Maria Laura Barreto

Maria Laura Barreto

Job title (at time of interview)Director at MERG - Materials Efficiency Research Group

LocationBrazil, Canada

What makes us strong is ourselves

July 2014

Maria Laura Barreto grew up in Mozambique, moved to Brazil in 1985 where she stayed over 15 years, then on to Canada in 2002 where she still lives and works with a global remit. Combining law and mining technology in an unusual way, she has dedicated her career to rethink mining.

In Brazil during 17 years, she undertook more academic work as both a researcher and professor, but also served as a senior legal and policy advisor for the Secretary of Mining and Metallurgy, particularly in the area of sustainable development and international environmental negotiations. During the fifteen years that Ms. Barreto worked in the Centre of Mineral Technology she focused primarily on two main project areas – the implications of the concept of sustainable development for the mining sector and the formalization and legalization of Artisanal and Small Scale Mining. In response to the very significant social implications and legal challenges related to Small Scale Mining, this became the subject of her PhD.

By Camila Reed

  • How did mining come to you?

    Maria Laura finished law school in 1981, the first class that graduated after independence in 1975. Mozambique faced many problems at the time and her degree opened many opportunities. At a very young age she became adviser to two ministers. She recalls it as being “amazing, a huge privilege, but also very hard work”.

    As second year law degree candidates were allowed to work, she took up a position as a Legal Advisor to  the Minister of Education. In 1981 she was contacted by the Secretary of Coal and Hydrocarbons who needed a legal advisor, and as Maria Laura wanted more exposure to trade and commerce, she accepted the role. Once in the role it was apparent that her law degree did not prepare her for the position she accepted. Mining law was not taught at university, which meant she was not equipped with prior knowledge of preparing contract negotiations and mining jargon. It was a steep learning curve for Maria Laura and she learned all she could about the sector.

    Once she went deeper she realised that mining offered many challenges and that she loved her job. She did not realise at the time that mining would be the one constant in her life.

  • You have a PhD in Mining Engineering which is quite unusual for a lawyer. Can you tell us more about it?

    I left Mozambique to do a Masters in Law in Brazil and the plan was to do that in one year and return home. However, due to the opportunities offered and for personal reasons I stayed. Through my work for the government (I worked at the Centre for Mineral Technology as a Researcher) I became exposed to technology and how it impacts policy and regulation and it fascinated me.

    As a researcher I needed a PhD. Law was too traditional and didn’t offer anything interesting or related to my interests. I thought I have been in mining this long why not a PhD in a mining field which would allow me to have a deeper understanding of complex issues and also allow me to combine law and technology in a more specialised way.

    My colleagues of the time thought I was crazy. It wasn’t easy to be accepted as a PhD student within the mining engineering department and I had to negotiate conditions so that I could be inserted into the programme but I succeeded in the end.

  • You've had an amazing career, have you had mentors and sponsors that helped you on the way?

    Maria Laura says that Mozambique’s independence inspired her and that she has come across many inspirational people in her career.

  • What are the challenges you are faced with?

    Most of the challenges I have faced were related to bringing new and different ideas to the table. Around 1991 I started mentioning environmental issues and was once asked to leave the room, at the time you spoke more of taxation, and communities and environment were a no go. In the 1990s I started a project with sustainable development in mind. It had more impact outside of Brazil than in. Bringing together life cycle of materials and social issues was too new.

    Looking at things from a different perspective allowed Maria Laura to create a niche for herself and to present/speak on the issue.

    Another challenge was that there never were many women presenting at conferences. She never framed it as a gender issue and focussed on being good enough in her field to have something to say and be able to add value.

  • What was your experience of being a woman working in the mining sector? Did you encounter much discrimination?

    Yes but I didn’t think I was discriminated for my gender but for my ideas. If I had accepted or decided to see it as being due to my sex it would have changed how I behaved and who I was. I didn’t let it affect me.

    I have worked so long in the industry that many colleagues have been men and some have become friends. Some of my best supporters have been men.

