Women toil as scavengers at Bolivian mines
March 20, 2008 - SignOnSanDiego Reuters

By Kevin Gray, REUTERS


POTOSI, Bolivia -- Clutching a hammer, Julia Flores squatted near a mound of rocks high on the slopes of Bolivia's biggest silver mine.

A 68-year-old mother of seven, Flores lifted and moved the rocks, pounding them with her hammer as she combed for metal scraps in the debris tossed aside by miners.

"It's the only job I've ever known," she said.

Flores is one of hundreds of women who scavenge on the copper-colored Cerro Rico, or Rich Mountain, that rises above this Bolivian mining city.

The silver, tin and zinc deposits buried in the mountain are the economic lifeline of Potosi, a Spanish colonial city founded four centuries ago. At around 4,200 meters , it claims to be the world's highest city.

Most of the women are the widows or wives of miners who have died or fallen ill toiling in the mines, which have roared back to life in recent years as global mineral prices surged.

The growing international demand, led mostly by China and India, has set off a mining boom in Potosi, but the women are a stark reminder of the harsh economic realities in South America's poorest country.

For decades, women were largely barred from working inside the mines by men who said their presence brought bad luck.

Working in the shafts and crevices of the mines at Cerro Rico is dangerous. Most men use only a hard hat while breathing dusty air amid occasional rockslides and accidents from dynamite charges.

Every day, as thousands of men pile into minivans and climb on to the back of pick-up trucks to head into the mines, the women -- known as "Palliris" in the Quechua language -- settle into areas scattered across the mountain.

Some work in holes, barely visible at times.

Young women in blue jeans and sweatshirts labor alongside older woman clad in the traditional indigenous dress of layered skirts and straw hats, scrounging for fragments of lead, tin, silver, or copper.

Once a sizable amount has been collected, the minerals are sold to private buyers. Most women can earn around $200 a month.

For years, the women dressed in all black, to mourn their husbands lost to the mines.

"It was the way I could support my children," said a woman who gave her name only as Felipa.

At 78, Felipa said she has worked around the mines for more than 20 years ago after her husband died in a mining accident.

She bent down and lifted rocks near a pool of rust-colored water that flows down the sides of Cerro Rico. A hovel made of rock marks her work area and serves as her shelter on cold or rainy days.

Felipa said her children had tried to persuade her to stop working.

"But I'm used to it now. If I don't work, I get bored. And to be honest, I start to miss this place," she said. "There is no other work in Potosi. Everything revolves around this mountain."

(Additional reporting by David Mercado; Editing by Kieran Murray)