Turf Wars. Territory and Citizenship in the Contemporary State by Bettina Ng’weno

Turf Wars. Territory and Citizenship in the Contemporary State. By Bettina Ng’weno. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007; xii + 299 pp.; 12 illustrations, 5 maps. $50.00 cloth.

It is by now well known that the nation state has undergone radical transformations in the last 20 years or so. Nonetheless, according to Kenyan anthropologist Bettina Ng’weno, academics have failed to examine these changes in post-colonial states, where territory, citizenship, and ethnicity have become their central articulations. Ng’weno’s impressive and meticulously researched monograph examines this broader field through case studies of black communities’ ethnic territorial claims in Colombia.

While blackness in Colombia, and the territorial claims of the Afro-Colombian social movement in particular, have become increasingly prominent in academic research, this book is one of few texts to engage not with the canonical sites of Colombia’s Caribbean and Pacific coasts, but with black Andeans. Ng’weno compares two territorial claims in the municipality of Buenos Aires, where local black miners and farmers have organized to take on competing claims by large landowners, migrant laborers, and a neighboring indigenous group. These remain in constant and sometimes conflictive dialogue with the territorial claims of different branches of the Colombian state, the municipality, and local guerrilla and paramilitary organizations.

Key to Ng’weno’s theorization of these struggles is her notion of a shift from “land” to “territory.” While the former connotes a unit of economic productivity, exemplified by the peasant land movements of the 20th century, the latter relates to control and administration. It imputes particular modes of citizenship and political action, as in the territories held by indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups or factions of illegally armed actors such as Colombia’s guerrillas and paramilitaries.

This “grounding of power in territory” (82) provides the pivot on which Ng’weno turns to her broader themes. She identifies a paradox in state power between fragmentation and consolidation. In the emblematic case of territorial titling to indigenous and black groups in Colombia, the state both delegates territorial authority to these groups, and reclaims legitimacy as the interlocutor of these claims, thus extending itself into hinterland territories in which it was otherwise absent. Local activism, in Ng’weno’s analysis, shares this paradox. On the one hand, ethnic organizing questions the institutions by which the states administer territory; on the other, it produces the state in the daily practice of its citizens as the legitimate interlocutor for its claims.

This process places ethnic claims at the center of the modes by which both territory and citizenship are taken up by local communities, and politicizes such categories as black community, miners, peasants, and individual and communal property holders. As such, collective land titling puts the state in the role of legislating particular categories of ethnic belonging and local communities in the role of claiming them, hearkening back to colonial history and to local cultural practices and self-identifications.

It is to Ng’weno’s credit as an ethnographer that she was able to situate herself at precisely those nodes where this complex set of interactions enter the daily life. Her ethnographic contexts – including the meetings between local communities and NGOs charged with territorial planning, life histories of local activists, and tense interactions with guerrillas and paramilitary groups – are well chosen to advance her theoretical claims. Nonetheless, she also manages to capture complexity and contradiction, for example, in her supple discussion of the degree to which institutionalized categories of ethnic belonging contrast with inter-ethnic kinship ties. These ethnographic sections are contextualized by historical sketches of issues such as race, armed conflict, and land struggles in Colombia. Though they remain brief and clear, the sketches also appear detailed enough to capture the complexity of their subjects.

A central section discusses everyday discourse on race and ethnicity outside the institutional context of ethnic claims. Ng’weno’s account of her reception by black Colombians as an African was exceptionally fascinating and ranged between instances of attraction and antagonism. Readers of this journal will be particularly interested in her description of the local ritual performance around the Adoration of the Christ Child. Although it is one of the few English accounts to detail this practice, it is unfortunately brief. This is especially disappointing, given Ng’weno’s argument that it is in some crucial ways the baseline from which black ethnicity is claimed in the region. A deeper explication of the ways in which local people understood this ritual as culturally unique would have done much to compliment Ng’weno’s discussion of the ways in which blackness is felt and lived in Buenos Aires.

Ng’weno arrived at Colombia as her field site partially out of frustration that “there were Black people in Colombia and I had never heard of them,” and also because “we in Kenya were so used to looking at where the British had trod that we could not see Latin America” (15). In keeping with this important South-South perspective, there is in the book, despite its focus on black Colombians, something of a comparativist impulse. Luckily, Ng’weno succumbs neither to notions of Colombian exceptionalism, nor to flattening and poorly informed comparativism. Her book, in short, captures the complexities of the Colombian case and makes important insights on the broader and more ambitious themes of territory, property, and ethnicity in post-colonial states.

Michael Birenbaum Quintero is an ethnomusicologist and Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropology and Musicology at Johns Hopkins University. His research focuses on the political mobilization of the black musics of Colombia’s Pacific coast, and he has worked closely with a number of musicians, cultural activists, and cultural policy organizations. His current project focuses on Afro-Colombian cultural activism in Washington, DC. In the fall 2010, he will be an Assistant Professor of Music at Bowdoin College.