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Wade Davis, anthropologist, author and photographer, in Clarence Square in Toronto on Friday, November 18, 2011. (Matthew Sherwood For The Globe and Mail)
Wade Davis, anthropologist, author and photographer, in Clarence Square in Toronto on Friday, November 18, 2011. (Matthew Sherwood For The Globe and Mail)

Wade Davis

The Colombia peace accord: ‘The only possible way forward’ Add to ...

Wade Davis is a professor of anthropology, faculty affiliate at the Liu Institute for Global Issues and the B.C. Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk at the University of British Columbia.

Several years ago, I found myself at the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, desperately in need of a wash after an overnight flight from Nairobi. There was no shower in the lounge and I was staring at a sink, trying to envision how I could turn it into a bath, when a distinguished African gentleman came up beside me, removed his shirt and began to bathe in the adjacent basin.

Moved by his example, I promptly stripped down and was happily scrubbing away when I caught a glimpse of his face in the mirror. “Excuse me,” I said, “you’re not by chance Archbishop Desmond Tutu?”

“Oh no,” he replied. “People are always confusing me with that guy.”

I returned to my bath, spewing apologies for disturbing him at such an hour. “Terribly sorry. It’s just that he was such a historic figure, such a man of peace, so important for the …”

I went on, and on, until I finally glanced up and again saw his face. “Wait a minute,” I said, “you are Archbishop Tutu.”

The man who with Nelson Mandela had stood for 40 years as the indomitable symbol of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, whose resolution and dignity made possible a peaceful transition of power in a land that might well have collapsed into an agony of vengeance and recrimination, smiled benignly and said very simply, “And you know, we could not have done it without you.”

He referred, of course, not to me personally, but to the goodwill of all citizens of the world who had marched for freedom and democracy in South Africa.

I then asked how they had managed to rebuild the nation without bloodshed.

“Forgive,” he said, “but never forget. It was the only possible way forward.”

In a turbulent week for Colombia, I often recalled these words. I left Bogota on the eve of the plebiscite for peace in a state of euphoria, only to awaken on Monday morning to the news of its defeat, only to arise four days later to the stunning announcement that President Juan Manuel Santos had joined the ranks of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu as a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace.

In selecting Mr. Santos for what is arguably the greatest single honour that any person can receive, the Nobel Committee quite properly acknowledged a leader forged in war who found his way to peace, placing his reputation and entire legacy on the line in a single-minded quest to return stability, prosperity and tranquillity to his country.

The signing of the accord with the FARC in Cartagena on Sept. 26 sent a powerful and redemptive message to every nation that while the world may be falling apart, Colombia is falling together.

The prospects of peace also served to remind the international community that through all the years of crisis, as virtually every Colombian suffered, the country still managed to build its economy, green its cities, seek meaningful restitution with indigenous cultures, set aside millions of acres as national parks and lay the groundwork for a cultural, economic and intellectual renaissance unlike anything that has ever been seen in Latin America.

After all the suffering, all the dead, the millions displaced, the outcome of the plebiscite – a narrow victory for those opposed to the peace accord – was understandable. Yet it is to the immense credit of Colombia that the result did not doom the process; it simply fired the hearts and minds of all Colombians to re-engage with even greater passion the ongoing struggle for peace.

“Perhaps our dream came too soon,” I wrote to friends in Bogota upon first hearing the result of the plebiscite, “but this does not mean that the dream was false. To the contrary, in the wake of this vote, the dream only becomes more vital, and our efforts all the more important. I am on fire for Colombia. I will not stop. We will find the poetry to move Colombians not to fear but to the better angels of their nature. War is easy. Peace is hard. But in the end the good always prevails. It will just take more work from all of us.”

The Nobel Prize for Peace recognizes one man, but as President Santos would be the first to acknowledge, it truly honours an entire nation that has endured so much, and yet has never lost faith in its future or in the ultimate destiny of its children.

Today, the entire world is surely on fire for Colombia.

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