By Franz Chávez
LA PAZ, Jun 23 (IPS) – Hundreds of women belonging to mining cooperatives in Bolivia are striving for the right to mine seams of tin and silver in the country's western highlands, where an age old superstition maintains that the presence of women "scares away" the minerals.
In these freezing high-altitude mineral-rich but impoverished areas, native women have been assigned a secondary economic role for centuries. But now they are seeking to make headway in traditionally male domains, say researchers interviewed by IPS.
Growing international demand for metals and soaring prices for the tin, silver and gold that are abundant in Bolivia have encouraged thousands of mainly indigenous peasant farmers and people from outside the altiplano region to go down the mines, organised in cooperatives.
The mining cooperative model in Bolivia, which dates back to 1968, is based on the principles of social solidarity, equal opportunity, respect for individuals and the elimination of exploitation, according to a declaration by the National Federation of Mining Cooperatives (FENCOMIN).
But these principles only applied to men, to the extent that the organisation's Women's Secretariat was headed by a man, the coordinator of the project on children and families in mining at the Centre for the Promotion of Mining (CEPROMIN), Cecilia Molina, told IPS.
‘Women had to fight for the leadership of their own secretariat in the organisation of cooperatives,’ Molina said.
After years of struggle, women won a first victory at the congress of representatives of mining cooperatives in 2001, when they achieved recognition as partners and shareholders, privileges that had previously been denied to them, José Antonio Condori, author of the book Historia del Cooperativismo Boliviano (History of the Bolivian Cooperative Movement), told IPS.
Bolivia's cooperative system of mining is unique. In principle there is equality among shareholder members, but this becomes open to question when some members accumulate several mining concessions, rise to power on the cooperative governing bodies and hire labourers, as if they were private companies.
Since the 1980s, these entrepreneurial cooperative members have gained ground with the expansion of mine-working areas belonging to the state Bolivian Mining Corporation (COMIBOL), and have gained influence in the political sphere, replacing the once-powerful union of COMIBOL workers, who shrunk from 27,000 in the mid-1980s to nearly none as a result of layoffs.
Some 650 mining cooperatives operate in the country, extracting tin, tungsten, silver, zinc and gold. They have about 62,000 stakeholding members, and adding the number of labourers without shares brings the total to 75,000, the deputy minister for Mining Cooperatives, Isaac Meneses, told IPS.
Women cooperative members work up to 14 hours a day in tunnels dug into the side of mountains and deep underground to extract mineral ore. Often their only aid to endure fatigue and hunger is the ancestral practice of chewing coca leaf.
Under the former rules, a cooperative member's shares were not bequeathed to his widow upon his death, but to his eldest son. If a woman was widowed and had no sons, she lost the stake in the cooperative, Condori said.
The governing bodies of cooperatives would admit women only as ‘palliri’, who collect and sort metal ore from waste rock from the mines. Only their struggle to gain recognition as stakeholder cooperative members with speaking and voting rights has changed women's status, Molina said.
Condori said there are now all-women cooperatives that reject male members, such as a cooperative of 200 women in Chorolque, in the south of Potosí province.
Although there is light at the end of the tunnel for women cooperative members, there are still plenty of hurdles to be overcome, Molina said.
In Atocha, a mining area in Potosí province, women held the Education and Culture Secretariat of the male-led cooperative for three consecutive terms. However, they still face discrimination, by being assigned to mineral-poor areas, and even excluded from some mines, she said.
Molina cited the ban on women's access to Cerro Rico in Potosí, the mountain that was a symbol of fabulous silver wealth and power during the Spanish colonial era.
Molina organises workshops and classes for women miners about their rights. She explains that their status as cooperative shareholders means they are ‘owners of the means of production, without bosses to answer to.’ She also underscores the importance of contributing to the social security system, which many women do not join, in order to draw a pension when they stop working.
She said women miners with little schooling and limited knowledge of financial matters are at a disadvantage when selling minerals to intermediary buyers, who offer them low prices.