Antonia Rodriguez Medrano: A story of an Agent for Change

The life and works of Antonia Rodriguez Medrano are a powerful metaphor to describe an Agent for Change. WFTO would like to share a brief story of this incredible woman who dedicated much of her life to advancing the conditions of Bolivian indigenous and marginalised populations, historically excluded on all fronts.

Antonia was born in the province of Linares in the department of Potosí, south-west of Bolivia. Raised in a Quechua family, she tended domestic animals, and worked as a maid for a Bolivian teacher. In the 1970s, she moved to the Bolivian capital of La Paz, where she learned handicraft and used this skill to make ends meet. A few years later after her move, the economy of the country underwent a difficult period due largely to economic and climate factors.

Bolivia is a country characterised by mining exploitation. Started in the 16th century, the mining sector has dominated the economy of the entire country. In the 70s and 80s, it provided significant sources of income for many Bolivians. However, in 1985, the mining sector was hit by a crisis forcing many jobless people to migrate to the cities of La Paz and El Alto. In the same period, Bolivia suffered the effects of El Niño, a climatic phenomenon brought about by a prolonged warming of the sea surface that occurs somewhere in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. The long dry spell affects agricultural production that consequently impacted the Bolivian economy.

Confronted with the worsening condition in La Paz, Antonia realised how difficult the conditions are for marginalised people. She experienced it herself. She saw the women (particularly the indigenous), handicapped people and street children increasingly marginalised. As the crises worsened, she felt she had to do something for her disadvantaged fellow citizens. In 1989, she formed the Asociacion Artesanal Boliviana Senor de Mayo, better known under the name of Asarbolsem.

Since its formation, the interests of the disadvantaged people have always been at the core of Asarbolsem. In particular, Antonia works hard to ensure that women are given the opportunities to make a change in their lives. "Our association aims to promote the independence of women, who is entitled, as a man, to emancipate, to have a stable income and to help to meet her needs and the needs of her family, if she has one!" she says.

Asarbolsem focuses particularly on women, disabled people and street children and, in line with Fair Trade principles, gives them direct management responsibility for production and marketing, ensuring their participation at all levels of the organisation. Ninety-five percent (95%) of the employees are women, often single mothers with children. It also offers a chance out of poverty to handicapped people that are struggling to live in a country with no facilities for people on a wheelchair.

Founded 4000 meters above the sea level in the Andes, in one of the highest regions of the world, Asarbolsem was named model social enterprises in Latin America by the UNDP, the United Nations Procurement Division. For her tireless work in the Fair Trade movement, and her commitment to achieving gender equality and empowerment of women, Antonia received international recognition. She took part in the UN programme for the economic empowerment of women and was appointed Minister of Productive Development and Plural Economy in Bolivia from 2010 to 2011.

The economic crisis and environmental problems did not despair Antonia. In fact the unfavourable conditions in Bolivia fueled her passion to make a difference, to become an agent for change. Her organisation provided spaces for the disadvantage to make a difference for themselves as well. Currently, Asarbolsem gives work to more than 300 artisans and keeps alive the culture and traditions of Bolivian indigenous people.  Her hardworking personality and her achievements give us hope and confirm to us that even during difficult times positive change is possible.


by Elisa Agosti