Women’s Power: Weaving Solidarity in the Puna

In the highlands of Jujuy province, the Warmi women created their own economic model. These perseverant women in northwestern Argentina received a call from Harvard—the academics wanted to know how they did it.

June 2, 2008

Reaching these women requires going way up and squinting under the brightest sun on Earth; something that can be confirmed by anyone who ventures past the touristy Quebrada of Humahuaca on Route 9 ascending to nearly 12,000 feet above sea level, stopping just 44 miles from the border with Bolivia. “Visit Abra Pampa, Capital of the Puna,” pleads a green sign with white letters leaning on the side of the road. “Puna” is the Quechua word for the bone-dry highlands here in Jujuy. A few feet later, another sign proudly announces to travelers the women are nearby: “Warmi Handicrafts.”

The sign looks old, prehistoric, like the Puna’s mineral-filled deserted mountain ridges that hug the surrounding horizon. Warmi is an organization of indigenous Kolla women, and they are born weavers. Today, they have a pool of companies: an Internet café, gas station, restaurant, a leather tannery, and an exceptional banking system.

The highland desert Puna at 12,000 feet straddles northern Argentina and parts of Bolivia and Chile. (Photo: Warmi)

This arid plateau, where the dust creeps into your nose and dries your lips, is one of Argentina’s most forgotten places. The waves of the 2001 crisis crashed here early on and with great force, devastating the mining sector. But “Las Warmis,” as they’re often called, are agile and creative. With one hand they secure their broad-brimmed black hats, while the other hand holds a silvery cell phone. They weave companies from scratch and they fight as if they carried the earth beneath their skin. But this is no fairytale: It’s a story of extreme survival threaded with abuses and oblivion, a story about the intersections of work, identity, and power.

Today, the organization has 3,600 associates in 79 different indigenous communities, which gives them formidable social, economic, and financial power. Power among these ancestral inhabitants is such a highly regarded concept that it’s exercised from the very bottom, at the grassroots. The women are simultaneously venerated and criticized, feared but also consulted. Harvard University invited Rosario Quispe, the leader of the Warmi, to share their experiences at the 2007 International Bridge Builders Conference. She was chosen among the world’s grassroots leaders to explain her experiences to students, academics, and experts from around the world.

Made in La Puna

At the Warmi gas station in Abra Pampa, the giant “W” painted on the gas pumps disconcerts some clients. “Miss, what kind of gas is this W brand? Is it really bad?” asks one male client.

Alberta Llampa is one of the attendants and for the past four years, ever since Warmi bought the station, she gives the same explanation: It’s normal gas and the W stands for Warmi Sayajsunqo, the organization that owns the station. In Quechua, the organization’s name means “Perseverant Woman.” Alberta has dark skin, big round eyes, an orange fleece vest, a baseball cap, and dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. She’s 36, with a seventh-grade education and seven children—all of them currently in school.

In its first year, 1995, Warmi was made up of 320 women; Warmi now has 1,600 associates. (Photo:Warmi)

“My oldest daughter wants to be a doctor,” she says, as she fills tanks with such routine it seems as if she has done this her whole life. But no, she spent many days with her children at the municipal soup kitchen and nights begging on the streets. “Hopefully one day I will be able to give you meals without having to depend on others,” she remembers she told her children. When she first started working with Warmi, she began knitting. Alberta learned how to weave the yarn and the type of sweaters that sold well. “Then, Ms. Rosario offered me to work at the pump.” She laughs: “How could it be that I wasn’t able to support my children and feed them?”

The gas station has a little restaurant, where Dominga Benicio and Norma Aguilar serve tourists and truckers coca leaf tea; cheese, chicken, and beef pastries; homemade pasta; and full steaks. It’s Dominga’s debut as a cook at the Warmi restaurant. She’s 45 and so shy that she often hides her face with her hands.

She raised her children while working at the mines alongside her husband. When the mines began closing, she recalls, “I already knew Rosario and she invited me to participate. My husband was mean and didn’t want me to be a leader, so I couldn’t before, but he died three years ago.”

“Has anything changed in your life since you began participating in Warmi?” I ask.

