Credit: franciscoactivista/Instagram

Francisco Vera will not allow anyone to silence him. The Colombian environmental activist is on a mission to protect his native country from destruction illegal logging, fracking, and mining — and he isn’t afraid to speak his mind about it. In January, Francisco Vera received a death threat from an anonymous Twitter account and while death threats against environmental activists are not unusual in Colombia, this one sparked international outrage — because Francisco Vera is only 12-years-old.

Francisco Vera has been an environmental activist since he was 6-years-old, when he accompanied his family to a protest against bull-fighting.

What started as a passion for animal rights grew into a larger calling: to protect the environment at large. “I grew up in the mountains with ducks, chickens, goats and birds,” Francisco told the BBC. “That motivated me to be an animal rights defender, and then an environmental activist.”

But Francisco doesn’t just speak out against environmental destruction. He is also vocal about other social issues, like internet accessibility for Colombian children. It was after Francisco posted a video asking his government to help provide internet access to the children struggling with their studies during the pandemic, that Francisco received the death threat.

In 2020, a record number of environmental activists were killed globally and 63 of the murders were in Colombia — the most out of any other country.

According to a report by Global Witness, the motives behind these killings are usually greed. “It has become clear that the unaccountable exploitation and greed driving the climate crisis is also driving violence against land and environmental defenders,” they wrote. Environmental activists are murdered because they are trying to keep criminals from decimating the earth for profit. And to these criminals, these activists are simply getting in the way.

The picture of maturity and rationality, Francisco has remained calm in the wake of his death threat. “Criticism is part of life, and I welcome it as long as it is constructive and respectful,” he told the BBC. “But there is obviously no place for insults and threats.” Still, the Colombian government provided Francisco with a bodyguard to be safe. Initially, they also took down his social media channels because of the influx of trolling and cyber attacks. It was only in August that Francisco returned to digital activism (his Instagram account has over 60,000 followers).

Since the January threat, Francisco’s mother, Ana Maria Manzanares, is holding her breath, waiting in fear to see if something terrible is going to happen to her son.

“The anguish of not knowing what you are waiting for or when it will arrive, but you wait for it nonetheless … it’s tough,” Manzanares told The Guardian. “I am always watching out. The threat might never materialize. But from the moment you’re told about it – in a country like Colombia – you expect anything could happen at any moment.”

Francisco remains adamant about continuing to speak about protecting the environment. “Adults should not be the only ones who discuss big topics,” he told the Associated Press. “Children need to have a voice, too, because people who are making choices today will be gone soon and we will have to deal with the consequences.”