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Colombian mothers challenge ‘bad luck’ taboos, take the lead emerald mining




COSCUEZ, Colombia – Deep inside the lush and remote mountainous ranges of Colombia’s Boyacá region, the women disappear into dark tunnels, wreathed in shades of red and brown, sifting through nature’s treasure chest.

They’re here to mine emeralds, an industry that has a long and bloody history in Colombia. But these women are determined not only to push back against a bygone law banning them for being “bad luck” in the mines; but also to provide for their families.

Decked out in an orange jumpsuit and rubber boots, Idaly Poveda, 47, hauls a heavy cart into a small enclosure and stands alongside two other women delicately sifting through tons of waste material, looking for that magical green glimmer.

“Now I have a salary, thanks to God,” Poveda, a single mother raising two children said, peering over at the tunnel entrance. “I’m not scared. I can show myself.”

Women were prohibited from the mines for decades. And it was just two years ago that Colombian laws prevented women from going down into the tunnels.

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Now social attitudes are changing, as the women take up more work in the mines, including supervisory roles.

“The idea of being bad luck was a legacy from the old ‘machistas.’ Women were seen as an object exclusively to stay in the house,” said Alberto Ramos, president of the Community Action Board in Coscuez Alberto Ramos. “The mothers can now provide needed income for their families.”

Entangled by five decades of internecine war, the Coscuez mine was mostly closed. Last year, it was acquired by Canada-based Fura Gems. And while mining remains a divisive issue across much of the nation, it is slowly being brought back to life. Some 15 percent of the mine’s 231 employees are now local women, with that number slated to rise.

An all-female wash plant – where they comb through tons of debris to find the emeralds – is slated to open at the end of January. Women there will helm the entire operation, from security to analytics to heavy hauling.

“At the beginning, the women were concerned about how the men would feel about them working. Now, their role is evolving,” explained Maria Castilla, communication and social affairs manager for Fura. “Because the men went out to fight, the women had to take care of the kids and be the economic providers, too. And then with all the deaths and injuries, they really became the pillars of society. Now they are head-to-toe with the men in the mines. It’s a beautiful process.”

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Indeed, this parcel of green has been at the heart of both life and death amid Colombia’s conflicts.

Throughout most of the 1970s and 80s, Boyacá was at the axiom of the notorious “Green Wars,” which pitted opposing emerald lords against each other. The Catholic Church and the bishop of Chiquinquira eventually paved the way to sealing a peace agreement, which remains in place today.

Karoll Garcia Pineda, director of the program for Development and Peace, said shifting the stigma hasn’t been easy.

“The ‘machista’ society hasn’t allowed women to see themselves moving forward, but the best way to counter these superstitions is by presenting facts,” she said. “To show that they play a key part in the artisanal mining sector while balancing their role in the family home.”

The new-found employment opportunities across the country, she noted, have been a saving grace for females fleeing domestic violence, and dangerous home lives.

“Women are very special to the project, they have a special eye to pick out the emeralds,” Shetty said, in stark contrast to the taboos that had preceded females in the industry.

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