The transition from slavery to freedom in the largest region in Spanish America inhabited mostly by black people has been aided by the geography of Colombia’s western rainforests. Access to a diverse environment – the jungle, soils and subsoils, rivers and the ocean – contributed to free people’s subsistence and allowed them to make commodities from nature. In this manner, they enjoyed unusually high levels of autonomy. Looking at the environment is key to better understanding the experience of freedom in other agrarian societies.
Claudia Leal is Edward Laroque Tinker Visiting Professor at Stanford University and Associate Professor at the Department of History at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. She is author of Landscapes of Freedom, Building a Postemancipation Society in the Rainforests of Western Colombia (2018).