“We are defenders of life” – Francia Elena Márquez Mina

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Author: Angelika Albaladejo

On February 18, 2016, the United States Institute of Peace, the Latin America Working Group, and the Washington Office on Latin America hosted four winners of Diakonia’s 2015 National Prize for the Defense of Human Rights in Colombia for a discussion of “the challenges they and their fellow advocates face in their regions, and the role of human rights defenders in building sustainable peace in Colombia.”


Francia poses outside of the Dirksen Senate Office Building following a meeting during a February 2016 visit to Washington D.C. Photo credit: Angelika Albaladejo

Francia Elena Márquez Mina is an Afro-Colombian leader and human rights defender in Yolombó village in the northern Cauca region of Colombia. Francia defends the ethnic and territorial rights of Afro-Colombian communities and has represented the community of La Toma in the Súarez municipality. Francia was among a group of victims invited to Havana to participate in the peace process, though Francia says she does not see herself as a victim, nor does she see herself as an individual, but rather as part of her community. Francia is the spokeswoman for the Mobilization of Women for Care for Life and Ancestral Territories. For her work in the defense of Afro-Colombian communities, Francia was awarded Defender of the Year by Diakonia for 2015.

This is a transcription of Francia’s powerful statement during the Colombia Peace Forum on February 18 as translated through simultaneous interpretation and transcribed by James Mesiti, LAWG’s Spring 2016 Colombia intern:


Good afternoon everyone. It is a great pleasure to be here with you and to share with you the experiences that we have had in the defense of human rights in my country of Colombia. First of all, I would like to thank Diakonia, which is an organization from Switzerland that has been very helpful and supportive in visualizing all of the work that we do as defenders of human rights. I would like to thank WOLA that for so many years has cried and suffered and struggled besides us – particularly with the black communities in Colombia. I would also like to thank the Latin America Working Group who have also contributed significantly by being able to bring us to the United States to show what the violations have been and what has occurred in our country. To begin, I would like to tell you that I come from a very ancestral community that dates back to 1636 called La Toma, it is to the north of Suarez,Cauca. It is a community that has been there mining; ancestral mining and agriculture has been going on since my ancestors were brought from Africa as slaves. We have been struggling historically to be reinvindicated rights of an Afro-community in Colombia and that is why I am a part of the process of the black community. Last year, we have been part of the mobilization of black women, [who are] taking care of life and protecting the ancestral land. This group of women has been publicly denouncing the environment contamination we have been seeing which is caused by the mining. They [multinational companies] are using mercury, they are using all kinds of things and are constantly in our territories. We also have been a part of displaced communities because we have been working as defenders of human rights, but this has not been an obstacle for me in continuing to assert the issues that have occurred. [Issues] that even the Colombian government has been a part of, and [that are] also on the part of armed individuals who come to defend the economic interests of multinational corporations.

The award I have received is not the “Francia Elena Márquez Prize,” I have given my face to it but we know that this [prize] is a part of the revindication of the historical struggle the Afro-Colombian community has been dealing with. The indigenous communities, the peasants, the women, and the students have also helped in the transformative construction of our country and who have been constructing peace in Colombia. It is not just a peace in words or institutions but it is peace that you build with love; that you build by planting, by taking care of the food supply for those who live in the cities. We also defend the environment which on a global level is being affected.

I went to Cuba myself as a fifth delegation of victims even though I do not consider myself a victim. I am a political activist who has been victimized which I think is different than being an actual victim. When I went to Cuba, I mentioned all of my concerns of the Afro-Colombians that have been recognized as an ethnic group. One of the main concerns are the territorial threats that continue to occur. Many of our territories for example are going to be exploited for large-scale mining promoted by the Colombian government. Energy producers in the country will be carrying out more mining. Many of our territories are projected now for expansion into these areas for sugar and for palm.They are displacing us from our country because obviously it is more important for them [the Colombian government] to ensure that many cars get their tanks filled. In Buenaventura, one of the largest ports in Colombia, our people are being cut down like onions, it is a militarized zones. They have these “casas de pique” where our brothers and sisters are being cut to pieces. Those are the situations that concern us greatly within the framework of a peace process that are not being discussed and that we have seen recurring in every territory.

With great concern we look at the femicide that is happening in Colombia. It is a response to all of the issues and all of the suffering that we have seen with the paramilitaries and all of the different actors. Many women have had to take up the flag of the struggle for the dignity of our people. It is the struggle for life and the struggle to defend the different territories and the environment. Those women are being murdered, they are being displaced and their rights are being violated – and not only the women but their families too.

