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A Triumph For Ecological Justice in Latin America

In June of last year, the day before the election, I stayed high up in the hills in a small town called Minca surrounded by local Colombians and tourists all toasting drinks and dancing awaiting the alcohol ban implemented during Colombia’s Presidential elections. Politics was hardly spoken of, in a country wrought by a history of right-wing military dictators. It is taboo to talk about politics, only with close friends in safe spaces do you find people opening up. Upon talking with the owner of the hostel, a highly educated and lovely young man from Bogota who did not believe in politics being a taboo in his nation he was so proud to have grown up in, we shared life experiences.

Over an Aguila beer, we spoke in Spanish, and talked of life and the complicated state of Scottish politics and of independence. At the same time, he filled me in on the nuances of Colombian politics. Fortunately,  conversating easily in Spanish comes naturally, learning almost fluent Spanish while studying and traveling abroad, leaning upon what I had learned at school and all the subsequent University classes on Latin America.

Although his English was perfect, it provided a reminder of the importance of attempting to learn the language of others as a manner in which to break a barrier and build upon trust amongst two wholly different people hailing from either side of the Atlantic Ocean. Looking over the city of Santa Marta we hoped, quietly, that violence nor uprising would break out. Luckily this time only peace reigned supreme.

Traveling the coastal towns of the Caribbean coasts, to the metropolitan cities of Medellin and Bogota, to the coffee farms of the Southern regions of Colombia shed light upon the joyous people and richness of a culture often given little thought upon. It is one of the most dynamic and culturally rich countries on our planet. Indigenous groups live in the mountains of La Guajira and in the jungle near the Brazilian and Peruvian borders. They have lived there for centuries retaining their own language and ways of life, placing significantly greater respect upon the land than the white colonialists.

For the first time in Colombia’s, admittedly short democratic history, a left-wing leader was triumphant over a right-wing candidate. Even more significantly, Gustavo Petro’s vice President-elect is the first Afro-Colombian vice president.

What a brave and honorable story Francia Marquez holds. A young woman, born and raised in the small gold-mining town of Yolombo located in the North of Colombia. Marquez first became an activist when at only 13 years of age the construction of a local dam threatened her local community.

Moreover, in 2014, confronted by further illegal mining, Marquez organised a 350-kilomtre-long, march from Cauca to Bogota. The train, comprising of 80 Afro-Caribbean women, brought much attention upon illicit mining that threatened livelihoods and destroyed the local environment. Following a 22-day protest the women garnered enough attention that, finally, the Colombian Government opened their doors to host a conversation with the women.

Plighted by historical injustices that resulted in genocide against indigenous groups and communist groups alike, Latin America has faced up to its history with immense bravery. From the burned down highland villages of Guatemala, to the tortured men and women in major cities Argentina and Peru, Latin America has had to overcome many political and social wrong doings.

Peace and truth would not have been achieved without the peaceful protests of Las Madres de La Plaza de La Mayo or social pressure, such as the 1994 Historical Clarification in Guatemala. Healing the prejudices of the past is a long and difficult struggle that is overwhelmed by racialised and gendered power imbalances. Despite the bravery of so many, there is no shying away from the fact that poverty and racial-related social injustice still exist.

A long history of peaceful protest has stemmed contemporary indigenous activists alongside allies across the continent to forge greater pressure upon governments. Thwarted by demagogue leaders, such as Bolsonaro in Brazil, environmental activist groups have never wavered in their battle towards ecological justice.

Westerners have plundered, fought and subjugated indigenous groups. Culturally we have destroyed traditional understanding of gender roles, imposed whiteness and a gender binary upon people that placed far greater importance upon family and community than wealth and never-ending growth. For example, in Mexico’s Southern region of Oaxaca there is a third gender called muxes.

Eva Longoria presented a show called “Eva Longoria: Searching For Mexico” that, in one particular episode, detailed the lives of muxes peoples. Felina Santiago said that “we are people of two spirits,” explaining in an episode based on the Oaxaca region of Mexico, adding that, “we are the duality, neither man nor woman. You are neither less nor more”.

Despite the cultural crushing of indigenous ways of life, indigenous folk are yet to give up on the reclamation of their lands and language. Evo Morales, an indigenous man raised by llama herders in rural Bolivia, became President, vowing to implement policies that respected and shed light on the plight of indigenous people. Francia Marquez has also fought tirelessly for both Afro-Colombian women and the environment. People like these, alongside lesser-known men, and women across South America, deserve greater attention amongst Western pundits who fail to recognize that hope and light are reverberating in all corners of the continent.

It was undoubtedly a joyful day when, following the lifting of the alcohol ban in Colombia, one sighed a breath of relief that the historical tendency towards right-wing candidates was overcome by hope for a better future, guided by leftist policies.

On that day, the Colombian people, although thwarted by historical military struggle could turn greater attention to fighting for environmental and social injustice knowing that the people in power were on their side for the first time in their history.




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