This book, the last in Fals Borda’s series on the history of the Colombian Atlantic Coast, traces the processes of social formation in the savannas of Córdoba, Sucre, and Bolivar. It highlights the persistence of egalitarian values associated with the peasant economy, which the author sees as a central aspect of the ethos costeño and as the main drive behind the continuing struggle for land. Following the twofold design of the series, the volume features a standard narrative account and a parallel text devoted to analysis and interpretation.
As regional social history, the book is at its best in the coverage of the colonial period. Drawing from the Archivo de Indias and the Archivo Nacional, Fals Borda charts the formation of a highly miscegenated population and a surprisingly nonseigneurial agrarian society. Especially noteworthy is his study of the Bourbon reforms, which reconstructs the process of rural reorganization and the foundation of towns within the Cartagena-Mompox-Montcría triangle. Less impressive is the account of the movements of differentiation and land concentration that led to a tight structure of latifundismo in the nineteenth century. Using data from family archives, Fals Borda sketches a vividly descriptive picture. A more complete analysis, however, would have made use of additional sources, particularly on the all-important process of the adjudication of public lands.
In the chapters on the twentieth century, the book ceases to be a regional history and becomes a history of popular mobilizations in the region. Fals Borda uses oral testimonies to recount the organizational beginnings and local struggles that preceded the full-blown peasant movement of the 1970s. Resorting to field notes, he describes the extraordinary strength of this movement, providing rich empirical detail on the land invasions, and frankly evaluating his own experience as a participant-researcher who took the side of the peasants. The book ends with a measured plea for popular participation, agrarian reform, and local autonomy. One feels, though, that the argument should have been accompanied by an assessment of the prospects for the proposed agenda. The centrality of the peasant ethos, for example, can no longer be taken for granted in a region that has been substantially changed by rural-urban migration and capitalist development.
Despite its weaknesses, Retorno a la tierra is an important book because it completes the first scholarly, comprehensive history of a scarcely researched Colombian region. It is also remarkable because, like the series as a whole, it was conceived of and written so that it would be accessible to ordinary people and contribute to their critical consciousness. Candidly striving to blend scientific research with political involvement, Fals Borda opens himself to attacks by those who may question the validity of this type of history. Fie, however, has the great merit of being one of the few scholars who have risen to the challenge of writing a history of the popular sectors that tries to reach the very people it takes as its subject.