La Hora de Actuar (The Time to Act)

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the below topics.

By Gabe Sanders.

In the midst of a global pandemic and social reckoning, a contentious national election culminated in a Black woman assuming the office of Vice President for the first time in the country’s history. Her name is Francia Márquez, and she is the human and environmental rights activist who went from teenage mother working as a housekeeper to second in command of Colombia’s executive branch.

By the age of 15, Francia Elena Márquez Mina was already an ardent defender of the environmental rights of her people. Raised in the mountainous district of La Toma, which has long been plagued by governmental and corporate malfeasance, the young activist was forced to spend her adolescent years advocating against a dam project that threatened the primary water source and ancestral land of Afro-Colombian locals. For Márquez’s community, which descended from the African slaves who “work[ed] in Colombia’s colonial mines and haciendas,” the Ovejas River was more than a reservoir; in her words, “[it’s] our life, it’s our dignity, and that doesn’t have a price.”[1] [2] This sentiment was shared by the artisanal miners and agricultural workers who Márquez joined in peacefully protesting the “environmental impacts of this dam, and… the social and human impact,” which they exposed via “performances of dance and theater.”[3] While these unique demonstrations succeeded in derailing the government’s plans in 1996, this was certainly not the last time that the “life” and “dignity” of the people of La Toma would be under attack.

The turn of the 21st century ushered in an era of prosperity for multinational mining companies in South America, which were willing to desecrate the land and rights of Afro-Colombian communities if it meant expediting the process of extracting profitable natural resources. Capitalizing on the precipitous rise in international commodity prices that accompanied the 2008 financial crisis, the conservative Álvaro Uribe regime sought to evict Afro-Colombian artisanal miners, most of whom were women, and replace them with mercenary corporate entities. Skirting licensing laws, these companies would engage in illegal gold mining operations that not only released “mercury, cyanide, and other harmful chemicals” into the environment, but “exacerbated violence in municipalities with an abundance of such minerals.”[4] With local laborers facing displacement, intimidation, and contamination of essential resources, the 29-year-old single mother of two took it upon herself to galvanize a nonviolent resistance movement.

Throughout 2009, Márquez led La Toma residents in protesting the government’s eviction efforts, as well as the Cabinet’s decision to grant mining companies the authority to initiate extraction operations without consulting the local people. Eager to identify the legal protections to which her community was entitled, Márquez simultaneously began studying Colombian law. Once equipped with an understanding of their fundamental rights to due process, prior consultation, and cultural integrity, she spearheaded the La Toma community council’s 2010 legal defense, filing a lawsuit against the Ministry of the Interior. Despite facing early setbacks, their case ultimately reached Colombia’s Constitutional Court, which recognized the rights of the plaintiffs and reversed the Cabinet’s decision.[5] Márquez would continue to act as a legal representative for Afro-Colombians afflicted by unlawful gold mining projects, throughout the five years that followed; however, when the Ovejas River again became imperiled in 2014 — this time by the introduction of backhoes — the unflinching activist turned to the method of advocacy she knew best: protest.

With roughly 2,000 backhoes “clear[ing] forests and [digging] deep open pits, destroying the natural flow of the river and killing the fish,” Márquez aimed to underscore the environmental and communal effects of illegal mining by organizing 80 La Toma women to march 350 kilometers through the Cauca Mountains to Bogotá.[6] The 10-day voyage garnered national attention, which only increased upon their arrival. For 22 additional days, the Márquez-led coalition protested on the streets of the nation’s capital, demanding justice “not only for Black people, whose rights have been violated, but also for indigenous communities, women, and nature itself.”[7] The protestors’ commanding presence compelled the UN High Commissioner and Colombian Congress to take heed of their demands. In late 2014, the government agreed to expel “all illegal miners and equipment from [the La Toma] community” — a commitment that was finally fulfilled in 2016.[8]

Experiencing constant harassment and numerous death threats, Márquez was forced to move from her home in La Toma to Cali, where she persisted in pressing the Colombian government to address the enduring effects of this perennial pillaging of natural resources. In 2018, “[f]or outstanding environmental achievement for Central and South America,” she was awarded the esteemed Goldman Environmental Prize.[9] Her acceptance speech, however, indicated that her fight for environmental justice was far from over. “It is time to act,” she declared in Spanish, adding, “cooling down the planet is our responsibility.”[10] In 2021, having mounted myriad humanitarian and environmental campaigns, Márquez commenced her most ambitious climate-related endeavor yet, a presidential bid.

Seeking nomination from the leftwing political coalition El Pacto Historico, Márquez centered her campaign on social justice causes, including the social mobility and reproductive rights of Afro-Colombian women. Despite falling in the 2022 primaries to popular guerilla leader and former mayor of Bogotá Gustavo Petro, Márquez earned an impressive 757,000 votes and came in second.[11] Following through on their promise to select Petro’s runner-up as his running mate, El Pacto Historico nominated Márquez for Vice President. In spite of relentless intimidation efforts aimed at both Petro and Márquez, their ticket would be punched during the first round of the election, during which no candidate garnered more than 50% of the vote. The resulting runoff was held on June 19, 2022, when the people of Colombia, by a significant margin, elected their first leftist head of state and his running mate.[12] Less than one year later, Vice President Francia Márquez is poised to serve as the country’s first Minster of Equality, a position for which few are better suited.

[1]Francia Márquez – Goldman Environmental Prize,” March 18, 2022.

[2] Hugo Mario Cárdenas, “La Toma: Not Just a Name, but an Omen,” Tierra de Resistentes | Consejo de Redacción (blog), March 25, 2020.

[3]Q&A with Francia Márquez – Goldman Environmental Prize,” August 23, 2018.

[4] Nicolás Idrobo, Daniel Mejía, and Ana María Tribin, “Illegal Gold Mining and Violence in Colombia,” Peace Economics, Peace Science and Public Policy 20, no. 1 (January 1, 2014): 83–111.

[5] Cárdenas, “La Toma.”

[6]Q&A with Francia Márquez – Goldman Environmental Prize.”

[7] Francia Márquez, 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize, Colombia, 2018.

[8]Francia Márquez – Goldman Environmental Prize.”

[9] Francia Márquez, 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize, Colombia.

[10] Francia Márquez Acceptance Speech, 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize, 2018.

[11] Catalina Oquendo, “Francia Márquez, the Colombian Electoral Phenomenon,” EL PAÍS English, March 15, 2022.

[12] Nelson Bocanegra et al., “Colombia Elects Former Guerrilla Petro as First Leftist President,” Reuters, June 20, 2022, sec. Americas.