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Industry Insights: Gwen Burnyeat on Birds of Passage


On Birds of Passage

By Gwen Burnyeat, University College London & Embrace Dialogue

For seven years, Embrace Dialogue (Rodeemos el Diálogo-ReD), a transnational civil society organisation, has been supporting the peace process in Colombia by promoting a culture of dialogue, both in Colombia and in the UK. Film has an extraordinary power to open transformative dialogues, and Birds of Passage poses crucial questions for Colombia at this historical conjuncture.

La Guajira is a region in the North-East of Colombia, on the border with Venezuela. It is populated by the Wayuu, and much of the film is in their language, wayuunaiki. It is a region of striking stark deserts and wind, sparse foliage and beating sun, and riven by petrol-smuggling, contraband whisky, and drug-trafficking, as well as the country’s fifty-year internal armed conflict. An emblematic massacre took place there in 2004, in a town called Bahía Portete.

Here in the UK, we could see this extraordinary film as about a faraway land, remote from our everyday life. Most Colombians in cities might watch it in that way too, because Colombia is split between the urban and the rural, and much of the conflict has occurred in the countryside. The indigeneity of the Wayuu is also remote from them; although 3.4% of Colombia’s population is indigenous, most urban Colombians are largely disconnected from indigenous populations, their language and culture, and cross-cultural relations such as those portrayed in the film recall colonial encounters.

But this story is not as remote as it might seem. First, the drug trade it portrays belongs to the wider picture of the armed conflict. Drug-trafficking has fueled the degradation of violence since the 1980s, and all the parties to the conflict have been involved: left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary groups allied to the army, politicians, land-owners and drug cartels. The internationally-renowned peace deal signed in 2016 between the government and the FARC guerrilla sought to end one of the main dimensions of this conflict, and included measures to tackle the drug-trafficking phenomenon. Birds of Passage shows beautifully how the national dynamics of conflict intersect with local culture and local conflicts, irreversibly creating new blends of local reality until you cannot tell the difference between local and national, private and public, modern and traditional. It also shows the way in which the conflict erodes and destroys the local mechanism of peace-making: the putchipuü, or word messenger.

This story is also not as remote from the UK as it might seem. The drug trade in Colombia and elsewhere, which is so deeply embedded in everyday violence in such places, is connected to us in Europe and the USA, the countries which create the demand. But not only drug-trafficking is linked to violence: in Colombia, the economics of gold, palm oil and cattle ranching connect us to them. In the conflict region I work in, Urabá, the setting of my film Chocolate of Peace, banana production is linked to bloodshed, and the US company Chiquita Brands, whose bananas are sold in shops across London, were found responsible by an American court for financing illegal paramilitary groups who forcibly displaced peasants to steal their land. We are all involved in violence in Colombia.

Today, the Colombian peace process hangs in the balance, as the president Iván Duque, is undermining commitments signed by the previous government under Juan Manuel Santos in the Havana Peace Accord: commitments made not just to the FARC but to all Colombians, and to the international community. In Embrace Dialogue, we are seriously concerned about hundreds of assassinations of local community leaders across the country, and FARC ex-combatants who demobilised in good faith. The failure of the peace process is indirectly connected to the rise of knife crime in London, as the power vacuums left by the FARC have not been filled by state authorities, and new drug-trafficking groups have moved in, creating a surplus of cocaine on the global market.

But we could all be involved in peacebuilding in Colombia. Citizen diplomacy, such as that conducted by Embrace Dialogue, can resonate. Here in the UK, we are consumers who can choose different products; and we are global citizens who can speak out about the need to protect the possibility of peace in Colombia, because it is connected to us. We can also be word messengers.


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