A fight to make salt the artisanal way

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.

The government and Wayuu seem yet to agree on how best to administer the mines, with the government looking to put them in the hands of a private operator. The proposal has sparked a flurry of concerns about what this could mean for the future of Wayuu mining.

“The government wants to give us an operator without a soul,” said Elmer Altamar, a Wayuu leader who has organized several workers’ strikes.

“If the operator comes just for the industrial charcas, what will happen to our artisan charcas?” asked Veronica Aguilar, a member of Wayaa Wayuu, a women’s group of miners that has part-ownership of the company, known as SAMA (Salinas Maritimas de Manaure).

Women dominate artisan mining, as both charca owners and laborers. After salt water is hosed over their charcas and evaporates over weeks, women like Aguilar tend to make $1,200 annually from a three-month harvest. Other independent miners who extract salt year-round tend to make $200 a month.

Their labor produces 60,000 tons of salt per year, while the industrial production totals 350,000 tons. The manually produced and dirtier salt fetches lower prices than the clean white industrialized salt. All together, Manaure produces about 65 percent of Colombia's salt for national consumption, which is used in food, industry and cattle-ranching.

The Wayuu want to set the conditions for future mining operations, including determining the purchase price for salt so that miners are paid something resembling a decent wage. They say they don't want to revert entirely to artisan production, but to maintain both processes, with the goal of increasing production — and profits.

It’s not just about business. Wayuu leaders see salt as a vehicle for social development. They want an operator who supports the Wayuu community with things like paved roads, education and improved housing.

They know the salt mines won’t resolve unemployment. So to help combat it, there’s a new idea in the works: using the profits to create other sources of employment, such as fishing and agricultural projects.

But in order to do so, the Wayuu need to take on the ownership role they have been given on paper. For now, the company is under the control of a fiduciary company appointed by the government — until an operator is found and assets are transferred. That’s the theory at least. “We don’t believe in the government anymore,” said Valbuena. “It’s been 20 years already.”