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
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...
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.