'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.
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By Jacob L. Steenwyk and Antonis Rokas
From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
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