“A lot. It gave me ideas to move forward, to build projects. Thanks to the women, I am where I am today. Warmi gives projects, not gifts. It’s better than politicians that just buy us over with groceries. Here, you might get something, but you also have to give back.”

“What’s the most important thing you’ve learned?”

“To never be like the chickens, waiting for things to fall from the sky.”

The Battle of Lead

The gas station is a couple miles from the building that houses Warmi’s headquarters, but it seems much further. Maybe it’s because of the lack of trees or that with each step one is reminded of the heart-pumping lack of oxygen at this altitude. In the desert-like landscape everything seems extreme. During the day it’s the blinding sun, and at night one tries to fight off the cold with five blankets (in the summer).

The air is strained, but locals say it has nothing to do with the altitude or the lack of water. The most contentious issue is the mountain of lead that has been abandoned for 20 years by the Metalhuasi smelter. The sight of the mountain’s tailings in the middle of downtown instills as much fear and anger as do the results of recent medical tests on the local population, especially among children. They have alarming levels of lead in their blood. Abra Pampa’s mayor, Herman Zerpa, wants to clean up the area. The Warmi women are also concerned.

The yellow walls at the headquarters make the rawness of the landscape standout. The building has large rooms were associates come down from the mountain ridges for workshops or to square accounts. The main office is small and is guarded by a small figurine of Saint Cayetano. The walls are covered by a large schedule with the activities from 2007 as well as the diplomas and prizes won by Warmi’s founder, Rosario Andrada de Quispe. There is a computer and a meticulously organized bookshelf with catalogues and folders. Sitting at her desk, Rosario speaks on her cell phone with some functionary from Buenos Aires.

“It’s disgusting, horrifying, mister,” she says calmly, playing with one of the ribbons tied on the end of one of her braids, making her look a bit like a studious schoolgirl.

The conversation grows intense: “Look mister, if you try to move the lead to another community, we’re not going to let that happen. Families live there. No one has consulted them, as required by law. If you’d like, I can go to Cangrejillos and I’ll ask people there if they know anything about this, and you can call me back that night.”

Rosario jumps into the truck her husband drives and leaves for Cangrejillos, a community of 700 inhabitants a few hours from Abra Pampa. On the road, she explains to me that everyone wants the mine tailings out of Abra Pampa, but what is unclear is how and where they will be taken.

Distances can trick you on the Puna. Going 20 miles by car on the Puna can take two or three hours on the craterous dirt roads. Braving these roads has its risks: one false move and you’re stuck in a landscape that simply repeats itself: A big wide nothing, massive mountains, and the occasional handful of adobe houses, a white church. If it weren’t for the blankets drying in the sun in these little ocher-colored villages, you would assume they were abandoned. The road is beautiful and monotonous. Lonely. Forgotten. I wonder how these people got here and it becomes clear they’ve been here since times immemorial. If these roads had their way, these people would remain isolated. After two hours of traveling: sheep, goats—some grazing far off—vicuñas, a bicycle, three donkeys, and some frightened llamas.

In these villages, some women, with fingers worn-down from work, like Ernestina Alejo in Alfarcito or Martina Calata in Rinconadilla, began reconnecting with their weaving traditions through joining Warmi. They say young people now choose to stay in the village rather than leave. They knit and sell to tourists in Tilcara or Purmamarca. In other communities, people stay-put because of successful small enterprises such as the trout farm of the Morales family. And there is also the Puna Salt enterprise in the indigenous community of Cerro Negro. It’s a community business that extracts, processes, and sells the salt found in the nearby salt flats. It provides jobs for 14 families. The workers are paid wages, but the entire community shares the winnings and decides how they are spent. Warmi helped with the startup funds, workshops, and remains a consultant for the business. Rosario Quispe says it’s the business she’s most proud of.

We pass Puesto del Marqués, the town where she was born. She’s filled with memories of the shepherd girl who grew up between these ridges. It was here that her grandfather taught her key life-lessons. The man spoke to her about values: respect for Mother Earth, for elders, to be committed, to act in solidarity, to be honest, to keep your dignity, and live a good life. These are the same Kolla values that inspired Warmi.

