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Xeni Gwet’in Mining Activist Wins Goldman Environmental Prize

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Xeni Gwet’in leader, Marilyn Baptiste. © Goldman Environmental Prize

We are thrilled to join the Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s largest prize for grassroots environmental activism, in honoring Xeni Gwet’in leader Marilyn Baptiste of British Columbia, Canada, for her work to stop Taseko Mines’ proposed Prosperity gold and copper mine.

Marilyn overcame great odds to spearhead a successful campaign to protect her community from the Prosperity mine proposal. The mining project was a poster child for the worst kind of mining – destroying First Nations’ lands, a pristine wilderness and rainbow trout-laden Fish Lake, or Teztan Biny.

Had it been approved, the Prosperity mine could have served as a catalyst for similar projects in a province whose government has a track record of placing mining industry needs above indigenous rights and environmental protection.

The Prosperity proposal was backed by industry, governments and local municipalities. So it was a surprise to many that it was ultimately rejected – and a testament to the power of community protest.

Marilyn Baptiste led the opposition. Having just been elected Chief of the Xeni Gwet’in, she spearheaded environmental, cultural and economic studies to present to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency’s review panel.

Armed with this information, Chief Baptiste then led a community effort that saw expert, elders, chiefs, local environmentalists and entrepreneurs present strong evidence that raised serious questions about the claims of the mine supporters.

Marilyn was present for virtually all of the 60 days of hearings in the region and ensured that the large majority of witnesses that were heard were from the area that would be affected and spoke against the project.

Marilyn even led a physical blockade of the mine site to prevent mining equipment from entering the area.

Her first victory came in 2010, when the federal government accepted a review panel’s findings about the negative impacts that the project would have on the environment and First Nations’ rights. The report was described by the then federal environment minister Jim Prentice as ‘scathing’ and ‘the most condemning’ he had ever read. The mine proposal was rejected.

But that didn’t stop Taseko Mines from revising and resubmitting their plans. Again, Marilyn Baptiste and the Xeni Gwet’in organized to stop the mine.

Finally, in October 2013, a federally-appointed environmental assessment panel concluded that the proposed mine would have ‘severe’ and ‘irreversible’ impacts on the culture and traditional practices of the Tsilhqot’in people (which include the Xeni Gwet’in). The panel also found a wide range of serious environmental impacts on the lakes, rivers and wetlands of the area, confirming the earlier panel’s findings.

On February 26, 2014, the community achieved a tremendous victory when the federal government rejected the proposal for a second time. Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq said that the significant environmental impacts of the proposed mine could not be justified.

Marilyn Baptiste’s diligent cultivation of support from First Nations across Canada, her continuous media presence and her steadfast courage in opposition to the mine all contributed to the ultimate rejection of the Prosperity mine – and the victory of First Nations’ rights over dirty mining.

This article originally appeared on Earthworks.

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