La Rinconada: Bottoming Out at the Top of the World

As long as there has been gold mining, there have been gold rushes. Dreams of striking it rich and gaining instant wealth have lured countless would-be miners to goldfields around the world. The success stories are the rare ones, however: most rushes are short-lived, most miners never hit major paydirt, and those who do often spend their new fortunes as soon as they get them. Still, in economically challenging times, the prospect of scoring US$1 500 for a single ounce of gold is irresistible to many. Perhaps no other place is more representative of the willingness of people to suffer through harsh conditions just for a sniff of gold than the Peruvian city of La Rinconada.

Rinconadapuno

At 5 100 m (16 700 ft) above sea level, an altitude where extreme hypoxemia can occur during labour, exercise, or even sleep due to the deficient levels of oxygen in the atmosphere (not to mention cerebral œdema and lung swelling), tens of thousands of people work and live every day in and around the gold mines of La Rinconada, the city with the distinction of having the highest altitude of any settlement on Earth.  Located at the foot of a rapidly retreating glacier in the Peruvian Andes barely 20 km (13 mi) west of the Bolivian border, the past decade has seen the remote high altitude city become an overcrowded slum filled with more than 50 000 people mostly from other impoverished rural areas looking for a new beginning; few places in Peru can offer the money miners here make.  La Rinconada possessed a stunning 235% growth rate between 2001 and 2009; the population has doubled again in the last five years with the continued fallout of the 2007-08 global economic downturn.

La Rinconada’s explosive growth is so new that it barely even registers on Google’s satellite imagery.  Only the southeast corner of the city is available for view; zooming in reveals just how overcrowded La Rinconada is.

Not only do the people of La Rinconada have to deal with the challenges of living at extreme altitude (the city exists sits over 300 m/920 ft higher than the summit of Mont Blanc, roughly the same altitude as the base camp climber use on Everest), but the city itself is a hazard.  A complete lack of planning has led to frontier living conditions in the bleak grey city: there are no mining regulations, no functional municipal governance, and no police force or any sort of government agencies beside the school.  Most people live in lean-tos and corrugated metal shacks crowded closely together in what little space can be found on the mountain slopes.  Sanitation services are non-existent; garbage is simply piled up along the sides of the meandering paths that pass for streets, or is just burned.  The cold, half-frozen streets regularly flow with a mixture of mud and sewage combined with mercury used to separate gold from rock; it’s even contaminated the very glacier the city gets its water from.  The glacier continues to shrink as miners drill under and around it; over 250 separate mines dot the glacierThe river valley is devoid of animal life, even butterflies.

As is the case in many communities where there is cash on hand but little to do, the alcoholism rate is very high as worker turn to drink to occupy themselves.   Violence runs deep in La Rinconada, with an average of a half-dozen homicides per month, mostly from fights that break out over prostitutes among workers who’ve had too much to drink – brothels offer the only lodging in the city.  The bulk of the other deaths come from workers succumbing to the combination of exposures to chemicals and gases in the mines with the lack of oxygen at altitude, or from accidents inside the treacherous tunnels.

The mining done here is archaic in comparison to other large scale operations.  Instead of heavy machinery, miners here – men, women, and children – use hand drills, pick axes, and shovels to burrow tunnels into the mountain, then extract the gold using poisonous mercury as aformentioned.  Many who don’t work the mines spend their days picking through the discarded tailings that litter the steep mountainside, looking for the rare specks of gold missed by the miners.  Most miners belong to (nominal) cooperatives dominated by local powerbrokers who are responsible for bringing equipment into the mines and who control which workers work where (and how much gold they get to actually take home).  For most, there are no salaries or wages here; most work unpaid for 30 days, and then are allowed to take home everything they mine on the 31st day as their pay for the month. It’s up to the miners to then take it to one of the numerous gold buyers downtown to get their month’s pay, where the buyer will extract the gold from the rocks the miners bring down the mountain in exchange for a cut of the profit.  Two organised mining companies, one state-owned, also operate in the area.  Adjacent to the mountain is an open-pit mine 13 km (8 mi) long and over a mile wide.

Below, the first of three parts of a documentary on La Rinconada produced in 2009.  Since this documentary was made, the population has already more than doubled.

Further Reading

Larmer, B. (2009).  The Real Price of Gold.  National Geographic , January 2009.  Available at http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/01/gold/larmer-text.  Accessed 24 July 2012.

Robinson Chavez, M. (2011).  Gold fever in La Rinconada.  Los Angeles Times, 1 April 2011.  Available at http://framework.latimes.com/2011/04/01/gold-fever-in-la-rinconada/#/0.  Accessed 24 July 2012.

Sometimes Interesting (2011).  Highest City in the World: La Rinconada, Peru.  12 September 2011.  Available at http://sometimes-interesting.com/2011/09/12/highest-city-in-the-world-la-rinconada-peru/.  Accessed 24 July 2012.

Wells, J. (2011).  Why the heavens of Peru are a hell of a place to seek a fortune.  Toronto Star, 10 December 2011.  Available at http://www.thestar.com/news/world/article/1098985–why-the-heavens-of-peru-are-a-hell-of-a-place-to-seek-a-fortune.  Accessed 24 July 2012.

Williams, H. (2011).  After the gold rush in Peru.  Los Angeles Times, 7 August 2011.  Available at http://articles.latimes.com/2011/aug/07/opinion/la-oe-williams-mining-peru-20110807.  Accessed 24 July 2012.

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