Politics in Practice

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Chocolate and Peace

Gwen Burnyeat is a Wolfson PhD Scholar in Anthropology at University College London, UK. She has worked in Colombia for eight years, has a Masters from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia where she also lectured in Political Anthropology, and her prize-winning documentary ‘Chocolate of Peace’ was released in 2016.

See her book, Chocolate, Politics and Peace-Building.

What’s the story behind the book?

Chocolate, Politics and Peace-Building is the product of a long-term intellectual and activist relationship with the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, spanning over five years. I first went to Colombia in 2010 to do research with the International Centre for Transitional Justice in 2010 on the issue of victims’ reparations, and I became fascinated by the complexity of the country’s fifty-year armed conflict. I then worked for two years in the north-west region of Urabá, one of the epicentres of the conflict, as a member of Peace Brigades International, an NGO which provides protective physical accompaniment to threatened human rights defenders around the world. Their field team in Urabá works with three different communities whose lives are at risk due to their work defending their land and denouncing human rights violations. Though all three were inspiring, it was the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó that captured my heart and my head. After leaving PBI, I decided I wanted to retrain as an anthropologist (I had done a BA and MPhil in literature), so I studied a Master’s in anthropology at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogotá. The programme involved taking classes, but also conducting a sustained piece of original research over two years, so I divided my time between Bogotá and San José de Apartadó, doing fieldwork, studying, and exploring the possibilities of my new relationship with the Community as an anthropologist. Among other things I participated by giving field expertise in a mediation between the Community and top-level government officials, I sold the Community’s chocolate bars in shops and restaurants in Bogotá, produced my film ‘Chocolate of Peace’, and organised events for them to speak at both in Bogotá and in London. This activist engagement was an important part of the research dynamics.

What makes the book unique? 

The Peace Community of San José de Apartadó is one of the most famous community organisations in the world, at least within the international human rights sector, for their pioneering position of ‘neutrality’ in the face of the Colombian armed conflict, which is a strategy they developed drawing on International Humanitarian Law in order to protect themselves and remain in their land, while trapped between left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, and the Colombian army. It is also one of the most emblematic groups of victims of the Colombian conflict, having suffered a systematic litany of human rights violations – massacres, repeated forced displacement, forced disappearances, torture, selective assassinations, stigmatisation from high-level government officials, daily death threats, and sexual violence. In Colombia’s fifty-year war, the civilian population in rural areas like Urabá has borne the brunt of the conflict, trapped in the crossfire, and often being punished for living in an area with guerrilla presence.

Much of the publicity about grassroots communities like San José de Apartadó, whose histories can tell us as much about the human soul as they can about the Col ombian conflict, is lost in the ‘grey literature’ of NGO reports. The seed with which I started my research was the idea that this community had global resonance, but that in order to find that universality, I had to conduct a fundamentally anthropological exercise of trying to understand the Community in their own terms, neither glorifying them as the international human rights community has tended to do, nor condemning them as sectors of the Colombian state have done. Instead, I show how the Community understands itself, contextualising them within the frame of their historical context, by tracing the social life of a material object – cacao.

These rural farmers have been cacao farmers for long before they became a ‘peace community’, and this commodity has a privileged symbolism within their political history. Firstly, one of the main politico-cultural antecedents of the Community was the Patriotic Union, an alternative political party which established farming cooperatives all over Urabá and worked for a campesino development project, and in San José de Apartadó, there was a cacao cooperative called Balsamar, which was extinguished in the late 90s when all the leaders were killed in the destruction of the Patriotic Union party across Colombia, in which more than 5000 party members were assassinated. The cacao was the crop that allowed farmers to return after forced displacement, because the subsistence crops that they left behind – corn, beans and cassava – died when their owners could not tend them, and the army destroyed what they thought the guerrilla might eat. The cacao, on the other hand, as it is a tree, continued to grow and produce fruit, and the farmers recuperated their economy when they returned thanks to the cacao. Finally, a more recent development is the commercial relationship between the Peace Community and Lush Cosmetics, an ‘ethical’ multinational which buys around 50 tonnes of the Community’s cacao per year, and uses the cacao to make cocoa butter which they put into massage bars, called ‘Peace Bars’, which they sell in some 1000 shops in 50 countries, as well as doing campaigning to raise awareness about the Community’s situation and engage customers in advocacy efforts. This is not only a commercial arrangement, but part of the Peace Community’s sophisticated activist network.

