Death threats won't stop Colombian anti-mining activist

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Colombian environmental activist Francia Marquez has faced death threats and been forced from her home in her battle against the mines that she says are polluting rivers and ruining land.

Colombian Francia Marquez, winner of the 2018 Goldman Enviromental Prize. Photo courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize

But she has no intention of giving up the work that this week earned her a prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, known as the “Green Nobel”, which honours grassroots activism.

“Land is life, it’s culture, it’s what we are as human beings,” the 36-year-old Afro-Colombian from the country’s southwestern Cauca province told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Without land for us as Afro-descendent people, we are nobody.”

Marquez says illegal mining is a scourge for Afro-Colombian communities whose ancestral lands are rich in gold reserves as it pollutes rivers with toxic mercury and cuts down forests.

The government shuts down hundreds of unlicenced mines run by organised crime networks every year and according to Bogota-based Externado University, 60 percent of all mining in Colombia is illegal.

Marquez’s activism has focused on La Toma, a mountainous region where Afro-Colombians - a population originally brought as slaves from Africa - have lived for centuries.

The law student and single mother’s biggest battle came in 2014, when illegal gold miners cleared forests and diverted the natural flow of a river that the local community depended on for fish and fresh water.

In response, Marquez led 80 women on a 10-day, 350-mile (560-km) march to the capital Bogota that led to the government sending in troops to remove illegal miners and their equipment.

“As we brought attention to the problem, we also began to receive death threats from armed actors, paramilitary groups, who declared us a military target because according to them we opposed development,” Marquez said.

In 2014 she received a death threat that forced her to leave home with her two children.

The threats continue, by phone or text message, and even with two government body guards Marquez said it was not safe for her to go home.

For Marquez, like many other activists in Latin America, danger is part of life as they battle often big international companies to preserve their ancestral lands from mining, dams, logging, and other mega-developments.

When Marquez received the prize earlier this week in the United States, she paid homage to Berta Caceres, a Honduran indigenous environmental activist and previous Goldman winner who was gunned down less than a year after receiving the award.

Growing numbers of activists worldwide face threats, according to Global Witness, a UK-based rights group.

It says four land and environmental activists were murdered each week in 2016, with nearly 60 percent of all killings occurring in Latin America. Brazil fared worse with 49 deaths followed by Colombia with 37 activists killed.

“The situation is very difficult but we’ll continue resisting and defending our lands,” Marquez said.

Five of the six Goldman winners this year were women.

The others were Philippine anti-lead campaigner Manny Calonzo, the United States’ LeeAnne Walters, founder of a citizens’ movement that helped expose the Flint water crisis, South African anti-nuclear campaigners Makoma Lekalakala and Liz McDaid, French ocean and marine-life advocate Claire Nouvian, and Vietnamese renewable-energy activist, Khanh Nguy Thi.