Environmental activist Francia Márquez will become Colombia’s first Black vice president after winning the June 19 election as part of a progressive ticket.
Márquez campaigned for the promise of shifting the country’s economy from fossil fuels to clean energy. He has a track record of advocating environmental justice, and in 2018 he won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Award for his community’s work to reclaim their ancestral lands from illegal gold mining. However, its international recognition comes at a very risky price.
Francia was born in Yolombó, in the southwestern part of Cauca, where more than 250,000 African-Colombians live. In November 2014, she led a women-led march to protest illegal gold mining over the use of mercury and cyanide to break up rocks and obtain the coveted metal. The process tainted the Rio Ovejas, a critical waterway for fishing and drinking water, and as a result, Francia and 80 women marched for 10 days to Bogota, the Colombian capital, to protest the town’s conditions. After 22 days of protests in the streets, the Colombian government has agreed to stop illegal mining in the town of La Toma.
He became the target of organized crime because of his illegal mining operation. In 2014, Francia was displaced from her hometown of Suárez following death threats, and last May gunmen opened fire on Francia, as well as a group of social leaders and human rights defenders. Despite all the obstacles, he decided to study law and advocate for his society.
In a private conversation with Earthjustice in 2019, Francia addressed environmental racism in Colombia and abroad, her dangerous journey as an activist, and why she is responsible for the current conditions in US society.
What are the effects of environmental racism in your country?
Colombia is a country traditionally ruled by wealthy families. When Black and Indigenous communities demand the abolition of large-scale mining from our communities and we seek protection under the rule of law, families in power say we are creating a barrier to economic development. So I ask, what kind of development are they talking about, especially when Indigenous and Black communities lack basic services? The community I live in has no drinking water and our river is contaminated with chemicals used for illegal mining.
Also, the Colombian state does not invest in social projects. The economic development ideas are to extract ore and land from ethnic communities. This move is a stark example of structural racism, and whenever the voice of a social leader or my voice rises to demand the rights enshrined in the Constitution, then we become military targets of armed groups in our region, especially right-wing paramilitaries.
How would you describe Colombia’s environmental movement right now?
Colombia is the second deadliest country in the world for environmental activists. According to Global Witness. It is inconceivable that we are still witnessing murders in a country that allegedly took steps towards peace after peace. most  agreement. Unfortunately, interest groups, some economic sectors and politicians do not want to change the current economic model that has led to what I call “necropolitics” or the politics of death. They do not want to stop fracking and the Colombian government is considering the mining industries as the only means of development.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For decades, Colombia has sprayed massive quantities of the cancer-linked chemical glyphosate into rural areas in an attempt to destroy the coca plants that fuel the country’s cocaine trade. Earthjustice worked with our partners at the Interamerican Environmental Defense Association (AIDA) to end the hazardous spraying program suspended in 2015. Recently, Colombian president pushed to start spraying again.
Regarding air coca fumigation, the government does not seem to understand that coca will not be destroyed and people will be displaced instead. To stop coca crops, the government must socially invest in agricultural products to keep them from growing coca, but there is no desire from the government and aerial spraying of glyphosate will degrade our environment.
According to Global Witness, more than 1,700 environmental defenders were killed worldwide between 2002 and 2018. What should environmental organizations do to stop this?
Much of the pressure experienced by environmental leaders comes from developed countries. The US is responsible for what happens to us as environmental leaders because of the work of its multinationals in our communities. These companies are directly or indirectly complicit in this genocide. If there were no economic interests in these lands, we would not have to stand up and fight for a decent life. We risk our lives to stop harmful mining industries because these industries reap benefits at the expense of many who die.
You hold the United States responsible for the current state of your community. As the Trump administration takes the industry’s side and continues to roll back environmental protection measures, how can individual Americans make a difference?
Population has the power to change the course of history. Presidential elections will be held in the USA next year. Will the Americans re-elect him? This is America’s greatest challenge. Otherwise, powerful US companies will continue to pour in while we are in the middle of the crossfire.
So how can we be more aware of the challenges facing the environmental movement?
Sometimes I believe we are victims of our own invention. We only select legislators who appeal to interest groups and other harmful industries. People should be more conscious of the officers they elect, because it is not only the lives of social leaders at stake, but also the very existence of humanity today.
Is there anything else you want to add?
Humanity’s greatest challenge is to either protect this planet or work together to destroy it. It’s up to us to take our own responsibility and defend life. We create campaigns to promote reforestation and recycling in Colombia. We want to raise awareness about products that can be composted and how we reuse certain materials. There is so much we can do.
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This blog post was originally published in 2019. Updated in June 2022 to reflect Márquez’s election news.