CALI, COLOMBIA (AFP) – A year ago, Francia Marquez was attacked with grenades and automatic weapons, targetted for defending clean water against mining pollution in the black community where she lived in Colombia’s southwest Cauca department.
At the time, Colombia was en route to becoming the most dangerous country for environmental activists, according to the NGO Global Witness.
As both a black woman and community leader, the 38-year-old was at particularly high risk for targetting in the region, which is blighted by pollution from gold mining as well as drug trafficking.
In 2019, more than a third of the 64 activists murdered in Colombia were in Cauca, where Marquez worked, according to Global Witness.
That means the region’s deaths were higher than in all of Mexico, where 18 people were killed, and similar to Brazil’s tally of 24. The two countries had the fourth and third-highest numbers of activist murders respectively for that year.
As a black activist, Marquez is no stranger to what she denounces as “structural racism.” In 2014, she was forced to leave her community in the town of La Toma due to threats after she campaigned against illegal mining and its rampant use of mercury.
She had previously made a name for herself resisting a planned hydroelectric project.
Water, for her, is more important than any financial consideration – in fact, it was this mentality that pushed her to study environmental legislation to better defend the rights of black and indigenous communities.
Several months before the attempt on her life, Marquez was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize – but the increased visibility didn’t deter her assailants from their attack.
Now under state protection, Marquez lives far from her home region, but she hasn’t let fear mar her commitment to the environment.
The “need for structural transformation to avoid the ecological crisis facing the planet” clashes with the desire for “the accumulation of capital,” Marquez told AFP.
The fight, she said, is uneven considering “the weapons with which they kill us social leaders, but it’s obvious that our voice is a threat.”
It’s a complex issue in a region that is no stranger to enduring conflict.
In 2016, a historical peace deal brought an end to a half-century of armed resistance by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) left-wing rebels.
FARC guerrillas, as well as guerillas from the National Liberation Army (ELN) left-wing rebel group, plus drug-traffickers, illegal miners and right-wing paramilitaries continue to fight each other and the armed forces for control of the region’s lucrative resources.
In the middle of it all are environmental activists like Marquez and the communities that live in the region.
“We started receiving death threats in our territory when we found ourselves faced with mining grants that had been authorised… to multinational companies and foreign third parties that viewed our territory simply as a potential for extracting riches.”
For the black, indigenous and peasant communities, Colombia’s peace deal has not lived up to expectations, and “now we’re experiencing the upsurge in violence,” Marquez said.
But when it comes to the environment, “human activity is constantly destroying ecosystems.”
“In the countryside, all economic projects in one way or another affect the environment: Illegal and legal ones,” she added.
“Legal projects like sugar cane in the region affect the environment… but so too does illegal and unconstitutional mining.
“By unconstitutional, I’m talking about mining promoted by the Colombian state but without rules to ensure responsible mining in environmental terms.”
Marquez said the value extracted from mining doesn’t justify the damage done to the environment.
There’s additionally the government battle against the cocaine trade, in which it has long tried to destroy illegal coca plantations through fumigation.
“We fumigate the coca but we poison the river, we poison the territory, we poison the community’s meagre food sources,” said Marquez.
The communities she’s struggled to protect are now faced with the coronavirus pandemic in addition to government neglect and armed conflict.
But Marquez isn’t cowed.
“All my life I’ve been at risk,” she said.