Navigating Turbulent Waters: Floating Life and Death on a Colombian River

Authors: Austin Zeiderman*, London School of Economics
Topics: Cultural Geography, Latin America, Transportation Geography
Keywords: mobility, violence, security, shipping, Colombia, labor, rivers
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/3/2019
Start / End Time: 2:35 PM / 4:15 PM
Room: Regency Ballroom, Omni, West
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


This paper considers how the armed conflict in Colombia, as well as ongoing attempts to resolve it, have shaped life and labor along the Magdalena River. Once home to both leftist guerrilla insurgents and right-wing paramilitary armies, and due to its strategic importance to the Colombian state, the waterway has seen more than its share of violence and bloodshed, with the river itself occasionally dubbed Colombia’s “largest mass grave.” Drawing on written accounts and oral histories, this paper examines how the armed conflict was navigated by mobile laborers whose lives and livelihoods depend on the river—the captains and crews of commercial riverboats that transport goods between the interior and the coast. This is combined with ethnographic material on the embodied experience of fluvial transport now that the conflict has entered a new stage and the river is largely safe to navigate. The analytic of floating foregrounds fluid patterns of movement along the Magdalena River, and in doing so opens up new perspectives on a war that has been understood primarily in relation to fixed plots of land.

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