April 2011

Broken Promise

The yield of Peru’s goldmines at the top of the world is more about misery than precious metal
words and photographs by MICHAEL ROBINSON CHÁVEZ

  • “Most people never leave. They fool themselves. They say, ‘I will pull out enough gold and leave,’ ” says Carlos Cruz Canahuile. “But gold fever doesn’t let them leave—they go for two months and return. You can work a long time and find nothing. You need luck, and this hope keeps you working.”
  • “The life of a miner here is sad,” says Oscar Cruz Canahuile. “You enter into a vicious circle. You extract the gold, you drink, extract the gold, drink. That’s  the problem...There are professionals working in the mines—teachers, even lawyers. In no part of Peru can you make money like we make here.”
  • “Apart from the gases, the respirators we use can’t stop the fine dust. People die here,” says Carlos. “There are many dangers,” adds his brother. “Last night, there was an accident. The fuse was lit too late, and the explosives detonated before they could escape. The drillers were killed—blown to pieces.”
  • “We work with the hope that we can leave,” says Oscar of his six years in the mines. “I don’t want to be here the rest of my life.”

Dwarfed by a vast gray glacier, La Rinconada, 17,000 feet or so above sea level—the highest city in the world, according to National Geographic—clings precariously to the side of an Andean peak in southeast Peru. It is a town bereft of law, government, warmth and color.

No tree, bush or blade of grass can find life in its frozen and rocky ground. Black and gray paths, contaminated with sewage and mercury, ooze between corrugated tin buildings that groan in the merciless wind. Currently, some 50,000 people call La Rinconada home. Like a modern-day Deadwood, Peruvians and workers from throughout the Andean nations are drawn here, gripped by la fiebre de oro—gold fever.

The surging price of the precious metal has caused the population to double in the last five years, according to Juan Pablo Carita Chambi, who oversees disputes in the barrios that surround La Rinconada’s goldmines. Until recently, those disputes were settled with knives, guns and fists, and few women and children were willing to brave the anarchy.

While the city is still lawless, citizens have stepped in to settle conflicts, and the streets are a bit safer...during the day. Families walk the soggy roads, and a school has been erected. Once night falls, however, fights break out. Stabbings are common. Angel Cotacallapa, who worked with NGOs in the city for years, says there are about a dozen deaths per month, half of them homicides.

Other hazards include altitude, cold and the poisonous gases that hide in small chambers within the goldmines. “You walk into the mines, and you don’t notice the smell or anything,” explains 22-year-old supervisor Oscar Cruz Canahuile, who works the mines with his brother, Carlos. “You start to get a low fever...a headache. And then you fall down, and your nervous system is not responding. You fall, and you die right there.” And still they come...

For an audio slideshow of the Peruvian mines, click here >

MICHAEL ROBINSON CHÁVEZ is an award-winning staff photographer with the Los Angeles Times. His shots from 10 years of traveling in Peru were published in the book Awaiting the Rain.