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