    I wouldn’t be able to work for a man who does not respect women, I would fight back

    We work in a male-dominated sector: If every problem is seen in the light of “I am a woman” it becomes an issue as it might be biased in return. We need to frame things in positive ways to overcome problems. We can’t change gender. I will always be a woman.

    I am not denying there is a problem but I am saying that often by framing it differently and changing the perspective a solution can be found.

    You need to acknowledge it is something you need to face. If you say to yourself that person did that/said that/reacted that way because I am a woman you are making it into a limitation which in turn will leave you with fewer resources to cope. Any type of discrimination (race, nationality, gender etc) is done to try to take power from you and make you feel inferior. You can’t change your gender or colour

    I decide to interpret it as people not liking my opinion

    As women we have advantages and disadvantages. What makes us strong is ourselves.

  • What is your view of women in mining and the global WIM network and the work they are trying to accomplish? What still needs to be done?

    When Maria Laura started her career there were very few networking groups and even less women. She believes the interaction would have been good for her

    She believes that “if a group of women start to push for change it creates a space to discuss sensitive issues which is very powerful.” She would like Women in Mining groups to bring attention to issues that are still a problem like artisanal and small-scale miners. The sharing of resources is a complex subject.

    According to Maria “more needs to be done for sure and mining is still heavily male-dominated. The sector now employees many female truck drivers a good example where tradition has been changed positively. Mining companies need to recruit or promote more women into senior management and executive management. Mining companies are ignoring the business case.”

  • Do you sit on a board?

    Yes I sit on the board of an NGO. I am not actively pursuing non-executive board roles but I have recently been approached by a mining company and enjoyed the process

    Maria Laura tell us that mining company boards need to be more gender-balanced but more importantly they need board directors with diverse skills sets and backgrounds and capabilities to understand the perspectives of all stakeholders.

  • Where do you sit when it comes to targets vs quotas?

    When you talk of quotas you start a debate about why it is important to have a gender balanced economy. This can be healthy. She says “it depends on the country; quotas may be an imposition but may end up being a good thing long-term. If you can avoid it – great! – but if no change is happening quotas may be the way to go.

    She recalls when Brazil set up quotas at university to have a more multi-racial student population.

  • What do you want to do next?

    “The mining sector is undergoing a lot of change and I would like to stay involved to contribute to a more diverse and healthy sector. “ Maria Laura wants to bring diversity and achieve equal position for all players in the industry including ASM. She believes that by regulating and giving space to artisanal miners a lot of conflict could be avoided.

    She is still passionate about the relationship between technology and the social dimensions of the mining sector. The industry tends to separate and isolate these issues but Maria Laura believes they happen together. She would love to be more involved in mitigation work on behalf of governments and/or mining companies.

  • What would you have liked to know then and know now? Some parting tips for the students and women starting out in their careers.

    Don’t be afraid of the challenge in front of you (like going to mining school or working with ASM)

    Others will always have an opinion

    Challenges turn into opportunities

    Don’t be scared to jump into hard issues but in that case back it up with knowledge and research

    Know the industry 360%: get out of the office; visit a mine; talk to miners: what challenges and opportunities do they face. Complement it by reading. Even if you are a lawyer, it will help you make recommendations.


Since 1982 Ms. Barreto has been continuously active in the field of environmental law and the extractive industries in more than 20 countries. Her career has involved three major phases of activities that correspond to her different locations in Mozambique, Brazil and Canada. In Mozambique she worked primarily as a legal advisor to the Minister of Mineral Resources.

Arriving in Canada in 2002, Ms. Barreto co-founded a consulting company, the Materials Efficiency Research Group (, which has subsequently worked with a range of governments, companies and NGOs, on environmental and social issues in the extractives sector, including ASM.

Ms. Barreto serves on the Board of the Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM) – an organization established in 2004 that is now leading a series of innovative, internationally recognized projects focused on ASM. ARM’s main initiative is the Fairmined certification theme (for more information see In March 2010 Ms. Barreto was elected Chair of the Board.