An Afro-Colombian leader, Francia Márquez, from the La Toma region who spent years protecting her community and the region from illegal mining, has won the prestigious award, Goldman Environmental Prize, for her exemplary effort to protect the environment and save the community from eviction.
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La Toma, home to nearly a quarter million Afro-Colombians, who have lived there for centuries as their ancestors were brought as slaves to work in Colombia's colonial mines and haciendas, is perched in the Cauca mountains of southwest Colombia. The Cauca region is at the heart of the country's illegal gold mining epidemic.
The Afro-Colombian community in the region has practiced agriculture and artisanal mining for generations, using pickaxes and panning for gold nuggets in the Ovejas River, which is the lifeline of the community, which provides water and fish to the nearby residing community, Gold Man Prize's website noted.
36-year-old Marquez's fight against illegal mining began when she was 13.
"We, as a people, came to have land that were fought for by our ancestors," she said in a Goldman Environmental Prize video profile. "We have been in this territory as a Black community since 1636. I grew up along the shore of the Ovejas River – swimming, fishing, mining. The river was everything to me… In the name of development, most of the rivers in this territory are poisoned with mercury and cyanide."
In 2014, illegal miners began operating 14 backhoes on the banks of the Ovejas River near La Toma, as they cleared forests and dug deep open pits, destroying the natural flow of the river, causing significant damage to the environment, destroying their means of livelihood, fish.
Established in 1989, by the husband and wife duo, Richard and Rhoda Goldman, the Goldman Environmental Prize was set up with the aim to award grassroots community leaders for their lifelong commitment to protecting the environment.
"A formidable leader of the Afro-Colombian community, Francia Márquez organized the women of La Toma and stopped illegal gold mining on their ancestral land. She exerted steady pressure on the Colombian government and spearheaded a 10-day, 350-mile march of 80 women to the nation’s capital, resulting in the removal of all illegal miners and equipment from her community," the Goldman Prize' website noted.
When Marquez first started her fight against the illegal miners, she didn't know how to approach the issue legally, so she studied law to better defend La Toma, and filed the paperwork to remove the illegal miners who were trying to evict the residing Afro-Colombians and destroying the local environment.
Marquez helped bring a case under Colombian law that Afro-Colombians have a right to "free, prior and informed consent" with respect to the activities impacting their ancestral lands. The court agreed, ruling that the community hadn’t been properly consulted regarding the mining permits.
"I got involved with the community to demand that we had a right as an Afro-descendent community to those ancestral lands and that they didn’t have a right to displace us from those lands," she said, the Earth Planet reported.
Nearly 80 percent of the gold in Colombia is mined illegally, and these illegal miners dump over 30 tons of mercury into rivers and lakes in the Amazon region each year, poisoning fish and people.
An estimated 2,000 such backhoes were recorded in the Cauca region, the Goldman Prize reported on their website,
"Illegal miners used mercury and cyanide to extract the gold from dirt and rock. These toxic chemicals flowed directly into the Ovejas River, contaminating the community’s only source of fresh water," the website noted.
"Mining camps transformed into small cities, much like the boom towns of the California Gold Rush. With populations of up to 5,000 people, these cities gave rise to prostitution, illegal drug use, and rampant violence as miners preyed upon and clashed with local residents,"