Day 28 – An interview with Bolivia’s first woman Mallku

Day 28 – An interview with Bolivia’s first woman Mallku

Florinda Consales is Bolivia’s first woman Mallku, or regional indigenous leader. Residing over the Marka (region) Salinas, she is the elected leader of over 120 communities represented by approximately 12 elected indigenous governors, and 120 takis (communicators) and 120 helicoteres (community leaders). Local people refer to her as The Mother, state officials respectfully call her the Liscenciada Florinda Mallku, putting importance on her college degree.

            Born in1955, Florinda, as a child, lived in the community of Otuyo, a few miles from the dusty town of Salinas at the edge of the vast salt flats in a land surrounded by volcanoes, lava cliffs and scrubby pampas under a wide blue sky. Her parents were subsistence farmers, eking out a living from the mineral rich soils that grew Bolivia’s highest quality quinoa and potatoes. There were two natural springs in the community and the people were able to grow irrigated vegetables such as carrots and fava beans as well.

            Though her mother had nine children, seven had died by the time Florinda was born. Her oldest sibling, a boy, went to the city of Cochabamba in search of work and new opportunities never to return. To this day Florinda still does not know what happened to him. Most likely he had died too. So Florinda was raised as an only child, something unusual in Bolivia where the average rural family has five to seven children. By the time she finished third grade, the highest level her community school went to, her father moved the family to the city of Oruro five hours away where Floinda was enlisted into the city school system and graduated High School. There was a drought in the countryside which made farming very difficult. In the city, her father worked as a baker, making the fresh, round breads he sold each day. Somewhere around this time, her mother died of an apparent stroke. She was in her early 40s. Being an only child, Florinda did not have the share scant family resources with her siblings and her father was able to send her to college.

            She went to the larger city of La Paz to attend the state University of San Andres where she first studied Social Work, then switched to Sociology, graduated, and entered into Law School though after a year she was offered a good job and in 1980 she took the job, got married, and left the law program, something that to this day she regrets. At San Andres, Florinda learned of social movements and human rights. She was one of the few women in college, most families only had resources to send their sons to college, if that. While in college, she and her male colleagues worked well together, and inspired by CatholicPriest,Luis Espinal, who ran a leftist newspaper, staged hunger strikes demanding autonomy for the college, worked on many different social change plans for the country and joined political movements. Bolivia was in a state of turmoil and chaos at the time, after a series of military coups, failed economic development, and a strong centralized government that favored the foreign elite, the people were restless for change.

            Much to his dismay, Florinda would descend upon her father’s home with her comrades in tow talking of new laws, ways of governance and civil liberties. She dressed liked them too, preferring jeans and boots over skirts and shawls. her father wanted her to have a simple, quiet desk job, her mom had wanted her to be a teacher. He could not understand the radicalism that his daughter was engaged in. Flroinda describes herself at the time as being very energetic and strong minded, she took no head o her father’s misgivings and continued to follow her passions.

            Her marriage ended a soon after her first job where from 1980 to 1980 she worked on the Plan de Padrinos  (the Godfather Plan). After that, she went to work as a dirigente de secratario (governor of the secretary) at the Center for the Promotion of Miners (CEPROMIN ) with the miners, the strongest and most radical of all citizen groups at the largest state run mine, Siglo XX, which was famous for its human rights abuses. This is the place where Domitilla Sagani, a mining housewife and internationally know leader, rose up forming the Committee of Miner Housewives demanding better mine safety, housing, food social security when a husband died or was injured in the mine, healthcare education, all of the basic needs that most mining families were denied. They lived at the mines, within the high, cold, windy mountain ranges of the Altiplano, did not own land or homes and were depending on the mining companies to care from them. Housing was often a corrugated metal or adobe shack with a dirt floor in which a family of seven would huddle together for warmth. There was no heat, little water, few sanitary facilities. mortality rates were high. The miners were one of the most exploited populations of Bolivia. Domitilla was jailed, tortured and exiled form Bolivia for the work she did.

            Now Florinda is arriving a few years later to address the needs of the women who worked outside of the mines, collecting minerals from tailings and discarded debris. Women were not allowed to work inside the mines, it was thought they wold bring bad luck to the men inside. Working with two other powerful women, Florinda helped to unite the women mine workers wiht the mining housewives committee to create a larger, consolidated presence of women in the mining community. To do this, she needed the permission of the mining union. The men in this union did not want to recognize the rights or needs of the women. So in 1985, Florninda and her colleagues organized a meeting of all of the mine women, both housewives and workers and invited the union men to come and address them. When they men saw the hundreds , maybe thousands, of women who were assembled, they agreed to let the committee be formed.

