La Rinconada in Peru

The 21st century in La Rinconada: a gold rush on top of the world

Gold rushes have occurred periodically throughout the history of gold mining. Dreams of great wealth have always brought many people to the mines. In these times of economic instability, especially in developing and underdeveloped countries, gold mining attracts a great many people. The town of La Rinconada in Peru is perhaps the clearest example of man’s willingness to endure the harshest conditions for even a tiny piece of gold.

Located at an altitude of 5,100 meters, La Rinconada is the highest altitude settlement in the world. In these conditions, a person suffers from severe anoxemia (low oxygen content in the blood), which can manifest itself both while working and while sleeping. However, this does not prevent tens of thousands of people from living and working here, mostly employed in the local gold mines.

La Rinconada is located in the Peruvian Andes 20 km west of the Bolivian border at the foot of a rapidly receding glacier. In the last decade, the city has seen a huge influx of people: some 50,000 people, mostly from the poorest rural areas, have migrated to this isolated place. From 2001 to 2009 the population grew by 235%, and it has doubled in the past five years. This growth was due to a combination of two factors: the soaring price of gold and the emergence of electricity (in 2002). However, the presence of electricity has not made gold mining cleaner from an environmental point of view – now at the mines here release into the environment more mercury and other toxic substances than before.

Initially, the site was a tiny village inhabited by local mountain ethnic groups. However, at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries a gold mine was discovered near La Rinconada, and since then many people have been coming here to work. The city was founded on the abandoned mine, where most of the residents work. Many come only for a short time, some stay for a long time. The city has managed to earn a reputation as a haven for poor and desperate workers who find a profession of gold digging here.

Daytime temperatures at this altitude often do not rise above freezing, and temperatures are constantly minus at night. No food-grade plants grow here, and the air is thin. In such conditions, the lack of oxygen makes a person get tired very quickly.

Today about 30,000 miners work in the frozen mines of La Rinconada. Everyone risks getting lung disease, asphyxia, nerve damage, and toxic poisoning. The altitude affects people extremely negatively: pulmonary edema, blood clots, kidney failure – all these diseases are common in La Rinconada. Glacial floods, mine collapses, accidental dynamite explosions, and chemical leaks also threaten the miner. The only thing the miners do to combat them is chew coca lumps, which also help numb hunger and fatigue.

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The inhabitants of La Rinconada have to overcome the difficulties arising not only from the location of the settlement (300 meters above the summit of Mont Blanc and at about the same height as the main mountaineering camp on Everest) – the town itself is dangerous. The complete absence of any urban organization (planning, infrastructure, etc.) has resulted in the population having to survive in very extreme conditions: there is no mountain regulation, no functioning municipal government, no police or any other public institution except the only school.

Peru has strict safety regulations, but La Rinconada has little enforcement. “Out of two hundred mining organizations working here, only five of them have a full set of the necessary equipment,” says a safety engineer for one of the few artisanal organizations that tries to follow the rules. But it requires the miners to buy their own equipment.

The inhabitants of La Rinconada live mostly in small, barrack-like metal shacks that stand very close together on the mountain slopes. The only place in town where you can rent a room is a brothel. There is no sanitation service, no sewage system, and garbage is simply thrown into the streets or burned. The roads in the city are regularly covered with dirt and sewage. The soil and water are contaminated with mercury, which is widely used here by local miners to extract gold. The glacier from which the town gets its water is contaminated. The more gold miners work (there are about 250 mines on the glacier), the faster it melts. There are no animals in the local river valley, not even butterflies.

The residents of La Rinconada have money, but people have nothing to spend it on. Because of this, the level of alcoholism is very high, especially among the miners. Violence is commonplace in La Rinconada, with an average of half a dozen murders a month, usually in fights between drunken miners. More people die from chemicals, lack of oxygen, and work accidents.

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Gold mining in La Rinconada is done in a rather archaic way (compared to industrial scale mining). Instead of using heavy equipment to dig in the mountains, local miners – men, women, and children – use hand drills, picks, and shovels. The rock is crushed practically by hand or with primitive devices. Gold is extracted with mercury. Many who are not busy mining spend their days searching the dumps and tailings stacked on the steep slope for gold that the miners missed.

