Colombian Cristina Echavarria has been an advisor working in mining and sustainability challenges since the 1990s. Plain speaking and outspoken, she says the mining sector likes this and she’s never adapted to fit into the industry. Her work has focused on communities and on artisanal and small-scale mining – she was instrumental in creating the Fairmined gold certification. She’s also been involved in governance of decision making and tracking quality of life impacts around large scale mining projects. Her passion is social and environmental justice and to support small-scale miners, especially women, who have been invisible for years, suffering discrimination and violence as they scraped out a living. A strong believer in having more women on boards, she thinks there are enough women to fill these posts and believes the time is right for quotas.
By Camila Reed
How did mining come to you? How did you choose mining as a career?
I came into mining by accident. My passion was for archaeology which I studied at the UK’s Bristol University along with geology. When I went back to my home country of Colombia mining was the furthest thing from my mind. I went to work with indigenous people and do local resource management work for the first 10 years.
It was only in the early nineties when Professor Alyson Warhust, of the Mining Environmental Research Network of Sussex University (MERN), started inviting me to their meetings to provide input on the social approach that I started getting into mining. Mining then was just beginning to address environmental issues and social issues were absent from the agenda.
After this I created the mining, environment and communities research group at the University of Antioquia (Medellin) in 1997. We worked with global research networks, under MERN coordination and with Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC) funding. We developed indicators for health and well-being to track progress on the quality of life in mining regions. Through this I got very involved with large-scale mining.
Between 2000 to 2005 I ran a Latin American research program for IDRC and was deeply involved with mining groups from Chile, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. Our main question was: How can mining better contribute to the sustainable development of mineral rich countries and localities?
What is your experience of working in the mining sector in Latin America?
I worked with a network of national researchers, practitioners and activists to put mining and sustainable development on the public agenda in Latin America. For the first time issues of human rights, indigenous peoples, meaningful and informed participation for communities and the social aspects of mining were discussed publicly, and it was very tough. Although it was very different depending on the country.
These programmes contributed to a better understanding of mining impacts on communities, workers rights and the role of governments. They also increased accountability, which has helped the industry improve its image, but has not necessarily improved the industry’s level of commitment with long-term regional development in mining regions, as we had hoped.
Change is slow and much still needs to be done. There are many conflicts between communities and mining companies in some Latin American countries because they have not really seen the benefits they thought would come from these mining operations.
So resistance has grown and resistance is growing, especially because communities and civil society groups have lost confidence in the capability and political will of governments to protect the rights of communities and sell countries short through weak fiscal regimes and weak environmental controls. There’s an idea too that companies have the correct narrative, but don’t always deliver.
Have you/do you encounter much discrimination?
Not at a personal level — But the sector is still a male dominated one, especially in artisanal and small-scale mining. In my experience the increasing number of professional women working in the mining sector since the mid-1980s in engineering, social, environmental, policy or governance aspects has helped the process of change inside the industry, especially bringing environmental and social issues to the fore.
In my field of work dealing with artisanal and small-scale miners, women in many Latin American countries cannot go underground. Earth is a female: “woman cannot go into woman”.
Traditional Andean lore says that the gold will hide itself if women go underground or they will bring bad luck to the mine. The prohibition of women working underground is also included in some legislation, as it is considered “heavy work”.
There’s been lots of discrimination against women miners and violence towards them and the industry is very chauvinist. I’ve always been allowed to go underground because the rules were seen as different for ”urban, scientific women”— so they make exceptions.
It is difficult to break these indigenous, and mostly male myths. The effect has been to deny women access to the higher grade ore inside the mines and they have been limited to mining waste dumps.
I believe that supporting women miners and their organisations is crucial as they normally put all their earnings towards their families and educating their children.
Women miners have been there always, but they were invisible to male miners, to governments and to international cooperation programmes. For instance, it is common for women to lose their livelihoods when mechanisation occurs. The installation of processing plants by development projects with good intentions has rarely had a gender-based approach.
Men appropriate the machines, so that all the low-grade ore that women depend on is thrown into the new processing plant, with no compensation or recognition for the women’s loss of livelihoods.
With limited NGO budgets while working with the Alliance of Responsible Mining (ARM) on the Fairmined gold certification initiative, it was always a challenge for the women to participate or be included in training workshops, both because it is difficult for women to leave their children and travel far from their homes, and because of the male dominated leadership.
It is only because ARM put in place a policy of inclusion of women miners and worked with the male leaders, that we now have more women involved. This also means training male miners, leaders and trainers on gender awareness and inclusion of women, in order to prevent retaliations against them and strengthen organisations.
The public support for female inclusion by male artisanal mining leaders, like Manuel Reinoso of Peru, is very important to achieve change.
Have you had mentors and sponsors that helped you on the way?
Yes at different stages of my career. Starting with Alyson Warhust, who got me into mining, and opened the window so that I fell in love with it.
Then Roberto Villas Boas who was a huge ally with a vision of networking and enabling sustainable development initiatives in the mining sector.
