When She Heard Illegal Miners Were Coming To Her Community, This Afro-Colombian Activist Fought Back To Protect Her Land And Won

credit: Goldman Environmental Prize

About 80 percent of the gold in Colombia is mined illegally, and it’s harming the South American country’s people and land. That’s why when unlawful miners started operations in La Toma, a Black community in southwestern Colombia, Francia Márquez fought back. This week, her efforts landed her a Goldman Environmental Prize.

In 2014, when Márquez heard illegal mining — which leads to deforestation, water contamination and, as a result of both, displacement — was approaching, she organized 80 women from her community to take a 10-day, 350-miles trek from the Cauca Mountains to Bogota. The demonstration caught the attention of the government, which agreed to speak with the women. After the protesters made their case, authorities ordered that backhoes and equipment be removed from the area. When miners disregarded the demands, the government destroyed their machinery.

“We, as a people, came to have land that were fought for by our ancestors,” Márquez, 36, said in a Goldman Environmental Prize video. “We have been in this territory as a Black community since 1636. I grew up along the shore of the Ovejas River – swimming, fishing, mining. The river was everything to me. … In the name of development, most of the rivers in this territory are poisoned with mercury and cyanide.”

The activist, who has been fighting for her community since she was 13 years old, studied law in an effort to tackle the issue legally.

“I got involved with the community to demand that we had a right as an Afro-descendent community to those ancestral lands and that they didn’t have a right to displace us from those lands,” she said, according to the Earth Island Journal.

Márquez is one of six awardees — five of them women — to receive the Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s foremost conservationist prize, which honors grassroots community leaders for their lifelong commitment to protecting the environment.

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