La Rinconada is the highest city in the world. Sitting at 5,100 meters above sea level in the Andes, the Peruvian city is an inhospitable place, with a rough, cold climate. Almost 40,000 people live here. The last 20 kilometres into town are just a rough gravel road and on both sides of this street, rubbish piles up in a wild garbage dump, contrasting starkly with the white peaks of the snow-covered mountains above.
It was at the beginning of the 1990s, that this small town near a gold mine became increasingly popular. Driven by the country’s economic crisis, (mostly) young men sought their fortunes here in the provinces around the gold mine. But despite the treasure of precious metal in the ground, the living conditions in La Rinconada remain precarious. Residents in the Cerro Lunar neighbourhood have neither running potable water nor a sewage system. Nor is there heating in the brick houses with corrugated iron rooves; the locals have only warm clothes to protect themselves against the cold.
They throw their sewage straight onto the street which raises the danger of epidemics and illness. It is thought that about 5,000 workers travel daily to the mine, which lies directly under the glacier on the 5,852 meter high Mount Ananea. Most of the miners work for smaller companies, that have licenses to work on single tunnels from the local mining corporation, Corporación Minera Ananea.
“In payment for their work, every two weeks the employees get the right to “cachorreo”. That means they get to keep any metalliferous rocks or tailings they unearth for one whole shift, and that they can carry out in their own hands,” explains miner Emilio Bellido Chura.
Sometimes the miners find hardly anything and the few clumps of gold they do unearth are barely enough to survive on. But other times they get lucky and manage to bring kilograms worth of gold-filled stone up to the daylight. Still, there are always collapsed tunnels and scree slides to deal with. “Every day two or three people die, crushed by the rocks,” Chura notes.
The city itself is also dangerous, but for different reasons. Muggings and thievery are also part of daily life. Sexually transmitted diseases are wide spread, thanks to the many brothels around the town, where the miners quickly spend what they have earned. Nobody lets you take their photograph here – people are distrustful or they are frightened of the casual violence.
Even getting the gold out of the stones from inside the mines is unhealthy. The rocks are ground down and the resulting gold dust is collected by amalgamating it with mercury and water. To retrieve the gold, the mixture is heated so the mercury vaporizes. The problem is that the mercury dissolves into the atmosphere, then settles onto the glaciers like a film, after which it ends up in the drinking water here.
But even if nobody is too worried about environmental restrictions, there is one rule that is strictly adhered to: No women allowed in the mines. The miners believe that their mountain is a jealous master and that if women are allowed in, the gold will disappear.
You do meet a lot of women in front of the mines though, the ones who came with their men to the city and who now search for tiny remnants of gold in the piles of tailings.
This dirty boom in La Rinconada can’t last much longer, says Wilder Muñoz, who works for a radio station, Sureña FM. The mountain is already riddled with tunnels and he worries that the mountain might simply cave in, killing thousands of miners. At latest, it will end when the gold deposits have all been exhausted and then the people will move on, leaving only a contaminated landscape behind.