Women of Colombia’s emerald mines shine after smashing taboo

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An emerald seeker rests in the Las Animas river close to an emerald mine in the municipality of Muzo - known as the "emerald capital of the world" - in the Colombian department of Boyaca, on December 19, 2017. (AFP)
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An emerald seeker looks at a green gem found in the Las Animas river close to an emerald mine in the municipality of Muzo - known as the "emerald capital of the world" - in the Colombian department of Boyaca, on December 19, 2017. (AFP)
Updated 14 January 2018

Women of Colombia’s emerald mines shine after smashing taboo

MUZO, Colombia: 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,” said the 63-year-old Canon, her face chiseled by the sun.
Canon arrived at the end of the 1970s in the Andean town of Muzo, known as the emerald capital of the world.
The women who came here, 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,” says Maria Luisa Durance, a 39-year-old social worker at Mining Texas Colombia (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 around two thirds of the world’s emeralds, most of them from the Muzo area, around 150 kilometers (100 miles) 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,” admits 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,” said Blanca Buitrago. “For a long time now, I haven’t found anything.”
But sometimes, Buitrago says, she can find gems that will bring in between 65 and 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.
But 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, Saida Canizales, 40, was able to take advantage of the change and she 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,” says Canizales, an expert in electronic surveillance, who tripled the 600-dollar salary she was getting in Bogota.
Wearing a black helmet that barely covered her blonde braids, Canizales headed deep into the mine to monitor gems being extracted from the rock.
Later — and 140 meters (460 feet) 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 head torches, 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 woman supervisor in what until recently has exclusively been a man’s world.
“Anyone with the ability to use the tools can do this job,” said the 23-year-old, wiping the sweat from his eyes as temperatures in the shaft reached 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) with 90 percent humidity.
Hiring women has been “a very successful policy,” MTC chairman Charles Burgess told AFP. The women “are very hardworking, honest and proud of their work.”
“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.
But 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, some 15 women known as “malacateras” handle these machines, most of them single mothers or widows who left violent homes.
Adriana Perez escaped a poverty ridden childhood to get here. The day she could go down the mine, she said “my life changed.”
Her $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.

Rohingya refugee children in Bangladesh get doves of peace from the Middle East

Updated 21 September 2018

Rohingya refugee children in Bangladesh get doves of peace from the Middle East

  • A Dubai NGO has paired up with one in the UK to distribute toys made from upcycled refugee blankets
  • It’s one initiative marking the UN’s International Day of Peace on Friday, at a time when the world is in conflict

DUBAI: Eight-year-old Anjuman, living in Camp 7 at Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, has received the most beautiful gift. “I am very happy to have received this dove. I like it so much,” she said.

She is among 150 children in the camp who have received “peace doves” from Dubai after winning an art competition organized in the camp.

To celebrate the UN-declared International Day of Peace on Friday, a Dubai-based NGO, NRS International, and a UK-based NGO, Empathy Action, have given wings to a message of hope, peace and reconciliation. 

Both these organizations have come together to make dove toys (symbolizing peace) to distribute among children, who are among the first victims of conflict in any part of the world.

And while peace isn’t something the world often associates with the Middle East, there are plenty of ways in which countries in the region are trying to make the world a better place, from smaller initiatives such as the doves in Bangladesh to major efforts such as the peace deal brokered this week by Saudi Arabia between Ethiopia and Eritrea. 

The peace doves were handmade by women at NRS International’s factory in Pakistan. As many as 650 dove toys have been stitched and handcrafted from upcycled offcuts of refugee blankets and tarpaulins.

“Each dove, made from excess blanket material that normally keeps refugees warm, is a symbol of peace,” said Wieke de Vries, head of corporate social responsibility at NRS International. It is the leading supplier of humanitarian relief items such as fleece blankets to UN agencies and international aid organizations.

Sandy Glanfield, innovations manager at Empathy Action, said the doves will carry a reminder that for 68.5 million displaced people worldwide, a blanket or tarpaulin is a basic necessity to survive. “The passionate and skillful women who made the doves add the love into this story,” said Glanfield.

About 150 larger versions of peace doves have been distributed to Rohingya refugee children in Bangladesh camps, with the support of the Danish Refugee Council. 

S.M. Atiqur Reza, who is a child protection assistant at the council, said that the peace doves have put smiles on the faces of the children in the refugee camp. 

“The children were so excited, and they loved these doves and making plans to take it back home (whenever they go back home).” 

But in a world of conflicts, there is still much to be done. Anjuman is just one of nearly 25.4 million refugees in the world, over half of whom are under the age of 18.

Dr. Hadia Aslam, who sets up health care systems for refugees in Europe and the Middle East, is not hopeful about world peace in the near future.

“I feel we have desensitized entirely to any atrocity that happens now. Nothing shocks us. I do not see a future for peace, but I do see conflict. Our systems are geared to hosting this,” said the young doctor, who is the founder of a charity that has treated thousands of refugees in Europe. 

For her, human rights violations by Israel are a major threat to world peace. “I don’t know a lot about politics, but I can categorically raise concerns about Israel’s human rights track record being astounding and the world silently watching. Their only motive is occupation and apartheid. There is no space for peace in such a place.”

Vidya Bhushan Rawat, a leading peace activist based in New Delhi, said that the biggest threat to peace is injustice and growing inequalities.” I don’t think that the world has become a peaceful place at the moment. There is a steady growth of right-wing politics the world over, where minorities and immigrants are considered a threat to the nation.

“To protect the only planet we have we need to eradicate poverty, illiteracy, hunger, malnutrition, gender disparity and superstition from our societies.”

Dr. Kamran Bokhari, director of strategy and programs at the Center for Global Policy in Washington, does not see peace becoming the norm any time soon.

 “We constantly hear about peace talks. But seldom do these efforts produce actual peace. The rise of nationalism is undoing the internationalist order that we thought would gain ground after the end of the Cold War a quarter of a century ago. Meanwhile, non-state actors are filling the vacuums left behind by weakening states, which suggests greater, not less, global conflict.”

Dr. Shehab Al-Makehleh also believes that the world is less peaceful now than it has been in a long time. “Right now, peacefulness is at the worst level of any time since 2012. By the end of 2017, 1 percent of the world population had been refugees and displaced,” said the executive director of Geostrategic media in Washington, DC.

He does not expect things to improve unless decision-makers in the international community give this matter attention as the world will be witnessing new economic and financial crises that could turn major countries into enemies.

“Unless the UN takes necessary measures that the world does not fall into anarchy due to populism and nationalism, the domino effect will cross borders, causing insecurity at all levels, toppling some regimes and changing borders with hundreds of thousands of people dying of poverty and terrorism,” Dr. Al-Makehleh said.

All the more reason to bring hope to children such as Anjuman. As Reza said of the Rohingya children in the camp: “They want peace. They say they want to go back home. They want to go to their schools and study. They find the camp is a very small place to live. They are really sad here.”