Climate Hero: Marilyn Baptiste

Marilyn Baptiste. Image Credit: Goldman Environmental Prize

Climate Hero: Marilyn Baptiste

Each week One Earth is proud to feature an environmental activist and hero from around the globe who is working to create a world where humanity and nature can coexist in harmony.

Too often, the relentless pursuit of profit tramples over people and the environment. Yet, one woman has proven that sheer determination and love for the land can thwart even the most formidable industry giants.

This is how Marilyn Baptiste, the former Xeni Gwet’in chief, stopped one of the largest proposed gold and copper mines in British Columbia.

A youth rooted in respect for Nature

Marilyn's journey began by embracing her father's teachings about the sanctity of Nature. Together, they explored their territory with her father, always emphasizing the significance of leaving the lightest footprint possible.

She was a student of the old ways, learning to dip-net for salmon, hunt moose and deer, and harvest berries with respect for the land. This upbringing instilled in her a profound reverence for the Earth, which would later fuel her unwavering commitment to protecting it.

Marilyn was elected chief of the Xeni Gwet’in in 2008. Image Credit: Goldman Environmental Prize.

Becoming chief and her first test

Inspired by her community, Marilyn dedicated herself to advocating for their rights as First Nation people. Following in her father's footsteps, she was elected the chief of the Xeni Gwet’in in 2008.

One of her first tests as leader came when the Vancouver-based Taseko Mines Limited (TML) set its sights on constructing the Prosperity Mine. This project would go down in history as one of the largest gold and copper mines ever proposed in British Columbia.

The plan was nothing short of devastating, involving the drainage of Fish Lake for waste storage, effectively annihilating this sacred site—a wellspring of spiritual identity for the community. The project also threatened the local biodiversity and jeopardized the community's vital food, water, and medicine sources.

Power in collective action

With the Xeni Gwet’in community by her side, Marilyn rallied together a diverse group of tribal chiefs, elders, and scientific experts to gather comprehensive data about their land's environmental, cultural, and economic significance.

Their collective action succeeded in November 2010 when the federal government rejected the mine following the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) findings. It was a momentous victory, a testament to the power of community, knowledge, and the courage to stand up for what is right.

Marilyn taking a drink out of Chilko Lake, Tsilhqot’in’s main watershed in the heart of Xeni. Image Credit: Goldman Environmental Prize.

A one-woman road blockade

However, the battle was far from over. TML, undeterred by the rejection, submitted a revised proposal in 2011 and began moving heavy machinery toward the Fish Lake area. In the face of this renewed threat, Marilyn set up a one-woman road blockade, bravely preventing construction crews from accessing the proposed mine site.

Her courage and determination shone through even as drivers threatened to run her over. With unwavering resolve, she turned away a long line of trucks, asserting the importance of preserving her people’s land and way of life.

Perseverance leads to victory

The relentless efforts of Marilyn and the Xeni Gwet’in community were ultimately recognized when the British Columbia Supreme Court rejected TML's request to force them to stop blocking the construction. The court issued an injunction that prohibited TML from commencing any work at the site, including road-building and forest clearing.

It was a resounding triumph, demonstrating the power of individuals and communities to protect their environment against formidable opponents.

Marilyn with the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize. Image Credit: Goldman Environmental Prize.

A legacy of action and advocacy

In 2015, Marilyn was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her tireless dedication and unwavering commitment to her people and the land they cherish. Her acceptance speech echoed her belief that the work is never truly done, and she implored everyone to raise their voices and hold every government accountable.

As a co-founder of First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining (FNWARM), Marilyn continues to serve on the board, working alongside fellow leaders on the Xeni Gwet’in council. Together, they strive to permanently protect Fish Lake and the surrounding area, Dasiqox Tribal Park.

Her story reminds us that one person can make a significant difference and that we must protect the Earth for generations to come.

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