We sit down with Francia Márquez, 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize winner from Colombia, in our latest Q&A. A passionate community leader and activist, Marquez continues to work on a variety of social, political, and environmental issues since winning the Prize in April. Read her Q&A below to learn what motivated her to fight, organize, and stand up against illegal gold mining within her ancestral home.
Goldman Environmental Prize: Where did you grow up? What does your home signify for you?
Francia Márquez: I grew up and was raised in an ancestral Afro-Colombian community called Yolombo, which is part of the district of La Toma in the Cauca region of Colombia.
La Toma is the place where my people were brought from Africa in 1636. We were first brought there to work in agriculture and, today, we continue to do ancestral artisanal mining and agriculture in the area. It is the place where I grew up, where I became a woman; it is the community’s ancestral land—a mountainous area between the Cauca and Ovejas rivers. The Ovejas River is like a mother and father to us in La Toma—we are very connected to it.
GEP: When did you begin your activism in the community?
FM: In 1985, a dam was built on the Ovejas River which displaced the African community there, so the people of La Toma have been trying to defend the land since then so that they don’t also become displaced. I began getting involved in protests at 15 years old. I would participate in performances of dance and theater demonstrating the effects of this dam on the river. These performances would try to show two faces of what’s going on—one of the faces was the environmental impacts of this dam, and the other face was the social and human impact.
GEP: What effect did the illegal mining in La Toma have on the community?
FM: Before illegal miners, artisanal mining was primarily led by women. Artisanal miners didn’t use mercury or cyanide. Mining was seasonal work, because during the winter months the rain came in, and the women would then turn to agricultural work. What artisanal miners used to do in one year, machines would do in one day, thus disrupting the equilibrium of the land. These illegal miners would use mercury, cyanide, and other harmful chemicals. As a result, artisanal mining was displaced and the women and children were displaced; they had to look for other sources of income outside of the home, such as in Cali—a town 1.5 hours away from La Toma by car. With illegal mining came other social and environmental problems in the community. All of this went on for 15 years before people knew how to organize and come together to stand up against the illegal miners.
GEP: Why did you decide to get involved in the struggle against illegal mining?
FM: I first got involved in the struggle through song and dance. I later began learning about the rights of black Colombians, including the right to territory, which further empowered me. I started working as an agricultural technician and gave talks and lessons to communities about how to use equipment, and I gradually became more knowledgeable about the situation. I got involved with ACN, which helped me understand the politics of the situation. I started studying law at this time as well. Gaining this knowledge would equip me with the tools needed to lead the struggle. All of this was a very hard process, and I felt vulnerable when the miners came in. What inspired me to continue was the fact that the younger people in the community were leaving La Toma and dealing with displacement, yet the older generation was still there, so I felt the need to do something.
GEP: In November 2014, you led a 350-mile march from La Toma to Bogota to protest the mine. How did you organize your community and get the word out about the march?
FM: The community organized meetings and gathered people within region. We also met with local and national government officials. The community was featured in a documentary on PBS. We tried everything to mobilize people and to make the threat and issues visible nationally and internationally. It was a community movement from the start.
GEP: With illegal mining still rampant in other parts of the Cauca region, what do you think can be done to help other communities?
FM: In many territories, communities are trying to do what La Toma did and denounce the illegal mining that is going on in their regions. We have inspired others in the North Cauca region with our struggle and success. La Toma is now an example of resistance for other communities in the country—how to change policies and advocate for progress.