Francia Marquez, Afro-Colombian environmental activist, soon to be Vice President?

For the first time in Colombia’s history, the left, with the support of the former mayor of Bogotá, Gustavo Petro, can win the presidential election on May 29. In the event of victory, Francia Marquez, an Afro-Colombian champion of human rights and the environment, will become Vice President. A small revolution in this country torn by social inequality and historically ruled by conservatives.

In recent weeks, at every public appearance, Francia Marquez has appeared dressed in bright colors with traditional patterns of Afro-Colombian clothing. She is a candidate for the position of Vice President of Colombia in the presidential elections, and she always echoes the same message: “It is time to move from resistance to power!”

Within a few months, this Afro-Colombian managed to shake up Colombian political life. In a country historically ruled by conservatives, it has succeeded in imposing campaign themes that hitherto not been in the debate: racism and social inequality. To the extent that it becomes, for a new generation of voters, a symbol of change.

These winds of change can truly come true. A few days before the elections, leftist candidate Gustavo Petro, ex-militant and ex-mayor of Bogotá, who chose Francia Marquez as his deputy in the elections, was the preferred candidate. According to the latest opinion polls reported by Agence France-Presse, he received 41% of the vote.

Gustavo Petro and Francia Marquez oppose right-wing candidate Federico Gutierrez, the former mayor of Medellin, who hovers around 27% of voting intentions. They are now being hunted by outside independent candidate Rodolfo Hernandez after being joined by French-Colombian candidate Ingrid Betancourt on Friday.

Afro-Colombian human rights activist

However, nothing set Francia Marquez for political action. Born in 1981 in a small village in the southwestern Cauca region, she was raised alone with her mother. Pregnant at the age of 16 with her first child, she was first forced to work in a gold mine, a few kilometers from her home, to provide for her family, before being hired as a maid.

But for some people, activity is written in the genes. And Francia Marquez is one of them. When she was barely 15 years old, in 1996, she learned that a multinational company wanted to launch a project to expand a dam located on the region’s main river, Ovegas, which would greatly affect the life of her community.

Installed on its banks since the seventeenthe century, the Afro-Colombian community has been practicing agriculture and artisanal mining there for generations, the two main sources of income.

500 km for the environment

This moment marks the beginning of his long struggle to defend the rights of the Afro-Colombian communities and the preservation of their lands. For twenty years, it has been relentlessly fighting against multinational corporations exploiting the vicinity of the Ovegas River, sometimes forcing residents to leave the place.

Francia Marquez was not recognized to the general public until 2014. In his eyes, this time, illegal miners who settle along the river, dig at any cost to find gold and, above all, use abundant mercury – a product that makes it possible to separate water , but also has the effect of polluting water and destroying biodiversity. To combat this phenomenon, Francia Marquez organizes the “March of Turbans”. 80 women gather to reach Bogota from Cauca, for 10 days and about 500 km of walking. Immediately, the group is still working for nearly twenty days in front of the Ministry of the Interior. The activist has finally won her case: the government pledges to eradicate all illegal exploitation around the river.

Since then, Francia Marquez, now a law graduate, has doubled down on forums and conferences at universities and speeches in front of political figures or within NGOs. In 2018, his fight earned him the Goldman Prize, which is equivalent to the Nobel Prize for Environment. The following year, she appeared in the BBC’s 100 Most Influential Women Ranking.

“I am among those who raise their voices to stop the destruction of rivers, forests and swamps. And among those who dream that one day humans will change the economic model of death, to make way for the construction of a ‘model that guarantees life,'” she wrote on her website.

“Our governments have turned their backs on the people.”

In 2020, I finally decided to enter the world of politics. And the activist does not hide her ambition: “I want to be a candidate for this country. I want people to be free and dignified. I want our lands to be places of life ”, I wrote in a tweet. That same year, she launched her movement “Soy porque somos” (“I am because,” editor’s note). Two years later, in March 2022, she ran for the presidential primaries of the left-wing “Historic Pact” party. She created a surprise by finishing third, which prompted Gustavo Petro to select her as Vice.

Today, her struggle to preserve Afro-Colombian territory makes her the central argument of her political campaign, constantly remembering her history and origins. “I am an Afro-Colombian woman, a single mother of two who gave birth to her first child when she was 16 and did household chores to pay the bills. But I am also an award-winning environmental activist. Above all, an attorney who could become the first black vice president of Colombia,” she insists. In many meetings.

And she denounced that “our governments have turned their backs on the people and for justice and peace.” “If they did their job right, I wouldn’t be here.”

“There has been a lot of popular anger among the population in recent months against the political class, especially linked to the COVID-19 pandemic,” explains Olga Lucia Gonzalez, assistant researcher, and Colombian specialist at Université Paris Diderot. “Francia Marquez comes from civil society and not from the traditional political elite. It’s an argument to play on, and one that goes largely in its favour.”

“But she is above all a woman, black, Afro-Colombian, and she brings with her her themes that had hitherto been completely forgotten, about the relationship with colonialism, sexism and racism,” she continues.

Francia Marquez is not the only Afro-Colombian candidate in this presidential election – there are also Catherine Ibarguen and Zinaida Martinez. Together, they want to be a voice of protest that rises against double discrimination: being a woman and being black. This is reflected in political life: the government has only one black woman and only two members of parliament.

Colombia has the largest population of people of African descent in Latin America. Official census data indicate that Afro-Colombians represent more than 6.2% of the population. A number that is severely underestimated according to demographers. However, Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities still face disproportionate levels of poverty, violence, and land expropriation. According to government data. Thus, about 31% of the Afro-Colombian population lives in poverty, compared to 20% of the national population.

It remains to be seen if his victory will lead to the change many residents have been hoping for. “Victory is far from certain. Gustavo Petro and you will definitely pass the first round but nothing says they will win in the second round”, nuance Olga Lucia Gonzalez. “Then political life will always be led by the same elite. They can inject good momentum. I doubt that will be enough.”

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