage systems to a center for the elderly.

Between leaders of the Afro-Colombian communities, there is a spectrum of how they feel about this relation with private enterprises. Some of them reject any negotiation with private business, arguing that it should be their right as citizens to have public services, and not an occasional payment for invasive work happening on their land. Leaders from other communities agree with this point, but they accept private companies’ offers because they believe they are the only way for their communities to survive. On the other side of the spectrum, some leaders are satisfied so long as companies provide ongoing social programs and generate at least some local jobs. These different expectations for development are generating tensions between leaders from different communities and within the communities they represent. The absence of state government in rural areas is not really an absence; for decades, it has been a way for the Colombian state to relate with people historically marginalized: rural habitants and ethnic minorities, including Afro-Colombians in rural Cartagena. As a result, since the second half of the twentieth century, marginalized communities in Colombia have received more support from international institutions and NGOs than from the state. Organizations like the United States Agency for International Development or previously the World Bank worked with these and other Afro-Colombian communities supporting community recognition by the state, local development initiatives, and land titling processes.

 With support from the MaGrann Research Award, I went to La Boquilla for three weeks to explore the changes caused by the fact that their property is now a collective good. While there, I realized that the complexity of collective property is due to the differing goals of the actors involved as well as the characteristics of the process of collective titling itself. Through preliminary archival, ethnographic, and interview-based research, I argue that collective land property represents a convergence between inequity in land property distribution and cultural recognition for ethnic minorities, and cannot be understood narrowly either as an economic problem or as a problem of cultural recognition.

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