I think what makes this book unique is the detailed history of a grassroots social movement, built up from a long-term ethnographic-activist engagement, told by following a material object – cacao – but also revealing the global significance of this local story, and detailing the ways in which the Community’s values can be read as values for peace-building that could inspire many people around the world: relationship to nature, solidarity economics, community work, historical memory, participatory democracy, and conscientiousness about where we buy our food, because in the West we are vitally connected to communities like the Peace Community, when we put into our bodies, what they make with theirs.

What is the relationship between the book and the film?  

While living in Bogotá and studying at the Nacional I began to understand the huge divide in Colombia between the countryside and the cities. Many people I met among Bogotá middle classes had never met a victim of the armed conflict, and the reaction I usually got when I told people I was working in Urabá was raised eyebrows, and the question, “isn’t it terribly dangerous?” Together with my co-director Pablo Mejía Trujillo, we decided to make a documentary about the Peace Community in order to help urban Colombians connect with stories of victimisation and resilience from their own country. It was an off-shoot of my Master’s research, using the same narrative thread of the cacao production to tell the political and cultural story of the Peace Community. The result is ‘Chocolate of Peace’, which was released in 2016 and has been shown in over 14 countries, and has been subtitled into five languages. The idea initially was to reach out to Colombian audiences and contribute to the discussions which were ongoing in the country about what ‘peace’ might mean, given that most Colombians had never lived a day in ‘peace’, and offer them inspiration from a group of victims who had been engaged in bottom-up grassroots ‘peace-building’ for over twenty years.

The film and the book are, as it were, two branches from the same tree. There are differences, however – firstly, the book is very much my own academic interpretation of the Peace Community, though it is built from their testimonies, narratives and history. With the film, on the other hand, though it was not technically a participatory methodology, we wanted to ensure that the Community were happy with how they were being represented, so we travelled to San José to show them a first draft, and discussed what changes they thought were important. Secondly, the book goes into greater historical detail, and the film does not contain much about the controversial ‘rupture’ with the state which I chart in the book. Thirdly, the film has a very light editorial touch – we provide no voice-over, and we only add a few editorial texts to give historical context for a viewer not familiar with the Colombian context, to allow the narration to be given by the Community themselves; while the book is framed in my own reflexive anthropological voice, though the Community’s testimonies are protagonists. Fourthly, of course, the visual element of the film gives something that a book cannot – the heart-rendering beauty of the upper chain of the Andes mountains, the faces and expressions of the Community members, and the texture of the cacao groves. Finally, I think the purpose of the film is more pedagogical, we made it with a political purpose (‘political’ with a small ‘p’), to engage Colombians and friends of Colombia around the world on the issue of peace; while that of the book is largely academic, though I hope it can also contribute to ongoing scholarly discussions about how to draw on lessons from the global South to conceptualise the problems shared across the world.

What are you working on now?

I am currently doing field research for my PhD in anthropology at University College London, thanks to a scholarship from the Wolfson Foundation. After five years working with victims of the state, I decided I wanted to get to know the human beings on the other side of the curtain: the state. My research has to do with how the Colombian state communicates the peace process to society, and the way in which the mode of action which developed, which was known as ‘peace pedagogy’, is inscribed in historical state-society relationships charged with centuries of mistrust which date back to the colonial era. I am currently an associate volunteer within the ‘peace pedagogy’ team of the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace, within the Colombian presidency.

The Colombian peace process has many innovative elements which scholars are already looking at: the new transitional justice model that has been proposed by the Havana Accords, the land restitution process, the victims’ law – but the ‘peace pedagogy’ that sought to explain first the negotiations with the FARC, and now the implementation of the Accords, is an innovation which has been eclipsed by the more legal aspects of the agreement, and which has relevance for the era of ‘post-truth’ politics. I lived through the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, and the ‘No’ vote in Colombia in 2016, in which a tiny majority (50.2%) of Colombians rejected the peace deal signed with the FARC, largely due to deliberate misinformation campaigns, which the government ‘peace pedagogy’ failed to counter, due in part to this historical mistrust in the state. The difference was that in the UK, no one went around the country explaining to Brits what the European Union was, how it works, and what might happen if we left or stayed; nor did the Brits demand it of their government, as Colombians did of theirs. As with my previous work on the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, I hope to bring lessons from the global South to bear on problems faced universally. The communication of Colombia’s transitional policy provides a window onto the relationship between state and society, and I hope to contribute to anthropological debates on the state by looking ethnographically at the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace and their ‘peace pedagogy’ mode of action.

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