Women face the patriarchal and colonial legacy of mining extractivism

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Ander Izagirre

One of Bolivia's main social and historical debts relates to the impact of traditional mining on women's health. Feminicides, physical and psychological violence, and mercury contamination are the most common of its consequences. In turn, the domination of men in communities in new mining regions, due to the migration of male workers, has led to the growth of human trafficking, prostitution, and alcoholism. As the problem deepens, there are no systematic studies on the health effects of heavy metal accumulation in the body.

There is a patriarchal continuum that countries in the global south have inherited from the colonial era. And the Plurinational State of Bolivia is no exception. This continuum is expressed in extractivist logic imposed by the development policies of other nation-states. In this frame, Latin American countries count on extractivism as the only option for development.

For the members of the Critical Perspectives of the Territory from Feminism Collective, the current process of extractivist expansion also implies a process of (re)patriarchalization of territories. This dynamic reconfigures patriarchal power relations, intersecting with classism and colonialism. In this dynamic, women, but particularly Indigenous women, are subjected to patriarchal mandates more aggressively, especially in territories where extractive projects are located. As its members propose, it is important to highlight the need to undertake an intersectional analysis with the aim of examining the consequences of mining extractive expansion. This patriarchal continuum materializes, in all impacts and effects, in ways that derive from the historical incursion of mining and which involve the entire community, the territory, and nature, but that also impact women disproportionately.

Mine waste crosses the city of Huanuni. Photo: Elizabeth López Canelas

The impact of mining on women

The study on the impact of mining on women “Scenarios of analysis and impacts of mining on women’s lives: from a rights-based approach and gender perspective,” by Rosa Bermúdez, proposes a classification of the direct impacts of mining on women’s lives. Although it is not an exhaustive and unchangeable classification, the categories group together, in a simple way, the historical and visible impacts of traditional mining throughout Latin America:

1. Gender violence, political violence, and human rights violations.

2. Land dispossession, economic insecurity, food insecurity, and devaluation of women’s work.

3. Exclusion from spaces of social participation, the denial of women’s ethnic and cultural rights.

4. Deterioration of women’s and children’s health.

5. Disruption of social fabric due to the loss of a protective and secure environments.

Given the historical nature of traditional mining, as is the case in Bolivia, these impacts have been normalized in communities established in the Andean region. Having cemented the imaginary of “traditionally mining regions,” there are few areas where the presence of these types of companies is really challenged. Traditional mining sites are clear examples of state abandonment and a population constantly seeking to enter the mine or obtain some economic income to help their meager economy.

This panorama is verifiable in various studies and records that account for the impacts of mining on Indigenous and peasant women. For example, in Potosí, Oruro, La Paz, and Cochabamba, traditional mining records deep social and environmental debts include land dispossession, contamination and loss of water and soil sources, obfuscation of health problems, impoverishment, marginalization of women, and multiple forms of institutionalized violence.

Trucks with mining waste circulate without any protection. Photo: Elizabeth López Canelas

Enter violence, tuberculosis, and mercury poisoning

Regarding differentiated impacts, a clear example is the Caracota mine, located in the Pokerani community in Potosí, where the Unified Southern Mining Company (EMUSA) has been operating since the 1940s. The company dispossessed people of their lands and natural resources, and transformed the lives of women, who have been subjected to multiple forms of violence-from the economic, psychological, and physical violence to feminicides that have gone unpunished. All of this is recorded in the memory of women who continue to seek justice, and allows the cementing of a macho and patriarchal pattern of mining that is reproduced to this day.

Mining is an inherently highly polluting activity. Naturally, it affects an undetermined number of people who suffer from the classic pathologies of this occupation, such as tuberculosis, silicosis, or a combination of both. On the other hand, it affects the health of inhabitants living in surrounding areas who are exposed to toxic dust, acidic waters, and machinery gases. This aspect not only puts in question health policies in mining areas but also intentionally hides the liabilities of mining throughout history, in this way, subsidizing the true human costs of mining.

