Environmental Leaders – Marilyn Baptiste

May 19, 2015

Eco News Network profiles environmental leaders each week in our new series. This week we feature Marilyn Baptiste, British Columbia, Canada, recipient of the The Goldman Environmental Prize 2015 for environmental work in North America. A former chief of the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation, Baptiste led her community in defeating the largest proposed gold and copper mine in British Columbia, which would have destroyed Fish Lake—a source of spiritual identity and livelihood for the Xeni Gwet’in.

Marilyn in Xeni, Nemiah Valley with an old russel fence behind her.

Marilyn Baptiste spent most of her childhood in Nemiah Valley, where the Xeni Gwet’in have been steadfast protectors of the land and wildlife such as bighorn sheep, grizzly bears and wild salmon. Her father, then chief of the Xeni Gwet’in, taught her the importance of subsistence living—taking from nature’s resources in a respectful, sustainable way—and maintaining sovereignty by being responsible stewards of the land.

Baptiste followed in her father’s footsteps. She worked her way up at the First Nations legal center and was elected chief of the Xeni Gwet’in in 2008, as Taseko Mines Limited (TML) was mounting its relentless pursuit of Prosperity Mine, the largest mine ever proposed in British Columbia. TML planned to drain the sacred Fish Lake and use it for waste storage, destroying the lake, the biodiversity surrounding it, and the local people’s source of food, water, medicine, and spiritual identity.

In January 2010, after what was widely regarded as a faulty environmental assessment, the BC government issued permits for the mine. The federal environmental agency began its review of the project, and Baptiste led the First Nation’s involvement in the investigation. She convened a diverse group of tribal chiefs, elders, and scientific experts to prepare comprehensive data about the Xeni Gwet’in and Tsilhqot’ins’ environmental, cultural, and economic relationship with their land.

Heeding the agency’s findings, the federal government soundly rejected the mine in November 2010. TML’s stock prices tumbled, but determined to proceed, the company submitted a revised proposal in 2011 and began moving heavy machinery into the Fish Lake area.

Baptiste responded immediately, initiating a one-woman road blockade that prevented construction crews from accessing the proposed mine site. She bravely defended her people’s land, turning long lines of trucks and machinery around. Meanwhile, TML’s revised proposal was met with scathing reports from the federal environmental agency, and in early 2014, the government once again rejected the mine.

Baptiste and her fellow leaders on the Xeni Gwet’in council, in collaboration with leadership from the Yunesit’in and the broader Tsilhqot’in Nation, are now working to permanently protect Fish Lake and the surrounding area as a tribal park.

To learn more about Marilyn Baptiste and her work visit www.goldmanprize.org/marilyn

You can read more about The Goldman Environmental Prize and this year’s winners in this recent Eco News Network article. https://econewsnetwork.org/2015/04/goldman-environmental-prize-winners/

To read last weeks Eco News Network environmental leader profile on Howard Wood visit: https://econewsnetwork.org/2015/05/environmental-leaders-howard-wood/

Photo provided by The Goldman Environmental Prize.