Consequently there are many concerns that we have in the peace process. We are not saying that we do not want a peace process more than anyone else. We have lived in those territories with the fumigations. We have lived through bombings. We have seen mines that have been put in the ground which have destroyed our families. They cut people in half when people go to place a yucca plant for example. We have seen this, we have lived it. But we have also seen in our own municipalities the presence of the FARC which are basically guerilla fighters who are taking over those areas. So I think more than anyone else we do want a peace process. We know what war means. We know what it means to have helicopters bombing our lands where we can’t sleep all night with the fear that perhap one of those bombs will fall on one of our homes. We want a peace process but we do not want a peace process that is just a development model. We want one that is for Colombian society and that is for the world. There are a lot of debates on peace which are very beautiful to listen to but the reality is very different. We want the reality to be that we have a lasting world peace. That our children in the future will not have to flee like we have had to flee in our lives.

In that sense then, as the National Afro-Colombian Council for Peace (CONPA) has been claiming that those at the table with the government and the FARC also need to be a part of the sub commissions that will allow us to discuss and to offer the rights that the indigenous and the Afro-Colombians deserved to be owed. The same [goes] for the peasants who have done tremendous work to defend their territories and to defend their lives. Nonetheless, the government has denied our requests; in particular the peace commissioner. During the different meetings, from the 60 victims who went to Cuba, I requested an answer from him regarding the letters that I presented asking that the black community should be able to directly participate in all of the agreements. He answered me and said they are not going to talk about ethnic rights and that those rights have already been recognized in the constitution.

He forgets the fact that even though the Constitution recognizes the rights of the black community, 23 years later Law 70 [the constitutional law recognizing ethnic rights], still has not been regulated. He forgets that we live mostly in areas that are rural and that within the last years most of the black people have been displaced to the cities because their territories have been taken over and they have been invaded by the government projects. Those territories have basically been infiltrated by armed individuals. They forget that many of us have had our children, brothers, cousins, nephews, and many of them have had to go to public forces, into the military, or into the paramilitary groups and somehow there have been direct links with the war. Today it is necessary to be a part of the actual discourse on the construction of peace. We are, as an ethnic group, a part of the process and we also deserve to live in peace. That is not going to occur if the threats continue in the different territories, if we continue in a situation having lost our lands based on a model of development that they are not discussing in Cuba and that won’t be discussed in Cuba. The government has talked about the redistribution of lands as a process of one of the agreements. It specifically says it is an integral agrarian reform but they do not talk about the deconcentration of the land itself. They are not going to take the lands away from the owners, they are not going to give the lands that were taken away from the blacks in the north of Cauca back. They are not going to give the lands back to Palmeiras. [The government] with the help of the paramilitaries, are literally displacing the community, but they still talk about an integral agrarian reform. So, basically, what are we talking about? This is a part of our question. For us to sit and to advance into a solid peace process, it implies putting all of this on the table.

The government is saying that [regarding] the eradication of illicit crops, for example, that we do have to take strides in that direction [and] we agree but we believe that the government does not know and they are not very clear about how they are going to handle that issue. They are talking about possible eradication programs in the future but what is going to happen, when they go to eradicate one area, they push a pop-up. They [coca farms] move to another area completely. That is what happens they move from one area to another. The United States has contributed to the fumigations of all of these territories to supposedly, “eradicate coca.” That has not happened, coca has not been eradicated. What has been eradicated are the people because they have killed the crops that are meant for living. The water has been contaminated, they have destroyed our territories. This forced disclaimant increased with the so called “Plan Colombia” which was being celebrated last week. We have nothing to celebrate because Plan Colombia, to us, did not create any dignity for life – it was the violation of human rights.

I think the United States is now discussing supporting Colombia in plan “Paz Colombia” and all of us are obviously pleased that they are going to help provide money for peace and not for the war. Nonetheless, we believe that the specific contribution should not go towards strengthening public forces or to the military. [The United States] knows that they have contributed one way or another to the violence. There is no reason why the funds should be going there for the continuous purchase of weapons. They have to send those funds to construct lasting peace in our country. That implies social investment; it implies helping so that the gaps of inequality that exist in our country can be closed. We need the support of everyone.

I think that the work of human rights [defenders] has been stigmatized. Many of us when we talk this way, they say that we are guerilla fighters, that we are leftists, that perhaps we are oppressed – which of course we are oppressed. The government has oppressed us over and over again, historically for years. Today, we are raising our voices to say that we are defenders of life, of our territories, and defenders of the environment. And we as women, in a very specific way, have come into this life, have brought our children into this life, and we will continue to struggle to bring peace and liberty for our people. We do not want to continue [to live] in a world of violence and of blood [which is what] historically we have lived in. I think that peace cannot be based in racism but Colombia does not want to accept that. They do not want to look at the structural racism that exists. It is not possible to go forward in a peace process that excludes those who historically have had to carry the load of that war.

I do not want to speak much more, I would like to leave it at that. I think in our hands is the construction of peace in Colombia but it is also in the hands of all of you here who will help one grain at a time so that peace will become a reality in Colombia. Thank you.

Francia Elena Márquez Mina

Watch the full event “Colombia: Human Rights Defenders Building Sustainable Peace”
in English: 

Vea el evento “Colombia: Defensores y Defensoras Construyendo una Paz Sostenible”
en español: