The mining section of La Rinconada with Mount Ananea in the background.
As the city continues to expand, shacks spread farther across the mountain side.
The majority of residents live in small tin shacks. Given the extreme temperatures, daytime weather rarely exceeds 40F all year around, with nighttime temperatures reguarly in the teens.
A recently formed toxic lake has formed at the bottom of the hill. A miner who has worked in La Rinconada for over 40 years said “this whole part was covered in snow [pointing to La Rinconada], and now there’s no more snow. There was no lagoon before. Everything was ice”.
Miners returning home from their shift in the mines.
The enterence to the mines cuts through a shrinking glacier.
Miners hauling gold ore to La Rinconada to be crushed.
Most residents chew coca leaves which supresses hunger and exhaustion. The consuption of coca has been widespread in Andean cultures for centuries, siting its effect in alliviating altitude sickness.
Mercury is heavily used in La Rinconada to break the gold from the gold ore. Many residents suffer from mercury poisening, which attacks the nervous, digestive, and immune system. The entire city is reported to be contaminated in high levels of mercury and cyanide.
Many residents suffer from mercury poisening, which attacks the nervous, digestive, and immune system. The entire city is reported to be contaminated in high levels of mercury and cyanide.
For many miners, stricking gold is unpredictile. Some only find a few cents worth in a days work.
A woman forging metal spikes that are used to keep the tunnels inside the mines proped up.
Woman are not allowed to work in the mines in La Rinconada. “They say that if the women enter they won’t be able to find gold” says Maria, a woman who has worked in La Rinconada for over nine years. “They [the men] say the work inside the tunnels is difficult, especially with the gases and everything else that comes out. Men are different you know. But if we are allowed to enter, we would”. The main reason they can’t enter the mines is the local superstition that woman will anger Pachamama, an ancient Andean goddess who resides over the mountains and causes earthquakes.
Maria continues, “It’s pretty difficult to to live here. Everybody thinks gold is easy to find, that living in La Rinconada is easy and rosy, but it’s not”.
“Sometimes when people are lucky they find a lot of gold” says Maria. “But you need to know how to value the work and take advantage of it. Most of the men go to bars with girls to drink. They don’t know how to take advantage of what they are earning”.
Sewage, cyanide and mercury run through the muddy pedestrian streets.
One of the many restaurants serving hot quinoa sope for the hungry miners.
Playing on the highest pitch in the world, the miners of La Rinconada have put together a rag tag soccer team.
“I came to better my life. In our homeland, there is no work. We live with a lot of contamination because of the mine and the trash. It’s how we live, there is no community here”.
Peru is the fifth largest producer of gold in the world, and roughly 6% of its economy is based on it. Ever since the time of the Incas and the early Spanish Empire, Peru has had a conflicting relationship with gold. As Peru’s economy grows, and its citizens continue relying heavily on jobs created by the gold mining industry, it appears Peru will continue to be both blessed and cursed for the foreseeable future.
They warned us about going to La Rinconada, “it’s so dangerous, you will get robbed in broad daylight,” said one man at the bus station near Lake Titicaca. Another man chimed in, “so many people are taking gold out of La Rinconada, that young men are beginning to rob people on the road from here to there.” I asked if any of them had visited the city, they said no.
La Rinconada, Peru represents the most extreme lengths people are willing to go in pursuit of money and a better life. At 18,000 ft above sea level, it is the highest inhabited place on earth. Living at these altitudes seems nearly impossible, yet 60,000 people call it home. Most work long hours in hazardous conditions deep within the gold mines. It’s entrepreneurial in the most brutal sense of the word—it’s unregulated and unsafe. Many peoples lives are cut short from contamination, tough working conditions and alcoholism. Mercury, cyanide and human waste flow openly down its unpaved streets and alleys.
The process of gold mining in La Rinconada is conducted by small companies and individuals—rather than large multinational corporations. Miners hike every day over 30 minutes at 18,000 feet to the entrance of the mines, which are carved into a think glacier. They walk 1,500 ft into the dark tunnels of the mountain where oxygen is even more scarce and toxic fumes are overwhelming.
Once the ore has been extracted from the mountain, individuals break it down using stones and a crusher driven by donkeys in their homes and back alleys. Water from the glacier mixed with mercury helps extract the gold. The gold is sold to middle men working in pawn shops, who bring it down the mountain to be sold again into the global market. Most of it ends up in India and Asia. Many times, armed men with ski masks rob merchants traveling along the one road leading out of town.
Instability in global markets has caused the price of gold to triple in the last 15 years, pushing many lower-class Peruvians to seek their fortunes in the mines of La Rinconada. Most miners come from the surrounding Puno region, a poverty stricken provence of the Peruvian Andes.
The story of La Rinconada is similar to that of Williston, North Dakota, where oil workers have been drawn to the harsh plains by the allure of high wages. Williston’s boom has affected the local environment and created a demographic shift and a strain on public services.
Similar to Williston, La Rinconada’s population has exploded—an increase of 230% over the last 10 years. Like a lawless frontier, the residents of La Rinconada have pushed back against the efforts made by the Peruvian government to bring regulation and some sense of law and order to the region. Many fear taxation and regulation that come with government oversight, thus the degradation of the environment, pollution, crime and corruption still reign.