For decades, women like Rosalba Canon were banned from Colombia’s emerald mines: Men said they brought bad luck.
Canon and others like her have spent their lives as guaqueras, or fortune hunters, sifting stray gems from the shale gouged from rock and spewed out as waste from the mines in the lush mountains of northern Colombia.
“The idea of getting an emerald brought me here and I’ve stayed in the hope that the baby Jesus will put one on my shovel,” 63-year-old Canon said, her face chiseled by the sun.
She arrived at the end of the 1970s in the Andean town of Muzo, known as the emerald capital of the world.
The women who arrived in Muzo, some running from violent relationships, could not work in the tunnels alongside the men because of the macho prejudice that they brought bad luck.
The country’s laws additionally prevented women from going down the mines.
“It has always been said in this region that the emeralds hid when they would enter,” said Maria Luisa Durance, a 39-year-old social worker at Mineria Texas Colombia SA (MTC), a leading company in the sector with 800 employees.
Every day for more than three decades, Canon has put on her rubber boots and joined dozens of other fortune hunters sifting through the mine waste in the fast-flowing Las Animas river.
Global fascination for emeralds dates back to pre-Columbian civilizations.
Ships from the Spanish conquest exported the precious stones as far away as Persia, and in the 20th century the mountain was practically disfigured by explosives used to shift walls of rock.
Colombia now produces about two-thirds of the world’s emeralds, most of them from the Muzo area, about 150km north of the capital, Bogota.
The modernized mines now produce less waste shale, but even so men and women of all ages still cling to their shovels and sieves, seeking their fortune in the tons of mine tailings thrown into the river.
“This is a fever,” said Canon, who has raised her three children with the proceeds from the job.
From time to time, someone will strike it lucky, finding sparkling green stones in a wash of shale, but for the most part, the guaqueros — men and women alike — live in debt to local merchants.
“They lend us money, and when we find a stone, they take it,” Blanca Buitrago said. “For a long time now, I haven’t found anything.”
However, she said sometimes she can find gems that will bring in between US$65 and US$165 dollars, “no more.”
Buitrago, a 52-year-old mother of five, arrived in Muzo to seek her fortune after being forced out of her home by one of Colombia’s dozens of armed groups in 2006.
In 2015, women were finally allowed to enter the mines when the sexist law that prevented them was annulled.
However, like Canon and many other guaqueras, Buitrago is now too old to benefit from the law and get a formal job at the mines.
However, 40-year-old Saida Canizales was able to take advantage of the change and is currently the only woman among 18 MTC security supervisors.
“Obviously, women joining the mines has been a challenge ... but I think I’ve already taken it forward,” said Canizales, an expert in electronic surveillance, who tripled the US$600 salary she was getting in Bogota.
Wearing a black helmet that barely covered her blond braids, Canizales headed deep into the mine to monitor gems being extracted from the rock. Later — and 140m deeper — a miner using a jackhammer broke through the rock face as Canizales watched. A powdery white vein of calcite appeared, and a smudge of green dust — a tell-tale sign of a gem.
In the shifting beams of headlights, a geologist delicately chipped at the rock with his pick until a few emerald stones tumbled into his palm. He slipped the stones into a bag that Canizales sealed, before making her way back up to the surface.
Luis Miguel Ayala said he is unfazed by having a female supervisor in what until recently has exclusively been a man’s world.
“Anyone with the ability to use the tools can do this job,” the 23-year-old said, wiping the sweat from his eyes as temperatures in the shaft reached 35°C with 90 percent humidity.
Hiring women has been “a very successful policy,” MTC chairman Charles Burgess told reporters.
The women “are very hardworking, honest and proud of their work,” he said.
“Although, obviously there are jobs that are not suitable for them, because the work is sometimes very hard physically,” said the 62-year-old former US diplomat, who is married to a Colombian.
However, introducing women in the shafts was not easy. When the huge elevator that takes them down from the surface was operated for the first time by a woman, no miner would take the risk of going with her. An engineer finally stepped forward to set an example.
Two years later, about 15 women known as malacateras handle these machines, most of them widows or single mothers who left violent homes.
Adriana Perez escaped a poverty-ridden childhood to get to Muzo.
The day she could go down the mine, she said her “life changed.”
Her US$600 salary is more than twice the minimum wage. For her, the mine allows her to dream of a better future for her two children.
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