            Soon state politics entered the mine and the SEPROMIN split to branch out to join MIR and represent mining professionals. Florinda’s work became more aligned with MIR. Dismayed by this division, she retired from her position. Soon after she was invited to be the Coordinator for the National Federation of Mining Cooperatives. Now she was moving from large, state-run mining to the small independent mining cooperatives that worked alongside the powerful state unions, picking through the left overs from the larger mining operations in old mining tunnels. These cooperatives, largely made up of ex-state miners, lacked the resources and technical skills of the state mines. Work was dangerous and earnings small. Florinda’s work took her to mining communities in La Paz, Oruro and Potosi. Here she united the women who worked both inside and outside the mines. The cooperatives were more desperate for work and money and some allowed women to enter into the mines to work. Death rates were high. Children were the most malnourished she had ever seen, with stunted growth and evident disabilities probably from mineral contamination such as mercury, arsenic and lead. Conditions were horrible. Florinda recalls how in the Ilimani mines outside the city of La Paz, women, mostly widows, were hoisted down into mines by ropes tied around their waists. There they dangled, being lowered down by comrades, until they reached the dark mining floor hundreds of feet below. Many women died in this mine, remembered Forinda. never-the-less, Florinda persevered, seeking out projects to help the cooperatives. She was able to get a $6 million project that provided credit to help cooperatives with mine exploration and the development of a turbine system.

            Her success caught the attention of the US based non-profit, CARE and in 1996 she was offered a position to work in the tropical Yungas region on newly formed agricultural projects in the town of Carnavi. Intrigued by the new work, she accepted the position. While working with the miners, Florinda had fallen in love and married one in 1992, so both of them moved to the Yungas. Here Florinda learned abut coffee, citrus fruits, bananas and rice. She began networking with other agricultural development organizations such as ANAPQUI and CITCA where she met Veterinarians without Boarders. Soon Florinda began working on food security programs, self development of lands and land rights. She worked with economic development projects too such as the development of hibiscus jelly.

            With her new work, she was able to travel to many other places in the world, visiting Spain, France and taking a longer tour of Latin America visiting Educator and Guatemala. Her most favorite place was Guatemala where she worked with CIDA and land rights issues for women. There large corporations owned much of the land. Husbands would frequently sell the scant land they had to the cooperation for quick money for themselves without consulting the women, or sharing earnings with them, leaving the women with no resources to live on. Guatemala developed a new law that prevented cooperations from purchasing land from men, it could only be purchased from women or children. Florinda was impressed by the fertility of the land, “a rock could grow a plant there,” she explained with a smile. But she was dismayed by how little land the people had. There was hardly anything to work with at all.

            Through her travels, Florinda gained more admiration for her own country of Bolivia and the land, space and resources the people had there. Sh did want to live anywhere else. ironically, a good friend she made in Guatemala came to Bolivia in an exchange program. When Florinda took her to her childhood community of Otuyo to show here the land there that she loved so much, the women explained in dismay, “how can you live here so far away, so isolated, so arid and cold!”

            Her work came full circle when in 2011 she was asked to be the Governor of the rentistas (Diregent de las rentistas ) in La Paz. Here she became active in the development of indigenous leadership. She was a technical coordinator and helped to facilitate the exchange of experiences and the rediscovery of indigenous wisdom, the concept of Chaca-warmi,  men-women pairing, where the two together made up a whole, that without one of the other could not be complete. She helped to strengthen the ayllu, community, system of governance and the roles of the people within it. This work was funded by the European Community who were supporting the development of community governance, fair trade, sustainable production, and the strengthening of native wisdom brought her back to her community of Salinas. When the time came for her childhood community to elect their Mallku, the regional leader, Florinda was selected.

            Surprised and dismayed, Forinda at first did not want to be the Mallku, a title of great respect and importance, she wanted to work more on land rights for women, development and other programs. She did not want to spend a year in her community as a leader. But the community insisted, and obligingly, Florinda good heartedly donned the traditional clothing of the countryside; the large, full skirt, wool leggings, sweaters and shawls, braided her hair, and hoisting a large aguaro (woven blanket) across her back, filled with coca leaves, notehooks and her cell phone, she joined the other elected leaders for a year of governance in the Salinas Marka. her husband at first laughed when he saw her in her country garb, now a Minister in La Paz, he does not have much time to be in the rural region of Salinas 12 hours away. Most people think the Mother is single anyway. She does not mind.

            And the time flies. Now we must all hurry to get ready for the inauguration of a quinoa processing plant in Floinda’s community of Otuyo. The Minister of Rural Development and other dignitaries and people of importance will be there and Florinda, once a peer with these people, will now would be representing her humble, rural region and thanking the dignitaries for their generosity and thoughtfulness in helping to build the processing plant, bringing new hope and opportunity to the people of this region.