Only What is Known Can Be Governed
How responsible land governance can save people from losing their land.
In his documentary “La Buena Vida”, Jens Schanze depicts the Colombian Wayúus’ fight for their land against supranational energy corporations. A review.
Henrys is standing in the shallow water of the river. The bright sunlight breaks and sparkles on its surface. With Jairo, the head of the village of Tamaquito, and some of the other villagers, he has come to the river to fish. Henrys bends over slowly, his hands seeking the bottom of the murky river. He suddenly feels something in the water and pulls it to the surface. In his hand he is holding a black lump, shimmering with moisture from the river. “Carbón en el agua!” he says, laughing, half delighted, half defiant as he holds his find out towards the camera. Coal in the water. It is the symbol of the ongoing conflict threatening the village's source of livelihood. The river provides Henrys and his community with food and water to irrigate their fields. Their entire lives revolve around its waters. But supranational corporations are now set on extracting the coal.
It is in an area with 500 million tons of coal to be mined, the equivalent of all the coal that will be burned in Germany over the next 6.5 years.
Released in May 2015, Jens Schanze's documentary “La Buena Vida” tells the story of the Wayúus, a 31-family rural community in northern Colombia, who are facing the greatest upheaval in their history. The captains of industry behind the El Cerrejón Mine, at 700 square kilometres almost the size of Singapore and the largest coal mine in the world, started to relocate the community's village in 2013. It is situated in an area with 500 million tons of coal to be mined, the equivalent of all the coal that will be burned in Germany over the next 6.5 years. 26 kilometres of the river bed are to be diverted to serve the mining companies’ interests. All just to satiate the ever growing appetite of industrialised countries for energy, a knock-on effect of growth.
…a drought zone with solid homes and play areas is on offer – but no place to hunt, no river, and so no access to its essential water.
Now the backhoes are positioned just 4 kilometres outside the village. In exchange, a housing complex in a drought zone with solid homes and play areas is on offer – but no place to hunt, no river, and so no access to its essential water. “Nothing is at all like Tamaquito,” says Henrys' wife Ingris from underneath her blue hard hat as she stands in the framing of one of the new houses and assesses the lifeless, dusty concrete landscape.
…warm-hearted promises meet cold, hard reality.
In “La Buena Vida”, Jens Schanze delivers impressive images without off-screen commentary. The film takes viewers from the negotiations around relocating the village to the attempts by village chief Jairo to hold the supranational corporations responsible for their ultimately broken promise to ensure access to water. Using powerful pictures, Schanze successfully illustrates the Wayúus' daily battle with corporate giants: Self-determination in the face of force, water and desert, subsistence versus the global economy, harmony pitted against the intrusion of strangers, the safety of seclusion against the criminality of the city. And not least warm-hearted promises meet cold, hard reality.
…a romanticised fairy tale.
“La Buena Vida” is an indictment – of Western stockholders, supranational energy corporations, and ignorant consumers. The film shows the immediate consequences for those affected, the brutal truth behind “energy”, a product most end users simply take for granted. The viewer is thrust into the midst of this conflict with no warning, no background information. Neither the repeated visits of military groups to Tamaquito nor a threatening phone call mentioned in passing are embedded in a wider context. The massive power structures and the role of the state in the relocation of indigenous people remain hidden, leaving the viewer with snapshots, just scattered glimpses of the larger whole looming behind the conflict, which is ultimately reduced to a problem of access to water. This lack of coherence led amerika 21 to call “La Buena Vida” a romanticised fairy tale.
Criticism aside, that fact that Jens Schanze captured these images of indigenous-industrial negotiations is an amazing feat. Images in which representatives of the coal corporations repeatedly hold up contracts and talk about their compliance with international standards as if voicing a commercial. But images that also give the indigenous community a voice.
Jens Schanze's documentary “La Buena Vida”.
Photo: Henrys-Ureche Kohle - ® Börres Weiffenbach