By Professor Olinda Orozco Zevallos, president of the Institute for Social Development Networks (Red Social), and founder of the Latin American Women and Mining Network.

The world of work for “pallaquera” women – who sort through ore after two previous sifts to find any remaining gold – in Peru is part of the wider experience of poor women, and women artisanal gold miners in particular: they are invisible and informal.

They may be single, widowed, married, in a relationship, heads of household or have a family, and just like men, they have found in artisanal gold mining an opportunity to create a job that may provide their main income, or supplement the family budget. There are no figures or a census, but it is estimated that there could be around 15,000 women nationwide who make a living from this activity.
The presence of the women and their families in the mining camps, initially full of men, has meant that with time villages, settlements and populated areas have formed around the different mine entrances and artisanal mining works along the mountainsides nearest the Peruvian coast, in arid regions that are very difficult to access.

A double burden

Small-scale mining, whether formal or informal, has stimulated the economy in areas where there was nothing before and has created economic benefits linked to the value chain for the production and sale of gold. The presence of women miners is hugely important. However, it is a hallmark of the invisibility of women’s cultural and structural subordination that the domestic work that they carry out every day is not valued or recognised. The same goes for their significant market impact through consumption to support daily family life, and their management of the meagre family budget given that the price of products is very high because of transport costs involved in bringing them from the coast.

Women carry out this domestic work in particularly harsh conditions: without water or sewage networks and with only a few hours of electricity each day. State services and institutions are very limited ; in some cases there are basic medical centres or schools, though rarely at secondary level. Attending to the demand of family health and children’s education is therefore an extension of women’s domestic role.

Risky work

Pallaqueo (ore sorting) is also undertaken in very difficult conditions. They wait around the edge of the mine entrance for the mining carts to come out containing the material that miners have discarded. They do this work with the sun on their backs and with the dust hanging in the air around them. Many of them have small children and without anyone to stay with them, they take them with them to wait while their mothers finish their pallaqueo. It is a risky job but it is the economic activity that is most accessible to them in the communities or towns which have been created by artisanal miners. A small number of other occupations do exist, such as working in shops or eateries or washing clothes, but the majority of them always supplement that with pallaqueo work.

The women gather selected stones, in which they might manage to find 2g of gold in a week, or 8g in a month. Generally from a ton of this material they will manage between 5 and 7g of gold. They process it in the quimbalete (artisanal grinder made of stone) and wash the mercury and gold amalgam to sell. The gold buyers impose unfair conditions of sale which the women are obliged to accept because of their immediate cash flow needs. In the best cases the sale of gold brings them – depending on the local sale price in the mining town – an average of 800 soles (US$290). Their costs include the mercury and transportation of the mineral by mule to the town where the mills and quimbaletes are, where they are charged for these services.

Organising for safer conditions

From our experience in the mid-south of Peru, we know that the formalisation of men’s mining work into business enterprises involves a relationship with established women’s organisations and is a very important source of support for them. The two most established pallaquera women miners organisations are the Association of Women Ore Sorters of Cuatro Horas and the Association of Pallaquera Women of Santa Filomena, “Nueva Esperanza” (“New Hope”) which have direct and amicable agreements with several mining companies. These companies help facilitate the ore and better safety, transport and working conditions for them.

These two organisations have legally recognised statutes and work regulations setting out the conditions that female associates must meet for pallaqueo work, covering hours, shifts, equipment such as helmets, safety masks, scarves to protect them from the dust, and shoes. They are absolutely prohibited from carrying out pallaqueo work with their children. Since 2007, the Pallaqueras of Santa Filomena have had a place, run by them, where their co-workers can leave their young children while they work.

Excluded and illegal

But in relation to this production work the issue of invisibility and informality arises again. There is no legislation or protection which covers them. Furthermore, the latest legal provisions issued by the government for the formalisation of artisanal miners have not taken into consideration the situation of the country’s thousands of pallaquera women. The government has not accepted their declaration of commitment to formalising, which is the first step in this process, and now the deadline has passed. As a result, they have remained outside the formalisation process, finding themselves illegal and exposed to laws applying bans, prison sentences and confiscation of goods.

A further problem is that managing the women miners’ associations demands time away from the home and their work, as well as coping with tension with their partners for being away from the home and a sense of guilt that they feel for leaving their young children.

They perform these three jobs of being mothers and housewives, pallaqueras and community leaders all at the same time and with a great deal of effort, enterprise and courage. Yet still, they are invisible and informal: two big challenges which we must confront in the quest for a more inclusive world for men and women, and one of human development and gender equality.

That is why Fairtrade/Fairmined standards certification for gold from artisanal and small-scale mining, which we have been working on in the south of Peru and this region, is so important. Among the requirements is a gender focus, including consideration of pallaquera women’s organisations that are working within companies’ mining concessions and want to be certified as ‘production associates’. This is the start of the process for achieving visibility and recognition for the work of women pallaquera miners, which we hope will not be too long a road.

Translation by Kate Hartley