This is a post by Goldman Environmental Prize Program Officer Ryan Mack, who documents his visit to Cali, Colombia, to meet with 2018 Prize winner Francia Márquez. A formidable leader of the Afro-Colombian community, Márquez organized the women of La Toma and stopped illegal gold mining on their ancestral land.
People are a whirl in a darkly-lit room. Camera in hand, I try to capture the moment in the dim light: colorfully dressed residents of La Toma dance to the rhythm of drums, guitars, and Caucan violins. The feedback from massive speakers is drowned out by the chorus of hundreds singing and dancing in a fluid line around the packed room. No longer a bystander, I’m finally dragged into the flurry, and flounder to find my own rhythm. It doesn’t matter that I’ve never danced like this before. We are all one, hand-in-hand, sweating, smiling, and moving to the beat.
With our film crew (who create the Prize winner profile videos each year), I traveled from Cali—Colombia’s welcoming southern city of salsa—farther south and into lush green mountains. From Suarez, we climbed into the hills, stealing glances of the Cauca, Suarez, and Ovejas rivers. Rivers which, I knew, were laced with high levels of mercury from the region’s ongoing struggle with illegal gold mining.
This is the home of Francia Márquez. On the way up to La Toma, we take a detour to visit the Salvajina Dam, built in the early 1980s when Francia was just a few years old. The government built the dam without any prior consultation of the local people, who were displaced from the fertile valleys alongside the Cauca River and forced to build new homes on the steep mountain slopes above. Those who lived farther downstream were forced to walk days around the dam’s perimeter. The government now operates a ferry service to take people across the immense reservoir, where they still live, isolated from their neighbors.
Francia grew up under the shadow of Salvajina—and its impact on her people. When she was 13, the dam company wanted to divert the sacred Ovejas to raise the generating capacity of Salvajina. This was a turning point for Francia, and the moment she became an activist. Traveling to other communities that would be impacted by the diversion project, Francia used song and dance to first educate, then organize people against the project. In 2014, Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled in favor of the communities, and their right to prior, free, and informed consent. The company was ordered to implement measures to mitigate the social and ecological impacts generated by the project. To date, the company has not lived up to its end of the bargain. Nor has it been able to divert the Ovejas into the dam.
La Toma is one of the communities displaced by Salvajina. The community sits on the mountain ridge, atop of a mountain full of gold. Residents have collectively mined the gold for generations by hand, using pickaxes and panning for gold nuggets in the Ovejas River. They do not use mercury or other chemicals. The Ovejas River is the lifeblood of the people of La Toma; it is their only year-round water source and is now heavily contaminated by mercury.
A few days into our expedition, we found ourselves on top of a ridge, looking down at La Toma, the Cauca and Ovejas rivers, and Salvajina. The view was stunning—yet it was hard to enjoy it knowing the history. Francia’s cousin, one of the youth leaders of La Toma’s citizen watch group, pointed out the rough tracks down the mountainside to the river banks. “That’s where the backhoes came,” he told me, “carving out the roads as they descended to the river.”
Illegal mine operators allowed people to come from miles around to scavenge for gold. Hordes of illegal miners, numbering in the thousands, descended upon the open pits in the Ovejas River in an open rush for gold. Illegal miners used mercury and cyanide to extract the ore from dirt and rock. These toxic chemicals flowed directly into the Ovejas River, contaminating the community’s only source of fresh water.
Like many grassroots leaders, Francia simultaneously works on multiple issues. While she received the Goldman Prize for her work to stop illegal gold mining in La Toma, she has also campaigned to stop the Ovejas diversion project, and is pressuring the government to grant official land titles to Afro-Colombian communities. Oil companies frequently send crews to look for oil in and around La Toma. In fact, while we were in La Toma, locals stopped our vehicle and refused to let us film. After a long conversation, we learned that an oil company had been stopped and kicked out just hours before. Needless to say, these locals were on edge and nervous to have gringos with cameras roaming about.
The community had also suffered greatly from paramilitary and guerrilla violence and narcotrafficking in the region. Afro-Colombian leaders are being assassinated in ever-increasing numbers.
Francia’s work is not just that of an environmental defender, but also a human rights defender, a land defender, and an advocate for equal rights. And, if that weren’t enough, she raised two boys on her own, studied law, and ran for a seat on Colombia’s congress!
Ryan is a passionate advocate for the environment and human rights. With over 15 years of experience, he has worked with grassroots organizers, local nonprofits, international NGOs, government agencies, and the private sector. Ryan has managed projects in the US and Latin America related to climate change, energy efficiency, zero waste and organic agriculture. He holds a MS in Environmental Management with a focus on energy and water resources. Ryan joined the Prize in 2013.