“If we don’t have these things, child, then we won’t even have things to eat,” he would tell her. And though Rosario left the town when she was eight when her father got work at the Pirquitas Mine, the words were already burned into her memory.

Shepherd of Dreams

Rosario Quispe’s life is an exceptional story. It’s as inseparable from the story of Warmi, as it is from the history of the Puna. Rosario was nineteen when she met Alfredo Quispe, an employee of the Pirquitas Mine. She got married and had the first of seven children. Already, she had tried her luck in the cities, as a domestic worker. She returned to Pirquitas. She met the priests of the Claretine Organization for Development (Oclade) like Father Olmedo, who is now the Bishop of Humahuaca. She joined them.

Rosario Quispe remains a driving force behind the organization. (Photo: Graciela Calabrese)

When Pirquitas closed, the Quispe family moved to another mine: Pan de Azucar. A few years later, it, too, closed. With nowhere to go the family sought refuge in Abra Pampa. Rosario got work in a project on women’s issues. She spent her days traveling on the treacherous dirt roads, knowing women on the Puna stay at home. The husbands leave for labor in the tobacco or cane fields, or in the mines, while the women have to rise at dawn and work the family plot, even if they are sick. “I saw so much misery and I knew that if we kept on like that, we would die of hunger,” says Rosario.

“It was not until we (the women) arrived to Abra Pampa and, contrary to what we expected, there was nothing here, so a lot of us joined together to see what we could do. We’d meet at my house. We began workshops on handicrafts and would sell them in a shop in Tilcara. We started saving money and buying materials for each other. I would go to Villazón to find fabrics. Some would cut, others would sew, and we’d sell. We were invited to a women’s conference in Buenos Aires. We took our crafts and to get there we spent many sleepless nights. In 1995, we named our group Warmi Sayajsunqo, which in the Quechua language of our grandparents means perseverant woman. It was through sharing happy and sad times and being together and supporting each other that we’ve just kept growing.”

How Not to Fall Off the Map

Warmi’s first battle was over health. Uterine cancer was killing the indigenous women, including Rosario’s aunt. While Rosario took care of the orphaned children, a doctor volunteered, offering to work with the association. A few more people arrived, and the issue even got some press coverage. In 1997, the Swiss president of the Avina Foundation, Stephen Schmidheiny, arrived to present them with an award. He told Rosario to make one wish.

“I want my people to be able to live with dignified work, without being anyone’s slave, with their dignity and culture intact, like our grandparents.”

Rosario called on two people she knew from Olcade: Agustina Roca, an anthropologist, and Raúl Llobeta, an economist. They immersed themselves in the communities, and listened to families’ thoughts about local problems and their ideas about the future. In late 2001, while Argentina was falling off the map, Warmi had a successful Indigenous Development Program. The communities were linked into a banking system of microcredits or communal funds managed by Warmi’s associates. Through this system and its lines of credit (as little as three dollars for an emergency and up to 10,000 dollars for an indigenous company), nearly 47,000 dollars have been borrowed through 2,000 loans, with trust as the only guarantee.

“Every now and then someone is late on their payments. But every one of our loans have been paid back,” says Florinda Condori, a treasurer at the administrative headquarters.

“Some people think we work here with a huge salary and that we manage tons of money, but transparency and the accounting are implacable,” say Sara Mendoza and María Figueroa, two young mothers and Warmi promoters.

The organization is already self-sufficient thanks to its enterprises. And it makes strategic alliances, like the one that achieved, after three years of efforts, the building of a maternity ward at the Abra Pampa hospital.

Leadership roles in Warmi are reserved exclusively for Kolla women. (Photo: Warmi)

The money is in the hands of two kipus (treasurers)—of which, at least one has to be a woman—in each community to manage local accounts and make sure these remain clear. “In the Puna, women carry most of the burden. They are stronger and more responsible. I don’t have a problem with decisions being in the hands of either a man or a woman. But I give the money to the woman. She’ll take care of things better, and they don’t negotiate their dignity,” says Rosario.

This is such a serious matter that the rules are clear: Leadership roles are reserved exclusively for women, though men have joined the organization. René Calpanchay came knocking on Warmi’s door from Susques concerned about the titling of indigenous lands. Since 2003, René is a member of the group’s strategic team. “I coincided with them on the dreams we have for all our communities: To live from our own work the way our grandparents did in harmony with nature,” says René.

