Searching through the Scraps: Women and Mining in Bolivia; Beginning in the Fifteenth-Century Silver Exploitation of Potosi, and Continuing to Today, Women Have Been Involved in Intricate and Often Invisible Ways in the Bolivian Mining Sector. Dawn Paley Reports from Bolivia

By Paley, Dawn | Canadian Dimension, May-June 2005 | Go to article overview

Searching through the Scraps: Women and Mining in Bolivia; Beginning in the Fifteenth-Century Silver Exploitation of Potosi, and Continuing to Today, Women Have Been Involved in Intricate and Often Invisible Ways in the Bolivian Mining Sector. Dawn Paley Reports from Bolivia


Paley, Dawn, Canadian Dimension


When Bolivia's mining sector was privatized in 1985, the formerly nationalized mines were fractured and split, the minority falling into the hands of larger private enterprises, and the vast majority left to survive on their own, with no state or foreign investment. Today, 85 per cent of miners work in cooperative structures, using manual extraction methods and generally living in less organized and less prosperous circumstances than they did during the existence of COMIBOL.

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From 1952 to 1985, COMIBOL was the major organization representing miners. Union regulations formally excluded women from working inside the mines. In this era the most visible representation of women in the mining sector was through "Amas de Casa" organizations, where wives and partners of miners organized to lobby for improved working and living conditions for miners and their families. The tradition of the Amas de Casa continues today, and part of the legacy of their struggles is the recognition that women's work in the household is an integral and productive element in the mining sector.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Other than working in the home, women have and continue to contribute their labour to the mining sector in a variety of ways. With only 6,000 women cooperative members out of an estimated 60,000, it follows that the vast majority of women are autonomous workers, whose activities range from informal trade to mineral salvage. There are men as well women working in all types of informal labour in the mining sector; however, all able-bodied men are presented with the option to work inside the mines for a better wage, a choice not extended to women.

Today, working inside mines remains almost exclusively the domain of men, and women are kept on the margins of the mining sector through a combination of discriminatory regulations and cultural beliefs. The forms of labour open to women are so insecure--and the financial benefits so few--that it is not unusual for young children to work alongside their mothers, searching together for mineral scraps in mine dumps and rivers.

Palliris: At the Bottom of the Pile

We had arranged to meet in Potosi first thing in the morning, but when 10 o'clock came around, Alejandra Lopez was nowhere to be found. When she arrived, Lopez, president of a palliri (hand-picker) organization in Potosi, explained that she had been organizing a memorial service for one of her comrades, a palliri who was killed a day earlier while sorting through mineral tailings on Cerro Rico. This was my introduction to the world of women's work in the mining sector in Bolivia, a world where women's rights and health are far from guaranteed.

"Women working as palliris don't know about engineering, and there is very little capacity buliding that takes place," says Lopez, referring to the feminized trade that sees women working for their survival outside the tin mines of the Cerro Rico, in the city of Potosi. While palliris have formed cooperatives in Siglo XX, a mining region in northern Potosi, and have a loose organizational structure within Potosi, for the most part their labour is informal and autonomous.

In northern Potosi, palliri leader Nora Escueza explains that, as the leader of a palliri cooperative she is paid a small salary from the Federation of Mining Cooperatives, but that her participation within the federation--an environment she describes as "very masculine"--is limited. The palliri cooperative is meant to bring women workers together; however, a serious lack of resources hampers any real possibility of using the organization as a platform for improving working conditions for women.

The work of palliris is difficult and time-consuming, most working six days per week for more than eight hours daily to make ends meet. On a warm and windy November morning, I walked through the enormous tailing piles outside of the Siglo XX tin mine with Escueza as my guide. …

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Searching through the Scraps: Women and Mining in Bolivia; Beginning in the Fifteenth-Century Silver Exploitation of Potosi, and Continuing to Today, Women Have Been Involved in Intricate and Often Invisible Ways in the Bolivian Mining Sector. Dawn Paley Reports from Bolivia
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