In these territories, it is alarming that heavy metals are found in women who are not miners, which means they have become passive receptors. Uru Chipaya peasant women living near the Vinto smelter in Oruro, the Wenayek and Leco people in the northern Amazon, report concentrations of mercury far above permissible limits in the bodies of women, their sons and daughters, and in the environment itself. This constitutes a serious environmental crime, comparable to genocide due to the systematic inaction of successive governments.

In the case of the northern Amazon, studies carried out in 36 communities of the Ese Ejjas, Tsimanes, Mosetenes, Leco, Uchupiamona, and Tacana peoples showed that 74.5% of the 302 people analyzed had mercury levels that exceeded those established by the World Health Organization (WHO). At this moment, the Ombudsman’s Office in Potosí is accompanying neighbors of a population near the historic Cerro Rico de Potosí to denounce the presence of lead in men, women, children, and adolescents in these areas.

Bolivian Amazon women are the silent victims of gold mining that contaminates rivers. Photo: Wara Vargas / El País

Trafficking of women and prostitution

These cases represent colonial, patriarchal, and misogynistic visions of extractivism regarding the bodies of Indigenous and peasant women. Despite scientific studies and complaints, no actions have been taken to stop mining expansion, let alone remediation measures in former mining sites, as in the case of Potosí.

At the same time, non-traditional mining areas, such as the northern Amazon of La Paz, pose other problems that transform social structures. New mining settlements cause a rapid influx of men into communities due to the migration and large numbers of men demanding alcohol and sexual services. The discussion of this problem has been a recurrent theme in Bolivia for the last 10 years, but also in mining areas of Peru and Brazil.

In the one hand, an increase in bars and centres of sexual commerce is tied to child prostitution and the trafficking of women. As a result, there has been an increase in sexually transmitted diseases and increased reporting of sexual and psychological violence towards women. While there is an abundance of reports and journalistic pieces about human trafficking and prostitution, there are no systematic documents that account for the seriousness of the issue.

This situation, which is a direct effect of mining activity, is not recognized as such by men, much less by local and national authorities. Thus, women in communities find themselves in a situation of permanent vulnerability.

Mine waste crosses the city of Huanuni. Photo: Elizabeth López Canelas

A colonial and patriarchal matrix

While development policies are extractive and patriarchal, the governments that promote them focus on providing figures related to the importance of having economic income for the country’s growth. Meanwhile, the most significant impact throughout history is related to the usurpation and contamination of freshwater sources. Undoubtedly, this is what generates the most impunity.

At the same time, these activities do not take into account the externalities caused, that is, they do not consider the secondary impacts, which are not assumed by mining. Contrary to what the Government and the [mining] industry claim, externalities are not only environmental: they also include the alteration or destruction of the social composition of communities, the increase in violence; the trafficking of women for sexual commerce; the devaluation of women’s work, and diseases caused by chemical use. These effects, for which no one takes responsibility, become a social liability that generates a historical, endless, and immeasurable debt.

The stories hold account for a major problem, which is the very basis of an extractivist State: its colonial and patriarchal matrix. This concept is not only about the exclusion or discrimination against women, but it refers to the construction of power hierarchies embodied in elites that control and benefit from legal, economic, cultural, social, and symbolic mechanisms to sustain their privileges.

In the case of Bolivia, mining elites rely on colonial and masculine privileges that are the essence of the structure of the Plurinational State. The clearest evidence of the privilege of mining extractivism is in the laws that protect and guarantee their economic investment, operations, and impunity. Mining extractivism continues to uphold the concept that women and the environment are only subjects of conquest, domination, and usurpation.

As in the colonial era, it seems that our role is to be passive subjects of these policies of death. However, from different spaces, women take active defense of our bodies and territories.Elizabeth López Canelas is an anthropologist and Master in Environmental Management and Development (FLACSO). Additionally, she is an activist in processes defending the social and environmental rights of Indigenous peoples, but particularly women.

Elizabeth López Canelas

Elizabeth López Canelas is an anthropologist with a Master's degree in Environmental Management and Development from FLACSO. She is also an activist involved in defending the social and environmental rights of indigenous peoples, particularly women.