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'Work Together' or 'Destroy it': Goldman Prize Winner Francia Márquez on World's Second Deadliest Country For Environmental Activists
In April 2018, Afro-Colombian activist Francia Márquez won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, thanks to her work to retake her community's ancestral territories from illegal gold mining. However, her international recognition comes at a very risky price.
Francia was born in Yolombó, a town nestled in the southwestern department of Cauca, where more than 250,000 Colombians of African descent live. In November 2014, she spearheaded a women-run march to protest illegal gold mining, due to the use of mercury and cyanide to break down rocks and obtain the coveted metal. This process has tainted Rio Ovejas, a critical waterway for fishing and drinking water and, as a result, Francia and 80 women walked for 10 days to Colombia's capital, Bogotá, to protest the town's conditions. After 22 days of protests on the streets, the Colombian government agreed to stem illegal mining in the town of La Toma.
Because of her anti-illegal mining work, she has been a target of organized crime. In 2014, Francia was displaced from her hometown of Suárez following death threats, and last May, armed men opened fire on Francia, as well as a group of social leaders and human rights advocates. Despite all obstacles, she decided to study law and advocate for her community.
In an exclusive conversation with Earthjustice, Francia addresses environmental racism in Colombia and abroad, her perilous journey as an activist, and why the U.S. is responsible for the current conditions in her community.
What are the effects of environmental racism in your country?
Colombia is a country that has traditionally been run by wealthy families. When Black and Indigenous communities demand that large-scale mining be removed from our communities and we ask for protection under the rule of law, the ruling families say that we're posing a hurdle to economic development. That's when I ask, what kind of development are they referring to, especially when Indigenous and Black communities lack basic utilities? The community I live in has no drinking water, and our river has been polluted with chemicals used for illegal mining.
Furthermore, the Colombian state does not invest in social projects. Their idea of economic development is to extract ore and territories from ethnic communities. This move is a sheer example of structural racism, and every time a social leader's voice or mine is lifted up to demand rights enshrined in the Constitution, then we end up being military targets by armed groups in our territory, particularly right-wing paramilitaries.
How would you describe Colombia’s environmental movement currently?
Colombia is the world's second-deadliest country for environmental activists, according to Global Witness. It is unfathomable that we're still witnessing killings in a country that is supposedly making strides in achieving peace after the 2016 accord. Unfortunately, interest groups, some economic sectors, and politicians do not want to change the current economic model that leads to what I call "necro-politics," or the politics of death. They don't want to stop fracking, and the Colombian government thinks of extractive industries as the only means of development.
With respect to aerial coca fumigation, the government doesn't seem to understand that coca won't be eradicated and that people will instead be displaced. In order to stop coca crops, the government should invest in social investment in farm products so they stay away from growing coca, but there is no willingness from the government, and aerial spraying of glyphosate will deteriorate 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 environmental leaders experience comes from developed countries. The U.S. is responsible for what happens to us as environmental leaders because of its multinational companies' work in our communities. These companies, directly or indirectly, are complicit of this genocide. If there weren't economic interests in these territories, we wouldn't have to get up and fight in order to have a decent life. We're risking our lives to stop harmful extractive industries, because the latter are enjoying benefits at the expense of the many people who have died.
You are holding the U.S. accountable for the current state of your community. How can individual Americans make a difference when the Trump administration keeps rolling back environmental protections while siding with industry?
The population has the power to change the course of history. The U.S. will have presidential elections next year. Will Americans re-elect him? This is America's greatest challenge. Otherwise, U.S. powerful companies will keep pouring in here while we're in the midst of a crossfire.
So how can we be more aware of the challenges the environmental movement is facing?
Sometimes I believe we're victims of our own invention. We elect legislators who only cater to interest groups and other harmful industries. People must be more conscious about the kind of officials they elect, because it's not just the lives of social leaders that are at stake, but the very existence of humanity today.
Is there something else you’d like to add?
Humanity's greatest challenge is to either work together to preserve this planet or destroy it. It's up to us to assume our own responsibility and defend life. In Colombia, we're creating campaigns to incentivize reforestation, as well as recycling. We want to raise awareness about the products that can be composted and how we re-use certain items. There is so much we can do.
Editors Note: For decades, Colombia sprayed tremendous quantities of the cancer-linked chemical glyphosate over the countryside in an attempt to wipe out the coca plants that feed the country's cocaine trade. Earthjustice worked with partners at the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA) to end the dangerous spraying program, which was suspended in 2015. Recently, Colombia's president has pushed to begin spraying again.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Jennifer Molidor, PhD
Climate change, habitat loss and pollution are overwhelming our planet. Thankfully, these enormous threats are being met by a bold new wave of environmental activism.
Trump Makes Strange Claim About Water Efficient Toilets: 'People Are Flushing Toilets 10 Times, 15 Times'
President Donald Trump mocked water-efficiency standards in new constructions last week. Trump said, "People are flushing toilets 10 times, 15 times, as opposed to once. They end up using more water. So, EPA is looking at that very strongly, at my suggestion." Trump asked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a federal review of those standards since, he claimed with no evidence, that they are making bathrooms unusable and wasting water, as NBC News reported.
By Carey Gillam
Former Monsanto Chairman and CEO Hugh Grant will have to testify in person at a St. Louis-area trial set for January in litigation brought by a cancer-stricken woman who claims her disease was caused by exposure to the company's Roundup herbicide and that Monsanto covered up the risks instead of warning consumers.
A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.
"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."
The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.
My god, White Island volcano in New Zealand erupted today for first time since 2001. My family and I had gotten off it 20 minutes before, were waiting at our boat about to leave when we saw it. Boat ride home tending to people our boat rescued was indescribable. #whiteisland pic.twitter.com/QJwWi12Tvt— Michael Schade (@sch) December 9, 2019
Michael Schade / Twitter
At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.
The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.
Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.
"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."
Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.
Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.
"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.
"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."
The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.
Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.
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