/ 5 April 2011

A Chilean woman’s place is in her mine

With a pickaxe, clunky safety boots and the jeans she swaps for a miniskirt and heels when the workday is done, Isabel Galleguillos has ridden the global copper boom to become Chile’s first woman with her own open-pit mine.

She isn’t one of the boys; she’s the boss.

Galleguillos (50) works alongside her 26-year-old daughter-in-law Andrea Vega, and five men.

With the guys “there really is no difference. We girls grab the combo [a large pickaxe] just the same, push the wheelbarrel around and take the stones over to the truck”, said Galleguillos, who wears her long black hair in braids, three rings on her busy hands and droopy earrings that may or may not be up to safety code.

And at home, she makes it plain that she may be a miner, but she also is a lady; off-duty she favors a miniskirt and white high-heeled sandals.

“I really don’t like being seen in trousers,” she said, a price however she is willing to pay for a job that pays better and a chance to be her own boss.

It has not been all smooth sailing.

There is a traditional belief that women bring bad luck down in the mines because, purportedly, their fertility conflicts with the fertility of the veins of minerals.

Galleguillos isn’t buying it, but said that in any case, the idea is about cave-ins in deep-earth mining, while she works her own open pit.

Farm worker
Once upon a time, before she became a middle-aged miner in Tambillos –about 450km north of Santiago — Galleguillos was a farm worker, restaurant hand and even managed a campground for meagre pay until one day, her luck took a shining change.

She decided to hack away at a hill which sh could see from her own garden to try her luck at finding a copper vein.

Chile is the world’s top copper exporter, and high prices on global markets have prodded thousands of small-time prospectors into giving mining a go.

Industry experts from around the world will meet on Tuesday in Santiago for the World Copper Conference to discuss the state of the industry.

Trying her hand at mining has given Galleguillos the confidence to keep going.

“I worked a long time as just another employee and they really exploited me. I used to say to myself: some day I am going to start something that is mine and be my own boss,” she said atop the hill on which her pit mine sits.

And that was still just the beginning: she spent three years getting the permits and papers that made it possible for her to own the hill she works and change her destiny.

Once a physically abused wife, the single mother of four now had a foundation on which she hoped she could build some success.

“We started out with so much hard work, a little at a time, just hacking them out one rock at a time,” she recalled.

Her team piles 14 to 15 tons of rocks into a truck, and delivers one to two truckloads a week to the National Mining Company, which pays between $125 and $160 a tonnes depending on the quality of the mineral content.

Her daughter-in-law, now a single mom like Isabel, was inspired to follow her out onto the dusty hillside under the baking sun. “The time really flies. If you are having a bad day, you get out there and it just goes away,” Vega said.

Isabel Galleguillos needs to invest more in the business to earn more. But for now, she shares what she earns with her workers including a salary that is three times what they make in farming, in addition to bonuses.

“I call them my kids,” she said, stressing: “I am not a slave-driver. I am not the way people once treated me. I engage with my workers.”

At home, Galleguillos also takes care of her youngest daughter, Krishna (9). After a bit longer than a year in the mining business, she still hasn’t been able to pamper herself with a new home or car, but has been out to see a favourite Mexican crooner in concert.

She talks about the vein of copper as if it were a child, and every day finds new colors and shades in the rocks that emerge from her arid hill: yellows, greens, blues and turquoise as well as deep reds, the very best.

“Mining is nice,” she said, inspecting a few rocks. “It isn’t terribly demanding physical work, and I don’t even exert myself to break open the rocks.” — Sapa-AFP