This might sound very nice, but in practice it’s a silent war. The management of natural resources and the titling of their lands are their two crusades. Mining extraction often diregards the rights of indigenous peoples, which are enshrined in the Constitution.

But Warmi is powerful. Two days after that phone conversation between Rosario Quispe and the “mister” about the lead issue, several big cars were parked in front of the association’s yellow headquarters. The cars carried representatives from the mining branch of the National Environment Ministry along with representatives from citizens’ groups. Rosario placed the last coca leaf into her mouth. She put some lotion on her hands and sent someone to buy softdrinks for the 20-odd visitors. The meeting took place in the room where the Warmis sell their handicrafts. “Don’t worry, we’re really well organized here,” Rosario told them, as she broke out laughing.

She never loses her sense of humor. But last year, she later admits, lowering her voice, was really hard. There were several deaths. Warmi was sadly there accomanying these families with the wakes, the preparations, the coffins. The women administrators went a few months without pay.

I ask one of them, Mirta Andrada, what is the biggest challenge amid so many struggles. She replies, “You start getting used to being at the service of the people. It’s like someone giving you something; something really special. It’s not hard if we’re all in it together. We always get by and move forward. But it’s ugly when there isn’t unity.”

A few feet away Rosario is on the phone with her nephew and tells him she’ll visit him on Monday. Today is Saturday and she has to stay in Abra Pampa for the baptism of Lautaro. She also has to take flowers to her mothers grave, attend the procession of the Virgin of the Candelaria, and prepare the speech she’ll be giving at Harvard, where she was invited by the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Oh, and she also has to make 200 pastries for the baptism.

“Where do you get your strength,” I ask amazed.

“From the work. I’m always thinking about what we’re going to do and discuss tomorrow. ‘It can’t be done’ is a phrase that doesn’t exist. I go, and I do. If I feel bad, I’ll sit in the sun for a few minutes and then I’m ready.

“Have they tried tempting you into politics?”

“Yes, for every election. But I can serve people better from where I am now. If one day the Kollas can make a party that’s different from the traditional ones, then I’d support it. If we were to make a political party today, I can assure you we’d win. But we’d have to prepare an entire generation of youths who think in ways that are very different from politics. It’s not worth burning-out now.”

In the kitchen, as we make the pastries with the help of several other women, they tell me about their idea of making several decentralized Warmis in twelve different indigenous communities, which would, in turn, start similar projects in new communities. This year, they are starting with tourism in Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia. Investments are coming from the development ministry, the Inter-American Development Bank, the Inter-American Foundation, and Avina.

I ask Rosario about criticisms some people make about the association—one of which is that she gives jobs to family members. “Of course I won’t put managers in every company, because we’d go broke, but everything is very transparent.” She tells me it makes her happy to have her husband accompanying her in this work. He’s the chofer of the car that drives her from place to place around the clock. “Can you imagine what my home-life would be like if it were any other way, with so many hours traveling?” The day he became employed by Warmi, she renounced the salary paid to her by the organization. She works on a volunteer basis and only charges for specific projects.

“I preferred to lose the money, rather than lose my family. All this is my life. I’m very thankful to God for the life partner he gave me.”

Changing the subject, I ask: “What is Warmi?”

“Something that should help us to be free, so that some day no one will have to depend on Warmi.”

Ariel, one of Rosario’s sons, hangs balloons as she remarks that she believes her son, who has a mental disability, was affected by the lead. One girl teaches me how to properly fold the napkins. The value they place on collective action permeates all aspects of their society—in baptisms, in funerals, in the organization. After the party no one leaves until the floors are swept, the papers are in the trash, and the kitchen is impeccable. Rosario rinses and dries the plates and glasses. She puts away the rags before turning off the light and closing the door. Almost certainly, someone will be waiting for her outside.

This article originated from a winning proposal for the AVINA Investigative Journalism Grant and was first printed in the magazine of Argentina's La Nación newspaper. The AVINA Foundation assumes no responsibility for its contents and was not consulted on the contents of the article. Translated from the Spanish by NACLA.


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