And then, Manuel Reinoso, currently ARM’s Vice-president and artisanal mining leader, has allowed me to learn with him about the challenges facing artisanal and small-scale miners.
Could you share one or two challenges you’ve experienced in your career and how you overcame them?
I’ve spoken up to defend projects and participatory processes I’ve been involved in when others, mostly male colleagues, have been quiet.
Also, as a leader of a Southern based NGO, I found to my frustration, that it was very difficult to access funds and credibility without the support of developed country NGOs because of the way that international aid for cooperation is set up. Fortunately that is now changing.
What are you passionate about in your work?
I like to be an initiator of processes, a network builder inspiring others to join initiatives that seem unattainable, like the certification of responsible artisanal and small-scale miners through the Fairmined initiative.
I am passionate about social justice and to support women and to try and strengthen the processes that will help the weak and vulnerable. I work with governments, industry, communities, NGOs, and academics.
I love to be in the mountains, or in the forest, down the mines to be involved with small-scale miners, rural communities and especially talking to men and women about solving the challenges they face.
And if it’s with larger mining companies, gender, community and indigenous peoples issues are my main concern, like the work I do for BHP Billiton on its Forum for Corporate Responsibility.
What would you love to do next?
I’m very much in a transition period and I’m lucky because I’m in a phase where I’m just working on projects which are aligned with my beliefs.
Colombia is about to finalise over 50 years of armed conflict with the oldest guerrilla in Latin America and I want to contribute to the reconciliation process, where artisanal and small scale mining is a crucial component.
I also want to write and to give reign to my creative side and not just focus on my rational side. I have started making ceramics. There is the link to the earth, to minerals and glazes. It’s perfect for me.
BHP Billiton has given me focussed work and my five-year term is coming to an end. Mining companies like plain speaking people and hearing things that are uncomfortable but that they need to face up to if they want to be truly sustainable as businesses. And I’d like to do more work like this, if I think I can really make a difference and am being listened to.
What is one thing you wish you’d been told when you were starting out that you know now?
My conclusion is that the mining industry is very difficult to change because the bottom line is still the bottom line and social and environmental progress is sometimes limited in times of economic downturn, such as now.
Companies lobby and have great influence over how projects are decided and some of the governments are weak or corrupt. When I was young I was an idealist and thought that there could be greater change. I thought that mining companies could be more proactive in working with governments and civil society to produce better outcomes for communities in mining regions. It saddens me that communities still have so little influence.
Some governments will go to great lengths with fiscal benefits, tax benefits and reliefs to get the miners’ investments. Sometimes I think we are going backwards in some Latin American countries.
I’m glad that I didn’t know this at the start and fought things. It’s difficult to change the status quo but I feel I’ve contributed my little grain of sand to change things.
What I do like to see is that the communities have organised themselves better. The stakes are higher and we need a more level playing field in developing our mineral resources. There is a lot of mistrust and stereotyping of the mining companies. Often some groups don’t see the difference between companies and lose useful engagement opportunities.
Do you sit on a board? If not would you like to?
Yes on two boards – on the board of ARM and also a Colombian educational trust, as well as on BHP Billiton’s Forum of Corporate Responsibility (FCR).
What is your opinion in the women on boards’ debate? Are you pro quotas or against them?
There are many women in management but not many on boards and it’s not because there aren’t women who are good enough to be there, so I’m for quotas right now.
I do believe companies should include women and at least by having quotas you get the CVs of women to be considered seriously. Women in general bring conscience to boards.
It is unacceptable there aren’t more women on the boards of mining companies.
Do you believe women in mining groups can help to change the image of the industry and make the sector more attractive to women?
In my personal experience women are more preoccupied with nature, communities, health and the environment and women have taken the greatest lead on this. They have got more involved in the engineering side of mining and have made a large impact on the political and social side.
Any advice to young women starting out in their careers?
Look at any activity that you are involved in and ask: is there a gender balance here? Who has access to the benefits? How can I make sure there’s a greater participation of women and communities?
Do you feel you have had to adapt to ‘fit’ the industry?
No – life is a path of learning and I have been able to meet excellent individuals in the mining industry. However, I have never adapted my beliefs or principles to please the industry, although I have learnt to moderate my language to influence outcomes.
I am outspoken and when BHP Billiton invited me to work on the FCR team I believe it was because they thought I would add value through my experience and knowledge of communities. I have been lucky enough to be myself and I have learnt a lot.
How do you find the work/life balance?
I think the work/life balance is a big challenge. I’m in the middle of my journey and I have been very lucky to have had a flexible husband who didn’t want to compete with me and was happy to take the kids to school and do things around the house when I couldn’t, because of my work.
I also learnt to identify my limits. When I was the executive director at ARM I set myself a goal of organising the gold certification scheme and getting the first gold sold (http://www.fairmined.org/). It was very difficult as I took the organisation from birth to toddler, but yoga has helped me and also to walk. This helps balance things.
Now I’m at a different stage and my kids have grown up. Life is wise, I have learnt that you need to listen closely to your body and flow. Now I have time to be with my parents when they most need me.