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A fight to make salt the artisanal way

Can Colombia's indigenous Wayuu turn their centuries-old salt-mining into a source of jobs and education?

MANAURE, Colombia — Where South America juts like a finger into the Caribbean ocean, sheets of salt roll out into the sea, made bright white under a scorching sun.

In the coastal town of Manaure, home to Colombia’s largest salt deposits, salt miners of the Wayuu indigenous group shuffle their flip-flops over a slush of salt, sand and seawater that sears the soles of their feet. They shovel the salt into 100-pound sacks that they sell to the company down the road.

Despite the paltry earnings and grueling work, artisanal mining is vital to Manaure’s Wayuu people. They see the mines as key to determining their own economic and social development.

But the piles of salt have become the subject of a decades-long struggle between the Wayuu, whose territory is home to the salt reserve, and the government, which has resisted one court order after another to cede control.

“The government doesn’t allow us to develop,” said Armando Valbuena, a Wayuu leader.

Miners end their work work before noon, as the hot sun makes afternoon work grueling.
(Nadja Drost/GlobalPost)

The Wayuu have extracted salt for centuries. In 1970, the Wayuu grudgingly signed an agreement allowing the government to close off saltwater lagoons where the Wayuu fished and to take over mining them in exchange for compensation, housing and education. The Wayuu say the promises were never fulfilled.

The government industrialized production across swaths of the expansive salt flats. Machinery extracts the salt, which is then cleaned. It is then run off a half-pipe and lands in a massive white pile several stories high.

But off to one side, independent miners who are mostly Wayuu staked out their own parcels called "charcas" and sold their salt to the government company. Some live in ramshackle homes sandwiched on a spit of land between the blinding ocean and salt plains. “We were born here, and we’ll die here,” said miner Jose Antonio.

When the agreement with the government expired in 1990, the Wayuu proposed a mixed-ownership company divided between the Wayuu, national and municipal governments.

Finally, after years of waiting, President Alvaro Uribe in 2004 approved the creation of a company with 51 percent ownership for the Ministry of Commerce, 25 percent for the Wayuu and 24 percent for Manaure. Later, courts ruled the government had to hand over its remaining 51 percent of the company to the Wayuu.

But today, as they have for years, the Wayuu and Manaure are waiting for the stocks and assets owed to them.