Miners are usually nominally owned by cooperatives run by local businessmen who supply mining equipment and determine where and whose miners will work (and how much gold they will take for themselves). Most of the gold miners have no wages. La Rinconada has what is known as a “cachorreo” (cachorreo) system, which is reminiscent of the “mita” (mandatory tribute paid by Indian slaves to the Spanish crown during colonization). According to the cachorreo, the miner works without pay for 30 days. On the 31st, if he is lucky, he is allowed to work for himself. However, the miner is only entitled to what gold he can carry with him. Thus, the miner is forced to carry a huge stone on his own back, to crush it, and to convince himself that the mined gold crumbs were worth the effort. Even worse is the fact that the metal has to be sold under unregulated sales conditions, and the miner will be given the lowest price possible.

On average, the La Rinconada mines can get an average of $170 a month or $5 a day for working under such terrible conditions. If the month is unsuccessful, the prospector earns about $30, if lucky, up to $1,000. In addition, usually the average gold prospector has to feed about 5 other people. Most of the time, however, the miner spends his hard-earned money on booze and prostitutes. Crime and AIDS are rampant in La Rinconada. Therefore, if the miner is not killed by the work, he will die by the knife or the virus. Very few local miners live to be 50 years old.

La Rinconada’s illegal mines produce about 10 tons of gold a year, but no one knows the exact numbers because much of the precious metal is not recorded anywhere. Locals say the amount of gold mined here is estimated, in part because miners systematically underreport figures to pay less tax. “On paper we are almost bankrupt!” – laughs one of them. Illegal mining in La Rinconada is widespread, but there are several organized mining companies, one of which is state-owned.

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What “informal” gold mining in La Rinconada actually means is illegal mining. Without it, Peru’s economy would begin to decline. For decades, the country’s authorities have turned a blind eye to the city’s appalling living conditions. The government officials who are supposed to establish control in La Rinconada are in fact unwilling to climb so high and freeze for the sake of it.

The region was once a place of crystal-clear lakes teeming with fish, with alpaca, vicuña, and chinchilla. Now the region has become like an eerie medieval world beyond imagination. Bare land without vegetation, moonscape, rusty lakes that smell like chemicals. The waterfowl that used to be plentiful in the area have disappeared, only a handful of vultures remain. Even the cold breath of the glacier, the permafrost, the wind, and the snow cannot hide the disgusting smell. All that can be seen are piles of garbage, among which lonely locals rummage lazily. Poor huts, mud and filth are all around. Along the steep, blowing roads are groups of women digging through the rock of small mine shafts. Children are with them, and bags of ore are placed on the shoulders of those who have already learned to walk.

The local miners are fatalists who are philosophical about the constant threat of death. Death in a mine is considered a good omen for the survivors. Human sacrifice, practiced for centuries in the Andes, is still seen here as the best way to propitiate the mountain deity. According to local beliefs, the chemical process of absorption by the rocks of the human brain causes the gold ore to move closer to the surface, and it becomes easier to extract.

Few places in the world represent the darkest side of the world economy more visibly than La Rinconada. For every ring of gold produced from here, there are 250 tons of rock, half a kilo of mercury released into the environment and endless deprivation of workers. You don’t have to be a sociologist or a chemist to understand the cost of this extraction.

There is a City of Gold Beneath the Sky of Blue, or Why Go to La Rinconada

The inhabitants of the Peruvian town of La Rinconada, located in the Andes near the Bolivian border, live at an altitude of 5,100 meters, under the very clouds. Despite the location, the place has been forgotten by God and cursed by humans since its inception. However, La Rinconada is actively expanding and the city’s population is growing before our eyes.

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Photo: Under the blue sky there is a city of gold, or Why go to La Rinconada #1 - BigPicture.co.uk

It is not the fresh air and alpine views that attract people to the highest mountain town on the planet. La Rinconada is an ecological disaster zone and the terrain around it looks more like the landscapes of Chukotka. The only occupation of the inhabitants of this settlement is the extraction of gold, which is contained in the local rocks.

