The background to Colombia's Law 70, or the Law of Black Communities, was the constitutional reform of 1991, which aimed to modernize an antiquated constitution and to help pacify Colombia's various guerrilla movements. Indigenous groups made strong representations in the constituent assembly for recognition and protective measures to be included in the reform. Black political organization in Colombia was more recent, less well funded and more fragmentary than in other parts of Afro-Latin America, but black groups also pressured for such measures. Despite some reluctance in the Constitutional Assembly, a Transitory Article (No. 55) concerning "black communities" was eventually included and Law 70, passed in 1993, was the outcome.
The principal aim of Law 70 was to allow "black communities" in rural, riverine areas of Colombia's Pacific coastal region to apply for collective land title to their lands, previously considered as state lands occupied by black squatters. The Law also contained measures to improve education, training, access to credit, and material conditions for black communities nationally. Black community participation in these spheres was ensured via proposed black representatives on the National Planning Council, regional planning corporations and a Consultative Commission created to follow the progress of the law. The Ministry of Government also created a division for black community affairs. Discrimination against black communities was outlawed and education for them had to reflect their cultural specificity. Finally, the law established a special constituency to elect two Representatives to Congress from the black communities.
Although Law 70 is part of a Latin American, or even global, trend towards the recognition of national multiculturalism, it is unparalleled in Latin America for the many specific measures it applies to black communities. The impacts of Law 70 have been very important but also uneven. First, independent black political mobilization increased exponentially. Prior to this, black organization had existed in different forms. Black workers and peasants had, at times, participated in labourist movements and organizations which, when based in areas of significant black population, had taken on racial dimensions - for example, in the sugar-cane plantation areas of northern Cauca province (Taussig 1980). Educated blacks had also, from the 1920s, participated in local and national politics, sometimes with an agenda that included issues of black rights (Urrea and Hurtado 1999). Finally, from the 1960s, small groups of educated urban blacks, inspired by US black social movements, created organizations that encouraged black consciousness.
With Law 70, black organization achieved a new level of intensity, recognizable as a social movement. Small black NGOs burgeoned; conditions of life in the Pacific region and the issue of black people's status in Colombian society and culture became more public than ever before. In addition, the actual issue of land titles has proceeded, albeit slowly and with problems regarding how to define the area of land that is used for productive activities, since black rural dwellers tend to use a wide expanse of forest in different ways for different purposes, often overlapping with areas used by other communities, whether black or indigenous.However, it is has also been pointed out that Law 70 tends to focus attention on Colombia's Pacific coastal region, which while it is inhabited mainly by black people and is also very poor, does not encompass most of Colombia's black population, a large proportion of which lives in cities.
Although Law 70 includes measures providing for black communities nation-wide, in practice the emphasis is on land in the Pacific region. Critics argue that Law 70 pushes the issue of blackness into the mold of indigenousness: the "problem" is seen as one of small, rural "traditional" communities and their access to land. Furthermore, radical and very destructive economic change continues apace in the Pacific region: logging, mining, cash crop plantations, road building and shrimp farming displace and impoverish many black (and indigenous) people.
Law 70, while it may provide some protection for local blacks' subsistence, looks powerless to brake these changes. Some observers see a process of the institutionalization of the black social movement, making it dependent on state sponsorship and fragmenting it into competing factions. In sum, while blackness has become a public issue as never before, it has also been confined to a particular agenda, while material and political conditions for black people still leave a great deal to be desired.