VILLETA, Colombia – Francisco Vera was 6 years old when he attended his first protest against bullfighting, which Colombia’s constitutional court later ruled was a tradition that does not fall under the category of animal cruelty. It has been five years since, and his activism now includes campaigns against oil fracking tech and single-use plastics.
From his home in a rural area of the Colombian town of Villeta, Francisco was 9 when he founded the “Guardianes Por La Vida,” or the Guardians of Life. Months later, he wore a blue blazer to speak to legislators at the Colombian Congress on Dec. 17, 2019.
His Guardians of Life group started with a few of his friends and thousands later joined. Some have dubbed him as “Colombia’s Greta Thunberg.” For years, he has been passionate about the Swedish environmental activist’s #FridaysforFuture movement.
“I consider myself an environmental activist and an activist in favor of life, but I started as an animal rights activist,” said Francisco, who owns a megaphone and prefers to wear T-shirts with dinosaurs on them.
In January, the sixth-grade student of a private school run by Catholic nuns took on the issue of internet connectivity.
“We will return to virtual classes, but for this virtual education to be worthy, we ask the government of Iván Duque to guarantee connectivity in all territories of the country,” Francisco wrote on Twitter.
Soon after, he received a disturbing and gruesome threat on Jan. 15 from Twitter user @BelboCodazzi, or J. Belbo Codazzi: “I can’t wait to skin this [expletive]. I want to hear him scream while I cut off his fingers to see if he will keep on talking about environmentalism and dignity.”
Twitter suspended the @BelboCodazzi account. His mother, Ana Maria Manzanares, is a social worker. She monitors his social media accounts, so she had seen adults mock him, insult him and criticize him before, but this was the first time anyone had threatened violence. But by then Francisco had become such a public figure that even Colombian President Ivan Duque publicly condemned the threat.
Francisco, who is a fan of Stephen Hawking, has a dog named Pinky, and a black cat named Foucault. He likes to observe the insects looming on his patio plants and looks forward to the butterflies. He wanted to be a vegan, but his physician, his mother, and his father, Javier Vera, an attorney, did not agree it would be good for his health. He is an only son. He gets his love for politics from his grandfather Miguel Manzanares, who was a commissioner in a small city, and his aunt Camila Manzaneras, a political activist with Colombia’s Green Party. She was the one who took him to his first protest against bullfighting.
His family knows Colombia is not the type of country where you take threats of violence lightly. The United Nations reported 53 human rights activists were killed in Colombia in 2020 and the human rights group Global Witness reported 64 environmental activists were killed there in 2019. The Washington Post recently published a story about the murder of Gonzalo Cardona, a protector of the yellow-eared parrot in the Andes.
Daisy Tarrier credits Francisco for also helping to bring the issue to the forefront by raising awareness about the threats that environmental activists face in Colombia. Tarrier, who was born in France and lives in Colombia, is the president of Envol Vert Colombia, an environmental organization focused on preserving the forests.
“Colombia still struggles to protect activists in rural areas,” Tarrier said, adding “the state must start to do more for those speaking out on environmental issues.”
Hoping the threat was coming from a vile troll, Francisco’s family has decided to support his passion for activism and his dream of becoming an astrophysicist and a politician. He is doing a lot of work from his desk, surrounded by the books and toys that he loves. Teachers invite him to speak to students from his home, and some of the schools share the videos on YouTube. The criticism hasn’t stopped.
“For those who tell me to not talk and to go play: I do play,” Francisco said with a giggle and in a more serious tone he added, “Government action to combat climate change must be more ambitious.”
Being a child activist takes more courage in some parts of the world. Malala Yousafzai, 23, an activist for female education, was 15 years old when she survived a shot to the head while coming home from school on Oct. 9, 2012 in Swat Valley, Pakistan. Nine months after the shooting, she delivered a speech at the UN headquarters in New York and she went on to become the youngest Nobel Prize laureate and an Oxford University graduate. She recently signed a partnership with Apple TV+.
United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet recognized Francisco’s resilience and potential. She sent a delegate to his town to personally deliver a letter to his home in her attempt to encourage him to continue with his work. She wrote the world needs more people with his passion to protect the planet and that she too believes internet connectivity needs to improve for children worldwide.
Torres contributed to this report from Miami.