Photo: Under blue skies there is a city of gold, or Why go to La Rinconada #2 - BigPicture.ru

Today, the town has 30,000 people, 99% of whom are in one way or another associated with gold mining. There is no agriculture or industry other than mining here. The town has no fashionable boutiques, high-end wine stores and souvenirs, nor do you find idle tourists. Everything in the village is put at the service of the “golden calf”, and in his shops except the most basic products and cheap booze, customers are offered protective clothing, picks and mining helmets.

Photo: Under blue skies there is a city of gold, or Why go to La Rinconada #3 - BigPicture.ru

Located near the equator, La Rinconada, because of its high location, is the realm of eternal late fall – residents of the city all year round do not part with woolen clothes and warm shoes. The city has no sewage system, no running water and no central heating, and its streets devoid of asphalt are mired in tons of garbage.

Photo: Under blue skies there is a city of gold, or Why go to La Rinconada #4 - BigPicture.ru

When the snow melts or during the rainy season, water bubbles between residents’ houses, which look like shipping containers. Its streams carry mercury and other toxic elements used in the gold mining industry. Environmentalists have found that even 250 kilometers from La Rinconada, mercury levels in the groundwater are several times higher than normal.

Photo: Under blue skies there is a city of gold, or Why go to La Rinconada #5 - BigPicture.ru

The entire town looks more like a large factory whose director has lost his mind – trolleys are parked next to residential buildings instead of cars, and machine parts mixed with household waste are piled at street intersections.

Photo: Under blue skies there is a city of gold, or Why go to La Rinconada #6 - BigPicture.ru

La Rinconada has no government or police, and there is only one school. A person who comes here for a couple of days has little choice of hotels – the only daily accommodation in the mining town is in the local brothel.

Photo: Under blue skies there is a city of gold, or Why go to La Rinconada #7 - BigPicture.ru

Every month there are up to 10 murders in the town. Robbery is rare here, as there are hardly any rich people and there is simply nothing to spend the money on. The main cause of bloody crimes is drunken stabbings between miners and settling of relations after a game of cards.

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Photo: Under blue skies there is a city of gold, or Why go to La Rinconada #8 - BigPicture.ru

Looking at this hell on earth, one might think that the locals here are held by big salaries and tricky ratios, but they are not. They work here under a cachorreo system not found anywhere else in the world. This word translates from the local slang as “mockery” or “scoffing,” which very accurately describes the essence of the system.

Photo: Under blue skies there is a city of gold, or Why go to La Rinconada #9 - BigPicture.ru

According to the cachorreo, mine workers work 30 days a month without being paid a penny. They come in for their pay on the 31st day and are each allowed to take with them as much gold-bearing rock as they can carry in a basket on their shoulders. Whether or not the rock turns out to contain gold is a matter of chance, so most townspeople live beyond poverty.

Photo: Under blue skies there is a city of gold, or Why go to La Rinconada #10 - BigPicture.ru

It is worth noting that the deposit in the Andes can hardly be called rich in precious metal. To make a modest engagement ring out of local gold, it is necessary to process 250 tons of rock and release half a kilogram of mercury into the long-suffering earth. Officially, several mines in La Rinconada are thought to produce 10 tons of gold a year, though this figure is likely understated in order to conceal the real turnover of local businessmen.

Photo: Under blue skies there is a city of gold, or Why go to La Rinconada #11 - BigPicture.ru

Most of the townspeople, in addition to working at the mine, engage in illegal mining of the precious metal in their spare time in the vicinity of the mine. Were it not for this extra income, it would be unprofitable to be in the high mountain El Dorado.

Photo: Under the sky of blue, there is a city of gold, or Why go to La Rinconada #12 - BigPicture.ru

The average life expectancy of a man in La Rinconada is 50 years. Women, who are forbidden to go down into the mines, live a little longer. Miners’ wives do the work on the surface, also cogs in the machinery that pumps gold out of the bowels of the earth.

Photo: Under the blue sky there is a city of gold, or Why go to La Rinconada #13 - BigPicture.ru

There is a lack of basic things – food, medicine and even air, but at the same time, only since the beginning of the XXI century, the city’s population has increased by 235%. The only broken road leading to this terrible place under a low, leaden sky is never empty.

So, after reading this text, do you appreciate your life and work a little more?

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