Al Jazeera reports:
Bolivian women mining for a living and for respect
Despite local superstition that female presence brings bad luck, women eke out a living inside dangerous Bolivian mines.
by Jurriaan van Eerten
Llallagua, Bolivia – It started out of necessity 15 years ago. Dolly Quillka Bautista’s husband had slipped into a coma after an accident in the mines, leaving her without an income to feed their six children. She tried odd jobs, but the only one that made her enough money to survive was at the tin mine. So Quillka, in her early 30s at the time, took her husband’s helmet and lamp, and went to work at the mine.
Quillka’s first weeks were mainly dominated by fear – on average, last year, every two weeks someone died in Llallagua’s mines because of a collapsed roof or of poisonous gas, according to Francisca Alicia Soliz Mendez, who heads the local Federation of the Co-operatives organisation for miners. Without any training, villagers enter the mines in groups called “cooperativas” in Spanish, meaning co-operatives.
But besides the safety issues of the mine, Quillka soon discovered that the Bolivian mines are a world dominated by men.
According to a local legend, minerals retreat into the depths of the mountain when women enter, leaving nothing but bare stone. Every day, Quillka was told she didn’t belong in the mines. In addition to the legend that created a hostile environment for her, she had to endure the sexual harassment from men passing by in the dark.
One day, as if by miracle, her husband woke from his coma. Left physically disabled after the accident, he was still unable to work. Yet he forbade his wife from continuing to work in the mine. He was afraid the other miners would laugh at him.
Despite his protests, Quillka kept going.
“I would go at night, when I didn’t have to take care of my children or go to my husband in the hospital,” Quillka told Al Jazeera as she entered the mine on a recent Monday morning. “I wasn’t part of a co-operative yet, but no one guarded the mine entrance as they do now.”
Gradually Quillka learned to stand her ground. Most miners refused to lend their equipment or explain anything about the work. However, a few started to help her. They realised her presence didn’t have a particular effect on the minerals in the rock. Moreover, after Bautista found some big veins of tin, some miners started to believe she brought luck.
Mining for respect
There was a short period in the 1930s, when Bolivia was involved in the Chaco War with Paraguay, when women worked inside the mines due to shortage of male labour. The superstitions were temporarily set aside. After the war, the women were pushed out of the mines again, and only allowed to enter the main corridor to collect stones fallen from trolleys.
Fifteen years ago, Quillka, who is now 48, was one of the first women in the Siglo XX mine of Llallagua. Nowadays, more and more women work deep inside the mines: nationwide, of a total 130,000 miners, some 2,000 are female, according to Maria Morales Barahona, a local mining expert.
Most of them are widows because their husbands died owing to a mining accident.
Morales, who hosts the daily radio show Mineria en Accion (Mining in Action) – about mining in Llallagua, told Al Jazeera that Quillka had become an icon in the town. Women see how Quillka manages despite the superstitions, and realise it is possible to work in the mine as a woman.
Morales told Al Jazeera that some of the men have changed their perspectives because of Quillka. “While they drink away their pay check, these women have to cook and take care of their children. That commands respect,” Morales said.
Bad for the health
Deep inside the mine, behind a door with a sign that warns, “Beware, danger”, Quillka has a resting nook where she takes breaks from work. It’s a small area like a cave, with light bulbs hanging from the ceiling, some dirty clothes clinging to the jagged rock, and an air compressor that provides pressure for her drill.
Together with her colleague, 50-year-old widow Romalda Colque, she drinks a sip of strong liquor and chews some coca leaves.
The coca leaves stimulate the intake of oxygen, which is why they are a favourite item in the country where many people live at an elevation of 4,000 metres above sea level. It helps to deal with altitude sickness and oxygen-poor mines.
They take some coca leaves along into the mineshaft, where the women also offer some to the altar of El Tio: the devil-god who reins the underground world. He is the one from the local tradition to be enraged by the presence of women deep down the mine, and to hold back the minerals he produces. But Quillka and Colque seem to trust him fully: they believe he will protect them from danger.
The women have to go another 40 metres down a wobbly wooden ladder to reach their work station.
Quillka’s helmet light shines on the wooden beams, some of which are rotten or half-broken under the weight of the stone. The sound of drills breaking the rocks resonates through the mine. After holes are drilled, explosives will be placed in and around them. Sometimes, the air inside gets so thick with smoke that the miners can barely breathe.
The state-controlled Comibol mines are ventilated, and the miners wear masks. Furthermore, the stone is moisturised to minimise dust.
This is not the case inside the “cooperativa” mines, or the ones that villagers mine on their own.
According to a local lung specialist, Osvaldo López Soto, more or less one third of the miners get silicosis : a painful lung disease, which leads to death from suffocation within years. The miners in the area often get the accelerated form, because of overexposure to dust.
The cooperatives provide for some medical care, but there are no social programmes for the disabled, nor for widows.
Saving for the future isn’t much of an option either. Some weeks the miners don’t earn anything because they don’t find any mineral. Other weeks they have more luck. Last January was an average month for Quillka, in which she earned 1,000 Bolivianos – more or less $150.
“I fear the future of my old age,” says Quillka. “The heavy work has been a burden on my back and hips already, which now always hurt. As some days I don’t have the money to eat, while working 12 hours, I end up completely depleted.”
Her colleague Romalda Colque chimes in: “My children, adults now, would like me to stop. But this work is what makes us independent. It’s very important to us. We will keep working as long as our bodies survive.”
Two issues I despise completely:
- machismo is something that continues to push us down as society. It is unbelievable that even with the discovery of Genome, people still believe on gender and race supremacy. Unfortunately, current government has push this further, not only because of the ongoing derogatory remarks about women this president publicly says but is also represented at all society levels. Education and self pride needs to sprout. Ignorance is the cause for those stupid men to treat women badly. And of course, the masismo uses that to remain in power.
- populism and demagogue have sprouted on the co-operative structure, and that is when health and environment are less thought and care of. They brag about socialism “principles” and do not care of the health of their workers, they also do not care of the environment, they only use the co=operative charade to pay less taxes and pollute without remorse and no control. For the sake of some votes, this government does absolutely nothing to protect those workers and the environment, despicable!