La Rinconada, the Andean Far West
During the decade 2002-2012, Peru experienced the largest increase in the continent’s gross domestic product thanks to its rich subsoil. This story documents Rinconada, the highest city in the world with a gold mine attracting all social classes: the Andean ‘Far West’.
From a few thousand in 2000, today 50,000 people try their luck. At 5200 meters above sea level, oxygen is missing, the temperature never exceeds 0°C.
La Rinconada nestles three hours by 4×4 from Juliaca, on Lake Titicaca, at the end of a long and bad road to the South-East of Peru. Dilapidated, underneath the Apolobamba Cordillera, it is a conglomerate of metal sheet houses.
The Quechua Indians nicknamed the glacier overlooking the city ‘la Bella Durmiente’, Sleeping Beauty. Others say it’s the heart of El Dorado, the golden country the conquistadors were looking for. The Incas came there to harvest «the sweat of gold».
Between 2002 and 2012, the world price of gold as well as the population of the city has increased six-fold. Newcomers are determined to try their luck – if they do not choose the mines, it will be in the colourful constellation of companies serving tens of thousands of miners.
Electricity is only used for lighting. The city offers little basic equipment, no sewers, no sanitation, no pollution control, no police to fight the important level of crime. There is no sewage system or garbage collection service. A mountain of waste accumulates on the flanks.
The extraction of gold ore is brutal. Minors work up to ten hours a day. The work is manual. 400 owners share these unreported artisanal or “informal”, meaning “illegal”, mines. Most of deaths are not due to work accidents but to fights and murders. « Cacharreo » is the system and the relationship that unites the workers with the owners. For 30 days of free work, miners can keep the ore from the 31st day.
The precious metal is separated from the ore by mercury or potassium cyanide which pollute the glacier, a source of water for the city, as well as the rivers that join Lake Titicaca.
Nobody knows the true size of the informal mining sector, but Peruvian mining researcher Miguel Santillaana calculates that there are about 400,000 informal gold miners to date. Most of the gold coming out of the mountains goes directly to the black market. Although Peru is one of the world’s largest cocaine producers, gold sold on the black market has become the country’s main illegal export.
Recently, thanks to new laws and a wave of raids, the government cracked down on informal gold mines. But they targeted alluvial operations in the rivers and rainforest of the Amazon Basin – only a hundred kilometres north of La Rinconada, a completely different universe.