The Common Good

Forget The Firm--Meet Francia

Most real-life law students I've met are at way, way less risk of being murdered than their counterparts in a John Grisham novel--except for Francia Marquez. The Afro-Colombian activist and mother of two has received multiple death threats as she advocates to keep her home community from having their ancestral home stolen by a land-grab big mining project.

There's gold in them thar hills in Francia's home, La Toma, in Colombia's Cauca province. Families in her hometown have lived for generations off of small-scale, by-hand gold mining. (Francia herself still puts in some mine time when she visits home, although these days she's spending the most time in her legal studies in Bogota.)

Francia -- Photo curtsey of Elizabeth Palmberg
Francia -- Photo curtsey of Elizabeth Palmberg

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But lots of larger-scale mining concerns want in on the action. Some have sent in bulldozers illegally. Others are joining the land rush of getting mining concessions from the national government--notwithstanding laws on the books that give local communities various rights, including prior consultation on any mining projects.

Talking to Francia helps answer the riddle: Why would multinational companies and other big business want to open up shop in an area where private armies-cum-criminal gangs operate freely? Answer: Because some big businesses are taking advantage of the chaotic situation--or, worse yet, actually hiring those paramilitary gangs--to muscle in on mineral rights which might be hard or impossible to get legally.

In La Toma, the government mining ministry, when handing out a gold mining concession to a shady character then under investigation for money laundering, said that there were no Afro-Colombians in La Toma, and therefore no one needed to be consulted. The first eviction order (for the allegedly non-existent community) came in October 2009. The first death threat trying to scare La Toma community leaders came in December. Francia and other leaders have experienced at least 13 more.

Colombia's Constitutional Court--which Francia told me she'd like to be a member of one day--ruled in December 2010 that La Toma did exist, and had to be consulted before any mining projects. It was a victory, but only one step in their struggle. The death threats have kept coming, the most recent on January 6. Francia told me that her faith in God helps sustain her. But she's certainly interested in human solidarity too; she came to Washington, D.C. along with fellow Afro-Colombian activist Clemencia Carabali in order to tell her story to folks in the U.S., including lawmakers. The U.S. government has given Colombia billions of dollars in recent years, much of it military aid.

Like the fictional lawyers of The Firm, Francia and Clemencia are also on tv these days--but in an episode of the amazing PBS series Women, War, and Peace, which features amazingly fearless women from Liberia to Afghanistan to Bosnia. No offense to Grisham, but I'd nominate it for the best thing on the airwaves in a long time.

Elizabeth Palmberg, an associate editor of Sojourners, wrote about Colombia in this month's issue, and spoke with Francia Marquez when she was visiting Washington, D.C. last week.

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