Francisco Vera is one of the 2023 Young Activist Summit winners.

In June of this year, at just 13 years old, Colombian Francisco Vera was named the first youth advocate for environmental and climate action in Latin America and the Caribbean by UNICEF, to promote environmental education and child participation.

Born in Bogotá, Vera, who is now 14 and who has moved to Spain with his mother following threats to his life, is an environmental activist. He calls for the universal right to a healthy environment, raises awareness among children of the dangers of climate change, and aims to teach everyday citizens how they can reduce their impact on the environment.

He is the author of the book "Pregúntale a Francisco: ¿Qué es el cambio climático?" (Ask Francisco: What Is Climate Change?), illustrated by Lwillys Tafur and published by Planeta. Its target audience is children and it explains how the climate crisis affects plants and animals, and how humans can reduce their carbon footprint and help to save the planet from the adverse effects of climate change. Together with the group Guardianes por la Vida (Guardians of Life), Vera visits schools to give talks on environmental activism, as well as children’s and human rights.

Vera was recently named one of the five winners at this year’s Young Activists Summit, which seeks to empower young changemakers advancing sustainability or human rights, helping them to achieve concrete results through visibility, networking, training, and fundraising.

During his appearance to present his book at the Guadalajara International Book Fair in Mexico earlier this month, Vera told Global Citizen his story to date.

I’m a climate activist and a defender of the environment, and I’ve written a book. 

As an activist, about four years ago, when I was about 9 years old, I launched a movement called Guardianes por la Vida, made up of kids and young people. 

One of the big motivations for it was that social and environmental movements are usually made up of adults or young people [but not children]. In our movement, we are kids between 8 and 14 years of age. What we try to do is raise our voices through various channels. We organize educational projects — we have a network of teachers across Latin America, with which we work constantly to organize visits to schools.

Francisco Vera holds his book, “Ask Francisco: What is Climate Change?,” illustrated by Lwillys Tafur and published by Planeta.
Image: Bernardo De Niz for Global Citizen

We have a project that commemorates the 75th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, through which we visited schools to have the children read the declaration and learn about it, get to know their rights — and from there, write a story. We teach children about citizenship, about human rights — that each of us has a voice and we need to use it. We teach about biodiversity, nature, and the climate situation.

The final aim of our movement is to create child leaders, so that’s what we’re doing in terms of education.

We also drew up a document called Eco-Hope. It’s translated into many languages: Arabic, French, and English, but also smaller languages, such as Catalan and Indigenous languages. The document contains four petitions, general proposals that respond to the problems and needs that we see across the world. In many places, in Europe, in Africa, in Latin America, there are places where environmental education does not even exist. We want the climate question to be included in schools’ curricula.

We have mobilized [and expanded the movement] locally and internationally. We have also mobilized with local institutions, such as in Madrid, and we have forged alliances with non-governmental organizations in other countries, to move forward with the Eco-Hope proposals so that children are involved.

The moment that began all of this for me, and for this movement, was what happened in the Amazon in 2019. There were huge forest fires in the region, which caught the attention of the world, and there were huge bushfires in Australia toward the end of that year. Those two events motivated me to enter into the fight against climate change.

Other young people, such as Greta Thunberg, also motivated me to become an activist, and that was very important. She motivated a lot of people. There was a boom in activism in 2019, at COP25. Other activists, in Latin America for example, also inspired me.

As a member of Guardianes por la Vida (Guardians for Life), Francisco Vera inspires children and adolescents through social media, virtual programs, and a school network, on climate action, children's rights, and climate justice.
Image: Bernardo De Niz for Global Citizen

I was also inspired to get involved because of injustice. The indignation that the situation in the Amazon caused. Colombia is a country of outstanding natural beauty, and it was a great inspiration to protect it. Latin America and the Caribbean accounts for 40% of the world’s biodiversity. I want to do something to protect that.

My book is an educational tool that seeks to teach about climate change. I tried to do it in a simple way, through interviews with the Earth, Mars, a hummingbird, a desert, and icons of biodiversity, to give them a voice and explain how we can take action to protect nature and be at peace with nature. 

I presented it in April 2022, accompanied by [Colombian former president and winner of the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize] Juan Manuel Santos. It’s about adapting our society and how we can live in harmony with nature. The idea is to create greater awareness among children, although the book is aimed at everyone. All the copies we brought to Guadalajara have sold out. The book has also been translated into Arabic, and was published in Egypt for COP27.

I’m very happy to have been chosen as a Young Activist, and very grateful to all the people who have helped me. But the most important thing is to transmit a message: Because of climate change and wars, we have seen so many deaths. Now we’re seeing the deaths of children in Gaza, but also in Yemen, Syria, and Ukraine. We also have challenges to construct peace in Latin America, such as in Colombia, and that puts human rights defenders at risk.

Colombia is among the most dangerous countries in the world for climate activists. It’s incredible how this is continuing to happen. In 2020, I received a series of threats, and we moved to Spain, where I live now. There is still so much more to be done. I’m at school, in ninth grade, the school is in Catalan, and I’m doing well, I’m focused. My classmates are happy for me and they are also very interested in participating, to join this movement or create their own.

My long-term plans are to continue with this work, create awareness and provoke change, to create projects at a regional and global level. I don’t know what I want to study yet, perhaps international law, economics, or environmental sciences, or marine biology. There are many things that interest me and that I still have to learn about.

The good thing is that I still have time.

Francisco Vera was named one of the winners at this year’s Young Activists Summit, which seeks to empower young changemakers through visibility, networking, training, and fundraising.
Image: Bernardo De Niz for Global Citizen

Story as told to Adam Critchley; it has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The 2023-2024 In My Own Words series was made possible thanks to funding from the Ford Foundation.

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